Wolf Town

Wolf Town

for saxophone quartet

dur. ca. 13'

Premiered November 12, 2021

Sprengel Museum, Hannover

Quatuor de saxophones Quasar

If the string quartet is “a conversation amongst four intelligent people”, as Goethe once quipped, Wolf Town is a Mexican standoff.

The four par­ties are bound to each oth­er, required to sus­tain a strate­gic ten­sion that presents them no suit­able exit strat­e­gy. Achiev­ing any sort of vic­to­ry is not an option, and nei­ther is extri­cat­ing one­self from the sit­u­a­tion. And yet, despite being osten­si­bly pit­ted against each oth­er, any par­tic­i­pant engag­ing in aggres­sion would in fact guar­an­tee their own demise.

Where do we go from here? Well: nowhere, if the stand­off metaphor is cred­i­ble. The quar­tet is locked into a rela­tion­ship of interdependence. 

The piece employs some sort of qua­si-pro­por­tion­al nota­tion. A more con­ven­tion­al nota­tion, be it met­ri­cal­ly notat­ed or arranged in accor­dance to a time grid, could almost be sal­vaged or intu­it­ed from the way it is pre­sent­ed — but shouldn’t. This spa­tial arrange­ment clues the play­ers about the tem­po­ral pro­por­tions with­in each of their utter­ances, as well as about the pro­por­tions between dif­fer­ent gestures.


The blots” that accom­pa­ny the notat­ed pitch­es graph­i­cal­ly trace the air pres­sure blown into the instru­ment over time — in oth­er words, the amount of ener­gy to be input into the phys­i­cal sys­tem that is the instru­ment. Because of the under­ly­ing physics of a wind instru­ment, this has the twofold func­tion of depict­ing the dynam­ic lev­el, but also the bright­ness or com­plex­i­ty of the tim­bre. But the time-axis against which this ener­gy is plot­ted resists col­laps­ing into a dis­crete unit, remain­ing instead flex­i­ble and con­tin­u­ous, unmea­sured and unmea­sur­able: Bergson’s durée. This affords the play­ers time to nego­ti­ate the pro­duc­tion of sound in the con­text of a vocab­u­lary that grad­u­al­ly but sure­ly with­draws itself fur­ther into ter­rains of fragili­ty from an ini­tial­ly res­olute stance. Or, more inter­est­ing­ly, this allows the mate­r­i­al itself — its tem­po­ral unfold­ing, its dra­matur­gy, its phys­i­cal­i­ty — to shape and con­strain time, rather than the oth­er way around. Just like time resist­ed its being sev­ered into dis­crete units, the mate­r­i­al also fights back. 

The con­crete tem­po­ral unfold­ing of each ges­ture, how­ev­er, is not only con­di­tioned inter­nal­ly by the cir­cum­stances inher­ent to its phys­i­cal pro­duc­tion (such as dynam­ic lev­el or pres­sure and resis­tance of a par­tic­u­lar mul­ti­phon­ic fin­ger­ing), but is in fact inces­sant­ly nego­ti­at­ed in the inter­ac­tion between parts. This mal­leable time — this durée — that springs forth from the mate­r­i­al could con­demn the play­ers to a cer­tain kind of closed-off auton­o­my, doubtless­ly head­ed in the direc­tion of noise or incon­se­quen­tial mut­ter­ing. Far from it: the parts are coor­di­nat­ed by a sys­tem of aur­al cues, forc­ing the play­ers into the stand­off. The four par­ties are bound to each oth­er, required to sus­tain a strate­gic ten­sion.

The unique durée of each of the play­ers push­es and pulls against the oth­ers’, fur­ther desta­bi­liz­ing the rela­tion­ship between the musi­cian and the sounds (s)he pro­duces, as well as the sym­bol­ic lay­er’s already fraught rela­tion­ship with the heard out­come. The rad­i­cal absence of any kind of tech­ni­cal, metro­nom­i­cal time — the kind of pulse one could tap one’s foot to, as in the string quar­tets of the past, safe­guard­ing some part of one’s auton­o­my — makes it so that extri­cat­ing one­self from the sit­u­a­tion is impos­si­ble. This net­work of con­tin­gen­cies col­laps­es only in the moment of play­ing. Thus, time is ver­i­ta­bly mate­ri­al­ized by this transsub­jec­tive rit­u­al. Time stops on its tracks the moment one dis­en­gages from active­ly pro­duc­ing it. There sim­ply is no a pri­ori abcis­sa against which to track the vir­tu­al unfold­ing of the piece. 

Much like with the sounds them­selves, this inter­de­pen­den­cy strips the play­ers of any ini­tial illu­sion of resolve or auton­o­my. And yet, this inter­de­pen­dence that brought them into a state of fragili­ty is the only way for them to press on. 

The title is bor­rowed from a poem by the Cana­di­an poet Anne Car­son (The Life of Towns, from Plain­wa­ter, 1995), and hope­ful­ly retains some of the lin­ger­ing dan­ger­ous­ness of her lines.