Charles Wuorinen: Art and Entertainment


Charles Wuorinen in conversation with Frank J. Oteri

June 5, 2007—5:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow
Transcribed by S.C. Birmaher
Edited by Frank J. Oteri

Depending on your perspective, Charles Wuorinen is either one of the most forward looking musical thinkers of our time or an unapologetic partisan of outmoded aesthetic paradigms. In my point of view, he’s somehow both and the two strands are indelibly intertwined. If that doesn’t quite make sense, welcome to the wonderfully complex world of contemporary classical music where the rhetoric, both pro and con, is often far more complex than the music of any of its practitioners.

I used to be somewhat scared of Charles Wuorinen even though I’ve long been an admirer of a great many of his compositions. His sole foray into exclusively electronic composition, Time’s Encomium, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1970, remains one of my all-time favorite pieces of electronic music. I’m totally in awe of his saxophone quartet and his numerous works for percussion. And I consider his Mass for the Restoration of St. Luke in the Fields one of the most effective contemporary settings of the mass. Yet at the same time, I’ll never forget being completely intimidated by him the very first time I ever interviewed him which was more than 20 years ago for a live broadcast over Columbia University’s WKCR-FM to preview the New York Philharmonic premiere of his powerful orchestra plus tape composition, Bamboula Squared. At the time, I hoped I’d never have to speak with him again.

Happily, I got over my fears and my own aesthetic biases. Last year, Charles was an extremely lively member of a panel I moderated on the state of contemporary composition for the Philadelphia Music Project which also featured Steven Mackey and Jeffrey Mumford. By the end of the panel, I thought to myself that I absolutely had to do a lengthy talk with Charles for NewMusicBox. It was long overdue.

Inside Pages:

  • Formative Years
  • Electronics, Difficulty, and Music Criticism
  • Twelve-tone Music and Tonality
  • Effort

  • Last month we finally had an opportunity to videotape a conversation with Charles Wuorinen in his home. Throughout he was extremely generous, warm, and frequently amusing. While his famous diatribes about the differences between art and entertainment, the intellectual poverty of popular culture, and the mediocrity of criticism, among others, are still as polemical as ever, he brings a passion and conviction to all of his arguments which—even if you don’t agree with him—are worthy of respect. And, above and beyond any of his comments, is his remarkably prolific six-decade output as a composer of artistically and intellectually rich as well as often entertaining music. But, as he would be the first to tell you, his music should speak for itself. Although, that said, I did manage to get him to say a few things about it.

    – FJO

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