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 bluegreass 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 movment “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.