A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

FRANK J. OTERI: In the last couple of years, you worked with Sonic Youth on their album Goodbye 20th Century. What was that like?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: That was fun. [laughs] You know, and it was very brief. I mean, to say I worked with them, it was one session. They just had this very nice notion of making that record…

FRANK J. OTERI: I love that record.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: You know, they tried out all of these avant-garde things and it’s an accident that I worked with them because Lee Ranaldo just called up one day. I mean, I’d never, I vaguely had heard the name Sonic Youth, my kids know about all this stuff, there like into this, all of this. [laughs] Well, I learned. So he calls me up and says, “So we’re going to do these pieces of yours, is that okay?” And I said, “Sure, it’s fine. It’s great. When are you going to do it?” And he mentioned the date. “Oh,” I said. “I’ll be in New York.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you join us?” And so I showed up at the studio and we had this really great session. And that was it. But it was very enjoyable, I must say. It’s funny because the recordings, recordings are usually… I hate them. They’re just torture. You know, they go on for hours and they do this phrase ten times and the next one ten times and so on and so forth and then you have to edit it all and it’s awful. But here basically we sat around…I arrived and they were sitting around and there was some music laying around and they said, well, what are we going to do? And I saw a piece called Edges, which is basically an improvisation piece, so I said, “Well, why don’t we try that?” So then we explained the score, the notation and so forth and then we go in the studio, we start playing. We play for about twenty minutes, okay, step out, let’s listen to it. Ah, it’s pretty good, now what are we going to do? [laughs] It was great. I mean, it was just absolutely super. And then we did one of the pages from Burdocks.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, so do you feel that their interpretations of your music are your music?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Well, yes and no. I mean, this is also a larger question that we’ve touched on in a way before. No, my first impression when I hear it is yeah, that’s Sonic Youth. [laughs] Right. However, it is also true that it isn’t quite Sonic Youth, because in fact, it’s an expanded band. I mean, Kosugi‘s playing on it, Christian Marclay‘s playing on it…

FRANK J. OTERI: William Winant.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: William Winant is playing on it. I’m playing on it. So we’re getting something a little bit different in that sense. The ground tone is, as it were, is certainly, partly because of the conditions under which we did it—it’s electric, so on and so forth, and they do have a very strong presence, so it’s a Sonic Youth kind of thing and yet they probably would not have done it, anything like that if they hadn’t started with my material, right? It’s sort of…in that sense, it’s a kind of symbiotic relationship.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what’s interesting is hearing the stuff they’ve done since then. And, certainly, before they did this particular record, had done three albums of these avant-garde improvisatory things that are fascinating. And all of this experimental work has really affected the actual songwriting they’ve been doing on their official rock albums that have come out since then.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Oh, really? Isn’t that interesting…

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s fantastic and the thing that excited me about it probably more than anything, because I’ve been a Sonic Youth fan for years, but now there was this extra bonus. There was an item about Goodbye 20th Century on one of the video stations. And they featured Pauline Oliveros because of this! All of a sudden the entire alt-rock crowd was aware of Pauline Oliveros because of this album. And that is a great thing.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: That was very nice. That was great. Yeah, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And what’s interesting to me is that that audience, the audience for alternative rock music is more open to the music of Wolff and Cage and Feldman and Pauline…

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: That’s been one of the nicest things about the last three or four years, is the number of younger people that come to these concerts. I mean I’m astounded, you know, because we’re old fogies here. We’ve been around for years and all of sudden, all these kids turn up! You know, and they seem to like it or at least are interested; they’re willing to check it out which is very nice. It’s really nice!

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what’s interesting is that they’re more open to it then the so-called classical music audience, which is still dismissive of this.