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Potrero Hill Composer Erling Wold Creates Operas and More

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Erling Wold. Photo: David Papas

Erling Wold, a composer of operas, contemporary classical works, and scores for films, plays, and dance performances, has been writing music at a piano located in his Wisconsin Street home since 2003.

“My wife, Lynne Rutter, who is a painter, has been living here since 1990. I met her 16 years ago and moved into her home. I have come to love the place. It’s quieter than other parts of the City…I shop at the local shops and eat at the restaurants. It feels like a neighborhood. It’s a wonderful place to have people come over and work with me in my studio,” said Wold. 

Wold’s published and performed works include the opera Queer, based on William S. Burrough’s autobiographical novel; Sub Pontio Pilato, an opera that reflects an historical fantasy about Pontius Pilate; A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, a chamber opera designed to be performed with an ensemble, about a girl who decides to become a nun; and Rattensturm, an opera concert-film about the sinking of a Austro-Hungarian Navy battleship during World War I. Rattensturm had its American premiere at the Roxie Theater earlier this year. 

Many of Wold’s pieces focus on the nature of faith and religious history. Wold’s father, Erling Henry Wold Sr., was a Lutheran minister. His mother, Margaret Barth Wold, wrote inspirational books and plays, including the 1975 nonfiction book, The Shalom Woman, which advocates for women becoming ordained pastors. 

In addition to being a composer, Wold is chief scientist for Audible Magic, a Los Gatos-based software company that helps musicians resolve royalty and copyright issues. Wold is the principal inventor of Audible Magic’s digital fingerprinting and search and retrieval technology. “I write software and I’m a software architect as well. My main value at the company is the low-level mathematical and engineering research,” said Wold. 

Wold earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1987. Later, he became a researcher in signal processing and music synthesis at Yamaha Music Technologies.

“When I was a kid, I was definitely a science nerd. I went to college intending to be a mathematician, but my roommate was a guitarist who taught me to play. We decided on a lark to take some composition classes at a nearby college. I fell in love with it. That’s when I decided to combine science and music,” said Wold. 

Wold serves as the executive director of the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra, a group of composer-musicians who play together twice a year, often performing works that one or more of its members has written. “We rehearse and perform our concerts in May and October at St. Teresa of Avila. Laura Flaviani is the musical director there,” said Wold.

In past years, Wold composed works for operas, scenes of which were presented at Goat Hall, a former Missouri Street venue, and for theater performances shown at Thick House, now known as Potrero Stage. 

Wold first got involved in music by taking piano lessons when he was a child. Piano remains his primary instrument.  “I’ve taken lessons on a number of other instruments, French horn, cello, Javanese gendèr, and tabla, although I don’t play any of them that well. However, having an intimate knowledge of other instruments really helps when writing. For example, to compose a part for the violin, I’ll sketch out a drawing of the fingerboard, put my hands on it to make sure the fingerings work,” said Wold.  

Wold started composing as a teenager. His first pieces were for chamber ensembles, small mixed groups of orchestral instruments. Later, he began composing for guitar.  “I used to play electric guitar in a band called “Name.” We played all around the Bay Area in the late-1970s and early-1980s. A lot of the places we used to play at don’t exist anymore. One is The Mabuhay Gardens in North Beach,” said Wold. 

Wold’s punk rock hangouts included the Sound of Music, on Turk Street, The Club Foot, at 2520 Third Street, and the Deaf Club on Valencia Street. “The Deaf Club was a place for people with hearing impairments to come socialize, but it was also a punk rock venue. Half the people listened to the music and the other half signed over it,” said Wold.

According to Wold, the number of musicians in Name fluctuated. “At one point, we had seven guitarists. We formed a wall of sound. It wasn’t until being in a band ended, 1983 or 1984, that I went back to writing music for non-rock instruments. Before the band, I had been writing really severe modern music no one would listen to. After the band, my music changed drastically.”

Wold’s explorations in composition led to working with dancers and filmmakers to create stage pieces.   He became a resident artist at ODC Theater, a dance company located on 17th Street. He secured grants and awards from numerous organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, Opera America, San Francisco Arts Commission, and Theatre Bay Area. 

“The one secret of success was to say “yes” to everything. I approached being in theatre the same way I did being in a band. I raised some money, applied for grants, and just started working really cheaply,” said Wold.

In the late-1990s, Wold traveled abroad with choreographer Robert Wechsler.  “Wechsler decided he couldn’t work in America anymore, and fled to Europe. Eventually he invited me over. Composing and organizing performances there taught me a lot,” said Wold.

In 1985, Wold fathered Duncan Wold, who now helps manage PianoFight, a Taylor Street restaurant and bar, and plays in the venue’s house band, the Californicorns. Wold said having music around the house influenced his son. “I invited him to things and exposed him to a lot of productions and music. He was there, running around and soaking it all in. He was one of the theater kids,” said Wold.

Wold’s advice for young musicians and composers is not to worry about the rules. “If you’re starting out, getting stuff out in the world is the most important thing.” He believes it’s important to compose daily. “I’ve never really had a strong routine. But I’ve noticed that if I don’t compose regularly, the skill tends to dissipate. I’ve composed music on an airplane, sitting at a coffee shop, wherever I can, but it’s useful to have a piano,” said Wold.

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