(photograph by Ian Evenstar)
As published in THE DOUBLE REED, VOL. 35, No.4, 2012 (with permission of the International Double Reed Society – IDRS)
Foreword from the Bassoon Editor of the IDRS, Ryan D. Romine
One of our goals as editors of The Double Reed is to continually expand our already wonderfully varied pool of skilled and tal- ented authors. By way of achieving this goal, we have begun inviting established experts and unique voices in the double reed world to write about their lives and careers—becoming part of a series of “Invited Articles,” with [ideally] one such article printed in each of the year’s four editions.
When considering who to approach for the very first Invited Article, I thought back to a CD I had recently reviewed, titled Short Stories: More Groove- Oriented Chamber Music. Aside from the excellent quality, I remembered being struck by how cool it must be to have both a bassoonist and a composer in the same household. You see, the composer on this album, Gernot Wolfgang, and the bassoonist on the album, Judith Farmer, are actually two sides of a musical couple—a couple that has been creating and sharing bassoon-related music with the world since they first met over twenty years ago.
As we had never actually met, I reached out to both Judith and Gernot via email with some questions and was immediately charmed by their openness and warmth as well as their dedication to their art. What was initally conceived of as an article turned into a more relaxed internet interview—and rather than force it into a more rigid structure, we decided that this, our first Invited “Article,” would actually be best presented in the original conversational tone that already so wonderfully reflects the nature of these two excellent artists.
How did you meet?
JF: I studied in Vienna with former principal bassoonist of the Vienna Philharmonic and IDRS Honorary Member Karl Oehlberger and subsequently won a first bassoon position with the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Gernot and I were introduced by a former student of mine, bassoonist Angelika Riedl, in Vienna on a blind date! Gernot had just returned from spending two years on a Fulbright at Berklee School of Music in Boston.
So, looking back over the years together, how has sharing so much of your lives affected your views, outlook, and career?
JF: I would say for my part that playing Gernot’s music has encouraged me to focus even more on seeking out opportunities to play chamber music. Chamber music has always been a passion of mine and with so many great pieces to play, I am always on the lookout for more chances to perform them! (To date, Gernot has written over fifteen pieces including the bassoon!)
GW: When I met Judy I was primarily a jazzer, playing guitar and writing original music for a jazz quartet that I was working with. I was also developing an interest in writing film music.
Judy had the job of principal bassoonist with the Vienna-based Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSO), which at the time programmed a lot of contemporary concert music. By attending numerous of her orchestra’s concerts I was introduced to the world of new music and “caught the bug”.
In terms of life philosophy, we have very similar opinions about most everything relating to the “big picture”. When it comes to details though, we almost comically disagree about practically everything …
Being married to Judy has definitely helped shape my concert music career. She often programs bassoon pieces of mine, thereby giving them excellent exposure. Also, through her I have met a great number of outstanding classically trained musicians with whom I have been able to develop working relationships.
What are the benefits of working together?
JF: See the above!
GW: In-house proving grounds for music written for the bassoon. Agonizing about certain passages is replaced by an informal, “Hey, does this work?” Also, as I mentioned earlier, my music with bassoon is certainly getting better exposure due to her. Working on projects together (planning concerts, recordings, going to festivals together to give master classes) creates a bond, these activities have become part of “our thing” …
Does sharing a creative experience produce noticeable stress?
JF: Quite the opposite, I would say. I feel that we are at our best when we are collaborating on a project, be it preparing a new piece for performance or getting ready for a recording.
GW: Not often. We largely agree about artistic decisions, the differences pop up during discussions about how to organize a specific musical project (concert, recording etc.). But the tensions arise only because both of us aim for the best possible result. In that light, the occasional argument is beneficial and helps us define what we’re really looking for.
So, do you set creative/emotional boundaries when collaborating?
JF: I am not aware of any. On a purely technical front, I can remember only one occasion where I had to tell Gernot that a particular passage really didn’t work on the bassoon.
GW: Not really. I think we both very much respect the other person’s expertise. Coming from jazz I know that there is more than just one way of making a piece of music sound good. I try to be thorough in my written performance instructions, but beyond that I aim not to micro-manage Judy’s (or other instrumentalists’) performances. I am very sensitive when it comes to rhythm, so that’s an area in which I might be most likely to offer comments.
When I’m in the middle of writing a piece, I frequently play my electronic mockups (using sampled sounds) for Judy, just to see if I’m on the right track. Her opinion is important to me, and she’s not shy about sharing it with me either! During that phase, when the piece is still unfinished, I’m emotionally rather vulnerable, and a critical word coming from the resident bassoonist can occasionally bruise the composer’s ego … but that’s fine and it’s not only her opinion that is valuable! When you listen to a piece of music together with another person you tend to listen with the other person’s ears—that experience provides perspective and is enormously helpful!
Speaking of collaboration, the two of you have been quite visible in the past few years through your excellent recordings. How did you go about funding them?
JF + GW: Both of our recordings were largely self-financed. In addition, for the first one – Common Ground (Albany Records) – we got a grant from Gernot’s Austrian home state of Tyrol. For the second one – Short Stories (also Albany Records) – we received a Subito Grant from the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum.
So, what role does recording have in the furthering of your art?
JF: Preparing for the two CDs we’ve made (Common Ground and Short Stories) pushed us to polish our art to the best of our abilities. As Gernot likes to say, you have to be comfortable listening to the results five and ten years from now.
GW: I became a musician and composer because I wanted to share my musical thoughts and ideas with others. Recordings are the most effective way to reach out to as many potential audiences as possible.
Ideally, I’d like every single music lover to know about my work. Very specifically, in terms of propagating and marketing my work, target audiences for my recordings include conductors, ensembles, individual instrumentalists and promoters of concert series (in the hope that they might be interested in programming/performing my compositions, and commission pieces); critics and radio hosts (who might be able to spread the word); record companies (who might become interested in collaborating on future projects); and professors and lecturers at universities, colleges and conservatories (who might use my compositions for educational purposes).
This doesn’t mean that while composing I am concerned with trying to please members of the above-mentioned groups. But once the music is written and recorded, they are of special interest to me.
Recording makes it possible to create a definitive representation of a piece of music. A recording that I am happy with helps brings “closure” to a composition. From there on I feel that I don’t have to think too much about this piece anymore, since it’s now “out there” in a form that I approve of. This frees me up and lets me move on easily to other musical projects. Business has been taken care of and loose ends are tied up.
Do you write music for the individual? For the instrument? For the public? For yourself?
JF: I’ll leave this one to Gernot!
GW: I write what I would like to hear from an ensemble if I were sitting in the audience in anticipation of a performance. If I know the performers I’m writing for, reminding myself of their sounds, their individual phrasing and their favorite kinds of music (I try to find that out from them) will help create a valuable point of departure for the piece. Whether I am familiar with the players or not, I try to write music that first pleases me—meaning, music that I completely understand both intellectually and emotionally. Writing for an audience is always part of the equation, but not consciously so. As humans, our individual psychological makeups are not hugely different from each other. We all experience basic emotions and conditions such as love, joy, satisfaction, fear, worries, sadness etc. Therefore, I feel that if I am able to understand what I write, others will as well.
How do you view the future of bassoon playing and composition for bassoon?
JF: In my teaching at USC I encourage young people to be increasingly inventive when it comes to finding ways of making a living in music. As for the future of composing for the bassoon, I would say the sky’s the limit!
GW: Nobody ever seems to get tired of listening to the bassoon. String instruments have the same kind of quality. So, especially in chamber music settings in which the bassoon is clearly audible most of the time, I think that the instrument has the opportunity of making new friends at every single performance. An audience reaction that I have witnessed over and over is: “Oh, I had no idea how beautiful the bassoon sounds!”
Speaking from the point of view of what the bassoon has to offer, I see a bright future for the instrument. The challenge is sufficient exposure. Many fine pieces written for the bassoon exist in a “programming ghetto,” since a majority of concert organizers feel best about presenting sure-fire instrumentations that involve strings, piano and better-known woodwind instruments such as flute and clarinet. They feel insecure about the drawing power of the bassoon. If they only knew… There is a significant job to be done, both by the players and by the composers. Let’s face it—all of us who play or write for the bassoon would like to get the attention of the larger kinds of audiences who typically attend string quartet concerts or solo piano recitals!
JF: Or football games!
GW: However, music written for the bassoon is often relegated to woodwinds-only concert programs, which frequently attract only smaller crowds. There are of course exceptions. Ensembles such as the Imani Winds do a terrific job in presenting high quality woodwind chamber music in an extremely attractive form, with significant audience response. But there is still a large pool of concert-goers out there who would fall in love with the bassoon if they just had a chance to get to know it better – so we need to expand our circles!
For players this would mean including—or lobbying for the inclusion of—pieces of mixed instrumentation in chamber music programs. Combinations of bassoon with strings might attract both woodwind aficionados and audiences interested in string chamber music. This approach could increase concert attendance and help raise awareness about the bassoon.
For composers, the challenge would be to write music for the bassoon that transcends the instrument. I think that part of the reason why audiences for piano and string music are comparatively larger is that a significant number of pieces in those repertoires achieve just that—the audience ends up experiencing powerful music without always being consciously aware of the individual instruments producing the sound. So my recommendation to a fellow composer would be: “Don’t be a bassoon specialist, instead aim for writing music that sounds good when played on the bassoon!”
Semantics, one could say, but the difference is in the composer’s approach. Instead of getting too involved in the fine points of bassoon playing technique, write gestures, rhythms, melodies that you know will present the instrument in the best possible light.
A good way for me to learn what “sounds good” on the bassoon—or any given instrument, for that matter—has been attending as many live performances as possible and taking mental notes about any attractive sounding instrumental devices. For instance, determining the registers in which fast arpeggios are most effective and in which staccato sounds great. Learning about the range best used for lyrical, soulful melodies, and so on. Whenever there is a musical event that stands out to me, and I’m unable to analyze it just by listening, I try to find a score afterwards to see what’s going on.
Taking note of anything sounding attractive will create an ever growing internal library of “good sounding” devices from which the composer can draw at will. And often something that sounds good will lie reasonably well on the instrument.
For me, a great example of a piece with bassoon which transcends its instrumentation is the Poulenc Trio. When listening to it my mind is less occupied with the fact that the ensemble includes two double reed instruments, rather I’m captivated by the great music that Poulenc wrote.
Do you have any advice to other composers and players?
JF: Follow your calling! We all know that there are more and more people vying for fewer and fewer traditional jobs. Players just starting out are going to have to be resourceful and creative and combine their talents in new and varied ways.
GW: See under “How do you view the future of bassoon playing and composition for bassoon?”
Speaking of being creative and combining talents, what are the financial implications of two musicians working so closely together?
JF: We’ve been lucky being able to make a living doing what we love to do. We often joke that we took two of the least lucrative aspects of the music business (chamber music and jazz) and combined them!
GW: Ironically, the field in which Judy and I cooperate the most (which is chamber music) is the one that generates the least amount of money … if I include our recording expenses we’re talking more about an investment in an activity that we both love.
Every now and then we end up working on the same film score—Judy playing the bassoon and I as an orchestrator—and it’s very nice to be able to carpool to the recording sessions and “hang professionally”!
JF: And it helps finance my chamber music habit!
Do you think your music/relationship would be somehow different if you were on the East coast instead of in California?
JF: I’m not sure I can give a qualified answer to this question. We have spent a fair amount of time in New York together and always find it stimulating!
GW: I could probably make a little more accurate comparison to the European scene than to the East Coast one. There is a great deal of acceptance here in Los Angeles regarding a multitude of different musical styles, which I haven’t experienced elsewhere and which I find very liberating. Also, certain film music-related opportunities exist here in LA that are not available in other parts of the world. So, in terms of the kind of work that both of us are involved in, yes, the combined makeup of each of our musical activities would look different elsewhere.
Also, despite the fact that Doblinger, my publisher, is based in Vienna and provides a very good presence for me there I get significantly more performances of my concert music in this country than in I do in Europe. This may have stylistic reasons, since the jazz influence in my music seems to speak naturally to many American musicians and audiences who have grown up listening to the Great American Song Book or other groove-oriented music. While there is great interest and admiration for jazz per se in Europe, its use in concert music is still too often seen as a kind of gimmick. Listening to, loving and understanding jazz is not so much part of the background of many European new music aficionados. Their kinship to “experimental” concert music—however one wants to define that term—seems stronger and more sincere. [With this greater separation in Europe between jazz and concert music,] I suspect that if I lived in Europe I would perhaps be a little more involved in jazz, and less active in concert music. But who knows?!
So, how does the musical impulse impact your personal lives?
JF: I feel we’ve learned a lot from each other. When we first met I was astonished at how different our musical worlds were and how little they overlapped! I have gained a greater appreciation of jazz and I think Gernot has deepened his understanding of contemporary classical music.
GW: That’s hard to answer since I don’t feel a strong separation between musical and personal life—each influences and inspires the other!
In closing, do have any anecdotes that you feel especially reflect the best qualities (or difficulties) of the collaborative relationship?
JF: As Gernot mentioned, when I was in the Austrian Radio Orchestra we played a lot of new music. This was often heavily orchestrated and frequently not very gratifying to play as a bassoonist. In response to my complaints, when he composed Continuum III for Bassoon and Chamber Orchestra, Gernot took it on as a challenge to write in a way that always let the bassoon come out easily.
Also, former principal bassoonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, David Breidenthal, commissioned Gernot to write cadenzas for the Mozart Concerto. They start out quite traditionally and then move into a more jazzy realm. When I performed the concerto a few years ago with the San Luis Obisbo Symphony I used these. I received numerous compliments afterwards on “my improvisations!”
Judith Farmer is currently principal bassoonist of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, a member of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and the Long Beach Symphony. She also teaches bassoon at the University of Southern California and is an avid chamber musician. Her recordings as a soloist and chamber musician are available on Albany, Ex-House and Orfeo Records.
She received her education at Indiana University and at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Vienna. From 1984-1996 she was principal bassoonist of the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra and also performed and toured regularly with the Camerata Academica Salzburg under Sandor Vegh and with numerous chamber music ensembles in Vienna.
Born in Bad Gastein, Austria in 1957, Gernot Wolfgang currently resides in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of the program “Scoring for Motion Pictures and TV” at USC, and holds degrees from Berklee College of Music in Boston and the University of Music in Graz, Austria.
Gernot has received commissions from individuals and organizations such as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic principals Michele Zukovsky (clarinet), Joanne Pearce Martin (keyboard) and David Breidenthal (bassoon), the Verdehr Trio & Michigan State University, Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society, Cal State Northridge, Music from Salem (NY), Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra flutist Susan Greenberg, the Jazz Festival of the European Broadcasting Union, Oesterreichische Kammersymphoniker (Austria), Tiroler Kammerorchester InnStrumenti (Austria), Jazz Bigband Graz (Austria), and the Los Angeles based chamber music series Pacific Serenades and Chamber Music Palisades.
Gernot Wolfgang is active in the film and TV music industry as a composer and orchestrator. He is currently artistic advisor to “HEAR NOW – A Festival of New Music by Contemporary Los Angeles Composers” and the Beverly Hills International Music Festival.
Albany Records has released two CDs of Gernot’s chamber music: Short Stories (TROY1248, 2011) and Common Ground (TROY854, 2006). His music can also be heard on the Polygram, Universal, Koch, Navona, Crystal Records, Yarlung, Capstone and Extraplatte labels.