Fragments To Make Up An Interview1

Christian Wolff

I had thought of giving you instructions for the composition of an essay or talk somehow about music, the way Play consists of instructions for playing - making sounds. Play was written for people not necessarily trained in music. An inclination to play with sounds would be sufficient incentive to draw one to its performance, though some ingenuity, discipline, concentration and calm would enhance a performance.

But could I really ask someone to play by making a representation which somehow touches on music, with (perhaps) thoughts, descriptions, narratives? Considering music not only as it concerns her and him but also as something with a life of its own. like air you breathe and also can whistle with, or like an animal who sometimes comes to visit?

In Play the instructions are formal, indicating limits (do something two or three times) or descriptive of how to go about doing it (make sounds in short' bursts), and they include suggestions for co-ordination between players. Must the essay be a solo? Use quotations (the following, mostly out of newspaper interviews, are from, in order, Elliott, Carter, Benjamin Britten, Pierre Boulez, Mario Davidowsky, Bulent Arel and Curt Sachs). As for material, experience and reflection, can it command the immediate recognition a sound does? Someone has said you cannot argue with a sound: you could listen to it, accompany it, match it, answer it, drown it out. Could we do that with statements or remarks, words? If there were formal requirements, say, deal with four subjects in seven sentences having respectively 14, 22, 5, 10, 14, 5, 27 words in them, it might turn into poetry.

The writing about music I like best, John Cage's and Cornelieus Cardew's, communicates a very strong sense of the dignity of music, partly by refusing to treat it as an art, except possibly where descriptions of procedures of composition are involved.

“The purpose of a musical score is to prevent the performer from lapsing into his old routines. When there is no instruction from the composer, the performer falls back on familiar tricks. Most improvised music is far less free than music a composer has scored. A composer is in command of time; he lives above time, controlling all of his material at will, He can correct the beginning of a work while the performer is literally caught in the flow of time.”

Do I hear a voice of despair? The composer is master, shouldering all burdens, enjoying all risks; the performer is servant however skillful.

”A restlessness [he said] and intensity had come into the interpretation and performance of music which was surely allied to the speed and feverishness of modern life.”

What if the composer is one of the performers? And if the performers are good, will they fall back on familiar tricks?

What, in fact, will they do? Many things, as suits each one. Let playing be composition and composition playing. If composition is putting together (or giving instructions for it), playing is an activity which can, while allowing that it may fall apart, be the life of what was composed. If composition is the condition of all sounds, all those around us, dormant in things or awake in the air, playing can be their investigation: listen, converse with, accompany, pursue, abandon, alter, liberate.

The matter of instructions is delicate. How explicit or ambiguous will they be? To what extent will you insist on their observations? It becomes almost a question of what is legal, the letter of instruction or notation, and what is right, which cannot be formulated exactly and will be evident only by its active presence. Can we have the latter without the former? Or rather, can we all have the latter without the former? Can we simply be set afloat, or will we need, say a piece of wood or stone, or a chart (such, I would choose, as may dissolve in the water)?

Is this anti-intellectual?

Do you mean, does it elude your analysis? Perhaps. It is certainly dramatic.

A process of discovery in which you are always tossing away what you have found; you cannot hold on to it in any case.

Playing with others I sometimes cannot follow any connection between what I do and the sounds heard. Once, trying out preparations on a piano, I struck a key and heard completely blended with the piano's sound a piercing blast from a boat horn outside on the river. For an instant I had the sensation that by striking the piano key I had produced that sound (even its articulation corresponded exactly to the attack and release of the key, and someone in the next room, who couldn't see me and was busy doing something, suddenly exclaimed and asked how I made that sound). It was exhilarating. Many years later, having the opportunity to play with AMM and using mostly electric bass, it would happen that I became quite disconnected from the sounds I thought I was making, partly because the loudspeaker to which my amplification led was at some distance and partly because the sounds of others absorbed mine in such a way that I had no idea of the result of my activity. Again I had a feeling of great lightness. The bondage of effect to cause is temporarily released, without loss of concentration to activity, which could be cause, nor of the presence of phenomena, which must be effect (or: no sense of effect at all, only phenomena). But I found it hard to continue playing with complete attention and care. The feeling of lightness gives way to a suspicion that I am only going through motions. (After a time I disconnected the instrument from its amplification and played, I thought, almost inaudibly to anyone but myself. Later I learned that the sound had carried very well.)

But you should hear about AMM from themselves (and see Cardew, "Notes on AMM music with oblique reference to an ethic of improvisation," in I-Kon vol. 1, no.5, March 27, 1968, New York.)

The unpredictable sounds or alterations of sound which surface with a precise suddennesss of their own by the occasional spontaneous effect of electricity (cf. David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman.)


"Composers who publish in this journal never discuss important questions of choice and decision."

How good is your ear? Can quotation marks be heard?

"Here, as composer, we try to organize an artistic object, to establish relationships, hierarchies and so forth. Some involved with 'total theatre' are not creating an artistic object but instead are creating an actual process that provides them with psychological - not intellectual - stimulation. This gives them a sense of participation in some unidentifiable kind of thing. In this sense, it's a poor man's group therapy, a symptom of the collapse of all values. God is dead and there is nothing to replace Him. But artists have a moral and intellectual responsibility not to play ball in the market."


Why must we have all this squabbling?


"Life gives us more than enough chance. In art some order must be imposed."

What is the order we impose, what is the order we may discover? What is the relation of order to a feeling of being alive communicated harmlessly and with exactness?

Occasionally some of us appear to be taken by a nostalgia for notes, black, white, stemmed, decorated, plain on five-line staves, etc. What is that pleasure? Is it that we can now do that too? Once I thought, it had all better go - melody, rhythm, harmony, etc., not as a negative thought, not that one should avoid them, but that, while one did something else, they would emerge of their own accord, be reborn, you might say, in all innocence. We should be free from the assertive, direct consequence of intention and effect, because the intention would be merely one's own and circumscribed, while so many others forces are so obviousy at work in the final effect. Cf. Morton Feldman (I don't remember the exact words): don't push the notes around. What is that something else? - that would call for a careful account of all one's good work.

"Time and space, substance and power were beyond man's control. But sound he created himself; in music, he took the heavy responsibility for either strengthening or imperiling the equilibrium of the world. And his responsibility included the world's truest images, the dynasty and the country; the welfare of the empire depended on the correctness of pitches and scales... The history of Chinese pitch is a history of some twenty centuries of confusion, deception, and failure... The great heart in another people's music rarely beats in unison with our own... The pitch itself is within limits arbitrary; for a loud singer it is tuned up, for a singer with a small voice it is tuned down."

If you are to have a theory, it may as well be grand or else be made to permeate as far as possible, and if it fails, let the pieces scatter cheerfully, while we practice what we can and what is in us.

                                                *  *  *  *  *

And now we have these questions:

1.               What are you doing now that appears different from what you have done before?

2.               What music(s) engage, distract, interest you?

3.                    What sounds?

4.                     What practical matters are you concerned about?

5.                   What has the study of Greek (or any other thing) to do with music?

6.                     Have you avoided any questions?


(5) Education (cd. Cardew, "the educative function of music"): the study of what is attractive (or perhaps repulsive), moving or prodding, and yet escapes final comprehension, what is intermittently lucid and opaque.

(2) Glass, Cardew, Ichiyanagi, the Song Books (Cage), AMM, David Tudor, the Ba-Benzele Pygmies, and much else. Some music, Lucier and Feldman, for example, sometimes haunts me, but I don't know what to do about it. For a long time I have heard nothing of Stockhausen, Kagel or Kosugi. I have yet to hear the Scratch Orchestra. And I am interested in Reich, Riley and La Monte Young ... It's a hard question.

Those notes: they have the appearance of something spell-like or magical; a formulaic pattern is so clear. Can you have an innocent magic?

(1) I have been attempting orchestra music, where questions asked earlier take on a very hard edge, how to manage with larger numbers of people, for instance. A minimum of five is allowed to constitute an orchestra; but there may be as many as ten orchestras performing. How to speak to so many, encourage, or allow each player to hear herself when needed? How much law is needed? How to make it transparent?

Ideas are hard to escape, especially those one started with. Out of the following perhaps (a) sounds new to me: "A composition (a score) is only material for performance: it must make possible the freedom and dignity of the performers; it should allow at any moment surprise, for all concerned, players composer, listeners; it should allow both concentration, precision in detail, and release, or collapse, virtuosity and doing things in the ordinary way. No sound, noise, interval, etc. as such is preferable to any other sound, including those always around us, provided that (a) one is free to move away or towards it, and that (b) sounds are not used deliberately to compel feelings in others: let the listeners be just as free as the players.


The quotations can be found in N.Y. Times, March 2, 1969 (Carter); March 9, 1969 (Boulez); May 3, 1970 (Davidowski and Arel); The Times, London, sometime in the Spring of 1968 (Britten); The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, N.Y., 1943 (Sachs).



1 This article was originally written in 1971 and has remained unpublished to this date. We thank Mr. Wolff for allowing it to be published here in its original form. ed.