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Quality time with a few of Joan Wildman’s recordings

A deeper look at some highlights from across a varied, decades-long discography.

Image of “Under The Silver Globe” cassette insert courtesy of Mills Music Library at UW-Madison.

This is the second in a short series of articles Tone Madison is running about the recorded works of pianist Joan Wildman. Read our previous piece on Wildman’s elusive discography, and check back soon for a collection of remembrances of what it was like to collaborate with Wildman.

Joan Wildman played, composed, and collaborated with a relentless curiosity right up until her death in 2020 at the age of 82. The pianist and longtime UW-Madison music professor had deep foundations in jazz and classical music, but also created her own approaches to electronic and experimental music, programming custom sounds into her Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and splicing together genres and traditions as she pleased. 

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Those who got to see Wildman perform live, or better yet play or study with her, don’t need recordings to understand that she was a masterful improviser and uncanny composer. That said, her recordings deserve wider recognition. For the moment, many of them are not easy for listeners to access. Wildman’s entirely self-released discography spans a range of settings and approaches. This body of work is so varied and accomplished that it’d be tough to really do it justice in the space of one article. To give you at least some sense of Wildman’s range, I’ve picked out a few key moments from across the decades.

“Mumble Mombo”

Of the three albums Wildman recorded in a trio with bassist Hans Sturm and percussionist Dane Richeson, 1989’s Under The Silver Globe is the absolute hardest to track down. It was only ever released on cassette, and like most of Wildman’s recordings it never enjoyed much in the way of distribution or promotion. Sturm recalls that Wildman came up with the title after becoming fascinated with the disco ball at an old North Side ballroom where she used to play Dixieland jazz the late trumpeter Doc DeHaven and other musicians. The actual music on Under The Silver Globe, though, was recorded partly at O’Cayz Corral and ventures far afield from anything traditional, melding free-jazz improvisation with synths that rumble, grunt, and refract. The closing track, “Mumble Mombo,” at once embraces rhythm and deconstructs it, giving Richeson and Sturm plenty of time to stretch out before Wildman’s tangled synth phrases come skittering in. 

The same composition reappears in 2012 as the opening track of the Full House Quintet’s self-titled debut album. This time, Wildman sets the pace with electronic percussion, while violist Diedre Buckley and bassoonists Willy Walter and Richard Lottridge channel the coiled melodies through an array of timbres and phrasings. (Bassist Douglas Hill was also a member of Full House Quintet, but not credited on this specific track.) 

These two recordings of “Mumble Mombo” took place more than 20 years apart and in radically different settings. In the Joan Wildman Trio, Wildman was working with two fellow seasoned improvisers. In Full House Quintet, she was working mostly with accomplished classical musicians who’d had less experience with improvised music. (All five members contributed compositions.) The trio’s recording of the composition gives it a wild, almost meandering feel, while Full House Quintet takes a more taut and driving approach. But in both versions, this deeply odd, ungainly composition comes through with a remarkable clarity of purpose.

“Miles Of Tiles”

Full House Quintet’s second album, 2013’s Wild Cards, burbles to an ominous start with this Wildman composition. Wildman’s synth arrangement here could stand on its own as a full piece, combining an eerie pulse with patiently unspooling lead phrases that Lottridge, Buckley, and Walter all pick up on and tug in different directions. Already pulling a multitude of ideas from jazz and classical music into fluid conversation, Full House also delves deeply here into the realm of electronic music. “Miles Of Tiles” gradually seems to turn into something else entirely, shifting its focus to Wildman’s piano, Hill’s conversational bass work, and shimmery electronic chimes.

“Quince”

Wildman collaborated with bassist and flutist Joe Fonda for the 2015 album Conversations, recording much of it during a live show that same year at the Brink Lounge. “Quince” begins in striding and strolling territory, then takes a hairpin turn as Wildman layers together tense cascading figures that have more in common with the likes of Steve Reich. Wildman, who was 77 at the time of the recording, manages to keep a whole array of musical ideas in play at once, both in her mind and on the keyboard. After four simply dazzling minutes of this, Fonda comes to the fore with figures that become steadily more percussive and brash. 

“Phrygidair”

In the liner notes she wrote for the Joan Wildman Trio’s 1987 album Orphan Folk Music, Wildman offers a frank and personal window into her creative process. In just a few paragraphs, these notes tell us so much about both the technical complexity of the music and the many facets of life that Wildman celebrates in it. She writes that the title track, for instance, is “Dedicated to the relationships between nature and people—particularly my reaction to a happy spider who caught a wasp in his web.” The second side begins with “Phrygidair,” a solo piece for DX-7, an EMAX sampler, and a digital delay. The title is a pun on both the weather and the phrygian scale—capturing the way Wildman reconciled her most esoteric music with a sense of humor and play. 

Wildman dug deep into the capabilities of electronic musical tools—just about anyone who worked with her will point out that she insisted on programming her own synth patches, rather than relying on the DX-7’s preset sounds. She also experimented heavily with loops, often pushing them far past the simply repetitive, rhythm-setting role we’re used to hearing them play in many genres of music. With Wildman, loops stretch and mutate, participating gamely in an improvised conversation. On “Phrygidair,” Wildman calls up a range of textures and fleet melodies from the tools at hand, but also keeps the listener sublimely off-balance. Here’s how she explains it in the liner notes:

“Phrygidair” (4:54), a solo, contains synthesized and sampled sounds in superimposed layers of tempo and meter. In addition to notated and improvised considerations, time relationships are reflected in the manipulation of the loop size in the sampled sounds, the speed of the envelope and vibrato in the synthesized patches, digital delay rates, and the movement of sound from right to left channels. It consists of five tracks of music, performed in real time and stored on a computer disk.

“Phrygidair” is dedicated to Roscoe Mitchell, always an inspiration (even on a wintery Wis. morning when it was too cold to go to his house for a rehearsal—and I started working on this composition.)”

The liner notes for the trio’s 1992 album Inside Out are just as enjoyable, if you can get ahold of a CD copy. 

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