Karl Larson and Scott Wollschleger
Pianist Karl Larson and composer Scott Wollschleger

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.

Scott Wollschleger - "Dark Days"
Dark Days album cover

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.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday