Composer Scott Wollschleger releases his second album with New Focus, Dark Days, chronicling solo piano repertoire written between 2007 and 2020 and featuring his longtime close collaborator, pianist Karl Larson. Aspects of style that are heard on his first album Soft Aberration are present again, but now filtered through the introspective immediacy of the solo piano medium, as we hear coloristic harmonies, a penchant for using displaced rhythms and repetition to subvert phrasing expectations, and an intuitively driven approach to form and structure.
|Music without Metaphor
Music without Metaphor
|Brontal No. 2 “Holiday”
Brontal No. 2 “Holiday”
|Brontal No. 6
Brontal No. 6
|Brontal No. 11 “I-80”
Brontal No. 11 “I-80”
|Secret Machine No. 4
Secret Machine No. 4
|Secret Machine No. 6
Secret Machine No. 6
In this intensely introspective collection of solo piano works, Scott Wollschleger brings the listener inside a soundworld that balances sensual and incorporeal impulses within a penetratingly honest expressive frame. Karl Larson’s performances are sensitive and tactile, eliciting watery colors from the keyboard that illuminate each track’s subtle coloristic hue. One can point to many influences on Wollschleger’s approach to the piano, from Debussy to Feldman to his mentor Nils Vigeland, but the power of the music on this recording lies in its deeply personal, almost confessional character.
The album opens with the title track, Dark Days, a meditation on five pitches that are repeated throughout the short piece in the same order and rhythm while being displaced registrally. It is an ideal opening gesture for the music that follows, a contemplation of the complexity of simple elements and a sound painting of a unique color on the piano, a consistent feature of Wollschleger’s work that is a reflection of his synesthesia.
Tiny Oblivion grows from the flourish heard in its opening bars. The gesture is mined for variation, turning it around, extending its internal repetitions, and varying its pitches and registral placement. At select points of the work, the rapidity of the arpeggiation gives way to a more deliberate presentation of pitches, as if to deconstruct the primary gesture and gaze upon its component parts to admire the miracle of its inner workings.
Music without Metaphor is one of several works on the album written in proportional notation, placing emphasis on the rhetorical relationships between musical ideas as dictated by their presentation on the page as opposed to their orientation within a fixed pulse. Within this frame Larson takes advantage of the freedom afforded him to highlight the subtly evolving material. Blue Inscription takes a similar approach to developing ideas but within a more deliberate rhythmic frame. Material is repeated with slight variation in such a way that the ear is momentarily hypnotized before a divergent musical idea breaks the entrancing cycle. Lyric Fragment hints obliquely at the late Romantic character piece tradition (think Brahms Intermezzi or Grieg Lyric Pieces), but as the title suggests, takes a sonic snapshot of that affect and lingers on it.
The set of three pieces with “Brontal” in their title contain some of the most extroverted material on the recording. Wollschleger’s first album with New Focus, Soft Aberration, included Brontal Symmetry, a work he wrote for the Longleash piano trio that is constructed as a sort of memory puzzle. Brontal No. 2 “Holiday”, Brontal No. 6, and Brontal No. 11 share some of these same characteristics, presenting material before reordering it, with an unfolding and related series of relationships between ideas that define the structure of the music and suggest the mysterious nature of human memory.
The final two works on the recording, Secret Machine No. 4 and No. 6, take advantage of the piano’s resonant properties. The short Secret Machine No. 4 is divided into two discrete sections. In the first, playfully quirky figurations are played in a quasi-improvised style, while in the second half of the piece, flowing lines highlight different accented notes while internal pitches are adjusted to change the shade of the prevailing harmony. Secret Machine No. 6 revels in sonorous arpeggiations of a static chord that are sustained with pedal, sprinkled with occasional bluesy grace notes and grounded by rich bass notes. It closes the album much like where it began, on a deep contemplation of one sonority, delving deep within to communicate something essential that lies beyond the superficialities of our information saturated era, and finding solace in the process.
– Dan Lippel
All music composed by Scott Wollschleger
Dark Days, Tiny Oblivion, Brontal No. 6, Lyric Fragment, Blue Inscription, Music without Metaphor published by Project Schott New York (BMI)
Brontal No. 2 “Holiday”, Brontal No. 11 “I-80”, Secret Machine No. 4, Secret Machine No. 6 published by Scott Wollschleger Music, New York (BMI)
All tracks recorded at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers and Mount Vernon, New York
Recording engineer: Ryan Streber
Editing, mixing, and mastering: Ryan Streber and Scott Wollschleger
Editing assistant: Charles Mueller
Piano technician: Dan Jessie (Hamburg Steinway D)
Produced by Scott Wollschleger and Karl Larson
Executive Producer: Scott Wollschleger
Painting on cover: River of Silence by Theresa Musatto, used with permission from the artist
Album design by Traci Larson
Photo of Karl Larson and Scott Wollschleger by Greg Manis, used with permission
Art photography by Jennifer Dworek, used with permission
Karl Larson is a Brooklyn-based pianist and specialist in the music of our time. A devoted supporter of contemporary composers and their craft, Larson has built a career grounded in commissioning and long-term collaborations. He frequently performs in a variety of chamber music settings, most notably with his trio, Bearthoven, a piano / bass / percussion ensemble focussed on cultivating a diverse new repertoire for their instrumentation. As a soloist, Larson is known for championing the works of his peers and the recent canon alike, often gravitating towards long-form, reflective works of the 20th and 21st centuries. Through his work with Bearthoven, collaborations with a wide variety of chamber musicians, and his solo projects, Larson has helped to generate a large body of new work, resulting in world premiere performances of pieces by notable composers including David Lang, Sarah Hennies, Christopher Cerrone, and Michael Gordon.
A sought after collaborator, Larson has performed with many leaders in the field, including the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Ensemble Signal, the American Composers Orchestra, Maya Bennardo (violin), Ashley Bathgate (cello), and Ken Thomson (clarinets/saxophones). Larson’s recent performances include notable appearances at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, EMPAC, the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, MASS MoCA, and the Teatro General San Martín in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Karl received a Doctor of Musical Arts in Contemporary Music and a Master of Music in Piano Performance from Bowling Green State University, where he studied with Dr. Laura Melton. Larson completed his undergraduate degree at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa as a pupil of Dr. John Strauss. His recordings can be heard on Cantaloupe Music, New Amsterdam Records, New World Records, New Focus Recordings, and GALTTA Media.
Scott Wollschleger’s music has been highly praised for its arresting timbres and conceptual originality. Wollschleger (b. 1980) “has become a formidable, individual presence” (The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross) in the contemporary musical landscape. His distinct musical language explores themes of art in dystopia, the conceptualization of silence, synesthesia, and creative repetition in form and has been described as “apocalyptic,” “distinctive and magnetic,” possessing a “hushed, cryptic beauty,” (The New Yorker, Alex Ross) and as “evocative” and “kaleidoscopic” (The New York Times).
His concert works have been performed across the US and the world, including the Turner Contemporary in Margate, England, the NOW! Festival in Graz Austria, MATA Festival Interval Series, Bowerbird in Philadelphia, and the Bang on a Can Festival at MASS MoCa. Mr. Wollschleger has received support from a variety of organizations including, The New York Foundation for the Arts, New Music USA, BMI and the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music. Mr. Wollschleger was a Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Red Light New Music, a 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to presenting and crafting contemporary music.
His debut album, Soft Aberration, was released on New Focus Recordings in 2017 and was named a “Notable Recording of 2017” in The New Yorker. His second album, American Dream, written for the trio, Bearthoven, was released on Cantaloupe Music in 2019. This album, Dark Days, was released by New Focus Recordings in 2021.
Wollschleger’s work is published by Project Schott New York.
The pianist Karl Larson is famed for championing an admirably broad range of composers and styles, both as a soloist and in the context of the idiosyncratic chamber-music trio Bearthoven. Since 2013, he has developed an especially close connection with Scott Wollschleger, a composer whose contemplative, intensely personal solo-piano works can suggest diary entries in sound. The pair documented their artistic affinity, in May of last year, with an online gallery of videos, and again, this April, with “Dark Days,” an authoritative survey of studio-recorded accounts; now Larson engages Wollschleger’s œuvre once more in a recital streamed live from Roulette.
— Steve Smith, 4.30.2021
Roulette, in Brooklyn, one of the best places to hear music in New York, is allowing limited audiences into its space for performances this spring. But those shows will still be livestreamed, too. No matter how you attend, any gig featuring Karl Larson, known as the pianist of the trio Bearthoven, is worth it. Here, he celebrates “Dark Days,” his new solo recording of music by Scott Wollschleger. Wollschleger’s generally soft dynamics may lull you into thinking he’s primarily meditative, but part of the fun involves staying alert for the alterations of attack and twists of mood that Larson highlights.
— Seth Colter Walls, 4.29.2021
Karl Larson sits down at the piano, taking a noticeable breath before he envelopes the audience at Roulette Intermedium in the introspective world of Dark Days, a collection of song-length works by composer Scott Wollschleger. He then strikes a series of deep, roiling pitches and high-pitched twinkles, and the room fills with heart-wrenching, resonant melodies. The works that make up Dark Days, recently released by New Focus Recordings, illuminate the subtleties of bygone memories with a poignant clarity. Live, their striking intimacy envelops us in a wistful shroud of sound.
Larson, who makes his solo debut at Roulette tonight, has collaborated with Wollschleger for seven years, and this concert is their celebration. It's a
celebration for many in the audience, too, who are attending a live performance for the first time since New York's pandemic closures began. A bubbling excitement wafts through the balcony where we're all seated, and the twinge of nerves that comes with being around a small crowd for the first time in so long soon dissipates.
Throughout Dark Days, there's always some despondent sound waiting to consume the lighter musical moments, whether it be a yearning chord or a seething, dissonant phrase. Larson performs the 11 pieces that comprise Dark Days uninterrupted, making the subdued turmoil of the music all the more inescapable. The room is so still that nearly every breath is discernible, and the music's piercing introspection swirls in the air with an aching palpability. Being in this room feels like being transported into an existentialist dream, where the sound of a piano playing delicately meditative, haunting melodies floats in the air.
Larson's performance doesn't falter, but some of the works he plays are less riveting than others. "Brontal 6" features a needlessly jarring back and forth between fast-paced runs and stark silence, and the questioning, sporadic melodies of "Music Without Metaphor" don't feel purposeful when compared to some of the other moments. But when the music hits its stride, it does so with strength.
When Larson strikes the full-bodied chords of "Brontal 2", for example, the sheer power of the harmonies overwhelms like an emotion that's finally reached its boiling point. Larson's painstaking care in carving out the subtle differences between rounded tones, echoing resonance and punchy plinks brings the subtle details of the music to life and also drives the concert's best moments.
Dark Days often feels like a memory that's distant yet so tragic that it still burns when it's conjured. As Larson performs the collection of miniature pieces that make up the album, the agitation hidden among the music's soft edges effortlessly jumps up to the surface and fades back into tranquil contemplation. Larson's understated motions gently follow the contours of the music, propelling us through its ever-evolving reflections. In watching him perform, it's evident that he's fully committed himself to creating a vivid rendition of Wollschleger's musical world, and to creating a dreamy atmosphere.
At the beginning of the concert, Wollschleger describes the music of Dark Days as his journal entries. By the end, it feels like we've read his diary cover to cover, both haunted and catapulted by the strength of its nostalgia.
— Vanessa Ague, 6.17.2021
The neurological condition of synaesthesia profoundly informs Scott Wollschleger’s piano-writing. Yet it’s not necessary to know that in order to appreciate the music’s organic flow, sonorous resourcefulness and evocative nature. The title selection that commences this programme makes telling use of register extremes, with low-lying clusters of chords that never sound thick or clotted. Tiny Oblivion evokes gentle strumming on a zither or koto. The deceptively simple melodic motifs throughout Music without Metaphor are spaciously deployed; their resonances are as important as their choice of notes.
Blue Inscription is a wistful study in slow‑moving chords. One could say the same about Lyric Fragment, where dyads in seconds and thirds unfold with contrasting dynamics. I only wish that the perky gestures that open Brontal No 2 would have returned more often in this work. On the other hand, Wollschleger contrasts the stark single-note textures of Brontal No 6 with varied articulations, dynamics and pedallings. Listening to the tremolos in the concluding composition, Secret Machine No 6, one wonders if Wollschleger subconsciously appropriated them from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 11.
Kudos to pianist Karl Larson, whose sensitivity and colouristic abilities allow him to enter, inhabit and internalise Wollschleger’s very special sound world, captured in a warm and ample recording. A beautiful release.
— Jed Distler, 10.06.2021
“Spells of hushed, cryptic beauty... free- floating grace.” So wrote Alex Ross in The New Yorker about the music of Brooklyn-based Scott Wollschleger (b.1980). The ten pieces on this CD, dating from 2007 to 2020, share with the stylistic-ally very different piano works of Erik Satie austere economies of means, eschewing virtuosic displays and overt emotionalism, yet achieving remarkably individual and expressive results.
The opening Dark Days, prophetically composed in January 2017 during Trump’s inauguration, appropriately rumbles and grumbles in the piano’s lowest register. Shifting to the treble, the diaphanous Tiny Oblivion reflects what Wollschleger calls “black humour acceptance [of] the fact that our ultimate fate is to die and then eventually to turn into particles that will forever break down into smaller particles...”
Music without Metaphor, Blue Inscription and Lyric Fragment are slow, sombre, haltingly paced, directionless peregrinations. In Brontal Nos.2, 6 and 11, single notesi ntermittently drip or spray; occasionally, chords splash. (Brontal: a coined word Wollschleger employs for “discovery within the unfamiliar.”) Finally, Secret Machine Nos.4 and 6 are surprisingly cheerful, their shimmering trills and rippling arpeggios marking the CD’s gradual emergence from the “dark days.”
In his detailed booklet notes, pianist Karl Larson describes Wollschleger’s synaesthetic pairing of different harmonies with specific visual colours; non-synaesthetic listeners must content themselves with the aural colours of Wollschleger’s tenebrous keyboard palette.
Wollschleger’s enigmatic compositions are ideal accompaniments for sipping wine on a late wintry evening, but you shouldn’t wait for winter to hear them!
— Michael Schulman, 6.25.2021
Pianist Karl Larson has realized works by composer Scott Wollschleger in numerous contexts, whether in duet with violist Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti on the title piece from the 2017 album Soft Aberration or with his terrific trio Bearthoven on the entirety of the 2019 album American Dream. This new solo album extends that relationship with stunning results, as the pianist imbues a set of ten deeply instinctual, deliciously ambiguous pieces composed by Wollschleger between 2007 and 2020 with a great empathy and subtlety.
The composer draws upon his synesthesia—a neurological condition where sound and color are closely related—to create works distinguished by gorgeous, surprising harmonies, and Larson writes in his liner note essay, the music “simply feels nice to play.” The pianist’s touch offers a testimonial for that idea, with each keystroke, oblique melody, and haunting overtone articulated with a grace and sensitivity that belies the complexity of the music on the page. The pieces generally eschew traditional structures, instead opting for something more mysterious and organic, whether it’s through toggling motifs in “Brontal No. 2 (Holiday)” or the dark, ambling tunefulness of “Tiny Oblivion.” While the music was all written prior to the pandemic, there’s an infusion of optimism within the general gloom that hits the spot as we yearn for social living to return.
— Peter Margasak, 4.29.2021
Dark Days, a compilation of miniature, diary-entry type solo piano works, is the product of years of collaboration and friendship between composer Scott Wollschleger and pianist Karl Larson. The New York-based artists originally presented this music live a couple of years ago; on recording, it feels just as intimate, driven by simple, soft melodies that ring with crispness. Every piece feels like a short letter, the sort of inner thought written on little notes that are tossed to sea, left to be unearthed years later.
— Vanessa Ague, 1.12.2022
“I hold the position that the world’s actually over, and so we’re actually making art in a world that’s ended,” said New York-based composer Scott Wollschleger over a recent Zoom call. “I think the pieces all came from that mindset.” He finds the idea of “world” to be an illusion, and by letting go of that illusion, he sees liberation. If the world has ended, he can create a new one.
This apocalyptic mindset comes through in much of Wollschleger’s music, which touches on topics like the bygone American Dream and animal extinctions. It also informs his compositional style, which purposely ignores the standard rules of musical structure. Instead of relying on age-old ideas of form to drive his compositions, he writes music that centers feeling, often using pop culture references to describe the vibe of the sound, not just the typical directions of western notation. These references, like “Bob Ross inflection” or “calm Sean Connery voice” or “Lou Reed moment,” serve as instructions.
Pianist Karl Larson, who’s been working with Wollschleger for seven years, calls these non sequiturs “Scott-isms.” When he learns this music, he keeps Wollschleger’s apocalyptic philosophy in the back of his mind, emulating the idea that the world’s over by giving his performance soft, rounded edges. Wollschleger leaves room for silence in his compositions; Larson likes to think of what may have filled those negative spaces before they were eroded away. And Wollschleger’s unique rehearsal notes help to drive his interpretations.
Although the idea of the end of the world feels particularly timely during the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s one performance from 2018 that both Larson and Wollschleger remember as the moment their music truly came to life. It was a concert at the now-closed Brooklyn venue, Spectrum, where Larson played all of Wollschleger’s solo piano pieces. While Wollschleger watched Larson play on stage, the music they had created together finally began to feel “three-dimensional.”
“I remember seeing the recital as an audience member and hearing all my music and not feeling that I wrote it, which was kind of a nice feeling, to feel like I was observing my work, but also feeling that the works had taken on their own life, and within Karl’s hands that he shaped them,” Wollschleger said. “That moment, I was like ‘wow, we really, together, created these worlds.’”
The two musicians first met on a “blind date” set up by their mutual friend, the composer Chris Cerrone, who thought Larson might be a great fit for the piano concerto Wollschleger was starting to write. Both Larson and Wollschleger are from the midwest, and work mainly in contemporary classical music.
“I had just played a huge Messiaen concert back in the midwest, and I’d been playing Feldman around a lot, and I think if you squish those two together…me and Scott meet in the middle,” Larson said over Zoom. Like Wollschleger and Larson, the composers Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman wrote patient music that occasionally touched on what would happen at the world’s end—Messiaen’s most famous piece is titled Quartet for the End of Time. So once Larson and Wollschleger met, it was natural that they found common ground.
Wollschleger has sought these intensive, collaborative partnerships with performers since his days as a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 2000s. He was part of an ensemble at the school, Red Light New Music, which brought together performers and composers to present new pieces. It was there that he met the cellist John Popham, who he’s worked with for 18 years. The first piece they made together, Cambrian Explosion, explored guttural sounds that Popham had never played before.
“I remember these moments of working with Scott on that piece, sitting in the hallway at Manhattan School and him taking my cello and trying to show me these sounds,” Popham said during a phone call. “He’s not a cellist, but he’s very much a composer who wants to sit with the instrument and find these very special sonic gems, whether it’s a repetitive pattern or a glitchy groove or rhythm or these super evocative sonorities.”
He and Wollschleger went on to create a solo cello piece together. As Wollschleger wrote the music, he’d send Popham fragments of ideas, and Popham would record them and send them back to him. Once the piece was finished, the music had already passed through both of them.
“One thing I really admire about Scott is he takes those collaborative partnerships very seriously and really wants the performer’s approach to performance, their aesthetic values and priorities, to enter into that piece,” Popham said.
With Larson, the collaborative partnership has extended to concert halls and the recording studio, in New York and across the United States. Neither can count the number of hours they’ve spent making music together; they’ve created a wide variety of piano works, some short and intimate, others long and bombastic. In total, it’s enough to make three albums. The first of the trilogy, Dark Days, was released on April 23 on the eclectic contemporary classical music label, New Focus Recordings. The music they feature on Dark Days explores the more delicate side of their post-world vision.
“I wanted to focus on more intimate pieces that felt song-length…I wanted something that was a bit more reflective and introspective,” Wollschleger said of the pieces that make up Dark Days. “To me, it’s like, how do we connect in this very simple, deep way?”
In the context of COVID-19 pandemic isolation, darkness and introspection feel like appropriate topics to explore. And while both Wollschleger and Larson knew they wanted to put this collection of pieces together long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the album shed light on the inner-looking experience of quarantine.
“I was seeing the reality around me through the lens of these pieces,” Larson said. The music had been his soundtrack for so long that he started to understand his inner, and outer worlds, through it. He describes Dark Days as “the winter solstice version of dark,” akin to the coziness of sitting by a fire on a snowy, winter day. It balances the iciness of the coldest months of the year with the comfort of intimate moments; each piece on the album encompasses its own little universe, transporting us deeper into our inner psyches.
“I often think of these pieces as almost like journals. They’re so personal. I’m thinking of these as memories of a forum or something that used to be,” Larson said.
— Vanessa Ague, 5.04.2021
The piano music of Scott Wollschleger (b. 1980) definitely has a distinct profile. As heard on Dark Days (New Focus Recordings), Wollschleger goes in for soft, introspective, languid, unhurried, repetitive musings for solo piano. His interpreter here is pianist Karl Larson, and they have been collaborators for a long time. They seem like serious, dedicated people.
Larson contributes a long set of booklet notes full of detailed analysis, jargon, notated examples from some of the scores, observations, praise, and in closing, a connection with the troubles everyone is facing in times of political turbulence and COVID-19 angst. Beyond all that, Larson says that Wollschleger’s music simply feels good to play, offering tactile physical pleasure for a pianist’s hands. Being a pianist, I can relate to that; there are passages in the piano’s extensive literature where the fingers fall so naturally onto the keyboard that the act of playing becomes a sensual end in itself.
To the nonperforming listener at home, though, the tactile highs that the performer feels is not a factor. The proof is in the listening — and frankly, a lot of this music just goes in one ear and out the other uneventfully.
The brief opening track, which also happens to be the title track, consists of angular, dissonant arpeggios, and it’s over in a flash. Larson’s notes claim that it was written during the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump, intending to evoke “the sense of extreme anxiety and sadness so many of us associated with the event.” Though written a year earlier, the next track, Tiny Oblivion, continues the dark mood, if not the language, with rippling glissandos.
From this point, the dank spirits lift, but only as far as a state of languid stasis will allow, with brief modules of sound frequently decaying into the void. A lot of this music owes its soul to Morton Feldman — neutral in expression, softly repetitive, but not burdened by Feldman’s yawning unedited expanses.
There are three selections from a series of Brontal pieces. “Brontal” is a vague word invented either by Wollschleger or another collaborator Kevin Sims (sources differ) that could mean a low note going to a high note (his trio Brontal Symmetry plays with that aspect) or making something that is unfamiliar seem very immediate. Brontal No. 2 (“Holidays”) is a series of short, brittle or gentle motifs separated by long decays; No. 6 is much the same. Brontal No. 11, which bears the subtitle “I-80,” is the most recent piece (2020) on the CD, but in its unhurried, relaxed, more-or-less regular tread, it doesn’t in any way evoke the high-tension that I-80 — the freeway that passes through Berkeley on the way to the Bay Bridge — that I know.
Wollschleger has said that he tends to respond to music in fragments, as opposed to lengthy structures — which is consistent with what I hear on this disc. Yet even in small doses, these fragments exceed my attention span.
— Richard S. Ginell, 5.08.2021
Scott Wollschleger’s music has great emotional range. Dark Days explores an atmospheric and lyrical side to his composing for piano. Wollschleger has collaborated with pianist Karl Larson for some time, and this collection of pieces created over a number of years attests to the felicitous nature of their work together.
The tile piece is both the briefest and most dissonant piece. It was composed on the day of Trump’s inauguration and channels Schoenberg’s atonal phase, but in a subdued manner. Much of the music here emulates impressionism instead of expressionism. One can often hear the influence of Debussy’s Preludes on works such as Tiny Oblivion and Brontal 2, “Holiday”. Music Without Metaphor resembles Satie in its delicate modal segments and slow rhythmic underpinning. Blue Inscription and Brontal 11, “I-80,” on the other hand, represent another throughline in Wollschleger’s work; his affinity for the New York School, particularly the music of Morton Feldman. Wollschleger is quick to point out that his graduate instructor at the Manhattan School of Music, Nils Vigeland, was one of Feldman’s prominent students and interpreters, and another influence on his music.
It is most interesting when Wollschleger combines these two demeanors, as on Brontal 6, where frequent rests and modal figurations coexist with pointillist fragments. The last two selections, Secret Machine 4 and Secret Machine 6, are considerably charming. They mark a return to the modality, whole-tone scales, and short motives of Debussy, with frequent ostinato repetitions. Dark Days is a well considered collection and it benefits from Larson’s assured interpretations.
— Christian Carey, 7.14.2021
An uncanny level of attunement between performer and composer is captured on Dark Days in pianist Karl Larson's rendering of ten Scott Wollschleger compositions. Each has benefited from their association, Larson in being given distinguished material to perform and Wollschleger in having an interpreter of immense sensitivity render his material into physical form. Other interpretations are of course possible, yet Larson's give the impression of being definitive. This isn't their first collaboration, by the way: Wollschleger's 2019 American Dream release was written for and performed by the chamber trio Bearthoven, which includes the Brooklyn-based pianist, and the composer has written many pieces for Larson.
While not overtly programmatic, Dark Days does have some real-world connections. The title work, for example, was written during Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017, and the composer clarifies that the title of Tiny Oblivion refers to the human body's dissolution after death into particles that, continually breaking down, eventually disseminate into the universe. And as much as the album title suits the global pandemic with which we're still contending, much of the album material was written and recorded before COVID-19, with the earliest dating from 2007. Larson, for one, prefers to treat the title as one less associative with hopelessness and instead the feeling one has during the darkest days of the year when snow gently falls outside and one is inside warmed by a fire. Many of these concise pieces are pensive, even cryptic in their suggestiveness, and in their solitariness very much conducive to the solo piano presentation. Wollschleger's no minimalist, but his material is minimal in its sparse, unencumbered form. Decorative, ingratiating gestures are eschewed for what's essential in tremulous settings often grounded in obsessively repeating motifs.
Not only is Larson the featured performer, he also co-produced the release (with the composer) and contributed illuminating liner notes. In identifying key attributes of Wollschleger's compositional language, for instance, he cites the “influence of colour on harmony, an approach to rhythm that frequently disguises the aural perception of pulse, the instinctual treatment of compositional form, and a deep, physical bond with the piano itself”—qualities all very much evident in the material performed. A reliance on intuitively formed structures also informs the composer's writing, which in turn makes the performances feel like material naturally emerging in the moment and gives its development a sense of inevitability. Blue Inscription, for example, plays like a transcription of consciousness wherein thoughts and impressions peacefully drift. Synesthesia also plays a role, with the composer, having experienced the neurological phenomenon from a young age, exploiting the colour properties he associates with certain notes and pitches. Evident too is a modular approach that sees Wollschleger arranging musical blocks into larger shapes. That aspect, which accentuates the tactile dimension of his music, emerges in the three Brontal settings, No. 2 “Holiday,” No. 6, and No. 11 “I-80,” in their abrupt transitions between hushed passages and bright, aggressive flourishes.
Larson recognizes that however easy playing these pieces might appear, there are considerable technical challenges; as he notes, “the execution of soft, subtle music such as this requires a whole different brand of virtuosity.” By way of illustration, his assured handling of pacing and dynamics in the commanding treatment of Tiny Oblivion does much to intensify the haunting work's entrancing effect; even more slowly executed is Music without Metaphor, though the pensive meditation is no less riveting for being so. A lightening of mood arrives towards the recording's end when flowing patterns and shimmering clusters respectively illuminate Secret Machine No. 4 and Secret Machine No. 6, two of the release's densest and livelier settings. Differences aside, the pieces selected for the recording share much, including qualities of intimacy and introspection. Even if the majority of the compositions aren't boisterous, they nevertheless communicate with ample force.
— Ron Schepper, 5.28.2021
If you’re looking for something knottier and more cerebral, try Dark Days, Karl Larson’s engrossing appraisal of piano music by Brooklyn-based composer Scott Wollschleger. “From a young age, Scott has experienced synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon causing (in Scott’s case) a tangible relationship between harmony and visual color,” explains Larson in his illuminating sleeve note. “As he writes, he employs this condition as a compositional tool, often favoring sonorities that provoke a synesthetic response and result in the soft, consonant dissonance that is so characteristic of his music.” On the surface, Wollschleger’s music can seem elusive, almost haphazard, but given sufficient attention, the spontaneity coalesces into something that feels more deliberative, even inevitable.
The works here were written between 2007 and 2020 and the album is intended to be experienced as a stylistic journey. From the crystalline charm of two of the composer’s early Secret Machine series to the shimmering, dissipating resonances of Tiny Oblivion and the Feldman-esque progressions of Music Without Metaphor, there’s nearly an hour of mesmerizing music here.
As one of the composer’s long-time collaborators, Larson’s perceptive touch is ideal for bringing out the subtle harmonic voicing in Wollschleger’s music while giving due emphasis to the equally important spaces between the notes. Sound is appropriately up close and personal giving listeners the sense they are sitting right next to the piano. Enthralling stuff.
— Clive Paget, 4.02.2021
The music of composer Scott Wollschleger has a distinctive profile that emerges clearly in solo piano music, making this a good choice for those interested in his music. Wollschleger combines several quite diverse influences from the past into a new and coherent whole. The composer is a synaesthete, and the first thing that strikes the listener here is the variety of colors he calls forth from the keyboard, beautifully brought out by his champion pianist, Karl Larson. Wollschleger's treatment of the piano unmistakably brings to mind a Claude Debussy brought into the modern era. There's also a slow-moving, repetitive quality suggesting the influence of the minimalists and perhaps of Morton Feldman. In terms of rhythm, however, Wollschleger is closer to high modernism, using devices such as proportional rhythm and generally an emphasis on the duration of notes rather than on pulse, which is there but elusive. In his transparent textures, these rhythmic devices come through clearly and interact in a wholly original way with the coloristic aspect of the composer's music. Larson worked closely with Wollschleger over the several years in which these pieces took shape, and his readings may be regarded as definitive. A novel contemporary release rooted in long traditions and accessible to all.
— James Manheim, 5.17.2021
Hovhaness put the piano at the service of the mystical; Scott Wollschleger (born 1980) puts it at the service of synesthesia, a condition he shares with Scriabin, among others. And just as Arzruni’s interpretations of Hovhaness draw on his longstanding personal relationship with the composer, so do the readings of Karl Larson on a New Focus Recordings release draw on his friendship with Wollschleger. The actual sound of Wollschleger’s piano pieces, however, is worlds away from that of Hovhaness’ music. The 10 pieces on this CD, which date from the years 2007-2020, are delicate but determinedly dissonant, clearly seeking a kind of intimacy but achieving it only rarely. The works come across as close collaborations between composer and pianist, but as dualities that offer little entrance space for anyone other than the two involved in creating and re-creating them. Their sound sometimes differs, as in the contrast between the focus of Dark Days on the piano’s lower register and the overtly tinkly sonic world of Tiny Oblivion. But other works, synesthetic or not, simply sound like a great deal of contemporary stop-and-start, here-and-there keyboard pieces: Music without Metaphor, for example, and Blue Inscription. And then there is Lyric Fragment, which is scarcely lyrical – it has a nocturne-like quality whose sound, however, is far from restful. The disc includes three pieces labeled as Brontals by the composer: No. 2 (“Holiday”), No. 6, and No. 11 (“I-80”). These contain abrupt contrasts of low and high notes and of slow and speedy sections, but despite the representational implication of the two pieces with titles, there is very little distinctive from one piece to the next, and nothing particularly illustrative. Similarly, the two works here called Secret Machine, Nos. 4 and 6, have nothing apparent to do with their title, although No. 4 does contain more-interesting rhythmic and dynamic contrasts than many of the other works on the disc, while No. 6 has a pleasant bell-like clarity that maintains interest throughout its modest length. Wollschleger’s form of synesthesia connects sound with color – a not-unusual presentation of the condition – but the composer does not bring his unusual sensibilities to bear in ways that reach out to an audience to any significant extent. Someone who knows him personally and plumbs his works with that knowledge front-and-center, as Larson does, can certainly play the music convincingly. But listeners not already well-versed in Wollschleger as both a person and a composer (plus a synesthetic) will find little here that is distinctive and not much with communicative potential.
The composer Scott Wollschleger and pianist Karl Larson join forces here on a solo piano listen where much intimacy and introspection is present across tunes penned between 2007-2020.
The title track opens the record with low keys as a slight rumbling flows alongside brighter moments of finger acrobatics, and “Tiny Oblivion” follows with tension and grace as plenty of mystery surrounds the fascinating delivery.
Halfway through, “Lyric Fragment” brings a reflective quality where plenty of emotion is present amid the cautiousness, while “Brontal No. 2 ‘Holiday’” offers 7 minutes of sublime, unpredictable and even haunting song craft. “Brontal No. 6”, one of the album’s best, then displays profound attention to detail as the strategic execution balances space and mood well.
The album exits on “Secret Machine No. 4” and “Secret Machine No. 6”, where the former is a swift and pretty 2 minutes of memorable songwriting, and the latter quivers with an eloquent vulnerability that finishes the listen with much poise.
Recorded prior to Covid and titled after the inauguration of 2017, while there are certainly dark moments to be found here, more often than not, you’re likely to take in serenity and sensitivity on this collaboration of enormous talent.
— Tom Haugen, 4.27.2021
This is a very rewarding disc of short contemporary pieces which play with colour, rhythm and harmony. Written between 2007 and 2020 this collection shows how the composer combines these elements together with the properties of the piano alongside his personal experience of synaesthesia. The music is expansive, often repetitive but with slight shifts and variations. The long term collaboration of composer and performer also adds to the overall effectiveness. I hope to hear more.
— Stephen Page, 5.31.2021
The name of this album of solo piano music Scott Wollschleger is taken from the title of the opening piece, Dark Days. Wollschleger is specifically referring to recent troubling events, both political and medical, that have engulfed society. It does not really matter, in terms of appreciating the music, what the specific roots of this angst are (Wollschleger, like most artists, leans left in his ideologies, which is all I will say about this subject), but the surprise is the lack of any overt darkness. Quite the opposite; the music is, overall, quite soothing, even, dare I say, rather pretty. It is true that Dark Days opens with music built around minor-key harmonies, but the mood that is created is one of mystery and inquisitiveness.
The 10 works are miniatures, in the spirit of Mompou, but with a more contemporary sense of tonal harmony, such as can be heard in some of the music of Morton Feldman and Hans Otte, especially Otte’s solo piano masterpiece Das Buch der Klänge. This recital is a result of an especially close collaboration between the composer and the performer, pianist Karl Larson. The music does not convey an especially technical, virtuosic profile, but there are many passages that are deceptively (to the listener’s ear) challenging, such as when the composer requires the pianist to play rapidly and quietly, while at the same time revealing subtle dynamic shadings. Larson carries off these moments with both elegance and intelligence.
This is one of those releases of new music that I appreciated more with repeated hearings, which is as strong an endorsement as a critic can proffer.
— Peter Burwasser, 1.15.2022