Wolf Town

Wolf Town

for saxophone quartet

dur. ca. 13'

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.

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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.