Album Review: On His Own Terms

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Yochai Wolf.
Yochai Wolf. More organic than usual when classical music meets rock. Credit: Nofar Rettig

Interface between rock and classical music has become a creative dead zone in our time. Activity in this realm usually takes the form of encounters between rock singers and classical orchestras in often constrained combinations that accord superficial respectability to the rock side and superficial coolness to the classical side. There’s little in the way of mutual creativity; it’s mostly an alliance of vested interests.

But at the remote fringes of indie music, in places where commercial interests are nonexistent, occasional genuine highly charged encounters between classical and rock occur. An example is Yochai Wolf’s new album, “Decomposing Composers.” The word “decomposing” was obviously chosen for its dual meaning – to rot, and also to compose anew against the spirit of the original.

But the initial morbidity it evokes does in fact partially reflect the spirit of the album. Most of the composers whose works Wolf has reworked are no longer alive, although two (Arvo Pärt and Michael Nyman) are still with us. The second meaning – to re-compose – is also partially relevant. Wolf has no subversive pretensions. On the contrary, he salutes composers he’s fond of and amuses himself by transforming the accomplished works of great composers into raw material for his smaller creations.

Most of Wolf’s raw material belongs to what is known as contemporary, i.e., 20th-century music. The only exception is Henry Purcell; Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1” was written on the brink of the 20th century. All the other pieces that Wolf rearranges (by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Ligeti, Pärt and Nyman) were composed and performed in the last century. His handling of them can also be termed “contemporary.” From a rough kind of rock to free jazz, Wolf’s means of expression come from the century in which the works he reworks were composed. That’s certainly one of the reasons why the music on this album sounds more organic than what usually happens when classical music meets rock.

Albums like this can be listened to with two approaches. One is the comparative approach: Hear the innovation, listen to the original and compare. Then there is the free approach: Listen to the innovation on its own terms, without a comparison with the original. Wolf provides links to the original works on the album’s page, but that doesn’t mean he’s recommending that the listener adopt the comparative approach. If at all, on the contrary, That, at least, is how one can understand his choice to open the album with Satie. The original is transcendently beautiful. Wolf’s version, in contrast, cruises the lower levels of this world – it’s an oriental surf. Not only does listening to the original not help to enjoy the reworking, it actually diminishes the pleasure. As such, it’s an incentive for choosing the free, non-comparative approach.

Concert and disconcert

The first half of “Decomposing Composers” sounds like a cordial but not entirely convincing game of reassembly. Some of my reservations are conceptual in character (what’s the point of playing a segment from “The Rite of Spring” in the style of The Doors?), others have to do with the execution of the works (the saxophone solo in the Purcell piece sounds like half-baked free jazz and the slide guitars in the Satie piece don’t succeed in catching a wave of genuine momentum). The best cuts in the album’s first section are the shortest ones: Prokofiev’s “Troika” and Nyman’s “Sheep ‘n’ Tides.”

Then comes the theme from Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphonie,” which Wolf presents in a new arrangement of almost 15 minutes. Here the click of the connection between concert and disconcert is clearly heard. Messiaen’s short melody builds a tremendous wall from just six bricks, each of which is a power chord that makes Black Sabbath sound like Air Supply. It’s so logical to play this tune as metallic noise, and that is what Wolf does. Not all of it maintains the same dynamic pitch, but this piece seems to be the high point of the album. But the next cut, Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata No. 7,” is even better.

I’m not familiar with the original, and out of loyalty to the non-comparative approach I haven’t yet checked it out. But Wolf’s rendition – a kind of ritual psychedelia with echoes of minimalist music – possesses marvelous momentum and imagination. In another few months we will mark the tenth anniversary of Ligeti’s death. Any local ensemble of new music that might be planning a concert in that connection will do well to invite Wolf to perform this excellent piece.

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