A Chance Encounter with Christian Wolff

8. The Orchestra

FRANK J. OTERI: I recently heard this piece you wrote for orchestra and it was your first orchestra piece, if I’m not mistaken.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Not quite. There are two or three others preceding it and a couple of little ones. Very little orchestra music because I can’t get the commissions for it and I’m not going to put in the work, and I mean, it’s an enormous amount of work to do an orchestra piece. So unless I have at least a notion that this is going to get played, I’m not going to do it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, writing for an orchestra is almost the opposite phenomenon of working with a rock band. The orchestra is this standard ensemble that largely plays repertoire that they’ve been playing for a hundred years; it’s codified and the audience for the orchestra is much different from the audience for Sonic Youth, let’s say. What was your experience working with orchestral musicians and working with the audience?

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: It’s been mixed. Setting aside a couple of the earlier pieces, which I just did to try it out and then the first, I can’t even remember what the first one is, but a relatively recent one, a bigger piece which was a commission from Donaueschingen, the festival in Germany, where they’re into that kind of music, preferably for orchestra, and there’s a lot of it and this is just one more in the—so there is a kind of new music culture, if you will, that does a lot of orchestra music—you’re not going to hear Beethoven on those programs, it’s just going to be Lachenmann and Rihm and if I’m really lucky, there’ll be some Wolff on it! Right? So, to that extent, from the audience point of view, that was no problem. On the other hand, from the orchestra point of view, there were major problems, which I kind of suspected. I mean, I was there when the New York Philharmonic did Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, which was a shocking, really, really awful event. I mean, just dreadful. They deliberately sabotaged; they killed the piece. Literally, I mean, before your very eyes on the stage. Half the musicians just sat there. They wouldn’t even play their parts. I mean, you wouldn’t even believe how unprofessional that group of people were. It was stunning. So I knew that orchestras could be a problem. And then, you know, you hear stuff and you can understand it in a way. I complained a lot to Cardew and Cardew said, “Well, look, wait a minute! The ultimate image of alienated work has got to be orchestral musicians. You know, those poor guys. They have no say in what they’re going to play. They have to do exactly what this guy tells them to…” and all the rest of it. You know, it’s a completely hierarchical situation and that creates certain kinds of feelings and situations and then this kind of tension between orchestras and their conductor. Now, for this particular piece for instance, it’s the Sudwestrundfunk Orchestra, which is an okay orchestra that specializes, no it doesn’t specialize, but once a year every year, they take off a month and a half and do nothing but new pieces. But they’re regular conductor had just left and they were using temporary conductors. And I’d come for the first rehearsal and we hadn’t gone but one minute into the rehearsal, when the concertmaster’s already telling the conductor what to do. And you know there’s trouble, I mean that there’s going to be… So the whole thing is a battle to sort of establish turf and establish territory and who’s going to tell who… You can’t really look bad so ultimately they will pull something together, right? But as far as actually thinking how the music goes, it was really a bad, bad situation. So that’s sort of the negative side, and it wasn’t entirely negative because I had a great soloist, a percussionist, Robyn Schulkowsky, who was terrific and a few members of the orchestra did get the idea and actually came to me and said, you know, “I think this is okay. It’s kind of nice.” And so forth. But generally speaking it was a very tense and unpleasant situation. So that’s that experience. Good experience: Petr Kotik. Heroic efforts to do something interesting with orchestra musicians, right? And this is New York, so he gets to put together groups that are really first class.

FRANK J. OTERI: The Orchestra of the SEM Ensemble is a handpicked group.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: It’s a fantastic group and it’s people who know what they’re getting into and are not going to be shocked if they have to do something a little differently, or whatever it is that they’re required to do, and might even find it kind of interesting and get into it. So I knew that I was in a much better situation. Now that particular piece was originally written for, or at least, the piece exists as a kind of modular collection of material, which can be used in a number or different ways. So that’s harkening back if you will. But it was originally made for this orchestra in the Czech Republic, which is a sort of provincial orchestra, not very good, not until Peter got hold of them (don’t ask me how), had only done classical repertoire and he started them off… I mean, their sort of initiation to new music, to any 20th-century music, was with Cage‘s Atlas Eclipticalis [laughs]. So they had been a little bit broken in and the concerts had been successful, so that they did feel as though they were doing something that people were interested in hearing. And in fact, were more interested in hearing than Beethoven, which was played better by the orchestra in Prague. You know, so that was nice. And so, to that extent, they were willing and they were relaxed about it. And so I knew I would have a fairly positive kind of general atmosphere. And then it was just more of a question of what to do with this hierarchical situation–having three orchestras is really a good start, because that means that no one person is in charge. And then different, all kinds of different strategies… The way they began that performance in the Czech Republic I like a lot. There are solo parts for every single member of the orchestra. There are 80 parts. Everyone gets their own solo. It’s not very long but there it is. It’s completely…and when you do that part of the piece, you simply block off some time and then whenever you think you want to do it, you do it. And so what happens is that the quieter instruments have to kind of look for some space. Because flutes in a low register have to wait until the trombone’s done his thing over here or else forget it! And so forth. But anyway, so the piece started and I didn’t know quite how this piece was going to work out. That’s dangerous. You know, 80 people all doing something more or less simultaneously. The parts of it can be arranged in different sequences, and they decided to start with that and so the conductors come out, all three of them, and take, you know, the whole routine, take their bows and so forth. Look at their orchestras. And then just sort of nod their heads and put their arms down and the music starts. And there’s music for three minutes and nobody’s doing any conducting whatsoever! [laughs] And it sounds absolutely beautiful!

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, that’s great. We’ve got to get a recording of this.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: I was interested in doing the piece in doing not just that, but sort of trying all of the different possible ranges of control, non-control, you know, and so forth. So there are parts of the piece where—I never did use a unison for everybody—but there are parts where there, say, if only just writing two lines and the entire, all three orchestras are playing at the same time, but the two lines are, as I was saying, we’re cutting across that space, so it’s very precise and the conductors are the only ones, I mean, they just make sure everyone plays on time, but otherwise it’s completely determinate, because it’s you know…And yet, on the other hand, it’s highly indeterminate because of the spatial situation and where you’re sitting and the way the sound is hitting you. And also because it’s impossible to coordinate at those distances that the musicians are from each other, perfectly. You’re not going to get, I mean, you can do it on the computer or with a computer or with a synthesizer, but with an orchestra there’s no way you’re going to get—or also just the way you hear the sound—so you in fact you get this very rich, complicated sounding thing even though all I have notated on the score are these two lines of notes and relatively simple rhythms. [laughs] So that’s the other extreme.

FRANK J. OTERI: So that’s the heterophony issue, going back to the very beginning of our conversation.

CHRISTIAN WOLFF: Exactly. Right, right. Yeah.