A Complete Anthology Of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces: a sprightly anthology of an experimental composer’s work by two violinists

Christian Wolff, A Complete Anthology Of Solo and Duo Violin Pieces, Australia, Black Truffle Records, BT099 CD (2022)

Recorded over two days by New York violin duo String Noise (Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris) and mastered by Ryan Streber, this anthology surveys the work of experimental US composer Christian Wolff over the past 70 years, reaching as far back as 1950 when he began studying music composition under John Cage. Wolff became a close associate of Cage and his circle of musicians which was part of the New York School of artists drawing inspiration from surrealism and emphasising experimentation, uncertainty and randomness in their work. Instead of writing works dictating how they should be performed, the New York School composers left such decisions to the individual musicians playing their works with the result that the same work would never sound the same each time it was played. The pieces presented on this recording by String Noise reflect this notion of openness and allowing the musicians to take the music where they will, even with Christian Wolff present during the performances and recording of the music.

The bulk of the recordings, starting with track 8 and going all the way to and including track 23, could really form a sub-set “Small Duos for Violinists” – all these tracks are different if tiny iterations of the original piece “Small Duos for Violinists”, based on motifs to be developed by two violinists responding to one another, which Wolff wrote in 2021 for String Noise. Each of these 16 tracks is thus a conversation going back and forth between the Harrises. Sometimes the musicians appear to be playing past each other or are at loggerheads, though any friction that might develop is quickly resolved in the short playing times on most of these tracks.

The early tracks (from track one to track seven) come from earlier years, going back to 1950 in the case of “Duo for Violins” (track four), and again involve interaction between the violinists. Some of these tracks can be short, though nowhere near as short as the “Small Duos for Violinists” pieces, and for their length can also be quite technically intense as each violinist explores to the full the violin’s potential for expression (much of it vibrant, by the way) through a wide range of sounds and tones.

The album is presented in a very sparing, minimal style with a clear resonant sound that highlights each musician’s ability and skill. If it is played in one sitting all the way through from start to finish, the album comes across as a lively creature with a full range of expressions from melancholy to joy and sometimes to wilful stubbornness as the violinists appear to argue with each other.