Vol. 34 Issue 1 Reviews

Amnon Wolman: The Marilyn Series

Compact disc, Centaur Records CRC 2573, 2002; available from Centaur Records, Inc., 136 St. Joseph Street, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802, USA; fax (+1) 225-336-9678; Web www.centaurrecords.com/.

Reviewed by Michael Boyd
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

CD CoverAmnon Wolman (b. 1955) is a composer and sound artist who is currently a professor of composition at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) and Brooklyn College, and directs the Center for Computer Music at the latter institution. Regarding Mr. Wolman’s more general compositional concerns, his CUNY Graduate Center Web site biography states that his work is “grounded in an essential interest in experimentation and a belief that music as an art form expresses many dissimilar ideas of beauty. His interest in technology and in issues of time guided him, in recent years, towards electroacoustic pieces that are based on their own original audio materials and towards gallery sound installations that place an evolving sound with complementary visuals, in a small space where the listener decides on the length of the interaction. In his performance pieces he emphasizes the interaction between live performers, the technology, and the composer as collaboration with equal partners.”

The recording under consideration features three works from Mr. Wolman’s Marilyn Series: Reflections on Pedestals (1989), The Many Faces of Marilyn, V.2 (1991), and Marilyns93/inCage (1993).  This series, composed between 1986 and 1996 for computer-processed tape and live performers, contains two other works, M and PU-Marilyns96/LP, as well as an earlier version of The Many Faces of Marilyn.  Commenting on the series in  his liner notes for the disc, the composer writes: “The Marilyn Series of pieces did not start as such.  Originally, sometime in the early eighties, I thought it would be a great idea to use excerpts from Marilyn Monroe’s voice and manipulate those as part of a piece… I had some sounds in mind: the sounds Marilyn makes in the song “I Wanna be Loved by You” from the movie Some Like it Hot. To a gay man, the movie [was]… loaded with energy symbolizing the gay world… Composing within a clear context has always been of interest to me, but this was the first time I actively put it to work. Knowing that when I say the words ‘Marilyn Monroe’ whole worlds of associations and expectations are presented to the audience in which the piece of music will now operate.”

Reflections on Pedestals, the second work of this series, was composed for orchestra and computer-generated sound in 1989 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, although it was not premiered until 2001 by the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra with conductor Victor Yampolsky. These performers are featured on this recording and perform commendably well, interacting and integrating with the electroacoustic sound with great sensitivity. Commenting on this work, the composer writes, “I looked at the score for M [the first work in the Marilyn Series] and decided to create a new piece, using some of the previous orchestral ideas and a similar tape part… New elements were incorporated into these older ones, an important one is an angry gesture full of modulated screaming clusters of brass sounds. Another is an attempt to deconstruct not only Marilyn’s voice but also Debussy’s Fête from the Nocturnes, which I love.”  The commingling and juxtaposition of these elements, manipulated excerpts of Monroe’s voice, Debussy-derived material and more abstract motivic gestures such as the aforementioned brass clusters, create many striking moments throughout the work.  The piece begins and ends with a focus on Monroe’s voice, with the orchestra gradually rising to prominence during roughly the first half of the work and maintaining that position for much of its remaining duration. The electroacoustic portion of Reflections on Pedestals largely focuses on a few related samples of Monroe’s voice such that the disappearance and reemergence of these sounds creates a thread of continuity heard throughout that parallels the coming and going of Debussy-related moments in an interesting manner. One of the work’s highlights occurs near the end of the seventeenth minute when the orchestral/electroacoustic juxtapositions, as well as the internal distinctions within the orchestra’s part, are found in close proximity, bringing these contrasts to the composition’s foreground.

The Many Faces of Marilyn was originally composed in 1990 for First Avenue, an improvisation trio, as a requiem for victims of the AIDS virus. The version heard on this recording is an adaptation of the original created for Walleye, an improvisation ensemble at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, that was originally performed at the 1991 Society for Electro-Acoustic Music of the United States (SEAMUS) Conference. To echo his larger programmatic intent for this work, Mr. Wolman’s approach to Monroe’s voice was “to convey the requiems I intended to be in the music… [and thus] a sense of stop-ness, a sense of final-ness.” He wanted listeners “to know that Marilyn was dead and Marilyns were dying.” The primary alteration that distinguishes the second version of The Many Faces of Marilyn is a new approach to the ensemble’s instructions that encourages the inclusion of some amount of rock and roll feel, to capture “the popular culture aspects of Marilyn.”  This feel is present in a general manner through a sense of spontaneity interjected by the work’s improvisatory nature, particularly noticeable in the violin/piano exchanges that begin in the sixth minute, and specifically through regular, rock-like drum patterns that are weaved throughout. In concord with the composer’s programmatic intentions, the electroacoustic sound and accompanimental instrumental textures are generally subdued and austere. An unsettling relationship results between these gestures and the seemingly oppositional active drum and soloistic instrumental material, thereby further buttressing the work’s conceptual background; the drum break heard near the end of the piece’s thirteenth minute is particularly notable in this regard. The Amnon Wolman Ensemble, an eight-member group that includes the composer, is featured on this recording. They play with great skill and subtly, fluidly performing this stylistically challenging work.

Marilyns93/inCage, composed in 1993, is viewed by the composer not “as an opportunity to remember John [Cage] but as an opportunity to continue my discussions with him.” Mr. Wolman used the I Ching chart to arrange recordings of Monroe’s speech, in this case entire words such as “alone,” “love,” “kiss,” and “desire,” resulting in a “highly rhythmical, and non-evolutionary” effect. This work can optionally involve a live performance, though this recording is for tape alone. Marilyns93/inCage consists of a bass register motive, reiterated throughout the work, over which excerpts of Monroe’s voice and orchestral accompaniment from her songs are superimposed. These samples are employed almost continuously, lending the work an active, vibrant rhythmic character. Though short, they are notably longer than any recorded excerpts heard in this disc’s other compositions, allowing the listener to comprehend the sung text and more overtly connect the piece with its source material. Generally the piece has a nonlinear feel due to the high amount of repetition and, as noted by the composer, lack of evolution, though it ends with a lengthy section of primarily piano material that leaves the listener with a strong sense of contrast to what is heard throughout the majority of the work. As a consequence of the statistical procedures used during its composition, there are interesting variations in density throughout the work that alternately provide moments of high intensity and repose.

Overall, The Marilyn Series presents a compelling overview of Mr. Wolman’s work with a specific body of source sounds with which he has found significant resonance. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this disc is the variety of ways in which the composer engages with Monroe’s voice, creating three highly distinctive yet clearly related pieces. Reflections on Pedestals juxtaposes vocal samples with different types of orchestral material, continually placing Monroe’s voice in different musical contexts.  The Many Faces of Marilyn, V.2 presents a vastly different stylistic feel, due to the incorporation of improvisation, and also weds Monroe’s voice with aspects of rock music thereby connecting the piece with the broader popular culture sphere.  Finally, Marilyns93/inCage, of all three compositions, offers the clearest depiction of her voice, though in a unique, highly repetitive setting that resulted from Mr. Wolman’s use of chance procedures.  The Marilyn Series, particularly because of this diversity, is quite engaging, and well worth hearing.