SA10: The Christian Wolff Issue

It’s somehow fitting that this issue features the musical thought of Christian Wolff. There are very few living composers who have done more to expand the abstract possibilities of how we compose music; how we perform music; and what the human potential of music can contain than Wolff. The aesthetic concerns of his music have mirrored ideas that have been central to almost every issue of Sound American since its inception: how humans make music, what it means to them, and what the creative act consists of.


 Christian Wolff’s position in circles of formative 20th century composers is unassailable. Yet, he has managed to quietly live a life of family, work, and making music. In the pages of this journal, the word “iconoclast” has been thrown around a lot, as well as the idea of some transcendental American maverick musical figure. Christian Wolff is the quietest, most rigorous, and fiercely original version of both the word and the idea.

Christian Wolff was born in 1934 in Nice, France. His parents moved to New York not long after where they started Pantheon books with a group of like-minded emigres fleeing fascism in Europe. The household promoted learning, discussion, and critical thinking; a general attitude that seems to be the basis of Wolff’s personality and approach to his art still.


At the age of 16, Wolff was introduced to John Cage. He took his first compositions lessons with the revolutionary composer and was soon creating his own works like For Prepared Piano (1951) that were affecting the ideas of his teacher and other established artists such as Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Earle Brown, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Even while still a teenager, he was being mentioned as a major influence in the new musical movement during talks by Cage and Feldman. The legendary example of Wolff’s affect on the direction of American music in the 1950s was his gift of a new Pantheon edition of the I Ching to Cage. This gift provided the impetus and material for Cage’s subsequent work with indeterminacy and chance from that point forward; work that was to redefine the way that generations of composers have approached music making.


Perhaps because he watched his earliest peers and friends struggle under the economic weight of composing “new music” in America, Wolff went to Harvard to study classics (his specialty is Euripides) and ultimately find a place in academia; first at Harvard and, from 1970, at Dartmouth College where he taught both classics and music until his retirement in 1999. And, in many cases, this would have been the, rather anti-climactic, end to the meteoric rise of a teenaged musical mind. The pragmatism of household, family, and work, however, did not put an end to Wolff’s ability to develop radical new ideas about music composition.


The works of the years during which he was teaching and raising a family, including the pieces that provide the architecture for this issue, occupy a broad aesthetic space that includes the hyper-notated serialism of For Piano to the textual calls to action of Stones with works like Exercises, Burdocks, and For 1,2, or 3 People (to my mind his most radical and deep pieces) occupying a musical middle ground. These last mentioned pieces combine notated material with elements of decision left to the performers. This allows the music to be affected, to a greater or lesser degree, by the personality and musical history of the performer, as well as achieving the flexibility of performance that is a hallmark of indeterminate music.


To understand many of the elements of Wolff’s music that are taken as a given within these pages, I think it’s worthy to include a short and simple exposition of indeterminacy in composition.


Indeterminate music means music in which the composer gives up some sort of control over the material she/he uses to create the composition. It can take three rough shapes:


Stochastic Music: which bases the material on mathematical concepts (think Iannis Xenakis)


Chance Music: which bases the material on decisions made…well…by chance, like rolling dice or, in John Cage’s working with the I Ching.


Aleatory Music: which bases the material on the decisions made in performance (or before the performance) by the performers.


In the case of Wolff’s music, he’s dealing mostly with this aleatory type. He sets up situations in which the performer must make decisions either in the moment or before performance. These decisions may be related to the dynamics, rhythm, timbre, instrumentation or pitch selections in the piece, or alternately, he may ask the performers to relate to each other in a specific way that creates an individual performance.


While this seems like a simple answer to composition when given a surface estimation (simply make a mark and have the musicians sort it out), in practice, it demands a great deal of thought, rigor, and commitment to an ideal of the process of making music. Along with Cornelius Cardew, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Earle Brown and some of the works of Morton Feldman, Wolff stands as one of the progenitors of this compositional practice, and is, perhaps still, its most vibrant practitioner.


Again, this would have been a convenient stopping point: composer X finds system Y and runs ideas through the machine, creating similar works to occupy a career. Less an overachiever than an enquiring mind, Wolff has continued beyond indeterminacy as an endpoint. His works of a political nature, taking folk and labor songs such as Bread and Roses or his recent work for the International Contemporary Ensemble called Pete in homage to Pete Seeger combine indeterminacy with notated material to create compositions that seem to move between different lenses; focusing on interaction at one moment and song the next. His music continues to move forward.


There is a wealth of information about Wolff and his relationship to the New York School (Cage, et al.) on the internet and in print for those interested in a blow by blow account of his career and to see the way in which his ideas have developed. This issue will be more concerned with what Christian Wolff thinks right at this very second, and how his music has affected other generations of equally radical composers, performers, and educators.


To address the latter, I’ve chosen a handful of pieces from Wolff’s oeuvre that represent my own associations with Christian’s music: Edges for improvisation, Stones for populism or bringing people together to make music, Exercises for indeterminacy and social thinking in music making, and Bread and Roses for its political content. For each piece, I’ve asked a composer/performer/educator to talk about their experience with the work and how it relates to the broader concept and to the work they’ve chosen.


And what does Christian Wolff think right now? The answer to that is expressed in two separate interviews with man himself: Douglas Detrick talks about the personal process and ritual of writing and my own discussion tries to get at the heart of some of the bigger questions of why Wolff writes and how he views his own music.