A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

3. Interpreting Indeterminate Music

FRANK J. OTERI: How did the first performers react when they were presented pieces with no pitches determined?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Feldman‘s pieces, for instance? Actually my vocal piece never got played… That sort of disappeared. It still hasn’t been played! [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: But you have it.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, I have it. Yeah, we almost got it done last spring, but it didn’t happen. The Feldman pieces and these other pieces, I mean, the Cage pieces that were done by chance, that were indeterminate from the compositional point of view and my music and then, not long after, Earle Brown‘s music, I guess you’d have to say the reaction generally was very hostile. I mean, I got used to very early on that I was doing something that most people really hated. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: But you kept doing it!

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, I kept at it because there were enough people who seemed to think it was okay. I mean, I was interested in just writing music, but I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. That seemed to me to be partly maybe a little bit of an adolescent thing, do things a little differently, but also just that seemed to me a reasonable way to proceed, and also the way Western music has always proceeded. I mean, that is, the composers you know are the ones who did it differently.

FRANK J. OTERI: But of course the amazing irony to this whole thing is that this almost sounds ego-driven in this strange kind of way and the thing that makes this music so spectacular, I think, is how selfless it is, how completely crystal clear Cage’s post-1951 music is, or any of the music of Feldman, and Earle’s music as well as yours. It is all just about sound and nothing gets in the way.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: This is true. In fact, that’s probably the single thing that unites all of us, the notion of non-expressionist music. I mean it is not about self-expression; it’s about, as you said, sounds. And then the sounds themselves can generate and cause feelings in some mysterious way. And that they could still do that was, obviously perfectly okay and fine and desirable, but it wasn’t going to be something where we said, “Okay, now you’ve got to feel this”—bang! You know, that’s it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, clearly in fifty years of writing this music and having performances of it. There have been performers who get it.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Oh yeah. Things have changed. I mean, extraordinarily. There were these concerts last year—the “When Morty Met John…” series—they played those pieces that I still remember thinking “Oh my God,” this terrible reaction and people just love them now. They just sound so beautiful. You can’t believe it! Yeah, time will make a big difference honestly.

FRANK J. OTERI: And in terms of performances, who have been some of the people who’ve championed your music and really allowed it to shine?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: I’ve been very lucky. I mean, the key figure in a way—the thing about John Cage was that he, in a way, the most important lesson of all was the notion that he said, you know, a piece is not finished until it is performed. It’s got to be out there. And he was definitely energetic and always organizing something or trying to get something going, some concert or so forth and so on. I mean, I was a kid and Feldman was not particularly good at this and so forth, so John was the one who really took over this side of things and then we had this extraordinarily piece of good fortune in the name of David Tudor. There were other musicians. There were always a few musicians who were friends, who wanted to try it or whatever. I mean this is New York after all, even in 1949, ’50, or whatever. And so Maro Ajemian, for instance, who devoted herself to the earlier piano music and there was a violinist, Frances Magnus, who played Feldman and then various cellists who were interested in Feldman and so forth, but David Tudor was the key figure because this is all he wanted to do. I mean, he wanted to do the avant-garde music that was happening right now and that meant Cage and ourselves and then also Europeans. He was interested in doing the first performances in New York of the Boulez Second Piano Sonata and the Stockhausen pieces and so on and so forth. So the result was that after that, starting in ’51, I think, all I did was write piano music because our resources were seriously limited. There was no money. There were no public funds at all; there was no arts council…

FRANK J. OTERI: No orchestra commissions…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: None! [laughs] And so Tudor was basically it. But he was so phenomenally it. You know, I mean, he was this extraordinary pianist so that he really pushed us because we thought, David wants something new and different and possible to play to do. You know, and so we were trying to provide that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, what’s so interesting to me in terms of your story with these people is that you were a kid! You know, Cage at this point was 40 years old.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Almost, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: You were seventeen, like sixteen, seventeen, hanging out with these heady adults.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, Feldman was in his mid-twenties, and Earle, too, was 26 or 27.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you were still the kid.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: I was the baby. Yeah, I was the baby.

FRANK J. OTERI: And did they treat you like an equal?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Oh, yeah. I mean, clearly I lived a slightly different kind of life. I went home to my parents at night.

FRANK J. OTERI: You didn’t hang out at the Cedar Tavern?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, I might tag along, but when it was suppertime I either had to negotiate it at home or, you know, I still had those parameters, and I still had to go to school during the day and stuff like that! So to that extent, clearly we were in a slightly different world. But when it came to music or the concerts and the rest of it, no, we were all on the same wavelength.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now in terms of interacting with the visual artists. Did you also interact with Rauschenberg and Guston and…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, certainly I saw them. I still remember when Cage first took me way down in the Financial District, where Rauschenberg and Johns had an apartment together. Had a space, because they also used it as a studio. I remember being taken along there and seeing, I think it was the Bed—he’d just finished it—and seeing those early Jasper Johns targets and flags and stuff. So, yeah, I got to see that stuff early, but there my age did make a little bit of a difference. Because I was still from a different world and I was sort of tagging along with the musicians. So, I was aware of the art and I liked it a lot, but I didn’t have that special relationship that say, especially Feldman, and Cage too, had with that work.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what’s so interesting is they influenced the artists and the artists in turn influenced their sense of how to make pieces of music, so you didn’t feel that connection?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, yes and no. I mean, maybe a little bit later. I felt very close to Jasper Johns’ work for a long time and in very oblique ways and that surely came from that period when I was first made aware of his work at all and then whenever there was a chance to see it, I would immediately go and check it out. And so, I couldn’t tell you how it affected my work, but there’s just something about it. It was just very classy. It had this very elegant quality which I aspired to—let’s put it that way—which I found really interesting and wanted to respond to in some way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, there definitely is a connection. I was listening the other night to the Tilbury pieces which are very painterly. It’s just like abstract expressionism. You’re throwing these pitches out there the way an abstract painter would throw a splash of a certain color out there and it’s very coloristic. And especially that first Tilbury piece, which is essentially for the most part a solo piano piece but there are intrusions from a melodica, and they kind of come in as if all of a sudden it was an all black painting and there’s a little bit of red in a corner somewhere.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, that’s good. Now I should say…

FRANK J. OTERI: Those are much later of course.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, that too, but the notion of using this melodica for instance, in other words, what the music gives the performers, is only notes in the case of this particular piece, so that the particular coloring, and it is clearly a keyboard piece. I mean, you can make other arrangements, but you start from the notion of the keyboard. But the version that you heard, is that version and I could make you one that was quite different. I mean, you could clearly hear that it was the same piece, but it might have a different feeling. For instance, if it were only keyboard, then you wouldn’t have this sort of color…it would be much flatter, it would be more like a black and white painting, or something. But I think you’re absolutely right, that yes, that the image of the way that the paintings feel and look definitely transferred into the kind of work that I was doing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that brings us back into the notion of performers and what performers have brought to this music. Clearly with the series on Mode, you have these interpreters that have done such fantastic work with this music, like the members of the Barton Workshop. They get it. And they bring out things in this music that a performer who isn’t versed in this music can’t possibly bring to it. By writing pieces in a notation system that doesn’t give all the instructions, you’re putting a lot of faith in the performers. Have you been at performances where the players just don’t get it and you’re totally dissatisfied?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Oh, yeah. It’s not that different from performing any other kind of music. I mean, you can hear Mozart played in a way that’s just awful, if somebody doesn’t get it. In fact, Mozart is rather hard to play well. That is the basic situation with notated music, that you have to figure something to do with this information, which is not sound, which is just symbols on a piece of paper and I turn that into something that works musically. Now, of course, how it works musically or what constitutes being musical for this music, that’s another step, though that is beginning to develop. There’s a kind of performance practice of late-20th-century music and on from there. But, yeah, one friend of mine, a player says that my music is very fragile because I’ve really had some very bad performances and I’m thinking, my God, have I really written this crappy music? Or else people will hate it and I understand! And then it turns out, you know, that either sometimes there’s simply a misunderstanding of how the material is to be used. If somebody didn’t read the instructions or didn’t read them carefully, that’s easier to deal with, but other times it’s just not having an ear for it and just not knowing what to do with it. It’s doubly complicated. It depends a little bit on what kind of pieces we’re talking about ‘cuz my earlier indeterminate music is really indeterminate and yet at the same time it’s much easier to do because you’re in such a totally different situation that you don’t have to think about “how should I do this?” You just have to do it. You know, you’re too busy waiting for these cues, you know, you have five seconds to wait before you can make this sound and then it has to have three changes in color and, oh my God, you have to be done before the next guy makes his sound. So, you’re just very busy and as a result you are very business-like; you just make the sounds. And the question of expression and all that other stuff just doesn’t enter into it. And that’s fine. And as I said, if I can get somebody to do that in the first place that usually works out okay. Those pieces, in a funny way, are not fragile. The fragile ones come later somewhere around in the ’70s, and it in a way, beginning with those Tilbury pieces, where I gave up that older, sort of invented notation and the music initially looks much more like regular music, with the notes on staves and the rest of it and a musician looks at that and thinks, “Okay. Now I’ve got to do this and this and this and that. Now is that what he wants? Is this what you want?” You know, and then I get into real trouble because I can’t honestly say yes or no because it has to be what the performer thinks has to be the way to do it. Now it’s true, some performers may think of something more interesting, some less, but there’s no one image of what the piece exactly should be like and that’s the problem because it looks as though there should be.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Whenever you see a piece of music you think, okay, there is a way to do this and then you keep striving for that. In this case, that’s a kind of blank or it’s a question mark and you’re struggling to figure out how to get into this thing and how to do something with it and so forth.