Friday, September 22, 2006

Landmarks (18)

Christian Wolff: Burdocks (1970-71) for one or more groups of five or more players.

Burdocks is not a through-composed score but rather a collection of ten parts or pieces from which an ensemble performance can be assembled. The individual pieces are each quite different in character from one another. In part, they summarize a body of techniques that Wolff had investigated over many years, but some new ideas were added as well, chief among them the suggestion of possible solutions to questions of ensemble performance in a cooperative, non-authoritarian environment. Conventional staff notation is minimal here. Some pieces have quite elaborate graphic scores, some mix text instructions and graphics, some are primarily text, and one piece consists of the single word "flying", without further interpretive guidance. Wolff's series of scores in which continuity and simultaneity are derived from a variety of cuing techniques between ensemble members and with environmental awareness receives a provisional summation in Burdocks and, slightly later, in Changing the System (1972-73), in which the social dimension of the cuing process aquires an explicit political element.

Burdocks is orchestral but not symphonic; it is written for a community of musicians, but not one that has come together in a particular configuration to submit to agreed authority, as is required by the symphonic tradition. Wolff has described Burdocks as a "messy" piece (he named the piece for a weed, after all) and has also said that he had the image of the Scratch Orchestra in mind, before ever having heard the group. I have been involved three times in performances of Burdocks and have found that both the communal and anarchic potentials of the score play themselves out in unexpected ways through the rehearsal and performance process. Each time, I was left with the distinct impression that I had become a better musician, and perhaps, a somewhat better person.

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