A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff
FRANK J. OTERI: For years, you’ve had this other life. You teach Classics which is a whole other world than cutting edge, new music. [CW laughs] Thousands of years separate them! [laughs] Is there any connection at all?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Right, right, right. My day job. Well, there’s got to be some connection, right? I never worried about it. I just kind of stumbled into that very early on. I decided, I thought, when it was time to think about college and stuff like that, I thought first of all, I should really go to music school, you know, a conservatory. I’m a musician, right? But then people kind of talked me out of that. They said, you know, “You should get a proper education. So broaden yourself, go to a liberal arts school.” And so forth. And by then, I’d encountered Cage and anything after that was going to be too late. So I got to college. To major in music and study with Walter Piston? After having studied in 1950 with Cage?! Come on! I thought much later, maybe it wouldn’t have done me any harm, say, to do a harmony course, or whatever. Counterpoint, maybe.
FRANK J. OTERI: His string quartets are nice.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, right. Yeah. Sure. No, Piston’s fine. He was a great guy; he was extraordinarily tolerant. You know, he never gave us a hard time, you know, and we caused trouble there and stuff. But he didn’t mind. He was, it was good. And he was a very accomplished composer and I could probably have learned all sorts of stuff, but anyway, I just kind of decided no. And the other thing was that I thought, well, I can’t play, I write this music that is really problematic as far as the audience goes and it seems to be what I do. How the hell am I going to make a living? You know, what am I going to do if I want a family or any of those things. And I looked at John Cage in his late thirties, destitute. Living on hand-outs from here and there. I mean, really having it hard. I mean, it’s hard to imagine because eventually things worked out but he was halfway through his life and he was just in desperate straits and I thought, can I do that? You know, I didn’t, this wasn’t necessarily conscious but was my picture of what it was to be a composer like that.
FRANK J. OTERI: And Feldman at the dry cleaners!
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: And Feldman doing dry cleaning and so forth. And I thought, I don’t know if I want to do that. So I thought, let’s go to college and see what happens and I…You know, I did have this literary thing in the background. My parents were publishers and so forth, and somehow I’d stumbled into Classics. I had a very good Latin teacher in high school, and so I was well prepared. And I took a Latin class and I enjoyed it immensely. And classics students are hard to come by at these institutions, so as soon as they see that you’re even there and that you have a little capability for doing this stuff, they’re on you immediately. “Come join us!” And here I was at Harvard, with a very distinguished department and they wanted me! Anyway, that’s how I got to be a Classics major, and then the idea of teaching appealed to me. Especially when I saw, again, a very distinguished institution, and these people teaching this great stuff, and really not being very great teachers. Some of them… You know, there were both good and bad, but the indifferent ones and the bad ones at this great institution, I thought, wait a minute! I can do this better, maybe this is what I should be doing. And that sort of got me and then I could see and I was, sort of, at the time… Now, the idea of going into Classics to make a living is totally bizarre. But in those days, some way, maybe I was naïve but I thought okay, let’s try that and then that’s what I did.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s another one of those weird ironies: teaching Classics is more lucrative that being a composer.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, yeah, I mean, yeah, there certainly are the…two other things, or one certainly. There was the interest in teaching and somebody once said, that my music, there was a strongly pedagogic element in it, especially the earlier music. It’s not just about playing the music, but it’s about learning about what music is and how it works and how you do it. And maybe that’s the connection. I mean, it’s this impulse to teach. And so that’s again, it’s a little bit abstract, but I think that could be a connection.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, interestingly enough, I mean, ironically in the earlier part of your life, you were an academic and a composer, but you were not an academic composer! [laughs]
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Not in any stricter sense, no.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, now, in terms of the music departments that you interacted with, you eventually started teaching music.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: I did, yeah.
FRANK J. OTERI: How did that happen?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: I’ve actually only had two academic jobs in my whole life. One was at Harvard. I got my degree, I got all my degrees there, and I ended up teaching there for actually eight years and I had no interaction with the music department at all, except once. I once got asked to come in and teach a class about Cage. And that was by the guy who was their Renaissance specialist. [laughs] So it gives you an idea. And then the Harvard thing, the Harvard gig sort of came to an end and I was looking for work and there was a job open at Dartmouth in Classics and I went up there. And when I went up, I met this guy Jon Appleton and he knew about me as a composer and he said, “You know, if you come to Dartmouth, you really should be part of the music department too. It would be great to have you here.” And somehow that worked out. That we had a dean who thought it was going to be interdisciplinary, which it really wasn’t, but anyway… And so I got this joint appointment and that was how I ended up teaching some music, finally.
FRANK J. OTERI: You are largely a self-taught and an intuitive composer. So what sort of things have you tried to bring out in the music of your students?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, the first thing to say is that in the entire time that I’ve taught at Dartmouth, which was well over 25 years, I only taught a composition course once, and that was in my last year! [laughs] And in that case, so I can tell you what happened there. What I did, no, I did do something else. It was a workshop; it was called Workshop in Experimental Music where I took anybody who wanted to come in, whether or not they had any background, and basically we spent the term figuring out what we could do and what kind of repertory we could make use of and we gave a concert. And that was great, that was, basically, so, in other words, and you didn’t, you could, there was no, nothing about composing, it was about performing. But it was a kind of performing, it was mostly those like my early pieces, some Cage, but there’s a huge, there’s a large body of work, which is just prose instructions. A lot of Pauline Oliveros‘s work is like this, so that is the kind of stuff we did with this. If we had a couple of instrumentalists who really had some chops then we would do things around them to a certain extent, but it was mostly about teaching them how to perform the music. And to perform the music which required them to be something like a composer, the activities really cross there. As they should in fact all the time. And so that’s one thing I did and if in the course of the term they got interested in doing their own things, that was great. Then we would in fact get student compositions but they were spontaneously generated out of this performing situation. And then the composition course, that was a rather specialized case because Dartmouth has a small program, a graduate program in music and technology, and so you tend to get people there who are highly computer sophisticated and spent all their time in the studio and never played an instrument. And this course was billed as, you know, Composition in Electronic Media, or something like that and I told them immediately, you know, I don’t know the first thing about electronic media, so we’re just going to do music here. And basically, I mean, I did have them make pieces, but I had insisted they made only pieces that could only be performed in class. So, in other words I made them get out of the studio and either they had to do it themselves or find somebody or whatever, but it was performance oriented. So my teaching basically has to do with performance. Composition is a kind of poetry. You can’t really teach, I mean, obviously you can technical things. You can help people; you can see their work and say okay, this doesn’t seem to work well and stuff like that. But as far as just teaching composition, it’s like teaching how to write poetry. I mean, somebody has to want to do it and has to have some impulse for doing it and then you can help them and then there are technical things you can learn, but otherwise, no. So in a way, I was glad that I didn’t have the opportunity to teach composition as such, you know, and I got to do it in these more indirect ways which seemed more interesting.