American Composer: Scott Wheeler

By Kyle Gann

Some composers do not at all resemble their music. Bruckner was a timid, socially inept man who wrote propulsive, overpowering symphonies. Morton Feldman was a big, brusque, boastful man who wrote dreamy music of the utmost delicacy. But Scott Wheeler's music seems exactly like him: quiet, precise, cautious, articulate. It feels like mercurial music, but the feeling is deceptive, because it really doesn't flit from one idea to another. He can write scherzos as weightless as Berlioz's "Queen Mab," but with an intensity of focus that the volatile Berlioz wouldn't have understood. A second idea in one of Wheeler's chamber music movements is hinted at long before it takes center stage. His music husbands its resources with a remarkable effortlessness. You expect it to lead to a grand statement, but sometime before the double bar you realize, in retrospect, that the tenative introductory comments were in fact the gist of the matter. It is an observation whispered to you at a cocktail party, a casual interaction that turned out more significant than you suspected at the time. It is music of elegant understatement.

Wheeler, a 55-year-old, Washington D.C.-born Bostonite who teaches at Emerson College, is one of those composers who kee≠ps up a schedule of commissions and performances that any composer might envy, though without ever quite becoming one of the big names. Even his position in Boston musical life seems an expression of his character. In a city famous for its musical academia, he is not at one of the big departments whose hiring of a composer alone can make his reputation, but he lives at the center and is a shrewd observer of the town's musical life. And although the quiet polish of his music fits well in Boston, he is neither one of the heavy contrapuntalists (Walter Piston, Quincy Porter) nor one of the brow-furrowed academics (Kirchner, Davidovsky) on which New England musical tradition prides itself. Instead, he possesses a theatrical sensibility which expresses itself in the linear fluidity of his chamber music, as well as in his part-time directorship of Emerson's theater music program.

In fact, Wheeler's most public successes have been operas. One, The Construction of Boston, was written in 1988 to words of Kenneth Koch, and is sometimes described as a "dramatic cantata"; the other, Democracy, was completed in 2002 to a libretto by Romulus Linney, based on novels by Henry James. (Wheeler has written a few childrens' operas as well.) Democracy was commissioned and premiered (in 2005) by Placido Domingo's Washington National Opera, which brought considerable recognition of Wheeler's theatrical talents, and, gratifyingly enough, in his home town. And the success continues, for Wheeler was recently among a handful of composers (along with Rufus Wainwright and Michael Torke) chosen by the Metropolitan Opera to write a new work for a workshop situation.

Naturally, Wheeler's theater music is more extroverted than his chamber work. Aside from study with Arthur Berger and Peter Maxwell Davies, he was a protege of Virgil Thomson (and, in fact, introduced me to that great man a few months before he died, enabling me to spendan evening with one of my critical and compositional heroes). It's been noted that Wheeler's operatic style owes something to Thomson: a lyrical immedicacy, transparent text-setting, and a tendency to fall into marches, hymn-tunes, dances, and ballads when the evocation of a particular place demands it.

His chamber music is marked by the same linear fluidity, but is less obvious and more abstract. Rather than command, it seems to tease the ear into listening. Shadow Bands for string trio of 1990, for instance, starts with offhandedly arrhythmic unison chords for the three players, occasionally switching to another chord to heighten the tension, then dropping back. It seems almost improvisatory, but an astute listener might notice the same rhythmic patterns being recycled; there is generally more structure to a Wheeler work than is apparent. Eventually, over the nervous chords, the violin ventures a high melody; just a casual two notes at first, then three, and by the time that melody takes over, the transition has been so gradual that you hardly noticed it. The ease with which Wheeler slides from one idea to another might almost be called postminimalist. And yet the rhythm is irregularly syncopated, not pulse-based, and I suppose one must technically call the music atonal, though the sonorities are not dissonant, and reiterate enough to create stability.

Dragon Mountain for piano quartet (1992-3) uses materials from Wheeler's childrens' opera The Little Dragon, which was commissioned by the Indiana ensemble Tales and Scales. As a consequence the music is more firmly tonal, but the tunes are greatly abstracted, bounced around among the instruments with delicate timbral variety. Piano notes fade into violin harmonics, pizzicatos segue into repeated piano notes, and the entire texture is marked by a lightness and timbral fusion that one wouldn't normally associate with the piano quartet. Camera Dances for piano trio (1996/99), its title a reference to the Baroque sonata da camera, begins grounded in dominant seventh chords from different keys at once - with more than a little kinship to parts of The Rite of Spring, but not nearly so menacing.

Amidst the mercurial variety, there are moments in Wheeler's music where the bubbling tension quietly gives way to a release of tender emotion, and one such is the entire third movement of Camera Dances. The violin and cello relax into haunting, 3/4, A-minor counterpoint in simple quarter- and half-notes as the piano weaves grace note lines around them in other keys. In the second half, piano and strings switch roles, for enchanting effect. There are also entire works in which Wheeler's tender mode takes over, like Singing to Sleep (1984), a set of lullabies. The homepsun vernacular of his operas, the raised-eyebrow secretiveness of his string writing, and the occasional forays into restrained but heartfelt melancholy - these are the three sides of the triangle within which Wheeler's music operates. It is not a musical personality to yell for attention, but, entre nous, it certainly rewards it.

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