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andrewcsmith on 12/08/2011 at 12:00AM

For 1, 2 or 3 People

Christian Wolff's "For 1, 2 or 3 People"

ISSUE Project Room's annual Darmstadt: Essential Repertoire festival often focuses on works that are influential far beyond the audience that has actually heard them. This year, Ensemble Sospeso will perform Morton Feldman's marathon late work "For Christian Wolff," a three-hour duet for piano and flute, and Joe Drew of Analog Arts will give the U.S. premiere of Stockhausen's "Cosmic Pulses," for 8-channel electronics

In 2010, the S.E.M. Ensemble was invited to perform at the festival, and one of the pieces played was the austere and yet unstable "For 1, 2 or 3 People," by Christian Wolff (Feldman's dedicatee). "For 1, 2 or 3 People" is, in some ways, the perfect piece to be played at Essential Rep. It's a piece that leaves a lot up to the performers, even things that would seem vital, such as how many performers should perform and what instruments they should play. But on another level, it demands so much interpretation and creativity from its constraints: commands to make "a sound in a middle place, in some respect, of the sounds around it," or "a sound involving stretched material." Christian Wolff has had a long history of collaboration with S.E.M., and the performers (Petr Kotik, Joseph Kubera, and Chris Nappi) take to the piece with the same familiarity as most musicians bring to someone like Mozart. Their interpretation of the piece, then, really becomes a sure, confident one, which is something required for music that has the potential for such sparseness. 

And at the same time, the piece requires focus and sensitivity to the other performers—each page constitutes a score, and players perform different sections of the score simultaneously. A large part of the piece requires coordination among players, with commands such as "play after a previous sound has begun, hold till it stops." For 2 or 3 players, this may mean some degree of coordination; for 1 player, this may mean reacting to environmental sounds. Have a listen to this piece, which imagines its own world, redrawing the roles for performers and audiences.

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