Top 100 Composers: Charles Wuorinen

Wuorinen barely makes it here by a hair on his chinny-chin-chin. In my introduction to the "Top 100 Composers" index I say: "I have a preference for (M)Usic that strikes me as original" & I don't think Wuorinen has an original bone in his body. He's more like the archetype of a 20th century academic serial composer. But I go on to express a preference for (M)Usic "that's complex," [..] "that can surprise me, that I can listen to repeatedly without getting bored with it or feeling like I know it enough for it to be a closed subject for me" & Wuorinen's music fits that bill nicely.

In fact, when I started working on making this webpage I thought that Wuorinen's name was already on the index list & as I started systematically listening to & rerecording his work for the Retrospective detailed below I was vacillating between keeping him on there or removing him. Then, after I'd compiled the 9 volume retro, I discovered that his name wasn't on the list but by then I'd listened to too much of the music to turn back. Regardless of its almost generic nature it's just too complex & meticulous to exclude.

&, yes, it is almost 'inevitable' that once I start listening to large quantities of a composer's work in chronological order it's going to start growing on me & I'm going to feel the itch.

I say that Wuorinen's music is archetypally 20th century: he uses an abundance of percussion, he made a substantial electronic piece, "Time's Encomium", the music's twelve-tone, it's very virtuosic, etc.. What rubs me a little the wrong way is that "Time's Encomium" won the Pulitzer Prize & that's often emphasized in Wuorinen's PR. Well, ok, there's plenty of great music that's been so rewarded but Wuorinen's piece is the only purely electronic one & I have to wonder whether there's too much politics there rewarding Columba-Princeton's electronic music studio. After all, in the overall context of electronic music I don't think it's the best by any means.

Be that as it may, I was pleasantly surprised that Wuorinen's piece on the "New Music for Virtuosos" compilation LP, "Bassoon Variations", is actually slow & doesn't feature any, to my ears, flashy virtuosity for the bassoonist or for the other 2 players. That's one of my favorite peices of his.

& his percussion music is marvelous.. but, once again, I have to qualify that by saying that while it's very detailed it never allows the tonality to get too 'dirty', I like just about every other percussion music composer's work better but few of them have composed pieces on the scale of Wuorinen's "Ringing Changes" (1969-70) & "Percussion Symphony" (1976) so he deserves credit for that.

AND his piano playing is, uh, impressive, to say the least - & it shows in his piano compositions: the beginning of his "Piano Sonata" (1969) alone is thrilling. I'm a not-very-good pianist so I can appreciate other people's superior talents.

& THEN, what the hell, there's "Brokeback Mountain". To me, he continues with the realism in opera that's often credited as starting with Berg's operas "Wozzeck" (1925) & "Lulu" (1937). In an interview about the music on the DVD version of the opera that I witnessed Wuorinen says something to the effect that he could've used "funny noises" but it would've been disrespectful to the story. &, yeah, I get the point, the opera shows how tragic the suppression of people's desires by, in this case, homophobia, leads to tragedy - even if it's 'only' the tragedy of perpetual disastifaction.

On the other hand, I prefer the "funny noises", I prefer life with a sense of humor, life with as little tragedy as possible, I don't like wallowing in it, I found "Brokeback Mountain" pretty insufferable. The woman who wrote the original story, Annie Proulx, says something to the effect that it shows that "two men can love each other" which, duh, yeah, is kindof obvious (although perhaps not to enough people) - but is that what the story shows? To me it shows that two men can have sex & then derange their lives with lust. For that matter, so can a man & a woman, & two women.. In other words, lust (which, believe me, I enjoy) does not equal love.

STILL, the music of "Brokeback Mountain" is, to use a cliché, a 'tour de force', its precision, its meticulousness, its attention to detail (yes, I know I'm repeating myself with synonymns) is beyond impressive. STILLSTILL, I'll take absurdism any day over tragedy.

& then there's the work I just plain don't like: "Natural Fantasy" for solo organ & the String Quartets. The 4 pieces that I've heard that I'm alluding to negatively here are just too damned generic. Check out the organ music on this record instead:

I even like my own admittedly silly & unskilled home organ pieces better: "Breaking Lockstep on the Bridge # 1" & "Pedal Pointless # 1" (both published on "Odds & Ends - Volume 1" cassette).

Wuorinen seems to compose more traditional, less adventurous pieces for specific performers, perhaps they're commissioned. Maybe the "Six Pieces for Violin & Piano" (1977-78) fall into that category. I find those pieces uninteresting.

Nonetheless, there's more than enough great stuff to counterbalance those works. In addition to ones already mentioned, there's "Janissary Music" (1966), 'The Long & the Short" (1969), "Chamber Concerto for Tuba with Twelve Winds & 12 Drums" (1970), "Speculum Speculi" (1972), "Fast Fantasy" (1985), & "The Dante Trilogy (Chamber Version)" (1993).

Wuorinen cofounded the Group for Contemporary Music & I tend to like the works written with them in mind & performed by them the most. I'm reminded of Peter Maxwell Davies & the Fires of London. When composers have a chance to work more closely with the players there's more chance of their making the work challenging.

- February 21, 2018 notes from tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE


Charles Wuorinen Retrospective


Volume I:

Side 1 of a 90 minute tape:

01. "Flute Variations I" - 1963 - 6:53 - Nonesuch HB-73028 2LP

02. "Chamber Concerto for Cello & 10 Players" - 1963 - 18:22 - Nonesuch H-71263 LP

03. "Chamber Concerto for Flute & 10 Players" - 1964 - 14:48 - CRI CD / CRI 230 LP


Side 2 of a 90 minute tape:

04. "Janissary Music" - 1966 - 12:30 - CRI 231 LP

05. "Piano Concerto" - 1966 - 19:47 - CRI CD / CRI 239 LP

06. "Flute Variations II" - 1968 - 7:24 - Nonesuch HB-73028 2LP


Volume II:

Side 1 of a 90 minute tape:

07. "Time's Encomium for synthesized & processed synthesized sound" - 1968-69 - 31:40 - Nonesuch H-71225


Side 2 of a 90 minute tape:

08. "Piano Sonata" - 1969 - 19:00 - CRI 306 LP

09. "The Long & the Short" - 1969 - 9:05 - Mainstream MS/5016 LP

10. "Ringing Changes for Percussion Ensemble" - 1969-70 - 17:12 - Nonesuch H-71263 LP


Volume III:

Side 1 of a 90 minute tape:

11. "Chamber Concerto for Tuba with 12 Winds & 12 Drums" - 1970 - 19:00 - CRI CD

12. "String Quartet" - 1970-71 - 24:00 - Turnabout - TV-S 34515 LP


Side 2 of a 90 minute tape:

13. "Bassoon Variations" - 1971-72 - 12:05 - New World Records NW 209 LP

14. "Speculum Speculi" - 1972 - 14:48 - Nonesuch H-71300 LP

15. "On Alligators" - 1972 - 14:50 - Tzadik CD


Volume IV:

Side 1 of a 90 minute tape:

16. "Percussion Symphony" - 1976 - 41:53 - Nonesuch H-71353


Side 2 of a 90 minute tape:

17. "The Winds" - 1977 - 14:53 - New World Records NW 306 LP

18. "Six Pieces for Violin & Piano" - 1977-78 - 18:11 - Orion ORS 80381 LP


Volume V:

Side 1 of a 90 minute tape:

19. "Two-Part Symphony" - 1977-78 - 23:30 - CRI 410 LP / CRI CD

20. "Percussion Duo" - 1979 - 13:59 - CRI 459 LP


Side 2 of a 90 minute tape:

21. "Arabia Felix" - 1979 - 11:05 - CRI 463 LP

22. "Fast Fantasy" - 1979 - 15:47 - New World Records NW 385-1 LP


Volume VI:

Side 1 of a 90 minute tape:

23. "Third Piano Concerto" - 1983 - 28:49 - Tzadik CD

24. "Natural Fantasy" - 1985 - 12:53 - Tzadik CD


Side 2 of a 90 minute tape:

25. "Third String Quartet" - 1987 - 29:12 - New World Records NW 385-1 LP


Volume VII:

Side 1 of a 45 minute tape:

26. "Sonata for Violin & Piano" - 1988 - 22:03 - New World Records NW 385-1 LP


Side 2 of a 45 minute tape:

30. "Fourth String Quartet" - 2000 - 21:44 - Tzadik CD


Volume VIII:

Side 1 of a 90 minute tape:

"The Dante Trilogy (Chamber Version)"

27. "The Mission of Virgil" -1993 - 27:07


Side 2 of a 90 minute tape:

28. "The Great Procession" - 1995 - 26:00

29. "The River of Light" - 1996 - 19:03


Volume IX:

Sides 1 & 2 of a 120 minute tape:

31. "Brokeback Mountain" - 2014 - 2:10:00 - DVD







Not surprisingly, as I created this webpage I became more interested in Wuorinen's work & am likely to pick up more recordings by him. Here's a recent acquisition (albeit an older recording):





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