A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

6. On Neo-romanticism & Politics

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, to talk about how your style evolved over these years and I don’t know what you’ll think of my saying this, but works like the Piano Trio, which is one of my favorite works of yours, and Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida are almost neo-romantic in a way. And they’re almost harkening back to the past. What’s that about?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, well. I think two things. One is sort of personal and that has more to do with what I told you earlier, that I was saturated with all this classical music, which I didn’t give up, you know, I mean, I still get a kick out of Brahms occasionally [laughs]. And so some of that may be in the background. But otherwise, the main thing that happened to me was in the late ’60s, the early ’70s is this turn to politics, you know, this interest in politics, like a whole lot of other people, obviously. But through the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, it got us pretty stirred up and interested and then a number of us asked, “Well, this music we get. Where’s that in this larger picture of the world.” And the feeling was, and mine too in the way, I mean, I didn’t have this problem that say Cornelius Cardew had where he decided to reject all of his earlier work and to denounce it and so on and so forth. I certainly didn’t. I thought, it was done in good faith. I certainly didn’t want to keep doing it and that also for personal reasons. I thought, I’d already done everything I wanted to do with that way of working. I wanted to do something different. And in a way the first break from that, it’s a couple of things: it’s, there’s a larger piece called Burdocks was one thing and then something like the Tilbury pieces were another. And those were really, in some ways they’re still minimal and have all these other qualities, but they’re also quite different, or at least they seemed to me at the time to what I’d been doing before. Well, it’s simpler, there are a lot more notes! You know, I guess the early music was very sparse, very like Webern in that way. But I was looking for something else to do. That was another factor. And then as far as the politics go, the feeling was that what I’d been doing was so kind of specialized and esoteric and self-enclosed, and I wanted to try something that was a little bit more, you know, going in the other direction, and that’s basically, those were some of the results. The other thing was, again on a more technical level, that one way of doing that, which again occurred to a number of us, was to use traditional material–folk songs, or political songs, or politically connected music–and work that into our pieces. And so that’s a sub-stratum of that. For instance in the Trio, each movement is based on a political song and once you’re into those political songs, I can’t use them abstractly. I mean, they’re full of all kinds of very powerful feelings and ideas and stuff like that, and that becomes sort of part of what’s in my head as I write that music and therefore it then becomes fairly direct, expressive music that the early music had not been.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, in terms of the politics…These pieces are mostly instrumental pieces.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: So the message that’s coming across is not coming across verbally.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: No, no.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you still think that an overt political message can come across in instrumental music?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Overt? No, no, no. I did do that too, I wrote some songs. I wrote sort of a cantata on the IWW, the Wobblies: Wobble Music… The only way to be directly political—I mean, not the only way, this is a large subject—but for starters, the only way to be political is to have a text… Music is notoriously elusive. I mean, that’s the whole point. What is expressed can only be done through music. You can’t do it with words. If you have a text, that’s a whole other scene. And even there, text plus music can come out to something that is not just the text. In fact, it can be something completely different than the text. And so, there are all those issues there. But when it’s straight instrumental music, the best you can hope for is that there’s something—it could be in the title of the piece, it could be in the notes accompanying the piece, you explain, or you mention that this song was used and then you say a little bit about the song and where it belongs—and so that you kind of position the music to a kind of political culture. Ideally, the thing is to write really great agitational songs…

FRANK J. OTERI: Which is what Cardew wanted to do…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Exactly, exactly. And it’s not easy to do. It’s really hard. And also it’s both from the point of view of composition, but also from the point of view of circumstance, you need to have, you need to be in the middle of a strike to write a piece, you know to write a song that’s going to work in a strike. So, and that kind of experience, occasionally, there were moments in the Trio, for instance, which are dedicated to these three women’s camps, anti-nuclear camps, which happened to be Seneca, NY, down in Sicily, and then in Greenham. Well, I was at Greenham and my wife was both at Seneca and Greenham, so that these things connected with real things that were going on in the world that had a political significance.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one thing though in this music since it allows the performer so much room is that the music in and of itself is a statement against autocracy…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: That’s another way to look at it. But something like the Trio doesn’t leave the performance that much room…

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s the irony!

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I mean, I had this experience once, and the piece (not that piece) but a piece from that period was performed somewhere in England, I think in London, and when it was over these kids said, “Why are you doing this? This is terrible! And it’s politically bad.” And I was really quite shocked because I thought I was doing the right thing and they said, “No, it’s your earlier music that’s really political.” The stuff that I had rejected as too esoteric… And then of course these ideas came up which you might say because it’s a kind of model or a symbolic enactment of certain ways of relating among people, and therefore about politics, that in some deeper sense was more political than the stuff that I later did with using songs and things like that. It’s another version of it. No, I have to also admit, I had no idea, I had no notion of being political in those pieces. [laughs] That was a bonus in retrospect! But it is true, that the notion of de-hierarchizing, you could say, has always been important to me.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting that Luigi Nono, who was an avid left-wing political thinker, wrote really hardcore serial music

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Yeah, he’s one of my favorite examples when you raise issues connected…I mean, you go the whole—between Cornelius Cardew or somebody like Hanns Eisler, wrote hardcore political music and had been themselves avant-garde folks and then you get someone like Nono who is hardcore political and writes this really hard music. Yeah, yeah. [laughs] No, there are many possibilities out there!