Christian Wolff by Damon Krukowski

BOMB 59 Spring 1997
Issue 59 059  Spring 1997
Wolff 01 Body

Christian Wolff. Photo by Rebecca Bagium. Courtesy of C.F. Peters Corporation.

Christian Wolff was the youngest member of what is now known as the “New York School” of composers, which coalesced around John Cage in the 1950s. Initially Cage’s student, it was Wolff who gave Cage the fateful present of a copy of the I Ching—the Bollingen edition had just been published by his parents, Kurt and Helen Wolff, founders of Pantheon Books. Wolff’s work at the time pioneered the use of indeterminacy in composition, with open scores that require radical interpretation on the part of the performer. Wolff left New York in the early ’50s for studies in classics and comparative literature at Harvard, and in the 1960s went through a political radicalization that brought him into contact with a group of younger composers, including Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski, who worked to incorporate political content into their music. His ties to the New York School remained strong, however, as evidenced by the following exchange between Morton Feldman and John Cage in a 1966 radio broadcast—Cage says, “One of the most useful things that could happen for the musical life now is a concert that would let people experience Christian Wolff’s music.” And Feldman replies, “Christian is becoming a symbol for me [of] the way … I really would have wanted to have been myself.” Nonetheless it remained far too difficult for the general public to experience Wolff’s music until recently, when the European label Hat Art and the American label Mode Records each launched a series of CDs featuring his music. Christian Wolff is professor of classics and music at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where the following conversation took place.

Damon Krukowski It seems to me that there’s a paradox in indeterminate music with relation to performance. On the one hand, the music doesn’t exist until it’s performed; but on the other, each performance is so different that you could say the music only exists in so far as it’s independent of performance.

Christian Wolff Well, that’s a very Platonic view. I think you’re giving the performing instructions a privileged status which I might quarrel with. I’ve always thought of the score as a means to an end, and I would say that the music exists entirely in performance. You could say that the music that’s performed isn’t going to happen unless there’s a score, so the score’s certainly a necessary condition of the music, but it’s not a sufficient condition of the music. So in that sense I don’t really see a paradox. It’s an interesting issue because it’s one that links what one thinks of traditionally as “regular music,” say a Beethoven sonata, and something like a completely indeterminate score, of which my work and any number of John Cage’s works are an example. We’re still on the same spectrum as the Beethoven sonata because as you imply, the sonata will sound different every time somebody plays it and therefore what isthe Beethoven sonata?

DK Although with a sonata you can play a trivia game, you can play a snatch of it for someone and they can recognize it but with your work it wouldn’t really be fair for someone to say on the basis of a given performance, I know that piece.

CW Yes, now we’re getting to the issue of identity. And again I think there’s a spectrum here, a continuum. I recently ran across a Cage anecdote in which he was at a party and somebody put some music on. He was sort of half listening through the conversation, and then he listened a little bit more and he said, “Oh, that’s quite interesting. Who wrote that?” And the person said, “I can’t believe this! You did.” In my case I have some pieces where I can imagine somebody doing a performance where I might be puzzled as to what that was. But there are other pieces of mine which are quite indeterminate, which don’t have scores for example, a piece called Stones which has a score that is simply a verbal text …

DK This is from Prose Collection?

CW Yes, and it basically tells you to make sounds with stones and it gives a few general suggestions, and one prohibition that you don’t break anything. You can do it for ten seconds, or for a couple of hours; 20 people, or one person can do it. There’s a tremendous range of possible performances, and yet I would say that I could probably recognize a performance of Stones, for the very simple reason that stones are involved. It’s true I hesitated for a minute because there are now quite a lot of pieces that are made with stones.

DK It happens to all trendsetters.

CW The first piece I did that was more indeterminate than anything I’d done before was For One, Two, or Three People, and there already the instrumentation is not specified, the number of players is open. It’s actually a set of ten pieces in which you can do all of them or any selection from them. So it can take many different forms. But still, if I just walked into a rehearsal I think that in most cases I could probably tell when that piece is being played.

DK So when you write a piece like that do you imagine what it would sound like?

CW Absolutely. In One, Two, or Three, obviously I couldn’t imagine exactly what any given performance was going to be like, I could have if I spent years working out all the possibilities but that’s silly. So what I would do—and not as I went along, but every now and again if I thought I was doing something that was really wide open and really on the edge of unknowability—I would think what’s the most off the wall thing somebody could do given these restrictions, instructions, and notations. In others words, I tried to imagine what could be done that I would find unacceptable, and if I couldn’t imagine anything like that, or if I thought of it and thought that’s okay, too, then I figured it was all right.

DK It’s a boundary around possible action.

CW Right. Which is not to say that it hasn’t happened that people have thought of things to do which have not crossed my mind and initially might give me pause. You know, I hear a rehearsal and I hear something and I say, how come you’re doing that? Show me on the score; or, what is your understanding of the notation which leads you to do that? And if the person can explain it and the explanation seems to me valid and still within the rules of the game, then okay.

DK So you write the rules but you’re not the judge.

CW Well, I am a little bit. It does get to be almost a legal situation. Does this fit the terms of the contract? And that is important, because the problem I’ve had very commonly is that people will look at one of these open scores and basically say: Oh well I can do anything here, and throw the score out the window and just basically do anything. That has happened and that usually leads to disaster. I really can tell when that’s happened, and then I say, Whoa, wait a minute. In some respects, what you’re to do is very precisely indicated. In a classical score the pitches and the rhythms are very clearly indicated, but there’s a lot that’s not. Tempos tend to be negotiable, and expression. And in my case, or at least in my music of that period, the place at which you approach what’s determined is shifted. For instance, they’re hardly any pitches indicated in my One, Two, or Three piece, but what is indicated is the relationship between the sounds within a player’s part and also between the players, which set up certain kinds of rhythm which to my mind couldn’t have been set up or notated any other way, except in a very cumbersome manner. The pitch part is secondary to that and therefore is left open in the same way that dynamic inflection might be left open in a Beethoven sonata, or let’s say Mozart since he gives us a lot less instruction.

DK I’ve assumed from what I know of your work that you also think of that relationship between the performers as a social relationship?

CW In the ’50s, you began to get this music which was hyper-overdetermined, just madly, obsessively, every note had seven …

DK Total serialism.

CW Exactly. And that seemed bizarre to me. To a certain extent it was good for the performers because it made them pay attention in ways that they hadn’t before and develop certain technical skills that were new. It produced a whole generation of extraordinary performers who had not existed before. But at the same time it seemed that it was turning a performer into a high class machine that you could program and then would produce this complex result.

DK I guess it’s no coincidence that this happened at the same time as electronic music was developed.

CW In fact initially people felt electronic music was the solution to this problem of the performer—that they could never do exactly what you wanted them to do. And all of that I was reacting to. My idea was that the performer would take an active part and would find what he or she was doing interesting, not just in the sense that there was a model that had to be replicated as exactly as possible, but rather that there was a space within which the performer could operate which might produce surprises and allow for, one time I’ll do it this way, another time let’s see how it goes if I do it this way. So to get back to your earlier question, it’s true that I have no fixed image of how the piece should sound. There was no ideal performance in the sense of replicating an image that was in my head or that was represented by the score. There was no one perfect representation of the piece.

DK But there could be an ideal type of performance …

CW Exactly.

DK … where the performers respond to one another and respond to the instruction in a way that you envisioned.

CW Certainly.

DK That raises the question of the performers that you have written for and the type of virtuosity that might be useful to your music—Roland Dahinden, Hildegard Kleeb, Frederic Rzewski, Yvor Mikhashoff, and David Tudor, of course. Do they share a kind of virtuosity in your view or is it something else that drew you to them besides friendship?

CW Basically there are two things here: one is just virtuosity in the old sense, which is that they have incredible chops. You have somebody like Tudor or Rzewski who can do just about anything on the keyboard, and since they can do it why not occasionally give them a shot because they obviously enjoy doing it. So that’s a more traditional notion of performer quality. The other one, though, you could use a very old fashioned name and concept for it which is musicality, a sense of knowing what’s going to work. And that is as applicable to playing one note over a space of one minute as it is to playing fifty in a half a second. And somebody like Tudor or Rzewski, in fact all of these people, really have both. I have also been interested in this notion of being musical with another kind of performer, people who have an interest in this kind of music but are not professional musicians at all. Perhaps they may not have even played a musical instrument but somehow want to be engaged with it. I have done pieces which are playable by people like that and have had very beautiful performances.

DK Your work suggests that type of openness.

CW You’re less likely to hear those performances, they’re hard to record. Often there’s—I don’t know, an atmosphere in that kind of a performance. They’re very often done with students, perhaps even with children on occasion or older people—but people who clearly are not used to being on the stage. Another dimension of this is myself. I’m not a virtuoso performer. But I love to play, and I love to play my own work and I discovered early on that I wanted to present this music—mine, Cage’s, Feldman’s and Earle Brown’s—and so I would look for pieces that I could do. Feldman actually has quite a lot of them. There are some of his pieces that not a whole lot of people can do, but for some of the piano pieces, after your first ten piano lessons you can read them no problem. So it’s more a question of how you play, the spirit in which you play, and the kind of quality of sound that you can get. If you let a child loose on an instrument they’ll just explore the instrument for the sounds it can make and they won’t worry about whether they’re playing the score correctly or whether this is the way it should be done. They can make very beautiful sounds in that process, and it’s that sort of spirit that I got interested in and wanted to capture.

DK But you’re still thinking of a situation which does have a stage?

CW There are some musics out there which are arguably just private. Either they’re so conceptual that you read it and think about it and that’s it, or else it’s something you do on your own somehow. Obviously you’re free to do anything you want on your own—I don’t have any problems with that—but when I write the music I think of it as basically a first step in a social activity.

DK I wanted to ask you about politics and how your work changed in the early ’70s. It seems there’s a whole chapter in contemporary music history that hasn’t yet been written, of the radicalization that took place among certain composers. My experience of it comes through your work, Frederic Rzewski’s, Cornelius Cardew’s, and to some extent Cage’s. You’re usually associated with the New York School, but do you see that as another School?

CW Yes, there was a kind of Mafia, if you will. School I think is very formal, but Mafia is more like it, even for the New York School. Your buddies and you help each other out and you know you are devoted to each other’s work for the obvious reasons that you share ideas and also personal regard. So something like a “School” did happen. It was not geographically located the way the New York thing was, which incidentally was located in New York for a relatively short time, at least in my case because I left New York to go to college in ’51. But actually there were a lot of composers attuned to the political thing; we felt fairly embattled so we were looking for allies. We found them for example in one not quite contemporary Italian composer, Luigi Nono, who was a card carrying member of the Italian Communist party. In fact he was a fairly high functionary within the party and at the same time was part of this Darmstadt avant-garde in the ’50s. So he was one figure, and then we also found the earlier figure of Harms Eisler who was Schoenberg’s student and part of the original Schoenberg group and who was arguably the most distinguished representative of political music. He worked with Brecht and wrote a handful of songs that are part of the Left culture and have been ever since they were first produced. So those were the father figures if you will, but closer in generation there was Rzewski, Cardew, Yuji Takahashi, Erhard Grosskopf in Berlin, there was a Dutch composer Peter Schat. Some more people around New York, Garrett List … So there was actually an extensive extended family.

DK And do you feel that you shared formal interests as well?

CW Not at the time, except perhaps with Cardew. Rzewski is very flexible stylistically, he’s such a skillful composer. He can do anything and he likes to try out different things. His earliest work, when I first met him, was sort of post-Chopin. It was very pianistic.

DK Something all your work does share is the use of folk material.

CW Right. In the late ’60s, civil rights and Vietnam more than anything really engaged us all. We thought, what are we doing with this esoteric kind of music when all of this stuff is going on in the world? Each of us tried to figure out what to do. There were various solutions, the most radical was certainly Cardew’s, which was very polemical in terms of his writing where he basically turned on his mentors, attacking Stockhausen and then even Cage, and musically he went in two directions. He decided, if we’re going to do music it has to be widely accessible because our political interests are populist and therefore our music should have that quality. He thought one way was to make a music that was closer to the traditional concert music of the 19th century. He used all the traditional forms, but based them on politically meaningful material. He did a lot with Vietnamese political songs, for example. That’s also when we learned about Eisler, material we drew from the left wing movement of the ’20s and ’30s in Germany. We tried to get hold of it wherever we could.

Wolff 02 Body

Christian Wolff. Photo courtesy of C. F. Peters Corporation.

DK In your work, the content that you draw from this protest music is usually impossible for the listener to reconstruct, which is very different I think than Rzewski’s and Cardew’s.

CW Actually I’ve done both. There’s a piece for solo violin, Bread and Roses, where the violinist just plays the tune and then the variations come. So there it’s pretty up front, but you’re right, there are certainly other cases where the original tune is buried somewhere.

DK I noticed in the notes to Piano Song (I am a Dangerous Woman) you said that the piece was originally “intended to include the pianist’s singing of Joan Cavenaugh’s fierce anti-war poem” but that you were unhappy with the result.

CW What happened was that it never got to that. I started to do it and then the more I thought about the poem the more uncomfortable I was with it.

DK You were uncomfortable with the text.

CW Yes, the text itself.

DK So the solution in the end, and again this is a quote from your notes, “The voice line was then incorporated into the piano music”—that struck me as a figure for the manner in which politics is embedded in your work. What I was wondering was, can it be extracted at the other end, or need it be, or is it more something that’s important to you in the act of composition, rather than in the act of the audience’s reception?

CW It’s certainly important for me. I think of my earlier music as very inner-directed. It requires this incredible concentration on the part of the performers, and it’s written for the performers. I never gave a thought to an audience. I was just interested in how it would be played, and what happened after that was out of my hands.

DK That’s fascinating because in reading backwards through your work, I saw that initial interest of yours almost as if you were setting up a model social relationship on-stage between the performers.

CW Yes, that is what’s going on, but it excludes …

DK But it wasn’t politically motivated.

CW No, not at all. Maybe in retrospect at some deep level it was … but I have to admit this was not in my head when I was making those pieces. But then I got interested in the question of reception and of audience. Partly because I would find that my friends and the people I talked to about politics would know that I wrote music, and they would be interested and I’d be a little shy about it. I thought, this stuff is not for them, I should be doing something that these people could have some response to. The way to make that music was the next question. We each felt there was a limit to which we could stretch ourselves and still do what we felt was the right thing for us to do musically, and within that kind of constraint make a music which was more accessible. Cardew formed a band, People’s Liberation Music, that played at demonstrations and in public places. In the end my feeling was, well I can’t do that so I’m just going to do what I can do and let the chips fall where they may. The folk material was interesting because it had these political associations and connotations, and even if my music was not particularly like the original or the model, at the very least it would allow you to draw people’s attention to that music and to its content. Probably my most successful piece in that line was a piece called Wobbly Music, which is a choral piece where the chorus first just sings three of these songs from early American labor history and then I do my thing with that material. It refers to the Wobblies, the IWW, which was easily the most radical movement that’s ever appeared in this country and was extraordinarily widespread. The ideas that they propounded were very interesting because they have a mixture of left wing socialism with anarchist strains. So that’s sort of the ideal situation, and I think there are limited opportunities for that. But there is an audience consideration from another point of view, where the music gets played, partly because of its own history but also because of the music market, and it tends to invariably be in New Music venues or festivals or situations that have no particular political identity. Then you notice that there are in fact very few situations which have a political identity and a mass setting. Pop music is the real alternative and arguably the most interesting political music to the extent that millions of people listen to it. And then you have groups like The Clash … But let’s get realistic, this was just not my scene. (laughter)

DK You weren’t going to go electric.

CW I was raised with a very pure classical repertoire—Bach to Brahms and that was it. But somehow when I was in school I did get into Dixieland, and in New York at that time there were fantastic shows, every Friday, Saturday we’d go regularly. I was already starting to write my own music and the two were just worlds apart. I felt, I like that music so much, how can I get some of that spirit into mine? But I didn’t know how, I just sort of let it go. I think eventually it did in a funny way.

DK Cage famously disliked jazz, but I always understood it to be because jazz was the commercial pop music of his day. But you were listening to jazz in the ’60s?

CW Yes, I was open to it. I checked it out when I got a chance. Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra I knew very well. In fact one of my happy memories is getting a gig at Ornette Coleman’s performance space in New York. I got invited to do a piece there, half a program, with all these performers available, basically younger jazz people. We did a version of a piece of mine called Changing the System. It was fantastic. I was really delighted to do it in that setting. Leroy Jenkins had the other half of the program. I have pieces that strike me as close in spirit to certain kinds of jazz. I think what I got from the Dixieland was the notion of heterophony, of independent voices. You get it in gospel singing, you get it in Dixieland, and then you also get it in Ornette a lot. I have a large set of pieces of mine called Exercises which are entirely based on that principle.

DK That’s so interesting. I took them to be from a more traditional avant-garde point of view.

CW Well that’s the problem, it’s partly that recording where the performing is rather conservative. It’s nice, but …

DK This does go back to our Platonic discussion …

CW Exactly. Those pieces are a real touchstone for that. They are not like the early pieces. The indeterminacy there is quite different, because the pitches are all written out in those pieces and they all have melodic contours, but the pieces are mostly single line and something which Rzewski once told me is something Ornette does too, which is you can read them either in treble or bass clef, so you get this constant parallel, slightly asymmetrical parallel sixths because of enharmonic differences, and it also makes it available to most ranges. And the degree of heterophony that results from everybody reading the same material can be various depending on the players, from fairly close, as in that recording, to very free ranging.

DK Cardew was also interested in improvisation and played in AMM. Did that interest you at the time?

CW Absolutely, in fact I was involved in AMM. One of the great treats of the year that I spent in London was to play with AMM. I still play whenever I can with them. That free improvisation just blew me away. I just loved that. It’s not something I can imagine doing exclusively by any means, but the experience is like no other. I made one piece called Edgeswhich was basically for that kind of a situation. That’s the nearest I’ve come to making a really improvisational piece, where you can’t do it unless you know how to improvise. There is a score, there’s visual material, but the score is just these bits of information scattered over a page which might just indicate very loud or play dirty or play in the middle, that kind of rather generic indication. But the instructions are that you don’t necessarily play the notations but you play around them or in relationship to them. In other words—”very loud”—that’s the image. There you have your Platonic idea, but you circle it, and you have a conversation with “very loud” which might include playing it very softly or thinking about dynamics but in relation to that. It’s okay occasionally to play very loud, but that’s not the primary point of realizing that notation.

DK So it sounds to me like in that period of the late ’60s, early ’70s, politics drew you closer to popular music forms.

CW I guess you could say that.

DK You became more engaged with jazz, and with improvisation which has a long popular history.

CW Right.

DK And then the folk material as well. I grew up with the rock world, my primary musical experiences are all out of that, although it overlaps—for example with AMM which has become a sort of ideal for some of my friends in rock bands, although it’s nothing we can quite approach in technique, we try in our own crazy way. But the thing that you weren’t engaged with, which is what pop music always implies to me, is the commercial marketplace.

CW That’s where the line is drawn, yes. I’ve finally come to realize that there’s a kinship out there. It’s the folkies, the far-out jazz, and the New Music scene.

DK Exactly!

CW We all have these independent record labels, small venues, marginal economic existence, unless you have some other job, and so on and so forth. I think that’s a very nice alternative sort of culture. It’s true that in Europe there is a major festival market for New Music and there are people who do very well. And there have been some very successful minimalist artists—but they’re in a different world.

DK I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear you say that you think there is a configuration of the folkies and New Music and far-out jazz because that’s what my friends and I feel, but oftentimes we feel like the New Music world, though we take a passionate interest in it, has us at arm’s length because we came from the other side.

CW Right, it would depend on who you talked to, but I think you could probably argue that it started quite early on. I remember Gordon Mumma, who was one of the pioneers of electronic music, and at the beginning, for economic reasons, you either had to be connected with some institution that could afford this hugely expensive equipment, or if you were not part of that world you tended to be academic—Mumma’s solution was to make his own instruments. He used to describe it as a kind of folk operation, where you make your own dulcimer or whatever, and the whole thing had a cottage industry, homegrown feeling about it. The Scratch Orchestra was exactly like that. The English have always had a thing about folk music. You had these people coming out of the woods doing this weird music who might otherwise have been strumming on their guitar and doing Barbara Allen or something like that.

DK Do you feel your work has changed radically since that period in the mid-’70s?

CW Not really. I keep hoping that it might. (laughter) But it’s not something you can push. In the last years the work has become in a way more personal. The politics have receded. You keep functioning politically, but the connection to music doesn’t seem quite so essential. Well it’s bad, as I get older I find myself writing memorial pieces. I do pieces for friends sometimes, performers, and I do pieces in response to requests, commissions, and so on. The whole process has taken on a life of its own. What has happened is that some of the earlier ideas have come back and now I see ways to do things that I thought I might’ve done earlier but at the time I didn’t. But they get combined with this music that I started doing in the ’70s which is not so obviously experimental, but is still affected by a kind of alternative or quirky character. The early music has that, but it’s now translated into a more familiar vocabulary. It uses instruments more conventionally.

DK I was going to suggest that the logic of your manipulation of folk songs strikes me as similar to the OULIPO. Are you familiar with that literary group?

CW No.

DK They did a lot of work based on restraint, a formal restraint and then manipulation within the restraints. A famous example is Georges Perec’s novel, A Void, without the letter E.

CW Oh yes I’ve heard about that. I don’t think I’d do anything quite like that, write a piece without F flats and Ds. In the European avant-garde, formal procedures were meant to basically refine the musical composition and to give it this quasi-rationalist, hyper-rationalist character. Everything was accounted for. But another way of looking at using these formal procedures is as a kind of heuristic procedure … I try get formal procedures that lead me into spaces that I couldn’t foresee. So I’m still thinking in that older indeterminate way to put me into situations where I have to think of a solution that is really going to stretch me, that’s going to put me somewhere where I had not expected to end up. Looking at chance procedures, they’re philosophically based on the notion of the moment and all of these other things that Cage talked about, but they also help you discover stuff that you might not otherwise have thought about. And the whole problem especially after a while is there are just so many ideas available in your brain. I mean your circuits, they just have so much stuff they can produce and how do you get out of the cycles of that? You have to get something from outside to give you a push, and it could be contained in a technical procedure. I think of that story in Anna Karenina where this painter is stalled on his painting. He’s stuck. He doesn’t know what to do. He puts it away. Forgets about it. A couple of months later he finds it and a grease spot has fallen on it and suddenly he sees what he can do with this painting because of this totally random interference that has readjusted the view of it. And that is what I do, I try to create moments where those grease spots get dropped on the paper and push me to do something or see the thing suddenly in a different way.

Damon & Naomi by Tobias Carroll
Damon Naomi 1
Reinhold Friedl by Elliott Sharp
Friedl01 Body

“It’s difficult to see the relationship between your own thinking and your composing.”

Kaffe Matthews by Anthony Huberman
​Kaffe Matthews 01

When British sound artist Kaffe Matthews thinks about sound, she thinks about space, time, travel and radios strapped to bicycles. Her approach to making music is based on sampling her surroundings and capturing their sonic personality.

Roland Kayn’s A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound by Keith Fullerton Whitman
Kayn 7

The prospect of a physical music anything is dicey at best in the year 2017, which makes frozen reeds’ choice to bring out Roland Kayn’s A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound—an object containing sixteen compact discs of nearly fourteen hours of previously unreleased material—respectably audacious. 

Originally published in

BOMB 59, Spring 1997

Featuring interviews with Tim Roth, Amy Hempel, Emmylou Harris, Matthew Ritchie, Wallace Shawn, Christian Wolff, Gilles Peress, Kendall Thomas, and George Walker.

Read the issue
Issue 59 059  Spring 1997