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A wonderfully fluent and prolific composer, Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938) is a prodigy in the old Mozart-Mendelssohn sense. He began writing music at the age of five, received the Young Composers Award from the New York Philharmonic when he was 16, and by the time he was 21 had completed a large body of work, including three symphonies. In 1969 Nonesuch Records commissioned a purely electronic piece, Time’s Encomium, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970, making him the youngest composer to receive that award. Also a fine pianist and conductor, he has won a host of other honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, for his robust, virtuosic music, now numbering more than 200 pieces.
Although Wuorinen has composed in every genre and medium, he has been particularly productive in chamber music for mixed ensembles, including a number of highly idiosyncratic trios. Commissioned by tuba player David Braynard, the Trio for Bass Instruments was composed in the fall of 1981. Although there is some of the foundation rumbling you might expect from the instrumentation, this Trio is surprisingly light on its feet, a limber and linear piece, with an easy swing evident from the opening trombone tune. Trombone and tuba often engage in witty dialog, against a glossy field from the string bass, often in an upper register. Much of Wuorinen’s technique and esthetic is rooted in post-Webernian serialism and Milton Babbitt’s time-point system, but Wuorinen always manages to give internal complexity an attractive surface (his textbook is titled Simple Composition). This Trio traces a clear formal and even narrative arc to a polyphonically cresting climax, followed by a pensive, reflective coda.