Richard Cameron-Wolfe: Passionate Geometries

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About

Richard Cameron-Wolfe's Passionate Geometries features eight of his chamber works written over a thirty year period, displaying the wide range of aesthetic approaches at play in his music, from his theatrical micro-operas to deeply felt settings of instrumental works that explore microtonality. Cameron-Wolfe's musical voice is rarefied and unique in its precise detail, injecting pathos and brilliance into the smallest of gestures as they come together to convey rich narratives.

Audio

“I want to tell you what’s going on here. You don’t want to know… Is art just a substitute for what we’ve lost?” In his micro-opera Heretic, Richard Cameron-Wolfe’s enigmatic protagonist breaks the fourth wall, and in the process gives us a window into his artistic vision. Through exploration of dramatic and narrative subtlety in his micro-operas and text settings, expressive shadings of pitch in his use of microtonality, and finely etched treatment of timbre and gesture, Cameron-Wolfe reaches for the ineffable, something embedded in what we’ve “lost” or perhaps an essence of something that we can never possess. Throughout these chamber works, written over a thirty year period, we hear him calibrating his expression towards the mystery that lives between and beyond the sounds, obscuring the transparent surface in favor of the ambiguities of creative uncertainty.

Heretic introduces the listener to a format that has become a core component of Cameron Wolfe’s work, the dramatic micro-opera for one performer. Performed with precision by guitarist Marc Wolf, also the score’s diligent editor, the piece demands an embodied dramatic performance alongside, and often concurrent with, the intricate instrumental part. Cameron-Wolfe engages with the inherent tension between live performer and audience and the balance between inward and outward impulses in art making. The guitar part is woven into the wide ranging vocal part, including wordless vocal effects, spoken dramatic text, and sung passages.

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Originally conceived as a piece to be choreographed and performed with dancers, the pacing and organization of Time Refracted for cello and piano reflects that initial intention. Cameron-Wolfe establishes a quietly enveloping pad from the opening, in alternating gestures between oscillating figures in the piano and poignant double stops in the cello. One can imagine dancers responding to the moment to moment dialogue of ideas as well as the overall searching quality that pervades the piece.

Opening with the same quartal harmony that begins Heretic, Mirage employs an alternate tuning of instruments with a standard fretting setup, achieving a scale of 48 equal divisions of the octave through the four guitars. His use of the microtonal tuning goes beyond local expressive color, becoming a structural pillar for the unfolding rhetoric of the piece, developing ideas through microtonal variations across the ensemble. A folkloric melody characterized by an upright dotted rhythm is distorted through an “out of tune” presentation and rhythmic diminution and wobbling bent notes are punctuated by pointillistic interjections.

O Minstrel appears on its own in this collection, but is also the opening movement of a chamber cantata for soprano and ensemble. The ritualistic song sets a text by 13th century Sufi poet Fakhruddin Iraqi entreating a minstrel to grace the protagonist with the inspiring gifts of art and love. The voice and guitar lines are in equal dialogue, with Cameron-Wolfe using the instrumental line to paint the text with fleet passagework, rich block chords, and haunting tambour gestures.

Telesthesia for cello quartet was written in memory of the composer’s friend Harold Geller who passed away in 2019, and captures the phenomenon of feeling the presence of one we have lost in our ongoing life. As with Mirage, gestural accumulation is achieved by subtle displacement of rhythmic simultaneity and extended vocal and percussive techniques broaden the sonic palette. Telesthesia uses contrasting characters and an episodic structure as its organizing principles.

Cameron-Wolfe’s Kyrie (Mantra) has gone through several iterations; the version heard on this recording was transcribed by Ukrainian guitarist Sergii Gorkusha and effectively integrates components of the prepared piano version. The work is divided by three extended flute solos, the first is an evocative introduction that features extended techniques (the original seed for the piece). The guitar enters with a sound vocabulary that evokes the sound world of the keyboard preparations – polyrhythmic tapping passages, bartok pizzicati, and left hand hammer-ons. The second and third flute cadenzas are separated by a passage of bell-like harmonics in the guitar, and migrate from virtuosic bursts to sustained multiphonics.

The second micro-opera on the recording, Lonesome Dove - a true story for “tenor saxophone, watcher, and portable darkness”, dramatizes an experience Cameron-Wolfe had in graduate school listening to a dove singing in the early morning. While he first thought two birds were singing responsively he eventually realized it was simply one dove relocating and answering itself, creating a spatialized performance of its own song. Cameron-Wolfe embeds this mysterious dialectic into the piece, building implied melodic and timbral counterpoint into the saxophone part, as well as planning a mobile staging wherein the performer, a dancer, and an eight foot tall black screen move to simulate the unseen movement of the dove.

In Passionate Geometries for soprano, flute, cello, and guitar, Cameron-Wolfe re-engages with the theme that underlies Heretic, the nature of and desire for the “poetic life.” Here, he sets his own text about a poet who is struggling with a crippling writer’s block under the weight of earthly disappointment. Cameron-Wolfe divides the work by using various instrumental combinations: a cello solo opens the piece, a short ensemble passage leads into a duo between soprano and flute, which sets up an instrumental trio phrase, and so on. The two middle strings of the guitar are tuned a quarter tone low to allow for shadings of pitches within that range. Cameron-Wolfe’s ensemble writing alternates between tightly coordinated rhythmic mechanisms and looser, more fluid dialogues with the voice. This dichotomy balances the piece between rigor and expression, an apt analogy for the forces shaping the struggle of our protagonist poet.

— Dan Lippel

Tracks 1-2 & 6-8 recorded at Dreamflower Studio, Bronxville NY, March 2019 (6), June 2021 (7), October 2021 (1), January 2023 (8), May 2023 (2)

Tracks 3 & 4 recorded at Adelphi University, June 2021 (4), September 2022 (3)

Track 5 recorded at MotorMusic, Mechelen, Belgium, June 2023

Engineer: Geert De Deken (avinspire.be/fr)

Recording producer: Richard Cameron-Wolfe

Engineer: Jeremy Tressler (except 5)

Mixing and mastering: Jeremy Tressler (dreamflower.us)

Editing co-producers: Marc Wolf (1), Gayle Blankenburg (2), Daniel Lippel (3, 4, 6, 8), Jeremy Tressler (5), Roberta Michel (6), Geoff Landman (7)

Design, layout & typography: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)

Publisher: American Composers Edition, composers.com

The score for Heretic, edited by Marc Wolf, won the 2024 Revere Award from the Music Publishers Association

Cover Art: Kevin Teare

 

Richard Cameron-Wolfe

Composer-pianist Richard Cameron-Wolfe was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA and received his music training at Oberlin College and Indiana University. His principal piano teachers were Joseph Battista and Menahem Pressler; his composition teachers included Bernard Heiden, Iannis Xenakis, Juan Orrego-Salas, and John Eaton.

After brief teaching engagements at Indiana University, Radford College (Virginia), and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cameron-Wolfe moved to New York City, where he performed and composed for several major ballet and modern dance companies, including the Joffrey Ballet and the Jose Limon Company. In 1978 he began a 24-year Professorship at Purchase College, State University of New York, teaching music theory and history, composition, and music resources for choreographers. He resigned in 2002 - while he could still walk and think - relocating to the mountains of northern New Mexico in order to dedicate his life to composing.

As a composer, one of his particular interests is micro-opera, a very short theatrical work of 5 to 15 minutes duration, developed through the collaboration of composer, writer (preferably a poet), a scenic/costume designer (preferably a visual artist), and a videographer. The work is intended to be staged in small spaces and could be broadcast on television or the web.

https://composers.com/richard-cameron-wolfe

Reviews

5

Avant Music News

The human voice is prominent in Passionate Geometries, a collection of composer Richard Cameron-Wolfe’s works spanning three decades for small ensembles. Two of the featured compositions are what Cameron-Wolfe describes as “micro-operas” – brief, dramatic vocal works for a minimal number of performers. But voice in its various dimensions permeates the album and the guitar is prominent as well, as the instrument figures in no less than five of Passionate Geometries’ eight compositions.

“Micro” is indeed the word to describe Heretic, Cameron-Wolfe’s “opera” for a single performer. Guitarist Marc Wolf not only plays an intricate instrumental part, but delivers the text telling us “what’s going on here” (“here” possibly referring to the performance, possibly referring to the world at large) in a mixture of unvoiced exhalation, spoken and shouted word, and singing. The guitar part is fragmentary yet technically difficult, a difficulty no doubt compounded by the guitarist’s having to fill the dramatic vocal role as well.

One of the album’s highlights is the duo O Minstrel, a setting of a text by Fakhruddin Iraqi, the 13th century Sufi poet. This is another work for guitar and voice, albeit of a more conventional sort. Here the guitarist is Daniel Lippel, joined by soprano Stephanie Lamprea. Cameron-Wolfe structured the piece as a dialogue between the two performers, with Lamprea taking the lead and Lippel nimbly responding. The timbral contrast between Lamprea’s liquidly sung lines and the spikier sounds of the nylon-string guitar lend the piece a dramatic tension.

A similar dynamic is at work on Kyrie (Mantra) IV, another standout piece. This duet for flute and guitar is played by flutist Roberta Michel with Lippel on guitar once again. Like the other compositions on Passionate Geometries this is a demanding virtuoso piece. Cameron-Wolfe has Michel bending and slurring notes suggesting the sound of a shakuhachi; overblowing; playing multiphonics and voiced notes; and further drawing on a rich vocabulary of extended techniques. Lippel responds with his own repertoire of extended playing, leveraging tapping, left-handed plucking, snap pizzicato, and harmonics that foreground the staccato precision of the nylon-string guitar’ articulation. Cameron-Wolfe originally wrote the piece for prepared piano; the essence of that instrument’s perverse percussiveness is effectively conveyed by the guitar part in particular.

Mirage d’Esprit is an intriguing microtonal work for four guitars tuned to yield an octave of 48 equal divisions. The guitars’ tunings produce strange choric effects, creating harmonies that can be disorienting at times, but not to worry: as the spoken interjection in the middle of the piece asserts, “it is real.” Telesthesia is another work for four instruments of the same type, this time cellos. The episodic work was written in memory of a friend of the composer’s; it blends movingly somber harmonies with extended instrumental techniques as well as wordless vocal gestures.

Passionate Geometries also includes the title composition, a “micro-opera” for soprano, flute, guitar, and cello; Lonesome Dove for solo tenor saxophone, dancer, and moveable screen; and Time Refracted, for cello and piano.

— Daniel Barbiero, 7.04.2024

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