Around the Island

Not your grandma’s classical music

ANNETTE HINKLE PHOTO | Composer Bruce Wolosoff at the piano in his Shelter Island home.
ANNETTE HINKLE PHOTO | Composer Bruce Wolosoff at the piano in his Shelter Island home.

Even if you’ve never been there before, it’s easy to figure out which house on Peconic Avenue belongs to Bruce Wolosoff.

All you have to do is follow the music.

Wolosoff, a composer, can frequently be found at his piano (as he was during a visit to his home last week) making music that resonates off the wooden walls and ceilings of his barn-like home, which he explains used to be a summer camp. The lofted area that once housed rows of bunks for campers now houses rows of books and other indications of a life well-lived for Mr. Wolosoff and his wife, artist Margaret Garrett.

Despite the solitude of the setting on a recent summer’s day, Mr. Wolosoff has quite a bit going on, professionally speaking. Of particular note is the premiere of a new composition titled “The Wanderer’s Tale” which will be performed at Guild Hall in East Hampton on August 13 (coincidentally, Mr. Wolosoff was recently made a trustee of Guild Hall under leadership of its new executive director, Andrea Grover).

Mr. Wolosoff’s 17-minute piece is just one of several being offered in a concert by Ethel, an avant-garde string-quartet based in New York. Also on the eclectic program are works by composers Ennio Morricone, Philip Glass, Marcelo Zarvos, Dan Friel, Janis Joplin, and all four members of the quartet — Ralph Farris (viola), Kip Jones (violin) Dorothy Lawson (cello) and Tema Watstein (violin).

As a quartet, Ethel, artists-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, strive to build community and connection through collaboration — hence the piece commissioned from Mr. Wolosoff. Though “The Wanderer’s Tale” has been written for a somewhat unconventional kind of string quartet, Mr. Wolosoff notes the piece still fits the definition of classical.

“It’s absolutely classical music. That said, classical music now is not necessarily what it was in previous time periods,” he said. “In my inspiration you’ll hear Bach, Beethoven and Tom Waits.”

Perhaps that unconventional conventionalism is fitting for a quartet that, as Mr. Wolosoff puts it, borrows a lot of pages from the rock ‘n’ roll playbook.

“They’re not your grandmother’s string quartet,” he said. “They do have a big following and are sort of renowned as ambassadors for new music.

“They’re hip and all the things I’m not.”

Mr. Wolosoff came to know the members of Ethel through Ms. Lawson, a friend with whom he used to play Beethoven sonatas back when he lived in New York.

“She taught my daughter Katya cello. She radiates light and goodness,” Mr. Wolosoff said of the musician.

It’s evident that Mr. Wolosoff enjoys having musical friends and he particularly relishes the collaborative process that he has developed with many of them.

“In a good collaboration, there’s back and forth between musicians,” he said. “Collaborations give you a huge amount of energy and hopefully you can arrive at something better than on your own.”

Interestingly enough, Mr. Wolosoff’s collaborations have not just been with musicians, like those of Ethel, but choreographers as well as visual artists. One important collaboration has been with actress, dancer and choreographer Ann Reinking, whom Mr. Wolosoff met through mutual friends on the South Fork.

“She’s a creative partner of mine,” Mr. Wolosoff said.

A few years ago, the two collaborated on the creation of a ballet called “The White City: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893,” which was named Best Dance of 2011 by the Chicago Sun-Times and was inspired by the music of a string quartet Ms. Reinking heard while visiting Mr. Wolosoff on Shelter Island.

“It was sort of a big success, an uncharacteristically big success for me,” he said. “I went from unknown to obscure with this extraordinary ballet in Chicago.”

The two also worked together on “A Light in the Dark,” a ballet based on the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan which premiered in March 2013 and they are currently at work on a project about poet John Keats.

In the meantime, Ms. Reinking has been something of a sounding board for “The Wanderer’s Tale,” offering Mr. Wolosoff advice and feedback on structure and other elements of the piece.

“I’m hoping she’ll make a ballet out of it,” he said. “she’s very into storytelling.”

While his dance collaborations with Ms. Reinking have been inspired, Mr. Wolosoff also loves creating music in response to the work of visual artists. The Eroica Trio recently performed his piece “The Loom” as part of the “Cutting Edge” concert series at Symphony Space in New York. The piece was commissioned by the trio and inspired by the watercolors of Mr. Wolosoff’s good friend, artist and North Haven resident Eric Fischl.

In October, the Montage Music Society of Santa Fe will premiere another new work by Mr. Wolosoff at the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell, New Mexico. “The Astronomer’s Key” is a piece inspired by the artwork of Milton Resnick, and it was commissioned by the Roswell Artist in Residence Program in honor of its 50th anniversary celebration. And earlier this season, pianist Blair McMillen presented “Night Paintings” Volume 1, a set of pieces inspired by paintings of the night by David Salle, Vincent van Gogh, Eduard Munch, and Mr. Wolosoff’s wife, Ms. Garrett.

Being inspired to write music in response to certain paintings comes on quickly and powerfully for Mr. Wolosoff, and it always has.

“There’s an initial moment. Usually you know right away if you like someone and will be friends. It’s like that with a painting, so there’s music in there for me —something shifts, it’s an emotion in my heart,” he said, recalling the first time it happened. “The first time I experienced that, I was a little kid at MoMA and I saw ‘Starry Night’ by van Gogh.

“Everything shifted. I had an opening into another dimension,” he said.

Which means that ultimately, while making music is something that can be taught through the fundamentals of technique and form, in composition it’s also vital to listen to your thoughts, trust your instincts and learn to question what you’re given.

“It’s like turning on the radio,” Mr. Wolosoff said. “What am I hearing? What will I do and where will I go with that?

“It’s listening with a critical ear.”

Ethel string quartet performs at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton) on  Sunday, August 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $23 to $75, available at or by calling (631) 324-4050.