An Interview With Christian Wolff


Gerald Gabel



GG: What were the circumstances under which" Fragments to Make Up An Interview" was written?

CW: It was written for a collection of interviews for a French journal called VH101. It was impossible to go to the place where interviews were being conducted so they asked me to send materials. As I was trying to figure out what to do, it occured to me that a self-interview might be of interest.

GG: It would seem to be very difficult deciding which questions to ask oneself. How did you approach that problem?

CW: Actually the interview doesn't appear until the very end. The material at the beginning relates to something which John Cage does all the time; to write, to speak, and to organize language in the same way in which he organizes musical sounds. Since I didn't work with chance in the same way as Cage, it became quite a different proposition. I had some material - these quotations (it's like musique concrete - you have real sounds, something that's already in the real world) - so I began to think of a process whereby I could include text that others had written. I had used this technique fairly consistently in my music up to that time. The music provides material that's articulated in various degrees even though a lot of decisions are still left to the performer. I was trying to think of some way of doing that with a text. At the same time it seemed that it was not going to work. I couldn't take a lot of "scraps" and put the piece together according to these rules. So I presented a meditation upon that process. The material of the meditation was musical and it turned into various thoughts about musical "things" crossing my path at the time. At the end I remembered that I really should be doing an interview! So I thought, "What kinds of questions would I ask someone else?" and "What questions would someone else probably ask me?"

GG: In the article you wrote, "The writing about music that I like best...communicates a very strong sense of the dignity of music partly by refusing to treat it as an art." Why should music not be treated as an art form?

CW: I think I wrote that a bit provocatively! I was writing about an idea of Cage's, which was interestingly transformed by Cardew, of not requiring a separation between art and the rest of what we do. In other words, by regarding music as an art, it is regarded as something which is specially privileged. What is distinctive about Cage's dealing with music is that he refuses to do that. Cardew's case is interesting (this is about the time that he went through his political conversion in the early 1970s). His seems to be another development of the notion that art is. not privileged but, in fact, has something to do with the life that goes on around us all the time. For Cardew, the life that goes on around us is understood in a particular political sense. Therefore he becomes interested in bringing politics into the music.

GG: A political conversion sounds like an ominous event!

CW: It happened to a lot of people during the Viet Nam period. There was a mild conversion during the civil rights movement but it really came into focus in the early seventies. I was in Washington D.C. during those marches on the White House when things were really stirring. People within my circle of friends became politicized I think is the phrase they used. They became interested in and involved in various kinds of political issues. It happened to Cardew in a very thorough-going way. Two or three years before, I was in London the day after a Presidential election in this country. I made some remark about it and Cardew said, "What? You're interested in that stuff?" That gives you an idea of where he was - you see what I mean by conversion.

GG: Did you experience your political conversion in the early seventies?

CW: Yes. I had marginal interests before that time. I became a pacifist in '59 and took alternate service when I was drafted. I was also involved with civil rights work but the war really brought it home for me.

GG: How did your conversion affect your music?

CW: At first, not all that much. Certainly not consciously. I wrote these prose pieces which I referred to in my self-interview (there are a handful - about a dozen or so). Some are songs and one of the texts is simply You blew it! I was listening to the radio, heard of a Nixon decision and You blew it popped out of me. There is nothing in the piece which explains this context. It was a private political piece. In retrospect, a Marxist once did a long paper on my earlier music and his interpretation of it was Marxist oriented, which sort of flabbergasted me! But he did point out something important: that the way the music was organized and the way in which it was presented, was strongly anti-authoritarian, a democratic, if you will, connection. That was the music's politics. I must say, it's not something that had occurred to me, because I hadn't set out to do that. The notion of being explicitly political occurred partly in response to the work of Cardew and Frederic Rzewski. Then I got the notion of trying to include an explicit political reference in all my musical work (I've given that up since). I certainly felt that it was one area which was very important and one for which I had strong feelings. I had never connected politics with this other essential activity in my life, music, nor had I any notion that they might somehow come together. Eventually I set about doing it.

GG: It seems that the topics which you choose are more socially rather than politically oriented.

CW: It's a question of what one means by politics. This is the basis of a long standing discussion I've been having with John Cage. The idea of politics in music is completely abhorrent to him. When he thinks of political music he thinks immediately of propoganda, of the music being somehow used and exploited for some other purpose. He is interested in social problems since he is certainly interested in non-musical questions and of connecting his music to non-musical questions. Politics is, perhaps, a more precise word than social which seems to be a little too close to church bazaars! I don't mean to put down church bazaars but that's the way a lot of people think of it - support your local daycare! All of those are important issues... but they seem to me political rather than social. Cage's perspective is interesting. He claims that politics has to do with power and he doesn't want to have anything to do with that. In an ideal world I would completely agree with him. But politics shapes our lives all the time. To ignore that and not to make some response doesn't mean that one has to abuse it. The word political catches that more than social which seems very neutral.

GG: Do you think that one of your recent works," I Like to Think of Harriet Tub-man" , has not only a political reference but also a strong dramatic appeal?

CW: The drama is in the poem. To ignore that would seem arbitrary and do the poem a disservice. I think the piece invites a dramatic presentation and that it is entirely appropriate. When you talk about political music there are a wide variety of topics. If you're dealing with political texts, the music will depend upon how one understands the text and the treatment which would be appropriate for it. There are political statements which can be very gentle and the music needn't be overwhelming.

GG: Prior to your political conversion you used a certain amount of indeterminacy. After that period, indeterminacy still existed in your music but perhaps not as extensively as before. Do you think the conversion to political ideas in some way usurped the indeterminate aspect out of your music?

CW: I don't know if I would use the word usurped. I think the music has much as it is possible for one person's music to change. There has certainly been a change in musical method and it all started at the point that political interests came in, even though there was a transitional stage. I've actually been on and off with indeterminacy. In fact, my earliest music is all notated. I have a number of works from the sixties in which all the notes and rhythms are there but the way they are used is still left open and often instruments are unspecified. There is a piece called Burdocks which uses a very wide range of musical materials including a tune which is completely written out. I was becoming interested in doing things differently than I had between the late fifties and sixties when the pieces were close to Webern. They were indeterminate, but the texture which the indeterminate condition set up involved a focus upon individual sounds and sparse textures. There was an introverted feeling, rather specialized, esoteric. I reached a point at which I wanted to move out of that. I began to feel rather enclosed within that world. As it happened this broader interest came at about the same time as the turning towards politics. Actually, a number of things came about - we also started a family. Things sort of expanded in many directions. While working with David Tudor on Burdocks, he said that he could see the results of having small kids around -my music had loosened up. So all of those things contributed to changing the way I worked.

Another way of looking at it would be to ask, "For whom does one write political music?" There you are definitely involved in a kind of communication, rather specific communication. I began to think seriously, for the first time, about an audience. I've always thought of working primarily for the performers and not worrying about the audience and, in a way, I still do that. The question of accessibility of the music is raised almost automatically. What is one going to do with a poem about Harriet Tubman? One could write something which is very esoteric. One could disintegrate the text into its acoustic components and make the text completely unintelligible. That seems to be a very arbitrary thing to do since one could do that to any text. This text has a particular character and is written in such a way that it is clearly meant to be read aloud to a number of people not just to a group of modern poetry fans. It's meant to be heard and understood. So that has obviously affected my approach to setting it.

Perhaps I should approach the issue of accessibility by talking about rhythm. One thing that is characteristic of my earlier indeterminate work is that it deals entirely with what one could call durational rhythm as opposed to accentual rhythm. There are hardly any rhythmic patterns, it's completely fluid. Rhythms are interesting because they have a lot to do with how people respond. The expressive character of fluid rhythm is meditative or contemplative. This seems not to work when trying to write a public music or music which is more widely accessible. For this it seems that some kind of rhythmic definition is necessary. I could write a rock song but I'm not into doing that. I still want to write modern music or whatever you want to call it - late 20th century music. Rhythmic definition, on the other hand, ultimately requires that pitch be observed in a different way...and so it goes. That gets us back to the question of how music changes and how changes come about because of different interests in content.

GG: In "I Like To Think Of Harriet Tubman" , it seemed that the prevailing rhythmic sense was jazz oriented. Were you conscious of this?

CW: I have no background in jazz. I listen to certain pieces and I sometimes like it a lot but I don't set out to write a jazz-like piece. If I find myself going in that direction that's fine but I usually don't think about it while doing it. If I'm trying to define what this music is like, or rather what it reminds one of, jazz does turn up quite regularly. In the Harriet Tubman piece it's more direct because the text sets it off. The text of the poem is clearly meant to be read aloud. I imagined it being read with a jazz group backing it. That explains having the low bass instrument to underpin the piece. I set the text rhythmically, though not specifying pitches for the speaker-singer, as though it were being spoken over a jazz backing. Then for the bass I set pitches to the rhythms made for the text and wrote the counterpoint of the two top instruments. The basis of the work is the text.

GG: In your paper and in our conversation, you've mentioned the names of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski. You've alluded to a significant amount of contact with and influence from these individuals. Could you elaborate upon how you met these people and the types of projects upon which you've collaborated with them?

CW: Of course this is ancient history! Perhaps I should talk about their influence upon me. I met Cage when I was 16, in 1950. In fact, he was my first and, in some sense, only formal teacher. The formal part of the work lasted for about six weeks and we both got tired of it. He set me off on a number of projects. We analyzed some Webern. This is a historical curiosity so I'll back up and tell you how Cage met Morton Feldman. The New York Philharmonic did, I think, the first performance in the United States of Webern's Symphonie, op. 21. Cage attended the premier. I think he became interested in Webern because of Boulez. John spent some time in Paris in 1949, had met Boulez and became friends with him. That was at the beginning of the Darmstadt period in which this revival of serialism placed Webern at the center instead of Schoenberg. So he came back very interested in Webern. Feldman, on the other hand, had been a student of Stefan Wolpe which is how, I guess, he became interested in Webern. Feldman went to this same concert. He and Cage did not know each other at that time. After the performance of the Webern, they both left since they were very overcome by what they had heard. They found themselves alone together in the lobby of Carnegie Hall. Obviously both of them were quite high having heard this music so they introduced each other with, "Wasn't that amazing? They, of course, became very good friends.

            Cage then tried to find the score but it wasn't readily available. He found a copy in the public library from which he copied out the entire first movement for study purposes. Since he had just started the analysis, he had me continue with it as well as copying out the second movement! Then we did counterpoint exercises. Cage studied with Schoenberg for two or three years and all they did was counterpoint exercises. For as much as a year at a time they would even use the same cantus firmus. It was a very grueling approach. He had a notion of putting me through the same process. But we both got tired of that and I wasn't averse to trying other things. In the meantime I had been writing on my own. He said that the whole notion of studying composition was to learn about discipline. He felt that I had already acquired that so there was no need to carry on with the counterpoint.

I met Feldman almost immediately afterwards since he and Cage were good friends. I think the most important thing in those days was to have someone with whom to talk and to show one's work to, someone who liked what I was doing, and someone whose work I admired. So it became a small support group.

GG: A political organization!

CW: Yes! David Tudor came on the scene shortly thereafter and he was followed by Earle Brown. Cage had always been a wonderful and determined organizer. I was too young to do that and Feldman had no strong propensities in that direction. So Cage became the person who made it happen. The influence was partially being a part of a world which was creating itself and feeling that we were different from anything else that was going on at the time.

Cage's thinking and music were a very powerful influence. The Webern experience stuck very close to me. I went on to study most of his works and to write a little bit about them. I can't shake Webern's influence...I still like clean, transparent counterpoint.

Rzewski became a student at Harvard as I was starting my graduate work there and we became good friends. His work didn't affect me until later...he was about five years younger. He was a fantastic pianist and we shared a number of interests. He didn't emerge with a distinctive compositional style until later. The influence between us, I think, has been more reciprocal.

Cardew is someone with whom I've worked a lot. Cornelius, Frederic and I went through a similar change, from a devotion to avant-garde music to a political orientation. In the fifties we were interested in everything that was going on because it was all new and hadn't yet fallen into separate ruts. We all changed at about the same time for more or less the same reasons. So there was again a sense of support for doing something that was a little odd at the time. In the case of Cardew this had negative effects upon his musical career. He was ostracized almost completely from the new music scene in England. I found myself often in a peculiar situation; the small following of avant-garde people in that period didn't know what to think of my music. On the other hand, it wasn't accessible to anyone else, so I was really caught between two stools -stuck! Frederic's music, on the whole, has always had a more extroverted character so he had that problem to a lesser extent than I, and of course he was such a wonderful performer.

GG: You played in a group with Cornelius Cardew which was called AMM. What was AMM and could you describe its approach to music?

CW: They were very interesting and they still exist, with personnel changes. The group was formed in '68 or '69. Originally they were three drop-outs from the jazz scene - English jazz musicians. They performed what could be called free jazz but there wasn't much recognizable jazz left. They met once a week and would have a cup of tea before playing. They wouldn't talk about music. Instead, they would exchange bits of news and so forth. Then they would start playing and continue for about two hours. Every once in a while they would get a concert and do the same thing in front of an audience. Mostly it seemed that they were undertaking explorations in sonorities and unusual continuities over long stretches of time. The group consisted of a drummer, Eddie Prevost, who produced the most familiar sounds. There was a saxophone player, Lou Gare, who would occasionally play a riff - but very rarely! The guitarsit, Keith Rowe, placed his instrument on a table with all kinds of electronics attached to it. Cardew played the cello - I should say he used a cello as a sound source since he wasn't really a proper cellist.

GG: You played electric bass with them.

CW: Yes, and a little collection of miscellaneous objects. I don't know if you've ever been in on a performance of those early Cage pieces - the Variations 1, II, and III. Since no instruments are specified, one is encouraged to explore sounds made by any kind of sound source. AMM's music seemed to me related to that situation, and, in addition, it was free improvisation - I mean free improvisation - no points of reference whatsoever. It was quite wonderful, though sometimes a bit scary. There was no guidance except, to a certain extent, what other people were doing.

GG: While experiencing this free improvisation were you trying to intellectualize the experience either before or after the fact?

CW: Not really. It was such a high doing it that we didn't worry about it. When it's working well it's like conversations or making love - sometimes it's great, sometimes it's O.K., and sometimes it's not working out!

GG: How do you approach order in your music and how do you make choices and decisions relating to order?

CW: I take it one step at a time because each piece is its own case. I have no master theories or axes to grind. I've used a number of different approaches. Some of them are completely intuitive while others are completely rationalized. Mostly, I want to set up a situation which makes the composing manageable. It's very hard for me to write, so I try to make it not as difficult. It's not as if I'm fluent. There are many ways to proceed. To take an extreme case, John Cage thinks globally. He thinks of an entire process and then sets up conditions to allow that process to happen. Once the conditions are set up a computer could do it. He has a tremendous sense of how to do that. Chance is involved in various ways but nevertheless very distinctive pieces come out. I could never do that. I tried it a few times and I found that even if it was producing something that I felt was o.k., the process was too uninteresting. To transcribe what a pre-determined process produces is uninteresting for me. I like working from note to note or from sound to sound. On the other hand, if you have no guidance whatever, that too can become extremely difficult.

            The other extreme would be somebody like Feldman. I don't know how he makes these recent long pieces. Length obviously has a lot to do with the approach. Anyway, where Cage uses an extreme systematization, so systematic that the system does it for you, Feldman seems to work by a completely intuitive process. He has no preconceived notions or ideas whatsoever. The initial choice is an instrumental one and he also has some sense of scope. But once that's established, the note to note procedure, the rhythms, everything else is done entirely by the sense of the moment. It's very much like abstract expressionist painting. I find that, except under very special circumstances, I can't work that way either. It's a problem of what to do next and when to stop.

The easiest way to deal with that situation is a technique which I did learn from Cage; the use of a rhythmic structure. It's like approaching the painting of a space, defining the limits of that space, then subdividing it, moving through it and allowing the subdivisions to help you define areas of choice. This is not that different from writing a rondo or a sonata. But it helps me to focus, to answer such questions as " how long should I continue to do this?" The answer is until this section of the structure is finished. So there are rhythmic structures and they can be very precise.

There are various arithmetical procedures for producing moments which have very interesting or pleasing symmetries. Take a very simple example in which we have phrases of lengths 2, 3, 4, and 2 beats. You have two beats to do whatever you are going to do, then three, then four, and then two. That's usable and I've explored it considerably. I've gone from very tiny ones of fractions of a second to phrases as much as a minute in length so that my thinking would have to alter drastically. If you have half a second, you really have to concentrate or it's all over. But sixty seconds is a huge space and to have something happen in that time span one must think differently.

What happens in that space has always been relatively unsystematic. I don't use serial procedures and I don't have any kind of motivic plans. Usually I have a pool of material which might include a group of pitches or a set of rhythms. That's interesting! Where does the image of the gesture come from? I don't know. I know when I'm content with it, and when I don't like it. I don't even know on what basis I decide. So there I'm back to the intuitive area again. I just have a certain notion of what I. think would be o.k. Now, if the piece is indeterminate it becomes more complicated because one has to think of possibilities; what I lay out isn't precisely what is going to happen. What I do is think of the worst case given the indeterminate conditions and the freedom which I give to the performers; what could somebody do given the restrictions I've set? What's the worst that they could do from my point of view? If I can accept that, if that's still o.k., then the thing is all right. That affects my choices. But you see there are a number of choices along the way and there is still the choice of the performer. So one way to talk about choice in my case is a kind of dialectic between what I decide to do and what I decide to let other people choose to do. That applies to most of my early work.

There was a time when I developed this notion of rhythmic structure to very elaborate lengths. Partly because the numbers would get very complicated. Then I would sometimes superimpose three or even four of these rhythmic structures so there would be several structures going on simultaneously. It became very elaborate. It helped me discover certain ways of making music that I liked. I later discovered that I really didn't have to go through all of that arithmetic - I could just do it. So I began to write shorter pieces in which I couldn't justify a single note in the piece except that it was the way in which I had decided to do it. In other words, I didn't adopt the Feldman mode but I had prepared myself for it. I found that there were limits beyond which I couldn't work. Then I would go back to systems. This is a kind of transition. I began to do systems in which the point of departure was not the time space, those rhythmic structures, but was the sound material itself and that usually meant pitches or combinations of pitches and durations. It's probably the most systematic I've ever been. There were continuities set up. The image was a kind of solar system in which there was no center but there were planets. Each planet moved at its own speed and represented its own musical continuity. Now these textures were very sparse. The sound might come up only every 13, 14, 20, or 50 seconds. But there were as many as a dozen of these going on. Once the system was set in motion there was nothing I could do about it; they had their laws which had to be followed. I didn't write many pieces using this technique.

More recently...well, for ten years now, I've become interested in other people's political music including political " folk" music, traditional and current. I found I liked the political songs musically and wanted somehow to draw upon them. The way I thought to do this was to make stronger structures and variations upon the songs as material. I use the intervals in the tunes and rhythms as a basis. Structural decisions, which are critical ones, are based on this material. How much could one do with this material? How long do I want to continue?

GG: You posed some questions at the end of your article and it seems that we have touched upon most of them with the possible exception of one. What musics engage, distract, interest you at this point in time as opposed to 1971?

CW: Nothing very new strikes me at the moment. The current new musical scene is not bad, it's quite active, but I don't see anything very strikingly new in it. I think we're in a period, on the one hand, of great heterogeneity, which is nice, as there are many different things going on at once. Nobody is cornering the market and I like that. On the other hand there is a certain amount of settling in - people perfecting their own thing. When I asked that question in 1971, I still felt that things were in a process of change and opening up. I have less a feeling of that now. I continue liking much of what I used to like. I sometimes discover new political folk singers like Si Kahn and I kind of follow the pop scene, mostly through my family. I'm always interested in hearing the next piece by Rzewski and Cage. I have yet to hear one of Feldman's very long pieces. I want to hear more of Pauline Oliveros' work and David Tudor's. I'd also like to hear John Zorn and the recent work of Luigi Nono.

GG: As opposed to the tremendous amount of experimentation which was going on in the fifties, sixties and even the early seventies, the climate in new music seems to have changed significantly. People who were writing serially a couple of decades ago might now be composing tonally. Do you see this as being a general trend?

CW: Musically, formally, we are obviously not in an experimental period. It was so wild earlier that people needed to relax. Almost everything that one could imagine seems to have been tried. That atmosphere of doing it purely for the sake of doing something which hadn't been done before has subsided. The return to tonality is interesting because it goes across a very wide spectrum and it doesn't depend on whether you call it tonality, modality or whatever. I think we are actually talking about accessibility again. The composers and musicians are really tired of being in a corner out of the mainstream. This very specialized atmosphere comes from Vienna, the notion of Schoenberg making his own little club and one could only get in by invitation - that's the extreme case. But it got many people used to the idea of never being able to work for a larger group, only for a coterie and people are really fed up with that. I think it's very positive that they do want to relate to the world and it's affecting the way they write. Everybody has a notion of how best to do it whether by hooking on to the pop world or by writing " right tone music" which the symphony orchestras will find acceptable.