A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

1. A Conversion to New Music

FRANK J. OTERI: Your music is like no other music, even the music of other composers of the so-called New York School. And you’re largely, almost totally self-taught. What made you initially embark on the kind of music you’ve been making for the last half-century?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: [laughs] How could I? It just sort of happened. You can put together pieces of how it got there. We could go on for a long time doing that. My background originally was very straight, very heavy classical—sort of Bach to Brahms, no exceptions. And nothing after… I mean, I hated modern music when I was a kid. I just couldn’t stand it. And I had sort of a conversion when I was about 14 years old when I heard, for the first time I heard some Bartók. And actually, the six string quartets got their first New York performance played in a room by the Juilliard String Quartet. And then I got to hear, at Tanglewood of all places, a concert again by the Juilliard Quartet, of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and that completely turned me on. I thought, yes, OK, now I know what I want to do. Not write music the way they were writing it, but write a music which was as different from traditional music as theirs was. I mean, I would try to do it in my own way.

FRANK J. OTERI: So at the age of fourteen you said you hated modern music, but by the age of sixteen you were hanging out with John Cage!

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah! Well, I said it was a major conversion! [laughs] I should mention the other musical item in that period which I took a long time to percolate through, but I think in the end was really quite important. I didn’t listen to pop music at all; I hated it. And if you think about pop music in the late forties I think you’ll find, unless you were really seriously into musicals and stuff like that, it was not very attractive. But we used to go hear Dixieland. Kids in school down on the Eastside around 8th Street and just about every Friday and Saturday night and I really liked that a lot. And what I liked about it I think primarily were two things, just the sheer musical energy going, but also two other things: one is the total virtuosity of the performers, which is a totally different kind from that of the classical, it’s much freer. And then, this I didn’t really understand until much later, but the heterophonic character of the music. That’s an idea that somehow registered with me much later, but which I realize was something that I was very interested in myself.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting, that period of the late forties of course was the period of the bebop revolution when jazz went from being popular music to being really heady and intellectual.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: (nods) But you know, I missed that. Somehow—I mean, I knew that something was going on. I think once maybe I went to one of those clubs. Those were more sort of half uptown in the forties and fifties. Somehow I didn’t catch on to that; I didn’t know enough to go. Dixieland was basically old-fashioned music, so in a sense, I didn’t connect to that new movement at all on the jazz side.

FRANK J. OTERI: How did you meet John Cage?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Through my piano teacher, Grete Sultan. I had been doing piano lessons and I had started composing on my own. I had thought that I was going to be a pianist initially but I just didn’t have it. So, I practiced less and less and wrote more music, and to excuse myself at lessons, I would bring the music I wrote and finally she said, “You know, you need to go see a composer.” And I said, “Do you have a suggestion?” I knew one important composer at the time. I knew Varèse who lived around the corner from us on Washington Square. And you know, he was the one composer I could think of that was doing something that seemed to me really interesting in an area where I would like to be working as well, but she said, “No, I think this other person might be really good for you.” And that was John Cage.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what was Varèse like in the late forties? That was still the period where he hadn’t come out of his silence yet.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Exactly. Yeah. In a word, he was silent. He was a great guy. He was really an interesting person. He was sort of a neighborhood character in the Village and he was a friend of my parents. Once or twice I went to visit him to try to find out about his music. But it was in those days, you know, people didn’t have tapes, of course, there wasn’t any tape! You have to remember that. And there were no recordings. So you couldn’t hear the music and he didn’t really want to talk about it. I mean, he talked about these sort of notions he had about electronic music and all of that, but the technology wasn’t there yet so he was in limbo. He was sort of waiting for something and then it finally, fortunately, happened and he got back in and wrote those pieces, you know, Déserts, and so forth.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, your parents were book publishers?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, I guess that’s how they knew Louise [Varèse], because she translated all this poetry.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Exactly, but my memory is of—not my memory, it’s not my memory at all, but my parents told me, my father. We arrived in 1941 from Europe and moved into this grungy little place on Washington Square and one day there was a knock on the door, and my father goes to open it and there’s this guy standing there, you know, this sort of imposing character the way Varèse was, and said, “Bonjour. Je suis Varèse. Welcome to New York.” Just like that! You know there’s the immigrant community had a way of supporting each other and he may have very well learned from Louise that these people, publishers from Europe, had just come over. Go check in on them and stuff

FRANK J. OTERI: Now after you started composing music, did you ever get to interface with Varèse? Did Varèse get to see or hear any of your music?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: I don’t think so. I mean, Varèse was basically about Varèse. For instance, Cage knew him and admired him a great deal but I don’t think the feeling was mutual. I didn’t talk to him a whole lot, but I don’t recall his ever really talking about other people’s music.

FRANK J. OTERI: And the only student I know him ever having was Chou Wen-chung. That’s it.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Chou Wen-chung, exactly. So he was really isolated in that sense. I mean, people admired his work, obviously, but he just was there. He was a part of the landscape and didn’t really interact with you a whole lot.

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