Bearthoven & Wollschleger’s “American Dream”


AMERICAN DREAM / WOLLSCHLEGER: Gas Station Canon Song. American Dream. We See Things That Are Not There / Bearthoven: Karl Larson, pno; Pat Swoboda, bs; Matt Evans, perc/vib/crotales / Cantaloupe Music CA21145

Composer Scott Wollschleger’s music has been described by Alex Ross of The New Yorker as landing “somewhere in the border between Minimalia and Feldmanistan,” a typically Rossian comment that makes no sense except to himself and those who understand his arcane, snobbish references (one reason among several why I started this blog). I would more happily and plainly describe it as a form of quiet American style classical music with a jazz touch.

Wollschleger (b. 1980), who grew up in Pennsylvania, often drives across the state and comments that since “The gas station is a more common object than the Mona Lisa. Where I came from, it would be fake for me to claim the beautiful art history of Europe as my own.” The opening piano piece, Gas Station Canon Song, sets the tone for the album, a brief, calm piece that lasts only two and a half minutes. This leads into the five-movement piece American Dream, in which some unusual metallic sounds interact with the piano trio. The music emerges in fragments, slowly but surely emphasizing strong but broken rhythms, using the crotales and vibes as part of his sound palette. Percussion-crotales-vibes player Matt Evans is a busy player on this, switching between his various instruments with lightning speed, while pianist Karl Larson plays repetitive figures that sound different because of the underlying harmonic shifts from the bass and percussion instruments. The various movements flow into one another with seamless ease, creating a continuous but subliminal undercurrent of sound. In the second part, bassist Pat Swoboda plays pizzicato figures, almost like a jazz bassist, coloring the whole and enhancing the rhythm, which becomes gradually quicker as it progresses.

You really can’t call it minimalist because it develops and change despite using repeated motifs, and its slow movement and development make it easy for the lay listener to pick up on. The third section of American Dream opens with the plucked bass and remains a duet with the piano for a while, sometimes with Swoboda switching to bowed figures. Evans’ vibes enter at about the 1:43 mark, emphasizing a repeated rhythm that almost sounds metallic. Oddly, despite its rather quiet demeanor, the music in this section is oddly disturbing, like hearing an internal conflict between the instruments that is more unsettling than calming. At 3:40 the piano briefly plays a rhythmic figure that comes and goes intermittently. The bass plays edgy figures very high up in its range, upon which the piano answers with a few upper-register notes, then the bass doubles the time and moves the music into a very jazzy series of figures. Part four begins with quiet vibes and intermittent edgy bass figures, at 1:32 returning to some of the opening music of the suite.

In fact, it is the eerie, rather unsettling quality of Wollschleger’s music that captures the listener’s attention and holds it, not the slow pace or the moments of quietude. It’s hot-summer-day-with-bizarre-mirages-in-the-sun kind of music—one might say, the stuff of an American “daymare” rather than a dream. At the 8:50 mark in part four, the piano plays driving rhythms to which the metallic sound of crotales are mixed in. All I can say is, Wollschleger has run across some really weird and freaky gas stations in PA! (Who knows? Maybe he’s on a peyote high when he goes out driving on the interstate?) In part five, the intensity level is ramped up with some really edgy upper-range sounds that almost defy description. Heck, maybe some of Pennsylvania’s gas station attendants are also high.

In We See Things, Wollschleger returns to quiet piano figures, this time accompanied by the vibes. The music ruminates in its quiet, slowly-developed way throughout its length, and the bass is absent on this track.

This is one of those albums best listened to late at night, with the lights out or turned down low, slightly buzzed on a couple of glasses of wine and dreaming of psychedelic gas stations. Bon voyage!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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