A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

5. On Serialism & Complex Modernism

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: The thing about the twelve-tone thing that drove me crazy was that once you start on a sequence of twelve, you had to run through the sequence. You had to go 123456789, and so forth. Which seems really stupid because, one, I’ve got 1722225134, or something, you know, what is this? And so to that extent, what I did was I set up the equivalent of a row but it was simply a kind of reservoir of pitches. And they might be three, it might be twelve, it might be fifteen, it might be seven. You didn’t have to and you could, it could include octaves. And they were not transposable, that’s the other thing. The twelve-tone system, at least in its sort of simpler, strict form, is very abstract really, because, it’s just a tone row. But there’s nothing said about the instrumentation—the registration! A crucial factor. Nothing there at all. So in a way I was stricter because I fixed the registration and the pitches.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: But I never got hung up on this intervallic business, this Milton Babbitt thing about combinatoriality and all this stuff, you know, I just couldn’t see that at all.

FRANK J. OTERI: So did you ever interact with Babbitt?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, everybody knew everybody else in the community, the new music community, so I sort of bumped into him and, you know, we knew each other by sight. I knew him more through some of his students. I actually spent quite a lot of time in one year with a guy called Richard Maxfield. You know that name?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: We both got Fulbrights the same year and we hung out together a lot and he was just saturated with this stuff and I was giving him a very hard time about it. And we spent the whole year quarreling about this and then actually the end result, you might say, was that I won because it was after that year that he started doing the tape music and he completely gave up all that other stuff and got to be a really interesting composer.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, I never heard his serial stuff. I only know the whacked out tape stuff.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Exactly, exactly. Now he totally went off…so that was sort of my indirect experience with Babbitt. And Feldman had a sort of chip on his shoulder about Babbitt, as you can imagine. [FJO laughs] No, Babbitt himself is a great guy. He’s a fun person and an interesting person and so forth.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, we had a great time with him a couple of months ago.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, I bet. He is a funny man!

FRANK J. OTERI: We talked about beer and Broadway musicals and…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Right, right.

FRANK J. OTERI: How about Carter, who actually to this day still lives around here?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Does he still live on 12th Street?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Oh my God. Alright. Yeah, Elliott Carter. Again I would meet him periodically here and there and we had one friend in common and that’s Frederic Rzewski. A surprising friend in common actually… And they got along very well and he did good things for Frederic. He got him good gigs and things like that. I had problems with Carter’s music. A few pieces I like a lot, but mostly it seems, it’s a little bit beyond that sort of early, really uptight European serial music, but not too far.

FRANK J. OTERI: But it’s not serial.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, that’s the other thing. It’s not strictly serial but it’s still very organized. I mean, a lot of it is in the rhythmic stuff, but it seems so kind of hyper-constricted music. Maybe I just don’t have an ear for it or something, but it just doesn’t…I mean, my wife put it once, it’s funny, she said, “It doesn’t swing.” [laughs] And I had to confess I knew what she meant…

FRANK J. OTERI: It can be very busy. But it’s interesting because the music he’s written in the last decade is much lighter…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, which I don’t know. I’ve sort of lost track of it. What I gather, he’s sort of loosened up a lot and it must be quite different.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s fantastic. And of course, you know, he’s in his nineties, and he’s writing this stuff.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, it’s amazing, the work he’s doing. No, I still need to catch up with that.