Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Jason Gross (April 1998)

In the 1950's, there was a group of composers who set the classical world on edge. Like many trail-blazers before them, they were scorned and only in later decades appreciated for their work. Though the group was made up of distinct members, the need to group them as some kind of 'movement' led to them being called the New York School. Some of the names you probably know- John Cage and Morton Feldman were among this group. So was a younger man who had his own distinct ideas about composition. Christian Wolff briefly studied under Cage but soon took up his own charge to create intricate systems for his pieces- rather than using standard notes, he would give the musicians symbols to guide them and let them interpret. Sometimes the pieces would be so intricate that the mere task of performing the piece itself became an interpretation that would make the musicians devise their own cunning ideas to accomplish this. Wolff was also distinctive with the political dimension to his work as he incorporated material from protest and folk songs. Indeed, he's made some very bold statements about his ideas concerning music and composition (some of which are examined below). Today, Wolff tries to instill his own experience to students in his music classes and has just completed his first symphony piece.

Praise be to Christian Marclay for helping with this.

PSF: You were originally studying with John Cage. What kind of effect do you think that had on your work?

All kinds of effect! (laughs) Practically, he was my first and only composition teacher. He taught me a handful of practical things and then he basically let me go ahead on my own. Our lessons lasted for about six weeks. He taught me about rhythmic structure, Webern, did some counterpoint exercises and that was it basically. After that, I was doing my own pieces. I would make up my own systems for my pieces and he figured that was good enough. I didn't have to go on with counterpoint or other peoples' systems as long as I knew systems and knew how to work with it. That was the point.

PSF: Did you find shortcomings with counter point?

To tell the truth, I wasn't very good at it and he wasn't very interested. That's somewhat ironic because over the last ten years, I've become very interested in it and I've used it all the time in one form or another.

PSF: At that time when you began, Cage as well as David Tudor, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown were all active as well. All of you were seen together as a musical movement. Did you see similarities there or mostly differences in styles?

I could never understand why people couldn't tell the difference between us. It's true that we were different from what was going on in the (then) current musical scene. Each of us individually was quite different and I think that difference was perceived as what made us a group. It did have to do with some general things like not using counterpoint, interest in sonority and not manipulating pitch systems. In those days, it was basically neo-classicism or serial music. We were not doing either or doing anything that seemed to hearken backwards. We seemed to be doing something that was really different, new. So we all shared that. But as far as between ourselves, it's very difficult to mix up Feldman's music with Cage's music or Brown's with mine.

PSF: Did you find that in this group there was a lot of support?

Absolutely. We were different from the rest of the scene and it made a huge difference to have each other for support. In some sense, we were writing and working for one another. We were the only ones who seemed to appreciate what each other was doing! (laughs) The music was very controversial at the time, starting with Cage. It was just when Cage had begun using chance for composition and people basically said 'what you guys are doing has nothing to do with music.' You get used to it. We had each other and we thought we were just doing fine. We had that kind of support. I was a kid so I thought it was cool because I was different.

PSF: I've heard that Merce Cunningham was an influence on your work.

I didn't really notice that for a while but I followed the company from the '50's before Merce had put a company together. I came to realize in the '70's that the way that Merce structured his dances with the continuity and the discontinuity, simultaneous things going on, these were very close to the way that I thought about structure. It was a kind of sympathetic presence: he was doing it so it must be OK for me to do it. There was someone else doing this in that particular medium so that was encouraging and supportive.

PSF: You once said 'it would be better to get rid of all of that--melody, rhythm, harmony, etc..' What did you mean by that?

That was from that early period again. We imagined, though you never do it completely, that we were starting with a completely clean slate. We were trying to think about music as if it had never been done before and at least not being done the way it was currently being done, with structuring and all the basic parameters. In that quote, I meant in the ways that they had normally been structured in 3/4 or 4/4 or in a key or there had to be a rationale for the way that the pitches were chosen and manipulating and so on. The idea was to figure out some way to get to a sound in a piece which was different and shook that all off. I went on to say there that this doesn't mean that those things are unwelcome. They can come back again by the backdoor. Any collection of sounds that you put together, they'll have a rhythm no matter what. They're all there, they still come back. But the other part was making a melodic structure not by the usual procedures but resulting from making the music some other way and it came out OK. But it wasn't what you were aiming at to start with.

PSF: You use symbols for some pieces instead of standard notation, which leads to varied kinds of interpretation. Do you ever feel that with such an open structure that the music may go too far from what you intended?

I've taken some chances. I've always worked in a spectrum from very precise (telling a performer exactly what to do) to totally free. There's not a lot of areas where you're totally free but every now and then there's a little space where you can manage this. I work all along that spectrum and all in the same piece so that one moment, the player knows exactly what to do and one moment, the player is free but the freedom is partly colored by what he's been asked to do before. There's a kind of suggestion to what he or she might do. It's meant to be adaptable to different kinds of players. Some players are less sure so when they're free, they'll do things similar to the things that they were asked specifically to do. Others will be more adventurous and try to do something quite different and see how that works.

I take my chances to an extent but I think it's an extension of ANY performance of music. There's all kinds of things that a performer can do, even to a score that's explicit. In earlier music, the scores are in fact not that explicit. Bach hardly ever tells you to play loud or soft or rarely ever gives you a tempo, often doesn't give you instruments. It's been part of the tradition of music to leave certain things open to the performer. You can stretch that occasionally or quite a lot but it's still part of the general process of making music.

PSF: Doesn't that also put the burden on the performer to try to see what's being interpreted and what's composition?

Up to a certain point. Composing is what you do at a table with paper and pencil and so forth. Someone like David Tudor would in fact, when he prepared certain pieces, sit at a table with a paper and pencil- he didn't sit at a piano. He took the 'composing' side of using these scores. That really isn't necessary. Certainly, there's certain things you need to prepare and think about beforehand but you could set them up so that you have choices at the time of performance. People have said 'oh, you're abdicating your responsibility to the performer.' What I always try to do is to set the pieces up in such a way where I would think 'what's the worst thing that a performer could do under these circumstances.' Then I would try to take steps to eliminate that possibility. Also, I would take responsibility for the piece as a whole, the structure of it. That's never left to the performer as such. Occasionally, there might be choices about which part you do first. But those parts would already have a structure that I had determined. They might be structures that can come out slightly differently but the general condition is set and they would be set by me. On the whole, I feel responsible. If there's variations in it, that's OK.

Again, it's not that different from three different musicians playing the same classical piece. Each of them will see the piece in a different way. Some will do it faster or slower. Yet it's more or less the same piece by the same composer.

PSF: There's another interesting quote I wanted to ask you about. You said 'my music is set up in such a way as to require anyone who wants to deal with it seriously to exert themselves.'

It's not true of all my music though. Some of these things I said a long time ago! (laughs) That is certainly a part of what I've tried to do and in some sense, still try to do, which is to make music that is accessible to non-professional musicians. Almost everybody has some musicality in them and if they want to exercise it, it would be nice for them to have something to do it with. Classical music is very daunting- you have to go to music school for dozens of years to be able to try to play it. One could also make a music, and there are musics out there (like church music), which people with a desire to do it and a certain amount of dedication can do it. They have. I've experienced it.

PSF: I wanted to ask about one more quote from you because it's a very powerful statement. 'All music is propaganda music.'

I'm trying to remember what pushed me to say it quite that strongly. (laughs) I think it's a polemical remark. What it's countering is the notion that music exists in a privileged space and is untouched and unsullied by any kind of consideration of message or politics. Basically, what I'm saying is a kind of Marxist notion which is that culture itself is an expression of a social condition, of a political state of affairs. There is no such thing as a work of art which is detached from its time, its circumstances and from the conditions under which it was produced. Then the 'propaganda' is what makes it a little more active because where the music is coming from is what's being expressed through the music.

I didn't say whether the propaganda is deliberate or not. Very often, it isn't. People usually aren't aware that by making the kind of music that they are, they're supporting a certain way of looking at the world and being in the world, acting politically. There are other kinds, which are more explicit. The remark was meant to apply to both.

PSF: What about the political nature of your work itself?

This is something that happened to me as I started off. I was not thinking of any connection between what I was doing musically and political issues and questions. Like a whole lot of people in the late '60's and the '70's, I began to notice the world around me from a political point of view and became involved in the civil rights and the anti-war movements. I found a relationship of that with my own musical work. I was not alone in this- a number of people close to me like Frederick Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew felt that what we were doing should have some connection to political questions.

Then the next issue was 'how do you do that?' There are many ways of going about it. Initially, I thought of doing this by associating the music with a text, a message that you subscribed to and you felt should be out there. I did that to some extent. Then, there's a limit to how much vocal/text/music I wanted to do. I also worked with political musical material, especially songs coming out of folk political tradition. I used that as basic material for a piece where I'd do the tune and then variations on it or use that material in some way that you made the music.

PSF: Another interesting aspect of your work, which you started to talk about, is how you bring in traditional and popular songs into your work.

It's some extension of what I've been talking about, which is to make the music more related to social awareness. Music is not going to make that much of a political difference. If you really want to do politics, you have to be in politics and get out there, demonstrate, run for office and whatever. It's more a question of what the music represents and with me, it was a case of associating it with something that I was interested in at the time. A particular political movement might produce a certain set of songs, going back to the labor movement in this country or the anti-fascist movement in Europe in the '30's. These are all things that I was interested in- that there was a whole song culture associated with those movements. I found these musically very powerful and interesting. It was a question of what I would do with that, if anything. I'm not a folk singer so I couldn't sing the songs. So instead, I incorporated the songs or use the titles of pieces so in the notes or a program presenting a piece, I could explain this. One example is "Peggy," for Peggy Seeger. It uses a lot of songs that she sang and wrote.

PSF: You teach music classes and I was wondering what kind of important concepts do you try to show the students?

One thing is freedom- that is to say, what I was taught by Cage. What he did for me was to underscore for me the importance of discipline. All teaching is involved with that in some form so clearly, I'm interested in that. What he did for me was to make a space- 'you don't have to write like X or like Y, you don't have to derive your work from this tradition or that tradition, just do what you think you have to do.' He did that at a time when most people thought I was crazy and that I wasn't doing music. So, I try to instill that kind of attitude in my students.

I basically try to get the students to find what they need to do. I try not to interfere too much. I have my prejudices and views about music that'll come out no matter what. They have to do with characteristics of my own work, which is that it should have a certain political awareness so that you know what you're doing when you're writing music. There are other things that go back further. I have a strong anti-rhetorical feeling- I don't think that music should be manipulative. It should be there and people should be able to do with it what they can and what they want.

Feldman has this famous remark in a conversation with Stockhausen. They talked about not pushing the sounds around. Stockhausen says 'not even a little bit?' Feldman said 'no, not even a little bit.' (laughs) So there's that kind of attitude about a musical work. It should just be itself and relatively free from manipulation and calculation to the extent that it's possible.

PSF: Since you brought up Feldman, what do you think about the piece that he dedicated to you?

It belongs to those wonderful late, long pieces. I think mine is about three hours. It's funny- he never told me he did it. People told me about it after he died. He did a whole series of pieces for a whole number of people. In this particular case, the connection with me was that it referred back to some of my earliest pieces, which were characterized by having a very small number of pitches. He begins this piece with three pitches for the two instruments and for a long time, that's all you get is these pitches shifting back and forth. It's a gesture or recollection of the kind of music that I did early on I think.

PSF: What kind of work are you planning now?

Specifically, I've just finished my first large-scale orchestra piece. I've taken a long time to getting around to doing that until I'd gotten a commission, which I did. That was finished about three weeks ago. I've been working with percussion now also. I hadn't done so much in the early years because Cage had done so much, Varese also. So I thought they had done it already. Also, I didn't have a percussionist to work with and now I've found someone. In the last five years, I've mostly been writing percussion pieces.

Mostly I keep hoping that I can find something new to do. (laughs) I also reached a point where I can't do things arbitrarily, I can't push it. I may just continue working the way I do now. I mostly don't think too far into the future, I just take it day by day. One thing I enjoy is having new ideas. On a small scale, I try to discover something new to do with every piece. Finding a different way of proceeding in general, some kind of break with what I've been doing. I'm trying to stay alert for that to happen.

See some of Christian's favorite music