Composers Who Matter: Wolf Edwards
Wolf Edwards - "ICHOS"
There’s a deep fault line in contemporary classical music between radicalism and complacency. Contemporary classical music can be dense, complex, and iconoclastic, but it also derives from an elite European tradition, and many of its leading composers lead comfortable lives as professors.
The young Canadian composer Wolf Edwards navigates that fault line in an unusual way, by regarding academia with suspicion and by writing noisy, gritty and uncompromising music that rejects the tidiness and balance that characterize so much of modern composition.
"When I walk into a room to work with a group [of musicians] for the first time, they have smirks on their faces, as if to say, ‘Oh, here’s that composer who just makes noise,’" says Edwards, good-naturedly. "On the surface level, I want a sort of violence and constant tension."
The "violence" in Edwards’ music is closely connected to the work of the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Xenakis utilized structural ideas from architecture and engineering, but the most important characteristics of his music were its forcefulness and brutality, both surely related to Xenakis’ stint as a soldier with the Greek Resistance during World War II. Like Xenakis’, Edwards’ music has a certainty that can be alarming, if not outright frightening. It does not attempt to charm you, or even to impress you; it doesn’t meet you on your terms, but rather commands you to wrestle with its own.
Like Xenakis’, the violence in Edwards’ music has something to do with the composer’s politics. Edwards’ political activities are less physically dangerous than Xenakis’ were, but he’s committed to them all the same. He tours frequently with his anarchist hardcore band Iskra, usually playing in small DIY venues.
Edwards denies any aesthetic connection between his band and his classical music but admits that "there is a connection in attitude that can’t really be avoided." That’s surely true – there’s no sonic relationship between them other than that both are harsh and dissonant, but both are overtly angry, and they share a willingness to engage with seemingly intractable problems.
Edwards’ classical music is informed by his anarchist views. "When I write music I am thinking politically from an anarchist point of view," he says. "I get criticized mostly for my ‘lack of form,’ but in fact my work has more form. The music is much more complex formally. It’s not ABA, ABBA, or AABA or any other combination of As and Bs or even Cs. My forms are more likely to be closer to ABCD a/c EB b/a, or whatever, and may continue as long as I am able to write."
Edwards’ experience is unsurprising; since modern classical music is now rooted in the university, composers are often criticized for doing things that aren’t easy to talk about. Edwards says that his approach to form is "irrational if one thinks in simple structures, [but] entirely rational if one thinks from a realistic point of view. Things don’t work when they are heavily regulated or fanatically controlled... The grand structures in which we are forced to live simply do not work."
Still, any classical composer has to rely on institutions somewhat, and Edwards has worked with a number of big-name classical ensembles, including Ensemble Contemporain, the Arditti Quartet and the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. Might he be interested in avoiding the usual channels and taking his classical music on tour?
"I would love to meet classical musicians who would be willing to do a DIY tour. It could be done. I could set it up myself," muses Edwards. "You’d need a very dedicated ensemble, that is they’d have to expect little payment and be willing to play anywhere and under any conditions. I think if you had strong musicians and interesting music it would go over very well in the same [way as the music] I perform with Iskra."
All of Edwards’ favorite composers stand at some tangent to the mainstream of contemporary classical music. Those who were a part of that mainstream in some sense (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Helmut Lachenmann, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gerard Grisey) ruffled plenty of feathers. Then there’s Xenakis, who had a non-traditional education, wrote shockingly impolite music, and avoided the complex serialist methods of organizing music in favor of complex methods of his own. But perhaps the two most telling names he mentions are those of Chaya Czernowin and Ana-Maria Avram.
"I relate a lot to [Czernowin’s] aesthetic choices," Edwards notes. "Although she is a far better composer than I, we make a lot of similar choices. She’s from Israel and writes in a very bleak style, which is politically charged. That’s my kind of thing."
As for Avram, Edwards describes her music as "noisy and ‘real’-sounding." He doesn’t elaborate on what he means by "‘real’-sounding." I don’t mean to put words in his mouth, but I can’t help but guess this has something to do with his punk background. Recordings of Avram’s music tend to be loud, squealing and lo-fi; unlike most composers of classical music, she doesn’t seem to aim to make every moment sound perfect, instead preferring a loose, rough-and-ready approach. She and composing ally Iancu Dumitrescu are as close to hardcore punk as classical music gets.
Edwards will likely continue to work both inside and outside the system. He continues to accept invitations to write for name ensembles and this year, in his mid-30s, he’s teaching composition in a university for the first time. (He’s uneasy about his prospects there: "I look pretty different, which doesn’t help relations," he jokes.) He’s also playing with Iskra and running a record store in his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.
His music, though, is that of a determined outsider. ICHOS, performed on the MP3 above by the Arditti String Quartet, burbles and simmers, accumulating tension through the use of scratch tones and eerie whistling noises.
By Charlie Wilmoth