Sunday, April 3, 2011

Gernot Wolfgang's Thinging Theremin

by Rodney Punt

I dashed home Saturday evening from the gemütlich birthday party of a friend - a TV star of German origin. It was one of those magical outdoor affairs with banks of pin-lights beaming warmth through the misty dampness, plenty of drinks and food, a classy if incongruous mariachi band, and lots of glitzy guests. (Partiers were split between television industry types and L.A.'s German community, and conversations between the two groups migrated from the superficial to serious and back, but not from the obvious candidates in either camp.)

Memorable moment: a chat with engaging comedian Bill Maher. I am with him all the way on religion and politics, but not quite ready to buy into his take on the demerits of vaccinations, though he made good points on not messing with Mother Nature's immune system. (Plug: HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher delivers the best combo of political insight and gut-busting fun available on TV.)

So why did I come home early?

To turn on KUSC-FM for a delayed broadcast of the latest work of Austrian-born, L.A.-based film composer Gernot Wolfgang. I had missed its live world premiere at the brilliant Piano Spheres recital of Joanne Pearce Martin on March 16. Wolfgang's Theremin's Journey is scored for that odd hands-in-the-air electronic gadget that emits otherworldly sounds, along with piano and electronica (a Mac computer). Not having a video handy as I listened, I'll have to take KUSC's word that the multi-talented Martin performed all the music I heard during the course of the piece. (OK, some of the electronic elements may have been prerecorded.)

Journey is an atmospheric mood piece with a retro pop-jazz feel to it. Here's my fanciful take: the Theremin (beloved of old sci-fi films) takes us initially to a forbidden planet where Robbie the Robot might at any moment burst out from behind a rock. A couple of motifs of romantic longing from the Theremin, with the piano echoing them, then beam us back to a film-noirish earth. We arrive in an Edward Hopper painting in the wee small hours of a sleepy Gotham. A morose Frank Sinatra, his girl having ditched him, sits at the other end of the bar with his only-the-lonely drink. Journey's middle section gets more animated and inventive but the mood lingers just as hauntingly. There's a great piano riff that suggests a startled cockroach scampering across the floor. Despite the eerie elements, the work overall keeps to a mood of wistful reverie. The scale is at once intimate and infinite.

Gernot Wolfgang knows what he's doing. (Even if I may be off base in my response.) Theremin's Journey is mixture of old electronics, new media and traditional piano with more than enough incident to transcend its vernacular idiom into something very cool, clever, and seductive.

And you don't even need a vaccination against modern music pretensions before listening to it.


Note from publisher: Gernot Wolfgang kindly supplied the program notes from his concert which were posted below as an addendum to the review above on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.

THEREMIN’S JOURNEY (for piano, Theremin and electronica) by Gernot Wolfgang

Program notes from the concert:

Theremin’s Journey was commissioned by Joanne Pearce Martin and generously underwritten by Rich and Luci Janssen of Santa Barbara, CA.

The Theremin and the piano are performed live, while the electronica parts are prerecorded. The inspiration for the title came from 2 sources. Theremin’s Journey is the name of the sample patch (from a virtual instrument called Atmosphere) which I used while composing the piece. But the layout of the piece itself also suggests a journey the theremin undertakes.

One of the great things about traveling is that - ideally - we undergo a transformation of sorts. By seeing new places, and by meeting people from cultures and backgrounds other than our own, our perspective changes. When we come home we see the world somehow differently, and the big picture seems to be a little bit more apparent.

This is what the Theremin is experiencing in this piece. It starts out with the main theme, accompanied by an ambient electronica track inspired by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew period from the early 1970s. The Theremin returns to this musical environment two more times, but in between these sections life happens in form of the piano part.

The piano covers a wide range of emotions and mindsets here - from contemplative to frantic, from tentative to rock solid and uncompromising, from agreeable to contrarian. Its two extensive sections each start out with unaccompanied solo passages, which then slowly evolve into groove-oriented climaxes. From here on the piano slowly eases its way back to sonic environments familiar to the Theremin. Now the Theremin gets to reflect on what it has seen and heard. While the main theme is still recognizeable, it is now varied. The surrounding ambient tracks have also changed ever so slightly. A new perspective has been found.

1 comment:

Michael Publig said...

I heard the piece on Gernot Wolfgang´s new astonishing CD "Short Stories". It´s a real fantastic piece that combines groove as well as modern music elements in a way I haven´t heard before. In my opinion Gernot Wolfgang is a real master, being able to combine these elements very convincingly.