Speak of the Devil

Lately I’m fawning over the internet to an extent that worries me. Yesterday I was talking to Matt Wellins (Mr. New Music at Bard), and, ransacking my brain for references he might not already know, I suddenly asked him if he was familiar with the music of San Francisco composer Erling Wold. The name rang a bell, and I mentioned that I hadn’t heard any new music from Wold in years, and wondered what he was up to. No sooner did the thought occur to me, of course, than I whirled around to the computer, pulled up Google, and there I was at erlingwold.com. Wold’s got a superbly simple but well-designed web site (like his music), and to my delight had not only mp3s of most of his music, but PDFs of the scores. I went to a piano piece titled Veracity, clicked a couple of times and hit Apple-P, and less than five minutes after his name had popped into my head, I was holding the sheet music to a new Erling Wold piano piece.

Now I realize that to anyone under 30 the delight I take in this makes me sound like an addlepated old man. But sonny, (HACK HACK, SPIT) let me tell ya about the old days. I remember my friends and I in college, when we were avidly searching out the latest musical news, which in those days had to do with Xenakis, Feldman, Berio, combing through music stores for the occasional C.F. Peters piano piece or Universal orchestral score that would set us back 50 bucks or more, hanging out at big-city record stores with import sections, spending all available time and cash to keep up some feeling of being conversant with the latest thing going on. Decades pass: “import sections” at record stores become a dim memory (HACK), European labels quit marketing new music to dull-witted America, music stores where scores are sold go out of business a half-dozen at a time, record distributors throw out new-music labels like moldy vegetables. If I managed to stay current in the 1990s, it was largely because I knew personally the composers whose work I was trying to follow, and could hound them for CDRs and Xeroxed scores myself. The feeling that there was a musical cutting edge to follow was getting difficult to sustain, and it felt like the culture was closing up shop.

This is a key to many of my attitudes toward new music, toward my own music, music distribution, and so on – the sense of frustration I felt in college over how difficult it was to get information. I declared silent, internal war on Pierre Boulez, for instance, because in On Music Today he revealed almost enough hints to tell us how to analyze his music, but intentionally withheld crucial details. And I swore to commit myself to the free, unimpeded flow of new-music information, to the point that I now put more tuning information about my scores on my own web page than anyone’s likely to ever be interested in.

So now, as I held in my hand that Erling Wold piano score whose existence I hadn’t even suspected moments before, I imagined how I would have felt in 1975 if I could have pushed a button and gotten a free score to, say, Xenakis’s Mists, or Berio’s Circles, or Feldman’s Out of Last Pieces. Not only is there a future to new music, we just might be able to make it infinitely more open, information-wise – and maybe even infinitely less expensive – than the hallowed past.

It added to the sense of heaven that Wold’s site is so clearly designed. His mp3s and PDFs pop up instantly. And I appreciate, for him being the hip kind of composer he is, that he is so score-oriented. These days the world sometimes seems divided between two stereotypes: the old-fashioned, modernist composers who write complex, gorgeously notated scores of tedious, unintelligible music that they can’t get recorded, and the postmodernists who put out CDs by the bushel but don’t bother putting anything readable on paper. Wold writes simple but tonal and rhythmically unusual music, sometimes microtonal, atmospheric yet lyric. I seem to have once called him “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock” – I think that’s my Village Voice quote he’s got on his bio. Not all of his music has scores (the score line in the grid sometimes marked “N/A”), but most of it does. The PDF scores look a little blotchy on my screen, but they print out beautifully, and I’ve always got people asking me for the latest new piano music – here it is. I’m grateful for Wold’s sense that audio files and notes on paper are equally meaningful, and complement each other. And after a couple of centuries of music publishers taking composers to the cleaners, I’m thrilled that the technology exists for Wold to put his paper scores directly into my hands without any intermediary. He didn’t make any money on the transaction, but it might lead to a performance or two, and it’s better than having his scores sit in boxes in warehouses as a tax write-off for some snobby classical publisher that doesn’t give a damn.

I went back today and heard some excerpts from Wold’s new opera Sub Pontio Pilato, mystic and thoroughly enjoyable, and printed out another intriguing-looking piano piece called Albrechts Flugel. That solves the mystery of what Erling Wold’s been up to these last few years. Only thing left: why don’t I yet have any of his last five CDs? I guess I’m still caught in the old critic paradigm, by which I wait for people to send me things. I’ll catch up.