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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
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
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
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
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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