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Ira Byelick
American Record Guide, March 2011

…effective character pieces that blur the boundaries between classical and popular music and show fluency in both realms. If you are interested in crossovers between classical and American popular musical styles, this should interest you.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Oleg Ledeniov
MusicWeb International, March 2011

This is allegedly the first foray of American classical composer Bruce Wolosoff into the realm of popular music. This raid was really successful—so I wonder whether more will follow. The idea behind the project was not really revolutionary: Charles Wetherbee, the first violin of the Carpe Diem Quartet, approached Wolosoff and asked him to write for them some rock and jazz-based music. He also wanted Wolosoff to do it while still speaking in his own voice as composer. The solution Wolosoff found is definitely ingenious. As the composer tells us in the liner-notes, he based his pieces on the riffs and improvisations that he recorded while listening to the favorite songs of the Carpe Diem members. The “founding” songs themselves are unrecognizable in the result but you can make out the spirit and the style.

This spirit and style is, for the most part, very American, apparently reflecting the sources of Wolosoff’s inspiration. There are many flavors—from Gershwin, to rowdy Texan hoopla, to bluegrass, to pop rock. There are slowly swaying Celtic pastorals, round dances with the fiddle, energetic blues with a hard rhythmic bounce, wild hoedowns, nervous pizzicati and liquid ballads. Late Beethoven and Stephane Grappelli come to shake hands in Gershwin’s salon. There is plenty of variation and development and although the character of each piece is relatively constant, the mood changes between the pieces.

So, full marks for the idea! The realization is not so perfect—but maybe I should blame my high expectations. From Divertimenti I would expect, first and foremost, diversity. It is present here, but insufficient to sustain 18 pieces. Listening to 10 of them was great; listening to 14 made me wondering when the disc would end; and 18 was definitely too much. The last track is one of the best—fragile and loaded with feeling, it reaches the heart-aching depths of Piazzolla’s Milongas. I would not recommend listening to the entire disc in one pass: as with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, you should know when to have a break.

The playing of the Carpe Diem is resonant and assured. They perform with intensity and obvious enthusiasm. The sonic effects are executed perfectly, the pizzicato is sonorous, and the ensemble very harmonious. At times there is a certain “sameness of pressure” over long stretches of music, although I don’t know whether this is the composer’s or performers’ fault. The music is accessible and melodic, but subtlety is not one of its main features. Each part is more or less defined in its opening, and there are little surprises along the way.

This disc is really great fun on first listening. I am not sure it wears well over repetitive listening—maybe yes if you tend to listen “in the background”, or love such “fusion” projects. I expect, though, that a small selection could have a big success in the concert-hall. The recording quality is excellent; the acoustics are clean and realistic.

Donald Rosenberg
Gramophone, February 2011

Wolosoff’s perfectly formed miniatures demonstrate myriad influences

It was perhaps inevitable that Bruce Wolosoff would compose Songs Without Words, which is subtitled “18 Divertimenti for String Quartet”. The New York-born composer grew up playing in an assortment of bands whose stylistic bents would become essential components in his creative voice.

In Songs Without Words, performed on this joyous Naxos disc by the Carpe Diem Quartet, Wolosoff takes those styles and runs blissfully with them, charging through jazz, rock, blues and many other musical genres with what one might easily call unbridled glee.

These are not simulations of traditional tunes arranged for the unlikely ensemble of string quartet. They are beautifully crafted miniatures, each gazing back at an iconic style or artist, while taking inventive delight in the myriad colours and interactions that have long made this combination of stringed instruments so singular.

Amid nods to Beethoven and Stravinsky, Wolosoff sat at a synthesizer improvising on pop tunes before tweaking them into something entirely different from the originals. The results send the quartet through terrain and techniques not usually encountered in their day-to-day experience.

The members of the Ohio-based Carpe Diem Quartet, which commissioned the collection, live up to its name by seizing every opportunity to animate and caress Wolosoff’s diverting brainstorms. They slide and wail, soar and stomp. The big question: do you really want to hear the whole shebang in one sitting, as you can on this recording? It may depend on where you’re seated, but the quick answer is—yes.

Robert R. Reilly, January 2011

Bruce Wolosoff (b. 1955) is another unfamiliar name to me. He has written some 18 short string quartet pieces, called Songs without Words, that are in the chamber music spirit of Daugherty’s orchestral works. In other words, they are fun. He asked, “Is music with a happy aesthetic any less valid than dark, depressing, gnarly, and complicated ‘serious’ music?” His answer: “Imagine my new-found joy at the possibility of writing music that my friends might want to listen to for pleasure.” His friends, in this case, were the members of the Carpe Diem Quartet, who gave Wolosoff a list of their favorite songs—mostly from the world of pop—which he then wrote riffs on. I don’t recognize the original materials, as I only listen to classical music, but the results of Wolosoff’s variations are immensely enjoyable, unpretentious, and finely crafted, with a wonderfully broad range of expression. You can definitely dance to the funky hoedown in the fifth movement, Dancing on my Grave, and to much else here. Young Love is surely a slow dance. The Carpe Diem Quartet plays with zest on this New American Classics Naxos CD.

Garrett Schumann, December 2010

It is apparent from the beginning of Composer Bruce Wolosoff’s new NAXOS recording with the Carpe Diem Quartet—Songs without Words—that Mr Wolosoff’s music fits into the fringe of a larger trend in contemporary American music: the fusion of popular and traditional idioms. Whereas one player in this movement, Bang-On-A-Can, attempts to distill the visceral dynamism of punk rock with instrumental amplification and driving rhythms, Mr Wolosoff  is more transparent, and explicitly references jazz, blues and pop styles. What is also clear within the first couple tracks of this album is the genre of Songs without Words: divertimento. Mr Wolosoff’s sentimental melodies, circular harmonic progressions and repetitive structures update a brand of crowd-pleasing music dating back to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Along these lines, the liner notes describe Songs without Words as “amiably crossing musical borders”, and there are two principal musical regions Mr Wolosoff explores through the prism of the Carpe Diem Quartet: blues and classic pop rock.

The first of these allusions is communicated through pentatonic and blues-based melodies and the typifying inflections one would expect from a blues guitarist or bluegrass fiddle player. The movement “Dancing on my Grave” is probably the best example of this in the whole set, and is a traditional blues jam with a rocking bass line with improvisatory melodies above it, culminating with a classic blues bass progression. In contrast, “The Letter” is the purest rock ‘n’ roll movement, and uses the I—vi—IV—V harmonic progression common to 1950s bubblegum pop ballads to exemplify the other category of Mr Wolosoff’s musical references.

The remaining 16 movements in Songs without Words are somewhere in between these stylistic extremes. For example, “Cat Scratch Fever” references 1970s hard rock with its title and its use of parallel fifth ‘power chords’ in the cello’s ostinato bass line. Similarly, “Creepalicious” has much more abstract musical material than the other movements of the set but employs the same simple phrase structures, maintaining a strong connection to Mr Wolosoff’s popular influences while distinguishing the movement’s content from its neighbors.

Songs without Words not only connects to music outside the art music tradition, it echoes trends found in a variety of other American composers’ outputs, as well. For example, the pizzicato and blues lines of  the movement “Circle Dances” are reminiscent to the bluegrass reference in Aaron Jay Kernis’ Mozart en Route (1990) and the more general concept of repeated melodic ‘hooks’—these are present throughout Songs without Words—is also prevalent in the music of Michael Daugherty. Mr Wolosoff’s work also falls under the wide umbrella of the movement advocating a reconnection with tonality and clarification of harmonic language, which is supported by many American composers such as David Del Tredici, Kevin Puts, John Duffy and William Bolcom, whose is quoted on the CD’s back cover.

I give Mr Wolosoff and the Carpe Diem Quartet a lot of credit for wholeheartedly embracing the straightforward aspects of Songs without Words. While some composers who write materially similar music might hide behind the veil of artistic ineffability and claim that their work is more than just pretty music, Mr Wolosoff comes right out and states, “writing music that my friends might want to listen to for pleasure,” is his aim. The quartet’s performance is also quite remarkable insofar as the ubiquitous bluegrass, fiddle and blues references are delivered as convincingly and comfortably as any passage of Brahms or Haydn. On a grander scale, the stylistic and substantive limitations of Songs without Words do not prevent it from being relevant to larger trends in American concert music, which makes the album a very worthwhile experience for both naive and highly sophisticated listeners., December 2010

The Songs without Words by Bruce Wolosoff (born 1955) follow, of course, in the tradition of Mendelssohn, but they are subtitled “18 Divertimenti for String Quartet” and in fact constitute an hour-long series of string miniatures. Each has a title, but listeners will have to decide for themselves how well “Blues for Stravinsky,” “The Letter,” “Skunk,” “Creepalicious,” “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Getting Down” and the rest of the names fit the music (the relationship is clearer in some cases than others). The works are very well played by the Carpe Diem String Quartet, and offer an interesting mixture of pop and classical compositional techniques.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, August 2010

Now here is contemporary music which just wants to have fun. Composer Bruce Wolosoff has wandered into an ideological battleground with these Songs without Words, eighteen short and enjoyable works in jazz and rock styles but composed for string quartet, and he knows it. I therefore beg the reader’s forgiveness for my hubris and, before reviewing the music and performance, choose to review the idea itself.

“Popular” is a dirty word in the academies of music today. I recently asked a composer friend about the music of “populist” Michael Daugherty, who has penned a symphony about Superman [Metropolis Symphony, Naxos 8.559635] and works with titles like “UFO” [Naxos 8.559165] and “Niagara Falls,” and he told me Daugherty was “terrible. He’s a pop musician who thinks he is a composer.”…The academic institutions encourage this ideology by reminding students that composers of popular music are writing for the money, while composers of unpopular music are creating art, and never the twain shall meet. On one occasion, students with conservative taste at my local music school were actually discouraged from attending a recital of works receiving their premieres.

What are some of the adjectives used by our critical press to describe classical music written for fun? Well, “popular” is certainly one; it is useful because it expresses distaste for the uneducated masses who, presumably, will be lapping the stuff up. “Hollywood” is a word which comes up frequently in the discussion: where cinematic qualities in music once meant lavish orchestration, epic melodic lines and grand emotional sweep, “cinematic” now means formulaic, excessive or naïve beyond repair. “Entertaining” or “diverting” or “light” mean that the music is meant to tickle the ears, but demonstrates little craftsmanship, skill, or deeper meaning. The implication is that some composers possess an ability to “entertain” those uninitiated into contemporary sound-worlds, and that the music they produce is not a part of said sound-world.

Listen to Bruce Wolosoff’s hesitant entry into the verbal debate, in the last paragraph of his liner notes for this release: “Imagine my new-found joy at the possibility of writing music that my friends might want to listen to for pleasure.” It is sad that such a gifted, and incidentally very well-educated, composer would not discover until after age 50 that there was even a “possibility” of creating music to be heard “for pleasure.”

We seem to have forgotten something, haven’t we? Sometimes art is for something even nobler than education, contemplation, political critique, or catharsis: sometimes art is meant to be enjoyed. Beethoven wrote a Grosse Fuge and Six Bagatelles, too. Shostakovich gave us both the Eighth and Ninth symphonies. Mozart composed his Requiem and he also wrote The Magic Flute. Nobody would accuse Schubert’s Ave Maria of not being great just because it is so easy to enjoy…I suspect Bruce Wolosoff will come under criticism from a few colleagues for the Songs without Words. Wolosoff will be sharply critiqued for composing what he confesses is “rock-and jazz-based music.” He will be criticized, moreover, for writing some of these works while jamming out to rock ’n’ roll favorites. He will probably deserve some of the raised eyebrows he gets for giving these songs flippant names like “Dancing on My Grave”, “Creepalicious,” and “Cat Scratch Fever”. The Songs without Words are the first Wolosoff compositions to be released on compact disc, or even on digital download, which is how I acquired them. “What message”, some critic will want to know, “does this send? That the recording industry values frivolity and punishes seriousness?”

But the critics have actually been welcomed to the roast, by Wolosoff himself. His booklet notes ask a question: “This music is so much lighter and happier than my previous work. Did that imply that it’s not as serious? I worried what my composer colleagues would think. I wondered: is music with a happy aesthetic any less valid than dark, depressing, gnarly, and complicated ‘serious’ music?”

By putting the question in those words Wolosoff supplies the answer. He should not be worried what his composer colleagues would think, our instinct says. Then we realize that by worrying that in the first place Wolosoff has established (truthfully or not) that he is doing something different, possibly even heretical, here, by writing “happy” music, and that provoking the dismay of his colleagues may actually put the composer on the right side of matters. And even the hardest of hearts would have to confess that happiness does not make music “less valid” than sadder fare. Right?

Is it not sad that we even need to have this conversation? Is it not sad that Bruce Wolosoff, pupil of Joan Tower, friend of William Bolcom, graduate of the New England Conservatory, is worried about his colleagues’ reactions to “music with a happy aesthetic”?

My whole argument would go for naught if the Songs without Words were uninteresting, unimportant, or unenjoyable…but none are less than fun and a few are engaging indeed. The modesty of their achievements, though, might make this review a bit anticlimactic.

The first song, “The River,” is a laid-back blues tune whose bare chord progressions remind me of Gershwin’s second prelude. “Circle Dance” is an American Midwest folk round, the kind of easy melody one might hear on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. “Wound Up!” alternates between major and minor modes with the ease of a lost-love pop ballad. “Dancing on My Grave” is an old-fashioned all-out blues number and the Carpe Diem String Quartet really rock it. Blues comes back in pieces like “The Sidewalk Strut” and “After Hours.” “Creepalicious” lives up to its title, but not nearly as much, for what it is worth, as the music on the Smith Quartet’s album Ghost Stories. “Cat Scratch Fever” has a songlike second subject that reminds me of the nineteenth-century romantics. “Getting Down,” sassy and entirely pizzicato, is one of my favorites. “Survivor’s Truth” has echoes of bluegrass. “The Last Kiss” throws in references to Bach, if my ears do not deceive me.

To be sure, some of these “songs” are more interesting than others. “Circle Dance” is a compelling imitation of my native region’s folk music, but little more. “The Letter” repeats its attractive main tune a few too many times. Others pass out of memory as soon as they stop playing. The best, though, make this album a safe investment and a fun bit of listening.

The bottom line is that Wolosoff has indeed written popular tunes, but for the string quartet. Whether or not you will enjoy this depends on your ability to imagine a traditionally classical ensemble playing music which just is not classical, or only barely so. Wolosoff really is open to my friend’s criticism of pop musicians who think they are composers, although I have not heard any of his other work.

When I listen to living composers purely for a good cheer-up, I am probably more likely to turn to Naxos’s disc of concertos by Avner Dorman [8.559620], or Robert Aldridge’s new clarinet concerto [8.559667], but this album is not too far behind. Bruce Wolosoff’s song-cycle is ultimately more effective as an ideological declaration—fun is good—than it is as a work offered for repeated listening. Its pleasures are undeniable but unpretentious; it is not great music, but does not try to be. Sometimes, though, the most radical manifestos can arrive in the thinnest forms.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group