A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff
FRANK J. OTERI: So, the first meeting with Cage.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, Monroe Street. Which I don’t think exists anymore…
FRANK J. OTERI: Now it’s the name of a record company!
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Exactly and that’s why it is! It was on the Lower East Side. And he said show up at such and such a time, on such and such a day and I went down there, and I’d never been in that part of town before, and it was a little creepy. It was really rundown. It was right at the end, just before you got to the river, just sort of at the Corlears Hook, I guess.
FRANK J. OTERI: Avenue D?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Something like that. Yeah. Now it’s a huge housing development, but in those days it was just a bunch of rundown little tenement houses. And then next to his house, there was this great big wreck of what once been apparently a bakery that had burned down and they had just abandoned it. And you could still smell this faint baked bread smell. It was really weird and you’d see rats running around. It was really amazing. Anyways, so—I was a kid so I thought, Oh my God! What have I gotten myself into? And I go into this building and there are about six floors and it smells bad and it’s really your typical tenement. And I don’t know … and of course there are no names anywhere, no indication of who lives where, so I have to go from door to door. I knock. Well, I listen at the door first of all and if there are kids I figure, that’s not Cage and I go on. I knock, no answer or and I work my way up the entire building and of course he’s on the top floor, right? And I finally knock and there he is, so…
FRANK J. OTERI: Almost a sort of indeterminate quality to that meeting!
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: It was a funny time, yeah.
FRANK J. OTERI: And had you already written the Serenade?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: No, that was later. I had written just a few little things, which I guess were sort of odd. I guess, I was very interested in dissonance and—lots of dissonance—and I would write these sort of canons which were designed to be for maximum dissonance and within a very close range, so they were really like through-composed clusters. But you know, I would write maybe like a page and half’s worth and not even that much, you know twenty bars and then I wouldn’t know what to do next and Cage really liked what I was doing, but of course he said, “You know, where do we go from here?” But anyway, what he saw he found interesting and he said, “Yes, I’ll take you on as a student.”
FRANK J. OTERI: Now do those very early pieces survive?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, I have some of them buried away somewhere.
FRANK J. OTERI: I’d love to see them and hear them sometime.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, I don’t know if we really want to get into that!
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you’re description of them makes them sound really appealing.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, actually there’s a piece for four violins. I wouldn’t mind hearing that sometimes. But like I said it’s a fragment, it’s the very beginning of a piece.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, composition lessons with John Cage, what was that like?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, he had projects, four projects I think. One was, he had just heard the Webern Symphony, which had just gotten its first performance at the Philharmonic, and that’s where he met Feldman. A very important occasion, both musically, well, in every way. And, you couldn’t buy the score, so he went to the public library and copied out the first movement, so he could analyze it and he had just started to do that when he said, “You do this.” So that was one assignment: to finish the analysis of the first movement of the Webern Symphony. I think he wanted me to copy the second movement so we could do that one too, but we never got around to doing that. And then, what was the other one? Then he was going to talk to me about rhythmic structure. The Webern was very important for me. I think I am still working under the spell of that… Webern I generally like a lot, but that particular piece, I owe a great deal to it. And then the other really important thing was the rhythmic structures, which is basically how to put a piece together from a structural point of view and so I did exercises to learn how to do that. And then he thought that we ought to be doing something regular, serious. And he thought counterpoint exercises. Which was totally mad, because I hadn’t even had harmony yet! But that’s what he had done when he’d studied with Schoenberg. There were two years he’d studied with Schoenberg and all they did was 16th-century counterpoint. So, we started off on one of those things and then the last thing was just to do my own thing and bring that in too. That was it. That was the program.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s so interesting because you never wrote twelve-tone music as far as I know.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Nope. Nope.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you were studying Webern…
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah. Well, it was in the air. These things happened simultaneously on this side of the Atlantic and then over in Europe. It was Boulez, Cage had—well that’s the other thing—Cage had spent a year in Paris, the previous year, on the Guggenheim and had spent a lot of time with Boulez. They were really good friends at that time. And I think he picked up a lot of that information at least and interest and also the interest in Webern has to come from there. And then Stockhausen is just around the corner and so on and so forth. So serial, maybe not twelve-tone, but serial music in one form or another and then remember what started me on all this was the interest in Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. And when I was first writing, before I met Cage, I basically sort of reinvented the twelve-tone system. I worked out kind of a crude version of it, but it seemed to me to be a useful way to try to put the music together.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you actually did write twelve-tone pieces of a kind…
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Sort of. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
FRANK J. OTERI: But then everything took a shift almost in the extreme opposite direction, if you would. Almost to the point that as I read through these things and listen through these pieces, I would dare say in some ways you influenced Cage perhaps as much as he influenced you. You gave him his first copy of the I Ching.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, that’s not me, that’s the I Ching! [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, but you were the one that brought it to him.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, yeah. It’s true. It was a pleasant accident. Yeah. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: And the very notion of indeterminate music, this thing that we think of as John Cage, “chance music,” is not really exclusively John Cage. It kind of came about through these talks that you in many ways instigated by bringing him that book.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: He was headed in that direction and I think that there were various things happening. Because there was Feldman, and Feldman was doing those graph pieces and in some ways they’re not at all indeterminate when you get back far enough because that’s the way, he just worked with sonorities, he didn’t care about the pitches and, you know, he wanted a high flute, you know, you just make that little square high and that’s a high flute. You didn’t have to worry if it was an E-flat or an F-sharp. That was secondary. But it was, on the other hand, the notion at the time was very shocking to people. They were like, “What? You’re not telling the flute what note to play?” [laughs] And so I think Feldman in that sense was the first person specifically to do something like that. I actually did make a piece, which I dug out recently for some reason, but it was a vocal piece for trio—a vocal trio, where the pitches were not specified: there were simply single lines and the melodic movement was indicated, but not what the pitches would be. I mean, each singer simply picked a central, comfortable pitch and then moved up and down according to the movement along the lines and this was in three parts so that you would get a resultant that was definitely unpredictable.
FRANK J. OTERI: And this pre-dated Cage’s indeterminate pieces?
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Right, yeah. Yeah. But he was definitely looking for something like that and he already worked with these charts, these magic squares, which caused continuities that would be unpredictable. The materials he used within them were fixed but how they would combine and sometimes overlap that was…He was constantly looking for strategies for making that happen by some force other than his own decision.
FRANK J. OTERI: And certainly, the whole notion of a prepared piano… You can never exactly prepare it the same way and you never know what harmonics are going to resonate and what pitches you’re going to get.
CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yes, that’s certainly another issue. Yeah, yeah.