SA10: The Christian Wolff Issue

Not every topic continues to interest and excite me after I publish its issue. Sometimes what began as a deep passion fizzles by the time I'm done with the interviews and I'm just happy to put the discussion out in the world and move onto the next deep passion. Not so with the music of Christian Wolff and people surrounding its performance. As I publish this final piece of continuing content, my interview with pianist Philip Thomas, I find myself slightly sad that my time and energy will be taken up with new subjects and new music. For the first time in ten issues, I find myself sentimental.


This conversation is a fittingly warm and interesting end to Sound American's conversation about one of America's great iconoclasts. Philip Thomas is the pianist behind Sub Rosa's recent and fantastic three-disc release Pianist:Pieces featuring a wonderful sample of stylistically diverse solo piano piece by Wolff concentrating on the early (from 1951 to 1959) works such as

For Pianist, to the works from 2001-2012 such as (one of my personal favorites) Long Piano. This set came to my attention while beginning the research for SA10 and has had a favored spot on the stereo even after I was finished with most of my writing. Part of the reason is Thomas's sensitive and rigorously playful readings of Wolff's music. It has been a pleasure comparing his versions of pieces such as Long Piano or For Piano I to the existing recordings in my collection and finding a different kind of warmth and passion for Wolff's music.


Philip Thomas is just one of many musicians who make the performance and interpretation of Christian Wolff's music a part of their practice and output. His study of Wolff's methods and compositions, alongside his work with British contemporary composers and the Wandelweiser Collective gives his readings specific dimensions. His work in academia, as an author and head of performance studies at University of Huddersfield, makes him comfortable expounding on my never ending questions. All of these add up to a fitting and satisfying end to one of my favorite issues to date.

- Nate Wooley

Philip Thomas Pianist:Pieces

Sound American: I'm interested in the project to record a mass of Christian Wolff's piano music. I remember seeing this release when it first came out and being struck by it. For some reason I grouped it in with recordings like Gieseking doing [Claude] Debussy or the [Maurizio] Pollini recordings of [Frederic] Chopin. And yet, Christian's music seems so much more difficult to compartmentalize. What was the original thought behind such a massive undertaking? Are you interested in making a recording of the "complete works for piano" at some point or was it a more individualized decision of specific pieces?


Philip Thomas: In January 2008 I presented a weekend of solo concerts – three in total – in my home town, Sheffield, featuring almost all of Christian’s works for solo piano alongside music with which I felt there were connections (these included [Charles] Ives, [Erik] Satie, [John] Cage, [Howard] Skempton, and four specially commissioned works by British composers: Stephen Chase, Christopher Fox, Tim Parkinson and Michael Parsons). Partly this was a continuation of earlier projects in which I had presented weekends of music, in art galleries in Sheffield, by Cage and then [Morton] Feldman. In doing so, I didn’t (and don’t) have any pretensions toward making a major artistic statement but really it was out of curiosity – what might I, and anybody who might attend the whole series, learn about Wolff’s music by experiencing it in so condensed a time-frame. I was interested in tracing issues of continuity and similarity across his music as well as development and change across the (at that time) almost 60 years of his composing life.


So this led me, in 2009, to begin recording the music. At around the same time I also began work on editing (with Stephen Chase) and writing two chapters for a volume of essays about Wolff’s music, Changing the System: the Music of Christian Wolff1 So for a period I was totally immersed in thinking about, writing about and performing Christian’s music. At one level, presenting this much of his music – whether through that weekend of concerts, or in these three discs – is too much to take in. I know that Christian himself prefers his music to be played alongside music by other composers (I plan on doing a [Joseph] Haydn-Wolff series sometime in the future!) and I can understand that. I think sitting down to listen to all the music on the three discs probably is too much to take in and I would recommend listening to no more than one or two pieces at a time. However, the benefits of having one person performing all this music are that the kinds of choices left to the performer are many and my approach and the decisions I make are just one way of playing this music. Thus what you have in these three CDs is a fairly coherent representation of ME playing Wolff’s music and the recordings should always be understood in that light. I hope that the recordings do work as a set, not as some kind of exclusive presentation of Wolff’s solo piano music, but perhaps more as a personal statement – this is what I love about Wolff’s music, these are some of my choices and my take on the music. Or at least my take on the music at the point at which I recorded it – the music is flexible, renewable, and not only will other pianists play it quite differently, but I hope that my playing of the music changes with each performance.


The works on the discs are taken from his first compositional period, the 1950s, and his more recent phase, dating from 2001. What is missing are the extraordinary works from the late 1970s and 1980s, which can be found, amongst other places, on Sally Pinkas’s recording for Mode. There are, I think, about four more discs of music to record, which I hope to begin over coming years. As well as the works just mentioned (which include Bread and Roses and the Preludes 1-11), there are some curious works from earlier in the 1970s, such as Snowdrop, the Tilbury pieces, and Studies. And then more recently there are the whole set of short pieces which he has been composing for the past 25 years, collectively titled Keyboard Miscellany (which are ongoing), as well as Incidental Music (an hour-long set of fragments composed for a Merce Cunningham Dance Company "Event") and now the new piece which Christian composed for me and which I premiered in November 2014, Sailing By.


Though it might appear strange to have missed out 40 years of music by pairing the early and ‘late’ works in this release, it’s my feeling that there’s much they have in common, not least in terms of how I respond to both periods as a pianist. The ‘middle’ works do seem to demand a different kind of pianism, one which arguably references a more conventional way of playing (though the continuity and treatment of material are anything but conventional). What I love about the 1950s works is the liveliness of the material. Despite the complexity of the rhythmic notation in many of these pieces – or maybe because of it – there is spontaneity in the music, an improvisational quality I think. For example For Piano II is known as Wolff’s retort to [Pierre] Boulez’s complaint that he used too few notes in the earlier works, so this uses all 88 notes of the piano in various permutational ways. In other words, it is like what we think 1950s music to be – atonal, sounding serial, pointillistic. However the transparency of the line, the counterpoint, and the rhythmic complexity, combined with the absence of dynamics and tempi, results in a lively situation for the pianist – it’s a great piece to play! Likewise the recent works also share a concern for transparency and counterpoint. They are variously notated in terms of rhythm – some very open others much more fixed and some highly complex – and most often dynamics and other ways of playing are left to the pianist to determine. These are situations I particularly enjoy, as someone who enjoys both improvisation and counterpoint! So in some ways I feel perhaps most close to these works. Additionally they are works which I find endlessly curious, surprising – I’m not sure I ‘understand’ them, in that there is always more to gain from playing them. Wolff once wrote that “a score [is] one element in a conversation, an inducement to exploration, something flexible, reusable, consistently useful.”2, and that’s a conversation I’m happy to continue!


SA: One thing you bring up is the idea of presenting YOUR version of Christian's music, not in a egocentric way, but acknowledging that the performer does have more of an active role in Wolff's pieces than in, say, the work of Debussy or Chopin that I mentioned above. To me, the excitement of the release was that I finally was able to hear multiple performances of pieces like For Pianist or Long Piano, which is a rare treat for Christian's work and very insightful. How do the more performer driven elements of his work (improvisation, choices of tempi, etc.) affect you as an interpreter? Do they bring you closer to understanding his composition or push you further away?


PT: Christian has often made remarks to the effect that when he allows considerable freedoms to the performer he considers what, assuming goodwill on the part of the performer, would be the most far out response to these freedoms permissible by the notations/instructions. And then if he considers himself happy with that the piece is good, but if he thinks of responses which are perfectly permissible but which he would not be happy with then it's his responsibility to change the notation/instruction in some way. Knowing that this is his approach, that he has considered these matters carefully, means that I am then free to bring all that I am as a creative person to the table. In an article I wrote some time ago I made the distinction that to play Feldman's music well you have to some extent engage with Feldman's sounding aesthetic - the sounds, intervals, sense of time and pacing, and so forth. And with Cage's music you need to consider carefully the balance between choice and discipline, perhaps using chance in some way to make realisations, and certainly avoiding an overtly expressive or improvised approach. Whilst with Wolff I believe that the kinds of situations he composes into his music, the peculiar balance between control and freedom, or fixity and openness, allow for such a wide variety of approaches without in any way compromising the music. Performers are really free to be themselves, and yet the demands of the music are such that they will be making music quite unlike anything they would otherwise have performed.


So any performance of a piece reflects not just my own personalised responses to Wolff's music, but also my own responses at that time, informed doubtless by the music I'm interested in at the time of performance, what I'm reading, thinking, performing, etc. I've long ago stopped thinking 'I wonder if he means this...?' Or 'should I play it like this...?' In fact I often approach any given performance with the idea that there should be something in what I do that would, if Christian were there, surprise him in some way. Curiosity is vital when performing Christian's music, a sense of pushing things in some way. So rather than thinking 'what's the right way of playing this...' I'm thinking 'I wonder what would happen if I tried this...'. And whenever possible I try different things from one performance to another. In this way it keeps me alive and curious in the performance moment.


One of the techniques I've developed over the years is a qualified use of chance.3 What most fascinates me in the music is the balance between freedom and control, between having to do something specific at this point and having a great deal of choice at the next point. But in order for me to further surprise myself when I play almost all of his works, I use chance to predetermine some things. So for example, where wedges4 are used to break up phrases, I use chance to determine how many of those I might determine in advance of any given performance. So in a piece containing, say, 80 wedges, chance might determine I allocate 36 of them a particular duration. Then I use chance to determine which 36 of those 80 I determine in advance, and then again I use chance to determine how long that wedge will be (I usually have a choice of five - very short, short, medium, long, very long). It may be that chance tells me to allocate very few wedges in this way, or it may tell me to notate the majority of them. But what it does for me (and I recognise this is a very personal response, and not remotely what I think anyone should do - I'm not advocating this as a somehow better approach) is that it rescues me from the inclination to average out all the wedges so they all last approximately 3-5 seconds. And it also sometimes puts me in uncomfortable situations, such as after a particularly difficult passage when I really could do with a decent break before the next phrase, chance has determined that that wedge should be only very short. Or, in contrast, a single note or simple idea is separated by the following event by a very long break.


I apply similar processes to dynamics and to any other elements I think appropriate in the piece, such as tempi, pitch area (when pitches are free), choice of clefs, etc. I then re-apply the processes to each performance I give of the piece, keeping it fresh and lively in my experience. What this does is that I discover ways of playing and perceiving the music in quite different ways than if I left everything to my intuition. But note there is always room for playfulness and responding to the performance moment. Whereas in a piece by Cage I might notate everything in advance, in Wolff's music I like the mix of predetermined situations and intuitive responses to the performance moment.


SA: Along a similar trajectory of gaining an understanding of Wolff's music, do you feel that the research involved in writing your essays for Changing the System gave you any insights to the performance of his work that you wouldn't have had from performance only?


PT: All performers try to find some way into the music they play. I have always enjoyed the reciprocal relationship between research and performance, and whilst not all performers will necessarily write about the music they play, as I did in this case, I think given the chance performers generally have interesting things to say about the music they play and how they play it. I certainly don't think that my research endows my performances with any more or less authority, which would be a very un-Wolff like idea. But yes engaging with his music and ideas to the extent that I did preparing the book certainly helped me engage with the music as a performer. Though I find the music no less strange now than I ever did.


SA: From what I've read and heard, you are also very involved with the Wandelweiser collective, or at least composers I loosely associate with that label, like Laurence Crane and Tim Parkinson. I have always wondered about the connections made between Wolff and, say Michael Pisaro or Antoine Beuger, in the performer's mind. I know that he is involved with the label on one level, but not all of his music falls into the same musical space to me. Do you make a connection between those two worlds, especially between a piece like Long Piano and some of the works that may feature on Wandelweiser or Another Timbre?


PT: This is a fascinating relationship. Certainly it is true that many of the composers associated with Wandelweiser are greatly sympathetic to and admiring of Christian Wolff’s music and he has played with many of them and they continue to play his music. And yet at the same time I get the sense that many people who are drawn to the music composed by these same people are rather baffled and perplexed by Wolff’s music. Or at least, they might be happy with a piece such as Stones (especially when performed by particular people) or For 1, 2 or 3 people, or Edges, but can’t relate so much to the more ‘note-y’ pieces such as those I’ve recorded here, or actually the majority of Wolff’s composed output.


I think a number of connections might be made, but the most key ones for me are to do with playing: playing with others, playing in spaces, playing but not repeating, and playing in relation to a score of some kind. What I most love about playing Wolff’s music is that it materializes only through performance. That is, that no matter how much I might practice (and of course it’s often very difficult music technically so practicing is very important!), it only comes alive through performance. This is particularly true of ensemble pieces, whereby so many things might change from rehearsal to performance. There is a real sense in many of the works of the performers discovering the music, as if for the first time, in the performance moment. This is also true of all the pieces I know of composed by people associated with Wandelweiser. In particular I might mention the Swiss composer Jürg Frey, with whom I’ve just recorded a double disc of his ensemble music for Another Timbre. His music also functions very much in this way: often the individual parts of an ensemble piece look fragmentary, barely music, despite the exact pitches mostly prescribed, but when played with others, in relationships, the music emerges as incredibly strong, elusive and strange, curious to play, but always immensely enjoyable to play.


The notion of play is at the heart of Wolff’s music. He even wrote a piece with the title Play! Playing music, for sure, but playfulness, playing with music, and playing with others. There’s a child-like quality very often to the music, either in the nature of the music itself or in the demands upon the performers as to when to play and who to play with. There’s also the social situation generated by playing Wolff’s music. Antoine Beuger talks so fascinatingly about the distinct performance situations with one person, with two people and with three people5. These are really brought to the fore in Wolff’s music, in which you find you have to deal very attentively to the social dynamics of the performance situation. I think this is particularly the case in pieces such as the Exercises in which the number of players and what each player brings to the occasion makes often huge differences.


The other connection I might make is to do with the freedoms allowed by Wolff’s notations. In particular the characteristic Wolff-ian wedge which separates material (phrases, sections, even individual notes) and which indicates most often a pause or a breath of any duration. I tend to enjoy exploring the potential these offer, often allowing for breaks of quite a considerable length. For me these breaks serve to frame the sounding material by increasing our awareness of the performance space into which the performers “drop” these pithy, sometimes obscure, sometimes naïve little phrases or collections of notes. What might be in other contexts very ordinary and childish, or even “frowned upon”, musical ideas are given a dignity and beauty, which I find immensely attractive.


SA: And finally, this is a question that seems to be on my mind in almost every interview I've done for this issue and, since you referenced it slightly in your answer to the second question, I'll ask. What does the practice of performing Wolff's works (or Frey or [Antoine] Beuger for that matter), especially with regard to the social aspect involved, do to you as a performer when moving to works that maybe are a little more traditional in their musical roles? Is there an overlap in your approach or thinking? Does working on these pieces in this way change the way you would work on, say, Haydn?


PT: It's difficult to say because I seem to be almost entirely involved with music that shares many of these concerns these days. I would say that the idea of chamber music fills me with joy, both as a performer and as a listener/viewer; that the social dynamics involved in playing in small groups, without a director, seem to me to be the happiest context for making music. As Head of Performance at the University of Huddersfield I'm obviously keen to see my students engaging with ideas of historical context and performance practice, but I'm most of all desirous of a situation in which performers respond to each other and the liveliness of the performance situation with curiosity and surprise.



1Ashgate Publications, 2010)


2Wolff in Cues: Writings and Conversations (Cologne, 1998) p314 (1993)]


3On the topic of how chance can be used in composition and performance:


4Wedges are a Wolff-specific notation device, essentially an inverted caret or "v" shape that denotes an indeterminate or performer-determined pause before going on to the next musical material.


5Saunders (ed.) The Ashgate Companion to Experimental Music, Ashgate, 2009, pp.233-236


David Kant: For (Cyborg) Pianist


As mentioned in the opening remarks to SA10, we're working on an experiment that will hopefully provide a broader temporal aspect to Sound American by adding fresh new pages that relate to the issue's topic every 3 or 4 weeks. These pages will be added as the home page for a week and then join the rest of the content, ultimately being archived as the next issue is posted.


This essay by David Kant is the first of those pages. David was suggested to us by Larry Polansky, who contributed some thoughts on the topic of Christian Wolff and improvisation for this issue. Polansky, a professor at University of California at Santa Cruz, was overseeing some project by Kant, a doctoral student, and recommended talking about his computer-assisted realizations of the famously difficult (physically impossible?) For Pianist.


As an editor, I admit I was skeptical, not about David, but about how the idea of a computer assisted anything would fit in with the tonewe were trying to set in talking to and about Christian Wolff. What I thought we were trying to capture was Wolff's ability to capture a certain non-romantic sense of what is human and social about music making, and my, admittedly naive, view of what a programmed version of his piano work would involve seemed to be counter to all the notions we had set out in the rest of the issue.


Almost immediately upon receiving David's essay, though, I could see how misplaced my worry had been. Kant's project uses the computer in ways that ultimately expand the performance possibilities of a piece that may have previously been limited by not only physical constraints, but the tendency of us, as humans, to lock ourselves into a small number of possibilities, patterns, or habits. It's a fascinating way of viewing a piece that is infinite in concept, but limiting if viewed only through the eyes of the possibilities of the human performer.

I first encountered For Pianist at the Ostrava Days 2009 Festival of New Music when Philip Thomas presented the piece and talked about his experience performing it. I was fascinated by the work: the time bracket notation specified in unplayable fractions of a second; its form, an unpredictable labyrinth of interdependencies; separate pages of pitch collections and performance instructions; and enough in-performance decisions to fry even the fastest supercomputer (OK, but maybe in 1959...). The piece is difficult, or, as Larry Polansky joked, “It's impossible, at least at this stage of humanoid evolution.” But what about this stage of cyborg(-oid) evolution?


For Pianist is a solo piano work from 1959. One of the earlier instances of Wolff's unique and innovative time bracket notation, the piece spans a continuum from determinate to indeterminate. It requires the performer to respond musically to the unpredictabilities of their own playing, and to choose rapidly from changing sets of possibilities and restriction. Its performance is a frenzy of decision-making, listening, and responding.


Time is simultaneously under- and over- specified. The score is a series of brackets. The duration of each bracket is fixed, but the timing of the material within is free - sounds may fill the entire duration or only a short portion of it. Wolff's durations range from 36 seconds to 1/50th of a second. Some are simple divisions of the second, such as 2 and 1⁄2 seconds, while others are more complex, such as 9/40ths, 11/60ths, and 13/20ths. The temporal density (number of sounds per bracket) spans orders of magnitude, ranging from a leisurely 3 events in 36 seconds to a hectic 7 events in 1/4 second.


Each bracket contains a set of symbols indicating what to play. Numbers specify how many events, and letters correspond to one of 6 pitch collections, ranging in size from 3 to 34 pitches (given on a separate page). Other symbols indicate transpositions by octaves and semitones (combinatorially expanding the pitch choices) and playing techniques: tapping, muting, snapping, touching, plucking, pinching, scraping, and hitting the keys without activating the hammers. Fermatas provide exceptions, allowing events to extend before and/or beyond the time bracket boundaries, and the score even features occasional tablature-style notation.

Example notation from page 3. Each box is a time bracket. The leftmost number indicates the duration of the bracket in seconds. To the right of the colon, the number indicates how many sounds to play within the bracket, and the letter indicates the pitch collection to choose from. Additional text indicates playing technique modifications and other instructions. Above the staff, the numbers indicate the absolute time of the piece.


For Pianist applies Wolff's cueing technique to one performer. The program note explains, “For Pianist is an attempt to involve a single player in situations like those of pieces (such as Summer, Duo for Pianists II) in which several players rely on what they hear from one another, unpredictably, for cues.” Where previous pieces require performers to respond to one another, this piece requires the solo performer to respond to unpredictable aspects of their own performance—whether or not/how long a harmonic sounds, how cleanly a note is struck, accidental sounds, and more. These unpredictable aspects set the performer on branching paths, trigger the start of secondary paths, and can even send the performer to entirely different pages of the score. The many possibilities form a structure that both bifurcates and overlaps. For example, the score branches into 3 separate staves according to the performer's effort to play “as soft as possible:” whether the result is inaudible, as soft as possible, or louder than as soft as possible. Another passage features a secondary staff whose alignment with the primary staff is cued when a sound and its harmonics are no longer audible.

Excerpt of page 1 showing a branching point. The dotted line points to the three possible paths determined by the outcome of the event “as soft as possible.”


The piece is a complex, ever-changing set of constraints and contingencies, sometimes limiting the player's options, sometimes offering many. The system of constraints is something for the performer to work with and against. Actions have recourse; the performer's decisions at one moment determine their options in the next. In this piece, indeterminacy is not simply what the performer can do in any one moment, but how these choices effect their choices in the next. The score is a dynamic system of possibilities explored in dialog between the performer and the score.


David Tudor, for instance, fully determined the score. Although the piece is understood as an effort to thwart Tudor's practice of determining indeterminate notations, Tudor, as documented in John Holzaepfel's dissertation "David Tudor and the Performance of American Experimental Music, 1950-1959,” prepared a fully determined version—at least to the extent possible. Tudor's version is a meticulous and sprawling working out of the system of contingencies, complete with alternate staves for branching paths and a sliding staff to align systems with unpredictable starting times. He fixed the indeterminacies that he could, deciding pitches, dynamics, and where to apply performance techniques, and he indicated rhythms proportionally on a one-second grid, translating the fractional bracket timings into decimal notation to coordinate with a stopwatch.


Between the precise bracket timings, the large number of decisions to be made in fractions of a moment (some impossibly small), and the need to respond to unpredictable situations, just playing what is written is difficult. The piece demands compromise; the performance indeterminacies are constrained, in fact, by the score's logistics. My work takes interest in the possibilities of a computer to rebalance this compromise, from coordinating timing in a computer-assisted live performance to producing fully determined versions of Wolff's score.


Wolff's timings are beyond human precision, but computers are excellent timekeepers. Interested in the possibility of a computer to coordinate timing in live performance, I made a digital version of the score. The digital score is animated in realtime, visually guiding the performer through the time structure. It scrolls through the piece, highlighting the present moment bracket by bracket. An expanding bar grows to fill the current bracket, indicating how much time is left. In effort to retain Wolff's hand-written notation, the animation is overlayed on scanned images of the original score. Furthermore, while Wolff's notation is roughly proportional, some brackets are stretched and others brackets are compressed. I wanted to both clarify the proportional timing and keep Wolff's original notation. The expanding bar graphically shows the rate of time along the horizontal dimension of the score, according to how quickly it grows. Finally, the computer needed to respond to cues, allowing the performer to choose paths in live performance (just a foot-switch interface for now). The computer functions, in effect, as a sophisticated graphic metronome, pre-programmed to the time structure of the piece, yet able to change paths on the fly.


I hoped this would help the performer devote more attention to choosing what to play, but there was still too much to decide in what was often too little time (some of the time brackets are quicker than the frame rate of my computer monitor). I offloaded more and more to the computer score, displaying the pitch material beneath each bracket (using scanned images from the original score), and even choosing which pitches should be played, in what order, their dynamics, and their articulation, working towards a compromise of the determinate and indeterminate. In order to retain a degree of unpredictability, the computer score used chance procedures, a counterweight against the tendency (at least my own) to settle into familiar musical figures when diverting brain processing power to other performance demands.

An excerpt from page 3 of the computer-assisted score. The current bracket is highlighted in red as a display bar above expands to fill its width.

As my versions became further determined, I began to reconsider Tudor's approach, no doubt a laborious endeavor at the time, yet another task computers are particularly suited to. Due to sheer speed, a computer is an excellent means for exploring the possible realizations of the score—a way of having many David Tudors—and I began to make many different versions, determining everything that I could program such as pitches, articulations, playing techniques, and rhythm. These versions were rendered in a separate (somewhat) standard notation, rather than Wolff's bracket notation. I became interested in exploring the space of possible realizations formally, according to different methods, constraints, preferences, and techniques of determination—the densest realization, the sparsest realization, the most harmonic realization (the list is endless)—to capture a panoptic image of the piece.


At first I was interested in notating alternative paths as Tudor had, and even combining this notation with computer-assisted timing—a technological update for Tudor's sliding staff—but I quickly became interested in deciding paths through the entire piece, start to finish. Fixing a path simultaneously fixes the corresponding contingencies; if the outcome, for instance, of "as soft as possible" is fixed, the corresponding alternative stave must be fixed as well, and vice versa. My attention turned towards computationally exploring this system of dependencies and trade-offs.

An excerpt from page 3 of the computer-assisted score. The current bracket is highlighted in red as a display bar above expands to fill its width.

There are many possible realizations of For Pianist, (infinitely many, perhaps, considering that the score allows any number of pages). While the space of possible realizations is enormous, it still contains some things and not others. One way to describe the piece is through the kinds of things it provides, the kinds of things it doesn't provide, and why—what is its structure? Performances of the piece present possible realizations, but a computer allows access to the space in another way, that is, by distinguishing the impossible realizations from the possible realizations. Computer code provides a way answering the question: is x possible? Is it possible to play a 6 minute version? How many versions are under 4 minutes? How many versions use at most 3 pages? What is the fewest combination of pages that will last at least 15 minutes? Is it possible to play a 5-6 minute version in which page 1 occurs 3 times more than page 7, no page is repeated twice, pitch set c is never chosen, unless pitch set b occurs on the following page, and the dynamic never exceeds mf?


Most importantly, these questions provide a means of exploring the relative significance of parts of the score. Perhaps including page 7 allows for only a small number of new realizations when compared with page 6. Perhaps page 3 alone describes most realizations. Perhaps page 9 can drastically change the nature of the space of possible realizations, but only in combination with page 2. Perhaps it's not a function of specific pages at all, but rather the number of pages total. Or perhaps it changes dynamically, depending on what has occurred thus far. This gives a way to talk about the important features of the piece, and, ultimately, its construction, or composition. It also gives a way to understand how these features interact to determine the piece's possibilities. Moreover, it's an approach unique to computer code (at least barring an extreme [mis]use of human-power). Computers can help us to explore and understand this space. Ultimately, however, For Pianist is not what's written on the page, nor even the totality of every possible realization, but rather the experience of having those possibilities before you.

Joshua Rubin: Septet Wolff

Joshua Rubin: It’s interesting about his music; the kind of improvisation that you’re doing in his music is very specific. In some ways it emerges out of some of the ideas of his New York School experience, but he clearly also wanted to work with all these jazz improvisers as well, people that had experience doing a certain kind of improvisation. But, his notation is so specific that it really allows for only a few [choices]…it really should just be entirely notated.


Sound American: The limitations are not severe, but are more extreme than a freely improvised piece.


JR: Which is why I think performances of his music can vary so much. Some performances of his music can be kind of dull. It requires a certain kind of energy of performance to make those limitations so comfortable that the piece feels successful. That’s my experience in hearing his music anyway.


SA: What about your experience playing it? I know about Pete, which is a piece he wrote just for International Contemporary Ensemble [ICE}, but there was also a period when you were doing the Exercises, right?


JR: Basically our connection to Christian is through Nathan Davis [ICE percussionist and composer]. He taught at Dartmouth with Christian, and they were very close. Nathan, when he joined ICE in 2004 or 2005, brought all this Christian Wolff music, and we started doing it at our performance. We then got in touch with him to work on a concert for Valentine’s Day 2010 at Issue Project Room, which was a lot of fun.


Simultaneously, I was working with Christian on various other projects. For example, our violinist, Erik Carlson, had a project called the NY Miniaturist Ensemble that commissioned pieces under 100 notes. And, he would write all of his favorite composers and ask them, straight up, if they would write a piece. 75% of the time he could approach any composer. [Karlheinz] Stockhausen wrote his last couple of pieces for this ensemble; [George] Aperghis, Milton Babbitt, everyone wrote pieces, because it [the 100 note limit] is amazing challenge. They can use it as an exercise. Christian Wolff wrote a series of pieces for the ensemble called Microexercises.


SA: Stephen Drury talked to me about those pieces.


JR: Right, well he wrote the first book of those pieces for the Miniaturist Ensemble. He wrote the second book for someone else; maybe Drury. So, for me, that was an amazing connection. I was overwhelmed to have this set of pieces written for us.


The pieces are like the Exercises, but each one is a contrasting ensemble work for one to maybe ten players. Some of them have a mathematical cohesion that is different from some of the other Christian Wolff pieces. You know Tom Johnson’s music?


SA: Yes, we just featured some of his work.


JR: Right, so you know how some of Tom Johnson’s work is made up from a simple algorithm or formula sometimes…some of the Microexercises have something like that; there’s an iterative process or a kind of written out algorithmic process involved. I really appreciated how he put so much thought into what the maximum possibilities of a piece that was under 100 notes could be. So, that was my initial connection with him.


We commissioned Christian this year through a grant that Mount Tremper Arts got to do this piece. Pete Seeger had died last year and that was on his mind, so he wanted to base this piece on inspirations from Pete Seeger, so that’s how that ended up happening.


SA: ICE and you are in an interesting position with regards to Wolff’s work. I think it’s probably an idea I hold too dear, but he seems to do very different kinds of pieces; Exercises/Microexercises has one way of work, the Text Pieces work in a different kind of way, more open to interpretation, but then there are these, for lack of a better term, political pieces like Bread and Roses or Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida [based on a Holly Near song...thanks to C.W.- Ed.] that seem to have a different aesthetic. You and ICE have been working in all the different aesthetics with Christian, it seems.


But, to get to Pete specifically, I was listening to it online…


JR: You know, I don't know where Pete falls in that spectrum, but I think that Christian feels that all his music has a political connection to the chamber music that he's writing. The ways that the members of an ensemble interact is like a community exercise. And, I’m not a Christian Wolff expert, but I do think that a lot of his political ideas emerge from this idea of community…


SA: The social interaction…


JR: Exactly, and so even within those pieces that have political themes the styles vary but they usually revolve around this idea. For example, he’ll write out a line that has some sort of engagement, either decisions made beforehand or in the moment and the [musical] exercise is to come together in the moment and realize a melody using listening…and selectively ignoring, too. That can become the political action. I’m not sure how Pete fits into that scheme, because there’s a lot more notated music in this than in some of the other works.


SA: That’s the thing that’s interesting to me because the music of his that I group into my own category of overtly political pieces have more written out material. When I went to listen to Pete, though, and maybe I was looking for something specific in regards to Bread and Roses and pieces that are based on folk and political music, I was looking for those folk song materials which he says he runs through “transpositions”; algorithms and things like that create the musical materials for the piece. This piece, though, had aleatoric and improvisational sections that were very pronounced. In contrast, when I talked to Sally Pinkas about her recordings of this work of Christian’s I was surprised how much aleatoric music there was in the score as it didn’t come across in the recording, whereas when I listened to Pete, it seemed more clear when you were in an open section, either aleatoric or improvisational on some level.


JR: It’s true. The piece has really clear divisions and you can see it in the score. And, in working with him, too, it was interesting that this piece does have improvisational elements. I think it had something to do with the instrumentation. The band we put together for that piece was sort of like an old-timey band: clarinet and trumpet, one string instrument, etc. So, there’s something like a stage band sound when you hear the folk song pieces that are old-timey type songs. I don’t think they’re Pete Seeger songs, but more like reminiscences of a time. But, because those folk song sections sound so stage band like: a little bit ragtime, a little bit stride piano, the dialogue between those sections and the improvisatory sections are much more contrasting. I also think, when you look at the score, you’d be surprised how many of the improvisatory sounding sections are notated. There are a few sections that are very minimally written out. They are more like graphical notation; more spatialized.

An example from Christian Wolff's Pete showing one of the more aleatoric sections of the composition simultaneous with more traditionally notated material.

SA: One thing that you brought up about the political being a social aspect, I’m always fascinated with ensembles that work with specific composers and how playing that music affects the way you rehearse or perform. I know you’ve done music of Pauline Oliveros, and a lot of people I’ve spoken to who have worked with her have mentioned how it affected the way they worked on other composers’ music. I get a feeling that Wolff has a similar effect. It seems like he sets up a social situation that has a lot of unwritten rules about how you interact based on that situation. Do you think that changes the way the group dynamic approaches something like the Chaya Czernowin stuff you just performed at Miller Theater?


JR: Oh for sure. Some of us are trained improvisers and some are trained in contemporary music and have come to working with people like Pauline and George Lewis and Christian later on. And, there’s one common theme that has absolutely informed the way we work as a group in all kinds of music, notated or not. I’m thinking about when we worked with George Lewis on his piece, Artificial Life 2007, an improvisatory composition that we’ve played a lot. That piece is like a flow chart that takes you through an improvisation in a very specific way. One of the things I hear in my mind when we’re playing that music is George saying that, in the moment of coming up with an idea that you want to realize or express in an improvisatory setting, part of the action of playing involves deciding whether what someone next to you is playing can take the place of what you might do individually in the context of the overall performance. Pauline is the same way. A lot of her music revolves around whether you’re playing or not. Those can be equivalent in her music. Christian doesn’t have as much silence or space in his music as, say, John Cage’s or Pauline’s music, but I think that the idea of deferring to your neighbor, but also stepping on them, both interactions, are crucial to his composition. And, he would always advise us in the direction of making more room and creating more space, textures sparse. That way of listening and deferring in chamber music is something that applies to all the music we play in ICE.