18 min read

Double Vision

A personal prelude, streaming picks, and a Q&A with composer Scott Wollschleger and pianist Karl Larson about their extensive collaboration, seen in a new online video gallery that opens… well, now.
Double Vision


Everywhere you look now, you see evidence of, and chatter about, the seismic impact Substack newsletters are having on a robust yet troubled media landscape. In just the past week or so, I’ve added to my already-overflowing inbox Too Much Information, by investigative journalist David Sirota; The Editorial Board, by political writer, editor, and lecturer John Stoehr; From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, by the Puerto Rico-based food journalist of the title; and more fire. by hip-hop and culture writer Andre J. Gee.

You don’t need me to tell you about Matt Taibbi, who’s loudly shifted the focus of his work from Rolling Stone and books to Substack—which soon will be the landing spot for the polarizing essayist (that’s as diplomatic as I can be) Andrew Sullivan.

Elsewhere, my friend and colleague Olivia Giovetti has flourished on Substack, offering vital, illuminating work with Undone. And in a handful of installments of the parts of a body, Bandcamp editor Jes Skolnik has set the bar high through sheer forthrightness and decency.

Today, as Night After Night 2.0 turns three months old, I want to thank everyone who’s signed up to follow what I’m doing, and to express special gratitude to the paying subscribers, whose support has buoyed me through some very uncertain weeks.

Now, I’d like to ask another favor. When I launched this venture, I stated on Twitter that I’m open to suggestions and pitches. Here among ourselves, I’m calling once again for feedback. Stats are useful, but inconclusive; one week an interview will catch on well; another week it’s an album review. Is there something you’d like to see more of, or less of? Are lengthy critical essays of interest? Bite-sized capsule reviews of recent livestreams, online events, and recordings? Less text, more picks?

Tell me what you think—I’m genuinely curious. And, again: thank you.

Streaming Picks

Pauchi Sasaki
Photograph: Musuk Nolte

All times listed are EDT.

July 23, 7pm: Violinist, composer, and inventor Pauchi Sasaki was supposed to present k’uKu, her new composition for string quintet, percussion, voice, electronics, and video, live in Central Park, under the auspices of Americas Society. Instead, she’ll present it on the society’s website tonight. Her collaborators include percussionist Haruka Fujii and members of The Knights. Free; as-coa.org

July 23, 7pm: Speaking of The Knights, a cadre of players from that versatile indie orchestra is featured in the latest event cued up to livestream from the elegant Music Room at Caramoor. The program includes the world premiere of Shorthand by Anna Clyne (whose string quartet Breathing Statues was a highlight of last week’s Caramoor presentation), along with Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2. $10; caramoor.org

July 24, 1pm: The Iranian Female Composers Association, featured recently in an impressive New York Times profile by Ryan Ebright, hosts an online showcase of new and recent pieces by members Bahar Royaee, Roya Farzaneh, Nina Brzegar, Parisa Sabet, Negin Zomorodi, and Homa Samiei. Free; details on facebook.com

July 24, 9pm: Chicago percussionist, producer, and curator Ben Baker Billington, in his solo-electronics guise as Quicksails, has a blissfully transporting new album, Blue Rise, coming out tomorrow on the Hausu Mountain label. To celebrate, he tops a promising bill that also includes the always compelling, presently ubiquitous sound artist Claire Rousay. $10 suggested donation; twitch.tv/hausumountain

July 27, 5:30pm: Had the world not descended into crisis, the intrepid International Contemporary Ensemble would be performing music by Anthony Braxton for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival next week. Now, the action moves online, as the ensemble – along with the Tri-Centric Foundation and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts – celebrates #Braxton75 through live and recorded performances and conversation. I’m honored and elated to be moderating the discussions. Free, with RSVP; eventbrite.com

Interview: Karl Larson and Scott Wollschleger

Karl Larson (left) and Scott Wollschleger
Photograph: Catherine DeGennaro

Seven years ago in Brooklyn, an auspicious meeting took place. At the urging of a mutual friend, composer Scott Wollschleger and pianist Karl Larson spent an evening getting to know each other at a now-defunct Fort Greene bar, close to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Wollschleger, a composer whose striking oeuvre – inspired by, but not overly beholden to, the New York School composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, and their circle – includes a substantial amount of music for piano, was searching for the ideal soloist with whom to work up a new concerto in progress. Larson, who had landed in Brooklyn sometime after he’d completed his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, had begun to make a reputation for himself as an artist of uncommon resourcefulness and sensitivity.

From that initial meeting grew an enviable artistic partnership. Wollschleger found a pianist who showed uncommon insight into the specific sonorities and contours of the music he tended to write; Larson discovered a composer who not only wrote music that played to his personal strengths, but also was receptive to collaborative workshopping and advice. In addition to the concerto, which Larson introduced in a 2015 performance with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, in 2018 Wollschleger wrote American Dream, a substantial work for Bearthoven, Larson’s brilliantly unorthodox trio with bassist Pat Swoboda and percussionist Matt Evans.

In the process of preparing the concerto, Larson took on a number of Wollschleger’s unaccompanied piano works in order to internalize the composer’s language. During the 2017-18 season, Larson presented two recitals at Spectrum that showcased Wollschleger’s complete piano music to date, as a prelude to making studio recordings for a projected series of albums on the New Focus label.

Then came COVID-19, and with it, a near-comprehensive shut-down of musical activities. But Larson’s concerts had been documented on video, and Wollschleger, viewing that footage, determined that even if progress on the albums could not continue presently, the music could still circulate and gain exposure on a swiftly rising tide of online arts offerings. Inadvertently, the videos also serve to commemorate creative life at Spectrum in its Brooklyn Navy Yard incarnation, since proprietor Glenn Cornett shuttered the space indefinitely in May.

Today, following months of preparation, Wollschleger and Larson present their new video gallery to the public: open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, free of charge.

Included are videos for 15 individual pieces, a vivid selection suited to cognoscenti and newcomers alike. Chris and Mary Catherine Smith handled the camerawork and editing; Adrian Knight supervised the audio recording and engineering. Apart from the video for Gas Station Canon-Song, which premiered in May on I Care If You Listen, the videos in the collection have not circulated previously.

To celebrate this invaluable documentation of their work together, Larson and Wollschleger joined me recently from their Brooklyn homes for a Zoom chat about the establishment and development of their creative partnership, what they admire most about each other’s work, and where the collaboration is headed from here. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

STEVE SMITH: The performances you’ve preserved in this set of videos are truly impressive, and the Spectrum recordings look and sound gorgeous. It’s important to state, though, that this video release is not the final project. You’re recording all of this music in the studio, with a release planned for some future date.

SCOTT WOLLSCHLEGER: Right, not until spring of ’21.

Do you have specific things left to finish?

SW: Yes. I’m in the editing phase. We recorded up at Oktaven with Ryan Streber, and I’m putting together the takes—which is actually super hard, because usually they’re really good. [Laughs] I don’t know what we’re thinking, Karl, when we go up there: “Oh, let’s do one more take; okay, one more.” Later, I’m like: oh my god, all of these takes are good.

The recital series that Karl did was sort of a primer to get his fingers limbered up, so that when we’d go to the studio, he would be in top shape. But I just love the way the videos turned out, and the vibe… and also, you know, nostalgia for Spectrum.

I absolutely felt a pang when I was watching these videos, knowing that Glenn had packed up Spectrum until further notice.

KARL LARSON: When Glenn invited me to do those shows, he didn’t specify what I should play. It was really early on in the new venue. I think he had just gotten that piano – it was a loaner – so he was reaching out to pianists. And I thought, this is a great opportunity to learn the rest of the stuff that we were going to record. There were still a few, some of the more obscure ones, that I hadn’t played before, so it was an opportunity to really clamp down.

Karl Larson performing SOVT by Sarah Hennies, for Experimental Sound Studio

I’m wondering how you’re both faring during this weird and difficult time. Karl, I’ve seen you on my screens now a number of times. How has this period of forced isolation impacted your life and your practice?

KL: It’s been incredibly difficult. I don’t think we even need to say that financially it’s been a hit, since there’s no gigs. I retained 60 to 70 percent of my students, so that’s okay. But it feels difficult to be an active musician when you feel like you’re not participating. And even these Zoom concerts, it’s a very strange feeling to do that: you’re nervous in your own living room, but there’s just that separation. I like that everybody has the chats and all this stuff while you’re playing; I think it’s kind of a cool element. But it feels very removed.

So it’s been a struggle to stay connected with the idea of being an artist. At the same time, it does open you up into all these different possibilities. Some of those Zoom shows, if I played them in New York, I probably would have played to 20 to 40 people, confined to the scene. It would be a lot of people that you know. This way, I can kind of spread out: people in Europe, people wherever. So that part has been interesting.

Did you get a sense that there were people tuning in from all over the globe? Was there concrete evidence?

KL: No, I didn’t. But when I did Sarah Hennies’s piece SOVT, that stream was based in Chicago, and it’s a different subset of people who are going to watch. It’s more of an experimental-music bent, the kind of avant-garde improviser people, that maybe I wouldn’t attract so much if I were just playing Spectrum in New York, and if it was just me, Karl, trying to bring in these people.

That’s a fascinating impact of the Experimental Sound Studio online platform, where they’re largely coming out of the Chicago experimental-improv scene. I watched a marathon concert on ESS not so long ago, and viewers in the chat mostly seemed to be there to see improvisers like Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark. Watching in real time as members of that audience responded to Claire Chase, some obviously encountering her for the first time, was extremely illuminating: this kind of cross-pollination of scenes is actually possible. And I could see where that also would be the case when you played Sarah’s piece for the same platform.

SW: What’s going to be interesting, when we all do finally get back to playing in person, is how we’re going to decide to restructure things, because it’s obviously going to be different. How can we take some of the good things that have happened in this pretty dark time, and hold them in, and integrate them into what we’d been accustomed to before?

Sure. Scott, how are you doing?

SW: I echo what Karl said. Everything he’s saying sounds right to me. I really enjoyed the performance he gave of that Hennies piece. I watched it on Twitch on my cell phone in my room, lying down with headphones on. This sort of immersive aspect, I was just really feeling that—and maybe even enjoyed it more in that format than I would have in a live format. I know, that’s blasphemy to say I would prefer a streaming thing.

From a creative standpoint, it’s really challenging. I’m always writing, but I think a big part of my writing process is visualizing the physical bodies in the room. It’s very strange to not be able to imagine the room, necessarily. But also, composing is a long game, and I’ve been in New York almost 20 years doing this. Even if it’s a few years of rough and tumble – assuming my health doesn’t collapse, or some major issue – I’m just going to stick with it. We’ve just got to get through it. It’s sort of a fortitude thing.

It is heartbreaking… I mean, every other day I just think, oh my god, I would kill to go to a live concert, even music I don’t want to sit through, just to be with people, get a beer afterwards, you know, the whole thing that we just… I don’t want to say I ever took it for granted, but we just did it so much.

That was sort of the impetus for putting these videos together, too. It was during late March and April, when it was so bad here in New York City, and I was like, well, I have these videos of Karl. And that actually kind of saved me a little bit, putting them together. They also look so beautiful, and I was like, Karl, check this out! Look at these great videos we made last year that we haven’t done anything with.

So it’s sort of a way to kind of reconnect to that old thing, but also, like Karl said, it’s a global platform now, which is totally exciting. People all over the world can now hear this work, and that’s something we’d never even thought about.

Scott Wollschleger
Photograph: Emily Bookwalter

A fair portion of your music – not all, but a lot of it – has a kind of observational quality, a sensation that you are out ambling through the world, responding through music to the things that you encounter. How difficult is it to write at a time when you’re simply unable to do that?

SW: It’s been very challenging. And where I usually feel like I’m on the outside, observing the world, maybe what’s new for me now is actually to feel we’re all sharing this hardship together—obviously to various different degrees. I actually feel weirdly depersonalized, in a certain way, with this sort of artist angst distributed: everyone feels it. So I feel like instead of being on the outside looking in, we’re all sort of on the outside, now.

In some ways, for the last decade, I think a lot of my work has addressed these themes of the world ending. I know that’s sort of a loaded term for some people. The idea of world is a construct. I’m not saying the planet ended, you know, the meteor didn’t come blow it up. But world is a created idea, and I get inspiration from the feeling of not holding onto this idea of the past, in a certain way. So when I say I write music for the end of the world, it’s more of a letting go of these things, that structure, the world that we hold onto from the past. I’m looking for a way to make a structure of the world that’s not determined on something from the past.

So in some way, the response I'll have to this pandemic will slowly be in my music probably for years to come. But ironically, the first piece I wrote in lockdown was a piece in A-flat Mixolydian. I haven't written a piece in a key signature in decades; it just turned out this way. I wrote a piece about I-80, and it's because I was missing driving on the highway to go visit friends in Pennsylvania. I wrote a piece kind of visualizing the drive through I-80—with no traffic, of course. [Laughs]

Of course.

SW: So in some ways, it was like this weird, dreamy, hopeful thing that came out of it. But some of the other pieces I’m writing are not in A-flat Mixolydian.

Where did the connection between the two of you start?

SW: Chris Cerrone hooked us up.

KL: It was almost like a blind date.

SW: Chris was like, you’ve got to meet this guy, Karl; he’s really into Feldman and Messiaen, and he’d probably play your music well. And then we had a date, as it were. We hung out at Berlyn, which was across the street from BAM—it’s gone now. And from there, we’ve just been buddies and doing things together.

KL: The other thing that was going on in your life, Scott, was the seed for Meditation on Dust had just gotten started, so I think you were looking for somebody to collaborate with over a long span of time. That was around two years before the concerto actually happened.

SW: That must have been in 2012, or 2013?

KL: I moved to New York in 2012, so it must have been 2013. After that initial meeting, we discovered that we have very similar aesthetic taste when it comes to piano music. Scott sent me nearly all of these solo piano pieces. I remember Music without Metaphor, In Search of Lost Color, Blue Inscription—the bigger, more commonly played ones. I spent a lot of time getting to know the language.

And it just started to expand. We would have these meetings together, I would play one of the solo pieces and he would coach me on how it should go, and then we would read through different iterations and sketches of the concerto. That’s how it became a multifaceted collaboration. And then after the concerto came American Dream for Bearthoven, an even larger project.

Karl, what is it about Scott’s music that has kept you so engaged?

KL: At a base level, I think it helps that we look for similar things in piano music. We enjoy the same types of music. But also, Scott’s piano writing is very idiomatic. It feels really nice to play. I always say that there’s music that sounds beautiful, and then there’s music that also feels beautiful—when you put your hand on it, it feels right. And I think that it happens to play to my strengths as a pianist.

I don’t want to say that I don’t sweat over this music; I put a lot of thought into it. But it’s the thing that feels the most comfortable to me. Music with really beautiful yet dissonant chords, things that you play where you really want to mask the sound of the hammers, is something that I feel I can do pretty well. Playing inside the sound of the pedal, that sort of thing—which are all elements in Scott’s music that, if you don’t do those things well, the music’s not going to come across in the proper way. So it’s given me the opportunity to really luxuriate in that approach to playing piano.

Scott, what was it about Karl’s approach that suited your music?

SW: It’s all the things that he was saying. His touch is very sensitive. My music’s very clustery; there’s lots of notes in my chords. And to me, that’s a sort of sensation generator. So like Karl said, if you don’t play the harmonies with a certain sensitivity, they’re just sort of rash and ugly. The way Karl voices the music naturally sounds correct to me. So I think it’s his super-sensitive sense of touch, plus his impeccable sense of timing: he’s really able to correctly read my scores. Maybe this comes from Feldman, or even Messiaen; you’re doing this durational kind of counting, there’s not a traditional temporal background going on. So his fidelity for actually reading what I wrote, plus his sensitivity, equals perfect partner. I’m just so grateful for having met him, and that we get to do this is such a treat.

KL: I also would add that we have a good relationship rehearsing things together, sculpting things. Often in these rehearsals the composition process is still happening, and that can go on for a long time. I think that over the years we have developed a good rapport. I feel like I can totally understand what Scott is going for, but I also feel free to suggest things, guide things in different ways that I’m hearing them. So it feels like a nice collaboration when we’re doing that; even though he’s writing the music and I’m playing it, there’s still this very open dialogue, which is kind of what you want.

That’s the ideal relationship.

KL: That’s why you don’t play Beethoven 24-7.

One thing that interests me, especially now that Karl has mentioned the naturalness of your piano writing, Scott, is that I’ve read previously – in an interview by Kurt Gottschalk I commissioned for National Sawdust Log, and elsewhere – that you don’t view yourself as a pianist, and you’re trained in other things. Is the naturalness that Karl cites a result of the fact that while you’re not necessarily a pianist, you do sit down at the keyboard and work out this music with your own hands, first?

SW: I think so, yes. There’s definitely a connection there. Even when I’m composing for other instruments, I usually have the instrument in hand, and the extended techniques are generated by me sitting here in the living room at 8 o’clock in the morning with a cup of coffee… and then I let Mivos [Quartet], for example, do it for real. That kind of connection to the body is a one-to-one thing for me.

And the piano is a particularly special instrument for me: I don’t really watch a lot of TV shows, but I like to read through music. That’s how I entertain myself—so, very 19th century in that regard. My piano music is very much a portrait of me at the piano, finding these sounds. I can play most of my piano music, sort of. The joke is that I don’t write for the piano, I interact with the piano; that’s what my wife is always telling me. She’s like, you’re interacting, not playing it. So there’s definitely a connection between me and what ends up in Karl’s hands.

Do you write everything at the piano? Is there a difference, in your practice, between writing for the piano and writing at the piano?

SW: There’s actually no distinction—which gets me into trouble, sometimes. Sometimes I think to myself, I should think more like a composer right now, and not like someone who can kind of play the piano. But at the end of the day, I’m comfortable with my piano work, and the music reflects that I do play the piano. When I write for other instruments, I am touching the instruments, because that physicality is important. But I can’t play the cello like I can play the piano, so I’m a lot more of a composer when it comes to writing for the cello.

In terms of the solo-piano music we’re discussing today – both in the video gallery we’re sharing now, and the studio recordings you’ve made and are making at Oktaven – the music dates back to 2007, which predates your personal relationship. Scott, at what point did you start to conceive writing things expressly for Karl?

SW: Definitely the piano concerto.

Which is not part of the CD project, we should stipulate.

SW: Yes. Honestly, I don’t know if there’s one solo work. We’re applying for a grant to do a big solo work. Tiny Oblivion was born out of the concerto’s ephemera, so that was written for Karl. Dark Days was written for Karl. I still want to write Karl a new work of some magnitude. I’m always writing piano music; I have about eight pieces in my studio right now that I’m dabbling on-and-off on. I think that’s for the second album.

For this whole project, this piano series, we’re going to release three albums over the next decade—which is not a long time, in a way. The first album is going to be meditative and moody, to reflect the time we’re in. It’s a more gentle album and doesn’t include some of the more bombastic works. And then on the second album I want to include a new work that will be written specifically for Karl. I don’t think I’ve written a new work for Karl at least since American Dream.

There’s one piece listed on your website, Scott, that’s not included in the video sequence: Lyric-Fragment, the brief piece you wrote for Ivan Ilić to perform at Bargemusic last fall.

SW: That was written after this whole recital series happened; I wrote that last summer. We would have recorded it by now, actually, but then COVID got into the world. So that one we still have to work on together, and that might actually be part of a larger piece I’m writing, called Lyric. It’s something I want to work on with Karl. We had plans to go to Avaloch this summer to drink beer and work on music, but that got pushed to the side.

One thing that really impresses me, in sitting down to watch this entire collection, is that it’s not all one thing. It’s impossible to typecast you, Scott, as any particular kind of a composer. I came into it knowing your lineage from the New York School composers to you via Nils Vigeland, and of the affinity you both share for Feldman. But listening to The Complete Piano Works of Scott Wollschleger didn’t sound like a rejection of anything that had come before, but instead a playful conversation with the entirety of the piano literature as we’ve received it. There were things that reminded me of Satie, and Schumannesque bits, and flourishes that suggested Beethoven. So I like the fact that this isn’t just a conversation between the two of you, or even between you and the listener, but really between you and the entire history of piano music.

SW: That’s totally spot on. It probably reflects the fact that I read through so much music from the 18th and 19th century just for fun, and I’m always accessing it. I love the way you phrased that: a conversation with all other piano music.

A performance by Bearthoven of Scott Wollschleger’s American Dream will be featured in a Made at Avaloch webcast on July 24 at 8pm, also featuring andPlay with Sky Macklay; youtube.com. Karl Larson will perform Scott Wollschleger’s Tiny Oblivion live during the next online Bang on a Can Marathon, on August 16; marathon2020.bangonacan.org.

Coming Soon

Vicky Chow
Photograph: Kaitlin Jane

As Bang on a Can returns to presenting live performances, cautiously and responsibly, with two concerts at MASS MoCA on July 31 and August 1, pianist Vicky Chow, BoaC executive director Kenny Savelson, and MASS MoCA performing arts director Sue Killam discuss the logistics, concerns, and emotions involved in this bold venture.