Christian Wolff: (Re) Making Music- Works 1962-99

Christian Wolff (1962-99) (Re):Making Music

When I was ten years old, I began to study trombone and within three months I was in the high school
band although it would be four years before I was old enough to be in high school. If only slightly precocious, I immediately decided to compose a piece for my colleagues. I chose a quarter note Bb for the first note - only to face a disconcerting question, “What note should I choose next, what duration and most importantly, why?” There are many things I can now induce from this moment but in fact it was, and remains so - part of how I have always approached composition.

I relate this anecdote only because I recognize in the scores of Christian Wolff a similar method of working, one that is reiterating the same basic question, “How do we make music?”

These scores cover 37 years of Christian Wolff's composing, present many different musical surfaces and musical syntaxes yet they consistently return to ask his fundamental question - “How does one create/make music?” This music is simultaneously an exploration of the act of music making between individuals and an interrogation of musical structuring or the language of music.

As in the music of Morton Feldman, also a member of “The New York School”, one hears the harmonic and melodic influence of Anton Webern's music. However, in the music of Wolff, one hears also the kinship with the music of Charles Ives, a music less of counterpoint but rather a tumultuous flow of simultaneous, equally important melodies - or a composite melody played by many players
(hocket), a single melody by many voices. This latter represents a political ideal for Wolff, a situation of music being co-operatively created by many people working together.

Music of the New York School is characterized in part by its welcoming of the indeterminate, the “unfixed object”, an art capable of multiple interpretations and understandings - indeed an art incapable of being known as a “object” per se, an art of impermanence. Even scores by Wolff that look conventional often lack critical information such as tempi, phrase markings and bowings or articulations. Wolff is interested to force the players to work together to decide these necessary aspects of the music in order to create a performance (a music “indeterminate in some aspects of performance”).

This conscious political stance by Wolff to create situations in which the players work collectively to create performances is carried through with a gentle charm which is nevertheless, ruthlessly insistent. A few years ago, I watched him rehearse with a Dutch ensemble who were making a “birthday concert” for and with Wolff. Wolff arrived for the final rehearsal at which he was to hear each work and then
play with them in a rehearsal of an open work for unspecified instruments. After each work,
the ensemble or soloist looked to him for comments and each time he paused, thought for a while and said, smiling, “Yeah, it could be.” As they went through the programme, they became (understandably) more and more desperate for some sort of guidance. The ritual was unchanging: perform a work, look to Christian, no answer and then finally, “Yeah, it could be?”. He was saying softly but with brutal insistence - “You have to decide how you will make these pieces - and then stand behind your decisions.”

Wolff creates a “determinate music which is indeterminate with respect to performance”. Wolff is insisting that an ensemble shapes a performance collectively - and is not fixed from the top down. Does this mean that anything goes? Definitely not.

Having previously recorded the Eisler Ensemble Pieces, I took the opportunity to listen to all of the performances of this work which ensembles had sent Wolff over the years. (He stores all of his tape from groups in shoeboxes that are noteworthy for the amount of dust they collect!) Two tapes were especially interesting to me: One tape by an ensemble which had played the work over two days of
“rehearsal” with him had the first movement at approximately half the tempo he indicated. Listening to it the music seemed pedantic and laboured, indeed, as I returned to listen time and again, I kept thinking, “my God, they are still playing the first movement”. I asked him why he didn't ask them to play it at or near his indicated tempo. He replied, “Well, they seemed so committed, I thought, Well -
Why not.”

With the second performance, when confronted with Wolffís “Ivesian” side of having 3 or more equally important melodies all at once, a highly regarded ensemble had decided that the most important ideas are always played by the highest instrument, those of secondary importance are played by the bass
instruments and the least important are those played by the mid range instruments Their performance was an elegant rendition of movement one with no hint of the Ivesian anarchy within the score. He said simply, “Lightweight arenít they. Letís skip the second movement.”

Avoiding the problems that his texts imply or create for the interpreter is - in the end - a bad performance - or arguably not even a performance of the music. Yet, the most important thing to remember about all indeterminate scores is that there is no definitive performance of such a score. This fact is one of the most refreshing, frustrating and educational aspects of performing this music.

The early scores that Wolff showed to Cage, his sole composition teacher of a few months, were characterized by canons and various forms of strict counterpoint. Indeed to this day, Wolff remains fascinated (perhaps obsessed) by the contrapuntal techniques of canonic imitation and the hocket - the latter a device wherein a single melody is broken up between several instruments so as to appear
only as a composite melody when all instruments “work together”. Political metaphor and political reality feature strongly at all levels of Wolff's music, and we see this in their working together as previously described, in the “hocket” melodies, his Prose Pieces, and the graphic scores of For 1,2 or 3 People, For 5 or 10 People, etc.

The last scores are essentially interactive schemes for players detailing not WHAT a player performs but HOW he or she reacts to the sound making actions of their fellow performers. One of the most radical aspects of Wolff's music in general - and these scores in particular - is the that he is not attempting to “say something (emotionally) with his music” but to concentrate on the act of music making itself. It is simultaneously about making music and in generates in most cases a new kind of
by concentrating on the physical gesture and interaction of the performers rather than on what they “play”.

I have known four really radical artists in my life - Christian Wolff, Jerry Hunt, John Cage and Mary O'Donnell. All but Cage at some time flirted with the idea that they should make their ideas more populist, should speak to the “man on the street”. In this desire, they all failed because their individual visions influenced their choice of material, defined their starting premises - and these visions were not populist even when they desired them to be so!

Christian Wolff has since the 1970's chosen songs from the political protest movement as starting material for many of his works and for his many “portrait pieces” which are dedicated to extraordinary figures (Emma = Emma Goldman, Ruth = Ruth Crawford Seeger, Peggy = Peggy Seeger, etc). The compositional process that he employs in reality transforms the original materials so completely that one is left only with some traces of the original as occasional rhythmic and melodic fragments. Nevertheless, while not allowing Wolff to speak to many “men on the street” with his music, these have helped to position him within the same political milieu as these political activists and persons of extraordinary moral consciousness.

Digger Song is an exception to this working process inasmuch as the original song is stated initially and then remains continually present through the set of variations that comprise the work.

However, having written these observations about the music of Christian Wolff with the hope that they might offer some insight into the composer behind this music, I want to make two additional comments. I haven't written notes about each piece because I want each listener to confront the music as a primary
listening experience, devoid of an explanation for what they “should be hearing, etc” and I want to say that as a group of people, The Barton Workshop is committed to the music of Wolff, we love the process of working through the score, rehearsing and discussing what it all means but that in the end, we think that it speaks forcefully and humanely as music. In the words of Salvatore Martirano, “2,4,6,8 - we all fish with Ludwig's baitî. While Wolff's working process is extraordinary and richly rewarding for performers, we think that the listening experience of this music ultimately reinforces the best qualities which music has traditionally offered - it is thought provoking, at times both reassuring and unsettling, above all offering the listener the opportunity of a “peak experience” as described by Abram

- © James Fulkerson, 2002