Composer Scott Wollschleger and pianist Karl Larson create their own intimate world

Karl Larson (left) and Scott Wollschleger (right). Photo by Greg Manis.

“I hold the position that the world’s actually over, and so we’re actually making art in a world that’s ended,” said New York-based composer Scott Wollschleger over a recent Zoom call. “I think the pieces all came from that mindset.” He finds the idea of “world” to be an illusion, and by letting go of that illusion, he sees liberation. If the world has ended, he can create a new one.

This apocalyptic mindset comes through in much of Wollschleger’s music, which touches on topics like the bygone American Dream and animal extinctions. It also informs his compositional style, which purposely ignores the standard rules of musical structure. Instead of relying on age-old ideas of form to drive his compositions, he writes music that centers feeling, often using pop culture references to describe the vibe of the sound, not just the typical directions of western notation. These references, like “Bob Ross inflection” or “calm Sean Connery voice” or “Lou Reed moment,” serve as instructions.

Pianist Karl Larson, who’s been working with Wollschleger for seven years, calls these non sequiturs “Scott-isms.” When he learns this music, he keeps Wollschleger’s apocalyptic philosophy in the back of his mind, emulating the idea that the world’s over by giving his performance soft, rounded edges. Wollschleger leaves room for silence in his compositions; Larson likes to think of what may have filled those negative spaces before they were eroded away. And Wollschleger’s unique rehearsal notes help to drive his interpretations. 

Although the idea of the end of the world feels particularly timely during the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s one performance from 2018 that both Larson and Wollschleger remember as the moment their music truly came to life. It was a concert at the now-closed Brooklyn venue, Spectrum, where Larson played all of Wollschleger’s solo piano pieces. While Wollschleger watched Larson play on stage, the music they had created together finally began to feel “three-dimensional.”

“I remember seeing the recital as an audience member and hearing all my music and not feeling that I wrote it, which was kind of a nice feeling, to feel like I was observing my work, but also feeling that the works had taken on their own life, and within Karl’s hands that he shaped them,” Wollschleger said. “That moment, I was like ‘wow, we really, together, created these worlds.’”

The two musicians first met on a “blind date” set up by their mutual friend, the composer Chris Cerrone, who thought Larson might be a great fit for the piano concerto Wollschleger was starting to write. Both Larson and Wollschleger are from the midwest, and work mainly in contemporary classical music. 

“I had just played a huge Messiaen concert back in the midwest, and I’d been playing Feldman around a lot, and I think if you squish those two together…me and Scott meet in the middle,” Larson said over Zoom. Like Wollschleger and Larson, the composers Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman wrote patient music that occasionally touched on what would happen at the world’s end—Messiaen’s most famous piece is titled Quartet for the End of Time. So once Larson and Wollschleger met, it was natural that they found common ground.

Wollschleger has sought these intensive, collaborative partnerships with performers since his days as a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 2000s. He was part of an ensemble at the school, Red Light New Music, which brought together performers and composers to present new pieces. It was there that he met the cellist John Popham, who he’s worked with for 18 years. The first piece they made together, Cambrian Explosion, explored guttural sounds that Popham had never played before.

“I remember these moments of working with Scott on that piece, sitting in the hallway at Manhattan School and him taking my cello and trying to show me these sounds,” Popham said during a phone call. “He’s not a cellist, but he’s very much a composer who wants to sit with the instrument and find these very special sonic gems, whether it’s a repetitive pattern or a glitchy groove or rhythm or these super evocative sonorities.” 

He and Wollschleger went on to create a solo cello piece together. As Wollschleger wrote the music, he’d send Popham fragments of ideas, and Popham would record them and send them back to him. Once the piece was finished, the music had already passed through both of them.

“One thing I really admire about Scott is he takes those collaborative partnerships very seriously and really wants the performer’s approach to performance, their aesthetic values and priorities, to enter into that piece,” Popham said.

With Larson, the collaborative partnership has extended to concert halls and the recording studio, in New York and across the United States. Neither can count the number of hours they’ve spent making music together; they’ve created a wide variety of piano works, some short and intimate, others long and bombastic. In total, it’s enough to make three albums. The first of the trilogy, Dark Days, was released on April 23 on the eclectic contemporary classical music label, New Focus Recordings. The music they feature on Dark Days explores the more delicate side of their post-world vision.

“I wanted to focus on more intimate pieces that felt song-length…I wanted something that was a bit more reflective and introspective,” Wollschleger said of the pieces that make up Dark Days. “To me, it’s like, how do we connect in this very simple, deep way?”

In the context of COVID-19 pandemic isolation, darkness and introspection feel like appropriate topics to explore. And while both Wollschleger and Larson knew they wanted to put this collection of pieces together long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the album shed light on the inner-looking experience of quarantine.  

“I was seeing the reality around me through the lens of these pieces,” Larson said. The music had been his soundtrack for so long that he started to understand his inner, and outer worlds, through it. He describes Dark Days as “the winter solstice version of dark,” akin to the coziness of sitting by a fire on a snowy, winter day. It balances the iciness of the coldest months of the year with the comfort of intimate moments; each piece on the album encompasses its own little universe, transporting us deeper into our inner psyches.

“I often think of these pieces as almost like journals. They’re so personal. I’m thinking of these as memories of a forum or something that used to be,” Larson said.

Larson and Wollschleger will celebrate the release of Dark Days at 8pm on May 6 through a free livestream from Brooklyn’s Roulette Intermedium.