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Carlton Wilkinson’s Wild & Waffling World

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 6, 1999. All rights reserved.

The Arts Council of Princeton at 102 Witherspoon Street

is an ideal venue for the music of Carlton Wilkinson. With its gray,

WPA vintage walls, curtainless windows, and bare wood floor, the high-ceilinged

space is a place with no connotations, where a performance must be

taken on its own terms. Austere and undefined, the space invites the

performance to speak for itself. Wilkinson, who is producing a series

of four concerts at the Arts Council, plays with the room, using the

stage as a repository for technical equipment, and arranging plastic

chairs so that they face away from the stage, towards a platform on

which the performer appears. His editing of the space mimics his editing

of the materials that make up his compositions.

Conventionality plays a small role in Wilkinson’s music. In a telephone

interview from his home in Trenton, he talks about his taste for dissonance

and calls his music "jagged." (After hearing the first concert

of the series, I’m inclined to believe that he exaggerates the abrasive

quality of his work.)

The concert series, which takes place on the second Saturday of the

month, began in November with a concert that featured Sabrina Berger

playing a five-string electric violin. It is a powerful instrument

that covers the range of both violin and viola, with electronics coupled

to acoustic sound production. Berger and Wilkinson met in 1992 when

they were students at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau,


The November concert also included Berger’s premiere of Wilkinson’s

"My Undoing," a piece for five-string electric violin and

tape, where the musician used foot pedals to evoke such synthetic

sounds as glass breaking, and wind chimes, making the choice of sonority

a matter of her discretion. The piece incorporates text, sometimes

incongruously. The sentence, "I turn myself into an owl and soar

below her window" is followed by hoe-down music, evoking a square

dance. Is the piece Wilkinson’s any more when the performer controls

the sonorities, I wonder. "You could say the same thing about

Mozart," he replies. "Singers have been taking liberties for

hundreds of years." An audience of 30 was in attendance.

On Saturday, January 9, Paul Mimlitsch plays Chapman

Stick, an electric guitar-like instrument invented by Emmett Chapman

in the ’60s. Instead of strumming with the right hand, both hands

play the stick by tapping on the fingerboard. The sound is produced

electronically as the string touches the fret. The instrument has

no natural sound. Inventor Chapman views it as a combination of guitar,

piano, bass, and drums. Joined by percussionist Jody Janetta, the

duo will perform the premiere of Wilkinson’s "Crazy Baby/13 Loops,"

as well as compositions and improvisations of their own.

On Saturday, February 13, Deirdre McGrail performs on synthesizer

and Wilbo Wright performs on bass. Wilkinson describes McGrail as

a performance artist with a painting background who "works with

junk technology — synthesizers, drum machines, and other instruments

that came and went and were discarded by music stores which sold them

off cheap."

Guitarist Stanley Alexandrowicz solos in the final concert of the

series on Saturday, March 13, in a program of primarily acoustic music.

The program includes two recent compositions by Wilkinson, "Division

by Four Moons" for solo guitar, and "Black Mirror," for

solo tape.

Wilkinson, 40, was born in Bristol, Pennsylvania, the fourth of five

children. He has two brothers and two sisters. "There was always

music in the house," he says. "My father sang in church choir

and knew how to play a little piano. Everybody had to take piano lessons.

I was the only one who stuck with it, although my oldest sister can

still play the piano when she feels like it. All of my brothers and

sisters, except for my oldest sister, play guitar. I was the only

classical musician."

As a teenager, Wilkinson balanced his classical piano playing with

playing in rock bands and with writing what he calls "naive poetry."

After graduating from high school, he worked as a rock band musician

until, at the age of 23, he entered Trenton State College, now the

College of New Jersey.

"I was not sure that I would major in music when I entered,"

he says, "but that was the way I got in." There he found that

his interest in music grew. "Majoring in music opened a door,"

he says. "I encountered traditional repertoire that I knew nothing

about." Wilkinson studied composition with Laurence Taylor, who

introduced him to 20th-century music through his own firsthand experience.

"He’s a wonderful man," Wilkinson says today, "who has

met many composers, and played in many orchestras. His practical advice

about composing carries a certain amount of authority. It was easy

to adopt him as father figure — at least in the field of music.

He was very stern and wouldn’t let me get away with anything. That

was very helpful in the end."

Taylor’s greatest contribution, Wilkinson says, was to introduce him

to a contemporary repertoire. "Taylor presented cutting-edge things

in a way that made me come to terms with them, that I felt bound to

figure them out. He changed my approach. I had tended to think of

myself as a free thinker in music, and wide open, but Ives, Boulez,

Cage, and Varese were all new to me."

Wilkinson went on to obtain a Ph.D. in music from Rutgers. "My

academic training was useful to me," he says. "For my thesis

I wrote a five-movement symphony and analyzed it, putting it into

its historical context. I asserted that the symphony is a dead art

form. It was paradoxical, since I had just written one. I still feel

that way. It’s just nostalgia that causes us to write symphonies now,

but you can’t go home again. That’s not to say that you can’t write

symphonic music, but the traditional symphony is not relevant to the

current musical climate."

At Rutgers Wilkinson worked with both Robert Moevs and Charles Wuorinen.

About Moevs, Wilkinson says: "He freed my musical vocabulary,

especially in the realm of rhythm, and taught me how to apply what

I knew about counterpoint to the atonal realm." In other words,

from Moevs Wilkinson learned how to use traditional practices dating

from the time of Bach for composing music in a contemporary style

that is not rooted in a particular key.

Wuorinen’s biggest influence, says Wilkinson, was in

the realm of "orchestration and working methods — how you

go about composing. It’s not so much that anybody can teach you one

way to write a composition, but a teacher can open you up to possible

ways to do it. Some people, like Debussy, think that composition can’t

be taught. But that’s a cop-out. It can be taught, and has to be taught.

All composers bring in their own vocabulary and their own experience.

But there’s an enormous amount that a teacher can do to guide a young

composer into a place where he can develop a mature voice. These may

be very practical things like analyzing the scores of masters or handing

out regular exercises in counterpoint and composition. These things

develop an intuitive sense for music, like journalism develops an

intuitive sense for words. The more you do it, the more that intuitive

love of the way those sounds combine is developed."

Wilkinson’s compositions include orchestral, choral, chamber, and

solo music. His music has been performed in South Korea, Italy, France,

and Germany, as well as in the United States. Recently his 20-minute

multimedia work, "The Sorting Moon," for narrator, computer,

saxophone, guitars, percussion, dancer, video, and art work, was commissioned

and premiered by the Composers Guild of New Jersey. Since 1991 he

has been active in the Trenton Avant Garde Festival, the no-holds-barred

experimental arts festival that takes place each year on the Saturday

following Labor Day.

Wilkinson frequently incorporates text into his compositions,

attributing this use of words to his experience as a journalist. "I’m

totally bound up with that now," he says. "For more than a

year, all of my work has involved text. The way I use it is hard to

say. I’m not looking specifically for meaning. In `Numbers and Legends’

I use snippets from various sources — classical literature, comedy

albums, science texts, and music history texts — carved up arbitrarily,

then strung together in narration. The fact that the subject matter

is not continuous is important to the atmosphere I tried to create.

The numbers presented in mythical way, as if they were an occult power.

"The initial impetus for including words was very practical,"

Wilkinson says. "I have been a journalist since I started writing

a column for the Trenton State college newspaper in 1985." Since

then Wilkinson has worked for various newspapers including 10 years

with the Times of Trenton. His current day job is with Dow Jones as

an editor and writer for its online product, Dow Jones Interactive,

and he continues to write for the Times.

"I developed an intuitive relationship with words," Wilkinson

says. "I recognize their importance in delineating ideas, and

I’m sensitive to the flow of language. Using words becomes almost

magical, and you get a sense for the correct rhythm and the correct

choice of word. Sometimes you can be correct in your word choice,

but the sentence comes out clumsy.

Up to this point, says Wilkinson, a major recurring element in his

music is harmonic similarity. "I developed a love of clashing

sounds when I was still an undergraduate that has never gone away.

But I’ve reconciled myself to the harmonic series. There are natural

resonances in music. When you’re writing dissonant music, you avoid

them. But I’m reintroducing triads in music, and I’ll probably write

tonal things again." If that happens Wilkinson’s pieces will return

to the harmonic language of Mozart and Schubert.

Wilkinson calls the development of his style of composition, "a

struggle to realize the sound that I heard in my head since I was

12. As a consequence, there’s a huge body of work I did prior to 1990

that I’m not particularly proud of. When I look back on it I think

that every work was a failure but I was getting closer and closer

to the mark. In fact, playing through old work, I’m sometimes surprised

how close I got to the mark."

Does Wilkinson revisit his earlier work often? "Every now and

then," he says, "I have to clean the closet, and I end up

sight-reading what I find. I probably should throw out more stuff.

When I was 21, I burned a lot of poetry and music. You have to take

a stand." Master of paradox, ambiguity, and the non-sequitur,

Wilkinson summarizes his firmly waffling position: "I would want

to get rid of a lot of the stuff for myself. But maybe I won’t do


— Elaine Strauss

The Music of Carlton Wilkinson, Arts Council of Princeton,

102 Witherspoon, 609-924-8777. $10. Paul Mimlitsch performs on Chapman

Stick and tape on Saturday, January 9, 7:30 p.m. Deirdre McGrail

and Wilbo Wright are featured on Saturday, February 14, 7:30 p.m.;

and classical guitarist Stanley Alexandrowicz performs Saturday,

March 13, 7:30 p.m.

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