The legend Christian Wolff came to the Harvard Composers Colloquium a couple weeks ago. I’m just getting to typing up some notes. He was very kind, and very insightful… A couple of points:
Improvisation & Indeterminacy
Wolff had many fascinating comments about indeterminacy and improvisation. He said that early on, he felt that indeterminacy should be put in performance, not composition—that’s where it belonged and already always is anyway. Some of the language he used to describe how his music worked was decidedly “uncomposerly,” I might say. For example, he said you “work it out in course of performance” and “realizing you’re in the wrong place in the score is part of the piece.” For his piece Burdocks, he described the score as a “map, [which] each player moves through in a different way.”
I had not realized that these ideas were on the Western compositional scene as early as the late 50s. But Wolff made one thing very clear, which is interesting: none of this stuff is improvisation. You do not do what you feel, he said. The performer makes “improvisatory maneuvers with fixed material,” which to Wolff, is different, and I think he’s right. What’s curious, however, is that “how to play my music is a kind of oral tradition.” That should be no surprise though, to someone thinking that that makes it improvisation—how to play Beethoven has many elements of oral traditional as well, after all. The other very composerly thing he said is that the graphic notations “produce a kind of rhythm you can’t get any other way.” It creates a “unique kind of movement,” he said. Wolff is here recognizing that the procedure is still ultimately a compositional experiment, one that, even though it is varied every time and still more varied with different players, still has the composer, not the performer, as the creator of the musical effects.
Finally, a curious comment, which seems in line with this last bit, was that there was in fact no relation in his, or Cage’s mind, to other musics or musical traditions of the time that incorporated improvisation.
Tidbit #1: Wolff said that “experimental music,” to him, now, is music that “suggests that things could be different.” It is no longer about new sounds or new ideas; that is no longer experimental. This notion seems directly related to Cage.
Someone asked Wolff why music with an elegant structure, distinguished units, a certain equilibrium (the piece, from 1950, that he had showed us was 100 bars long, cut into 10 sections of 10 bars), came right after the supremely volatile 1940s. He seemed to acknowledge the strangeness of this fact, as well as the strangeness of his reply, as he said it. The words themselves were: “It was the Cold War—we tuned out of politics.” He said the music was introverted, that you had to go to it, at this time. Then in the 60s and the following decades, concert music began to “reach out more,” he said later, in reference to an overtly political piece he wrote. I wasn’t there, but this seems quite backwards to me.
If the artist is supposed to call attention to and create awareness for what the rest of us cannot see, well, were we all not very politically involved by the late 60s already, yet severely tuned out in the 50s? When he said that “we tuned it out,” he seemed to be saying that they were going along with everyone else, dare I say, doing what was easy? What I had trouble determining, is if Wolff felt that way about his and his peers’ history. There was a certain tone in his voice that could have implied a dissatisfaction with the un-recognition of the importance of Cold War politics in the 50s, but it might have also been my misreading.
Tidbit #2: Once, when asked to describe Feldman, Cage, Wolff, and Brown’s music, Cage said that Feldman’s was “poetic,” his own was “theatrical,” and Wolff’s was “musical.” Wolff thought this meant a connection in spirit to the Classical. The answer was in response to a question about Wolff’s doctorate in Classics, and if that was related to his work. He suggested this as a maybe… He also said, after being pushed to answer, that Cage was critical of Earle Brown’s more conventional and non-confrontational stance to Europe. So there it is…
He talked a lot about Cage, which is not surprising. But the way he talked about Cage was somewhat curious. Cage’s principal function, to Wolff, was to “open you up,” and encourage any sliver of thought in you that was non-Schoenbergian or non-Stravinskian, essentially. Wolff said it was appealing at the time just to do anything that was not serial or neo-classical.
The other desire in the air in that circle was to have one’s music have an “intricate construction” while maintaining a “transparent sound”. And you needed to have a “structural frame before you started”. The cited example, which Cage and Wolff had studied in one of their first lessons together, was Webern’s Symphony, Op 21, where 11 of the 12 pitches in the tone-row have a fixed register, while the 12th “floats about,” so that it becomes “variations on a chord,” as Wolff put it. Curious that Cage points back to Webern, as the European post-war Modernists would as well.
The last thing about Cage is just an anecdote but it’s crazy… Wolff’s family fled Nazi Germany in the 30s, came to America. They had been publishers in Germany, and tried in America to continue their profession. But since they were very poor at first, Cage did not charge Wolff for lessons. Instead, Wolff brought Cage gifts every so often. One gift, unknown to Cage before that day, was the I Ching, published in English by Wolff’s parents.
Tidbit #3: Wolff said that none of them ever understood Feldman’s music.
The pieces he played excerpts from:
? from 1957-1958
Piece for horn and piano (1961)
I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman (1985)
Tidbit #4: He talked about “one idea pieces,” and said he thinks that they are no longer nearly as valuable as they were, and that he no longer tries to write them. He still thinks a few people are doing them well, but that something with a larger structure is more satisfying.
(Nov 19, 2014)