An Interview with Amnon Wolman

Composer Amnon Wolman is Professor of Composition at the Jerusalem Academy for Music and Dance in Israel. He will be composer-in-residence for the Sounding Now Festival 2018 from 18-22 April 2018. As composer-in-residence, he will offer a presentation on his music, and the festival has scheduled performances of 2 of his works. The following is a brief interview with Amnon Wolman to learn more about the works we will hear, and his thinking about music.

Would you share your idea behind No U Turn for 6 players in handcuffs?

One element that seems to be of constant interest to me through the years is the physical representation of music in space and how it influences the listening and thus the music. I remember in 1984, I think, I attended a performance of the Kronos quartet performing a marathon of all the Bartok string quartets in one evening. It was done in a well-known Jazz Club in San Francisco, the audience was sitting around tables, drinking beer. The group was introduced by an MC through the sound system: “Ladies and Gentlemen – the Kronos Quartet.” Within this context, the music that I knew well sounded different, more intimate, more direct, and less condescending. I’ve been researching this topic in different pieces and in thoughts that were presented as lectures. For me, hearing a Mozart piano concerto played live or choosing to listen to it off a recording sounds different than it does when it is played in an elevator, at the dentist’s office, or while doing dishes. The piece itself sounds like a different piece of music because of the setting both on stage and off stage. No U Turn is an early attempt to look at the questions that these thoughts provoke. The initial impetus for the piece was the setting – six performers wearing handcuffs. This was followed by what kind of sounds were possible and what kind of music I could write for them. The setup suggests, to my mind, thoughts about freedom of different types; the ability of one person to restrict another person’s freedom, and the choice a person makes when they ask for their freedom to be restricted. Having said that, the music in the piece nods its head to Eisler’s music, the late works of Cardew, Rzewski’s The People United Shall Never be Defeated and others that use real or fake folk music as a clear political message. In No U Turn, there is an embedded folk-like song based on south American rhythms. In 1993 the attempts by a few in El Salvador, for example, to restrict the freedom of others were still fresh enough in my mind that I think I felt I could use it as a clear metaphor for attempts to assert a need for freedom.

As a work for performers in handcuffs, do you imagine it as a percussion work, or is it more open for any players?

This great question actually reveals a change in the world of contemporary music performance of the last 30 years. Originally, this piece was written for a percussion ensemble, and the first batch of performances were all by percussion ensembles. It was the California EarUnit that was an ensemble of instrumentalists who performed the piece. Over the last fifteen years I’ve noticed a change as more and more instrumentalists and groups that specialize in new music, despite having very high level of competence at one instrument, are willing to perform and be engaged in music that is written not for their instrument (or not a musical instrument at all) within their ability.

Your titles are often taken from street signs. Would you share your thinking behind that?

It’s highly personal and idiosyncratic. I have a problem with names, I don’t remember them. When I was a young man I tried to fight it, but I’ve given up. I have a good memory for faces and for stories so that when I meet a person I am more likely to recognize the face and remember the story than to remember the name. I’ve realized that names, for the most part, are carriers of very limited information for me, whereas for some of my friends names provide an important and widely interpretative information. For me a book called Nausea is similar to saying someone lives on 14 Main Street, or they live in a pink house. It is information about where I will find the information I am looking for, but it doesn’t influence the information itself. As saying that the sweater is in the yellow drawer does not change the color of the sweater, saying a piece of music is called Sunrise doesn’t change the musical content of the music. I realize that despite the entity remaining the same, our perception of it is dependent on the context, so that the blueness of the blue sweater would seem different when it follows the opening of the yellow drawer, and a piece called Sunset would evoke a certain kind of listening, and that would be different if the piece was called No U Turn. It is the distinction between what we hear and what we add to the hearing a priori that I try to raise perhaps subtly by naming most of my pieces after road signs. I collect names of road signs, and when I finish a piece, I match one of the names to the piece. This process is done intuitively and reflects the moment when the choice was made. It opens doors for additional information that influences the listening, resulting in a piece of music that the listener creates while listening, that is related but not identical to the one I created and presented.

No U Turn was written in 1994. What’s changed for you in composing in those years? How do we hear that in For J for solo piano piece that will be premiered during your lecture on Saturday?

It’s hard to see changes while you are within a creative continuity. I try to compose daily, and every new piece seems like a major departure from what I’ve done before, but 2-3 years down the line, and definitely thirty, it somehow seems as if I am dealing with similar issues and going deeper and deeper into excavations of musical entities that interest me. Having said that perhaps the most important change over this period is my relationship with the performers. No U Turn was written for the percussion ensemble at Northwestern University; in fact, it was written for the group of individuals who made up the ensemble, some of whom remain friends to this day. But at the time, I was working very much within the contemporary classical music world, where one writes for an anonymous group of trained individuals who choose or may be chosen to play the music after it is written. So, writing for string quartet or an orchestra was the norm, and in both cases, the ensemble that will choose or be chosen to play the piece will do so based on their ability to execute what is written in the score, and not based on their interest in the music itself. Over the last fifteen years I’ve rejected this idea, and I write mostly for friends who are involved in the process of creating the piece, and who bring knowledge and understanding of what we consider is an important element of the music, and what isn’t. I wrote For J for Jongah Yoon, the person and the pianist. Through the years of our friendship we talked about music and what is in it that for us seems essential, and about the relationship between an exact performance of a piece of music and a musical performance of one, and these discussions influenced the work, the choices of music in it, and its musical materials.

As part of the festival, there are 3 desktop installations of yours. Would you share some introduction to them? Each is related to the flow of time. Do you see them as a series, or are they addressing distinct issues on that topic?

In 2002, I had the idea of creating pieces of art that people can have on their desktop and turn on when the want to hear or view them. My first attempt was called Visiting Alice, and in it, almost without thinking, I put four digital clocks each measuring a slightly different time unit. The first was measuring seconds, the second measuring seconds plus one millisecond, etc. In some way, this was a visual representation of Steve Reich’s technique of phasing. What I discovered, to my astonishment, was that the sensation of time from the visual representation was very different from the one when each clock is also accompanied by a sound, as in DTS 1, which is on display. This started an area of search, research, excavation, and writings that was the main focus of my work for about ten years, and something I still go back to. The distance between the sensation of time created visually and the one created by sound opened the door for many pieces, some sound installations and others for live performers. They were not created as a series, but represent an ongoing attempt to map this distance and its different possibilities.

To return back to your earlier question, what seems to be common to all my music, and has not changed over the years, is that a piece starts from an idea which becomes a metaphor for the composition activity and at times for the performance activity. The move from an idea to a metaphor encapsulates usually a reduction of materials and possibilities so that the actual creation of the music is based on limited and sometimes stringent possibilities.


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