A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

4. Compositional Intent

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, there’s always this myth of the composer. Beethoven hearing the Ninth Symphony in his head and not being able to hear it in real life and he conducted the premiere and of course he was still conducting after the musicians stopped because obviously he didn’t completely hear in his head the tempo they were actually playing. With this music, with this indeterminate music, in a way, if you’re hearing a finished product in your head, you’re not hearing it. So what is it you’re hearing in your head?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, you are hearing specific things, but you are aware that they are possibilities rather than the only possible result of what you’ve written. And it’s true, especially with the earlier music. I sort of tried to test it. You know, you play something, try it on the piano, you know, does it sound okay or not? You know, and you can’t do that when all these indeterminate elements are there, but you can think about, well, what’s the worst I could do with these freedoms that I have here? What could I do that would be totally unacceptable to me. And if I can’t figure out how to do that, if in fact the conditions are such that that’s not going to happen, then it’s okay. But if this somehow could be twisted—I mean, in extreme cases it can always be—I mean if somebody really sets out deliberately to sabotage the piece, of course they’re going to be able to sabotage it. Feldman had this happen to him a number of times with those graph pieces. People would just play tunes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: And that means that they’re just really not serious. There’s no good will at all there. I mean, you have to assume that there’s some…that if they’re going to do it, will to do it with some interest in doing something decently.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, in terms of setting boundaries, all of the movements in music have been in a way about restricting as well as giving freedoms. I mean, certainly, the serial system is about having a perfectly contained sound world, that’s permuted along a certain path and minimalism to even more of an extent, you know, stripping down everything and having cells from which pieces are generated. But in a way, I’m thinking of these earlier pieces of yours extending all the way to the Tilbury pieces that we were looking at maybe a 20-year period here from like ’49 to ’71, let’s say. The pieces that have restricted pitches are almost a serial minimalism in a way. You’re only using those pitches, so in a sense there’s an order, a serial order, but since you’re only using a handful of pitches, it’s minimalism. A generation before minimalism happened.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, yeah, those are kind of a separate chapter, you might say, entirely. I mean, that’s really basically where I started. That’s where… I think of my first real pieces, I think of those early pieces with very small numbers of notes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Like the Serenade?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, exactly. And indeterminacy is not an issue there. If you’re looking from somewhere where they might have come from, the nearest I can think of would be the earlier Cage music, the pre-chance Cage music. Some of those prepared piano pieces, which themselves can be very minimal too. A very small number of pitches…

FRANK J. OTERI: Four Walls.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, for instance. Very simple pieces… I didn’t know that piece, but there are a couple that I do know. That might have had some effect on how I did those. Though there were technical reasons why I did that which I had cooked up myself, which had to do with…yeah, actually, initially it all came out of one of those exercises that Cage set me, which was to do, I had to learn how to do this rhythmic structure and he said, “Well, look. Do it just monophonically for one instrument and use just five notes. That way you can really focus because it’s so restricted,” and so I did that. And I really liked working within this very small area and then I thought, okay, I’m not interested in just monophonic, I wanted more. And I thought, well, okay, let’s do two instruments and let’s cut it down to three notes. And then I thought about that and thought well, look, it’s not three notes. It’s a whole bunch of sounds. For instance, any combination of those notes, there’s two, so 1 and 2, 1 and 3, 2 and 3, that’s already three sounds. And there’s 1, 2, 3, in any case by themselves, that’s six sounds. Then you have the sound of 1 and 2 together, let go of 1 and that moment when 2 sounds after having been together with 1, that’s a new sound. There’s no other way to hear that except in those situations. And then you get the permutations and before you’re done, as it happens with two instruments, two melody instruments, and three pitches, absolute of course, pitches, you have twelve sounds. And so, that seemed to me a lot to work with. So I made pieces with these twelve sounds and now, I regarded them each as it were as a sound unit and then I thought I was working melodically with these sound units, which might be simple. Just a simple sound or they might be one of these more complex things and that’s what that stuff is about.

FRANK J. OTERI: And in terms of rhythm?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: That was sort of intuitive. The rhythmic structure was there, but then it was like making melodic, single-line melodic material.

FRANK J. OTERI: And dynamics were always pretty much…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Similar. I’ve never really been interested in serializing all these different things. I did do pieces where everything got more complicated, you know where, a lot of variety of dynamics and stuff like that. And, you know, well, maybe, yeah, it’s possible that in some of those pieces there is a kind of serial thinking. But it’s rather more informal.