Artist and poet Adolf Wölfli could probably be considered a Charles Ives figure for the clinically insane. Music was not his day gig but the work he left behind was detailed, abundant and bizarre. His drawings show a keen but altogether insular attention to detail that is almost impossible to decipher if you aren’t him. Within his art were cryptograms for musical marches that would give any music theory student heart failure. His musical notation appears to be his own unique creation, spinning around texts and perspectives that constantly shift. Like any troubled human equipped with a creative spirit, Wölfli’s madness was a controlled one, one that said what he wanted it to say. This all resonated a great deal with Belgian composer Baudouin de Jaer, the only musician so far who has tackled the daunting task of untangling Wölfli’s musical web.
Born in Berne, Switzerland in 1864, Adolf Wölfli was born into a hard life. He was orphaned at age 10 and suffered abuse both physical and sexually. He turned inward to his drawing and kept up his pace maddeningly, despite the permanent psychological damage that would land him in Waldau hospital around the turn of the century. It was during this time that Wölfli worked on the pictures that appear in Baudouin de Jaer’s new release on the Sub Rosa label The Heavenly Ladder: Analysis of the Musical Cryptograms. It’s 52 pages long, outlines research analysis in two languages, and comes with a 32-track, 35-minute CD of solo violin music. There don’t appear to be any clues in Wölfli’s scratchings if he was writing for a specific instrument. But given the 25,000 pages worth of stuff he left behind, that was probably the least of Baudouin de Jaer’s worries.
Before he started, de Jaer had to familiarize himself with a few basics. A key word like “March” might be used up to a thousand times in reference to another notebook of artwork he kept. He only used sharp accidentals; never any flats (could have something to do with that heavenly ladder). His musical staff may include five or six ledger lines, depending on the picture. Digits are written around the notes, prone to misleading the performer if you don’t interpret the order correctly. The stems of his notes were often on the wrong side and never had a horizontal connection, messing with the musician’s sense of the note’s length. To put it briefly, he created his own music theory and drew enormous, harrowing pictures to match. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
And as valiant as Baudouin de Jaer’s efforts on the violin are, the meat of the project is in the overall package. The photographs of the artwork and potentially futile explanation thereof go a long way into providing context and mystery of such a damaged person. Baudouin de Jaer’s notes on rewriting the pieces into standard western notation—he pretty much had to—also give insight into things like finding a suitable key for Wölfli’s chicken scratch. Without this context, the music on the CD barely registers. You really need to know the whole story.
Adolf Wölfli actually had specific plans for his 25,000 page behemoth work. He wanted to leave it all to his nephew Rudolf, as long as he completed a series of monuments in his memory, use that clout to diplomatically conquer the world, and rename all of the continents various forms of Adolf. He also wanted Rudolf to have the freedom to peruse the universe in a specialized flying machine designed by Wölfli that relied on a whole new set of numerology. Untouchable genius or complete batshit? These are things you can’t determine with a half hour CD of unaccompanied violin. So if anyone offers you a burned copy, politely reject it.