Intergalactic mutant music: The music of Christian Wolff and the politics of ‘68: An interview with Christian Wolff
Jim Igor Kallenberg
Platypus Review 112 | December 2018
Jim Igor Kallenberg was a dramaturg at the festival for contemporary music Wien Modern, which this year covered the 50th anniversary of 1968. In this capacity, he spoke with the composer Christian Wolff who wrote a new piece for this years edition of the festival. Christian Wolff is a centeral figure in New Music history and significant especially for the music that developed around 1968 – together with his friends and colleagues John Cage, Frederic Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, and others in the U.S. He worked especially on the relation of composition and practices in concert music to political ideas and practice. In his pieces he not only set texts related to his democratic socialist positions and composed pieces dedicated to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), but he also transformed the dimensions of musical form, material, and performance through political ideas. Jim Kallenberg conducted this interview in consort with another interview done with composer Frederic Rzewski and published in Platypus Review 110.
Jim Igor Kallenberg: In this year’s edition of Wien Modern we cover the 50th anniversary of 1968. 100 years ago, 50 years before 1968 there was the October Revolution. We also have Marx’s birthday 200 years ago. Is there a line connecting these events with the present?
Christian Wolff: History is there and some of us are aware of it, but I have to say, right now, I see very little of the spirit of those earlier periods. I think there was more hope in the past and more sense of possibility. Now things are pretty grim. Still, you cannot live without hope, but compared to the earlier periods, I do not like to look at things. No. It does not help that at the moment the United States is run by a complete…you know, I do not want to use the words, but we are in a very bad situation here, so that is making my spirit a little bit darker than it might otherwise be. But still, I think two things are out of control: Technology is out of control and capitalism is out of control. And I do not see easy ways of getting around those things. We have to bring those forces – late capitalism and technology – under control.
JK: The tension of controlling and releasing forces seems to be crucial in your music and notation, too.
CW: One of the signs that I haven’t given up hope is that I continued to write music. My hope with the music is that we at least offer examples or models of how things might be done differently. That might turn around issues like control, where the common model is that it is hierarchical: There is a master who controls what happens. In my way of working the composer is certainly a necessary component of the musical situation, but it is by no means the only one. Without the work of a composer, nothing is going to happen. Without the performer and eventually without the context in which the performance takes place – which is to say an audience – there will be no music. The question is how to manage this situation in ways that are non-hierarchical and give people some notion of what it might be like to work in ways that are different. It is very abstract…
JK: So let’s be concrete: What would that mean regarding, for example, a piece like the Exercises?
CW: In the Exercises you have pieces where basically all I provide are notes, and rather simple ones. They are only on one line, and there are no specifications on what instruments are playing or how many instruments are playing – the general idea is more than one, though. But otherwise that is open. There is also no tempo, no dynamics, and no phrasing given, and the musical material consists of shorter melodic fragments with free spaces between them. The general idea is that everybody starts together and then sees where it is going to go. You play more or less in a kind of heterophony. While the point of reference is the unison, the starting point, and the fact that everybody has the same music, the music also allows any departure from the unison that any individual in the group wants to make. However, it starts very quietly and once a person decides it should be louder, this might influence the others’ decisions. It should be a mutual real-time negotiation within the group.
JK: How does that relate to the concept of your new composition Trio IX - Accanto?
CW: Well, my music is not consistent. I have pieces that are open, like Exercises, but even they are not totally open, because you will always recognise that it is the Exercises, no matter what arrangement, no matter who is playing, no matter what instruments are playing. That is because of the melodic material, which is completely transferable and recognisable. It is more like a folk song that might be played in any number of ways, but everybody will always recognise the song.
To get back to my other ways of working, Trio IX - Accanto is quite different as it was a commission from Trio Accanto, which consists of a pianist (Nicolas Hodges), a saxophone player (Marcus Weiss), and a percussionist (Christian Dierstein), so the instrumentation was not open. I also spent some time with Nicolas Hodges and had some idea of what kind of musicians would play that piece, so the initial situation was much more fixed and most of the piece is written in a more conventional way–fixed notes and rhythms. They are all virtuoso players, and I wanted to respond to that and give them something that would challenge their virtuosity. The goal of Exercises and a whole other side of my composition practice is to make music that any variety of people could play including amateurs and beginners even, to make the music available to people who are not super-virtuosos. But there are moments in Trio IX - Accanto that are open. Actually there is one section saying, “Play the way you might be playing, if you were playing one of the Exercises.” That is to say, in that section they all have the same material and they move freely through it – more or less together but not necessarily always together.
One major difference between, let’s say, the Exercises and my other ways of writing is that the Exercises is a fairly consistent piece insofar as every part has a particular character to it and is musically consistent. It has a flow, whereas the Trio does what I do pretty much all the time now, which is to make what you might call discontinuities. It is a kind of reaction to the notion of a one-idea piece. Lots of music consists of one-idea pieces; one global notion is carried on for five minutes, twenty minutes. The way I work now, I do something and then I will do something quite different and then I will shift again and do something else and so on and so forth all the way through the piece. So the piece is made up of different trunks of material, which in a certain sense have nothing to do with each other, but on the other hand, they do because I am the one who made them all. I also chose to do one thing and then chose what to do next, even though that may not be obviously connected to what just happened. The general continuity is one of change all the time.
JK: So are these two “sides” of your composition practice related to a change in politics? The Exercises were written in 1973. What potential did you see at that time in providing music that followed a non-hierarchical agenda and what might be the agenda today?
CW: You might say that my interest in politics did not really develop until the late 60s – along with everybody else. In this period political awareness sort of shot up certainly among artists and people who normally would not take any particular interest in politics, at least in the U.S. The conditions of the time were obviously part of it: In the U.S. there was the Civil Rights movement earlier in the 60s; the Vietnam War was a critical component of the situation; the women’s movement was also important; and of course one’s own political orientation was a factor, mine being the Left, without any question. These issues were very hard not to take notice of. Taking notice and being involved in various ways led composers to think, “Here we are, making music, writing music, performing it, which we do in public before other people. How does this connect, how does it have any relationship to what is going on in the non-artistic, political and social world?” And a number of composers decided that “well, it’s time. Maybe we should pay attention and draw these things into our work one way or another.” I’ll mention my friends of that period Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew who are probably the best-known names, but there were a number of others such as Yūji Takahashi in Japan. It was certainly an international phenomenon.
JK: Did it seem more likely that music could play a role in politics?
CW: That was the hope. In the larger picture music does not affect politics much, if at all. The only possible substantial connection between music and politics seems to be music that is not meant to convert people but is meant to support. Hanns Eisler wrote music for the Communist Party and it was not meant to persuade other people to join the Communist Party but to express solidarity with the ideals of the Communist Party or the antifascist movement, or however you want to put it. So basically explicitly political music is music for those who are already converted. That is certainly a function, no question! If there are good songs to sing in demonstrations, that is wonderful, that is good. On the other hand, the songs by themselves are not going to do much, politically. Musically they might be wonderful songs. That is another question. But talking about the actual political effect, there is not much, if any.
JK: So, if the political effect is bound to solidarity with a specific political movement or form of organisation like a party, we have a problem today, as there does not seem to be something to relate to and to express solidarity with.
CW: You are right. I am not totally in touch with what is going on musically today, but generally, what I notice is that there is nothing quite like what we were doing in the seventies, even by people who are politically committed in one way or another.
JK: You wrote a piece in solidarity with the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World/IWW).
CW: Well, it was not really in support of them, because they no longer existed. It was more a historical piece. Around the turn of the century, before and after World War I, the U.S. experienced the most extensive, largest labor movement of its history. It was everywhere. It was quite radical and strong and it took lots of efforts by the government to take it down–which they took, of course. It is a moment in American history that is quite distinctive and as such deserves to be remembered and celebrated. Part of the idea of the piece was to revive the memory and the issues raised by that movement. The piece itself concentrates on one particular strike the Wobblies had organised and which had been successful unlike so many left-wing struggles.
Otherwise, the underlying ideas, which have to do with workers’ solidarity, with a fight against capitalist exploitation and so forth, are issues that are still very much with us, and to that extension it was not simply a kind of historical exercise. It was also a hope that something in the past might serve as a kind of reminder, a model, and something worth considering now.
JK: I came across the IWW in my life, so they do still exist. Of course, I can imagine they have a very different character.
CW: Yes, they do.
JK: In a text Frederic Rzewski dedicated to your music, entitled Algebra of Everyday Life, he articulates the question differently. He thinks that your music might play a part in a future mass collective movement, which is to say, not in the immediate present.
CW: Well, if it does, I would be delighted. On the other hand, when you write music, you cannot set out with the notion that “now I am going to write a piece which will be politically significant and which will make a difference in the social and political world.” You have certain ideas and values and you work in accordance with them, but you also have to write a good piece of music. Even with all the best intentions, if the music isn’t any good, then forget it. There isn’t any point… In fact, it may be negative. If you write some bad music in support of a good political cause, you actually might be doing harm to the cause. That is the first thing. I am a composer so I am supposed to be able to write good music, and that is what I concentrate on.
JK: Rzewski might point to that when he brings up a political dimension of your music beside immediate political effects. He calls your music “a kind of intergalactic mutant music” and quotes Cage who “came close when he said, after a performance of the Exercises in New York, that it was like the classical music of an unknown civilization.” So in this interpretation the music is not directly involved in present politics but comes from afar, speaking of another world.
CW: That is in line with what I said earlier that music might be a kind of model, metaphor, or sign that there might be an alternative way of looking at and of doing things and that things can be different. It does not say how to get there, but it is a notion of that possibility which might be – at least in the form of music – out there.
JK: This approach is also not dependent on the existence of a political movement in the present – or at least not directly. Music can have this function maybe even if there is no politics in the present.
CW: Yes, right, there is no specific political movement to which it can be attached.
JK: So let’s detach from politics and switch back to music. What where the specific musical practices through which you approached the related questions of freedom and control, also in the mutual co-evolution between you, Cage, Rzewski, and Cardew?
CW: Probably the crucial thing was that Cage ended up in indeterminacy, which is to say a compositional procedure that left things open. In my case it is clearly focused on the aspect of the music that is not made by the composers but by the interaction of the performers. If you went to music school – which is what I never did – you would be taught basically that there is a score; the score will tell the players exactly what to do; and the players will do exactly what the score tells the players to do. Cage introduced the notion that there might be a gap between the score and what is performed or, to put it another way, that the performance would have more freedom for the performers through having choices. The score may not say how the dynamics work, so the performers have to figure that out. There are different ways to do that. They can do it in advance, make a plan, and then follow it as they would a score that is later performed. They could decide on the spot, improvising, so to speak, the open parts of the piece. The improvisation would be then determined by the conditions of the performance: the time of the performance, how the performer feels, how the performer senses the situation, the audience, and so forth. In Cage this openness comes into the composition by chance, while I would do it primarily through allowing the performers to make choices and bringing them into situations where they become very clearly dependent on one another, rather than on the score. That is not chance and it is not improvisation. That is another thing that happened in the late 60s – precisely the time you are interested in. I never considered improvisation. I had never any interest in it until 1967–68. I spent a sabbatical in London with Cornelius Cardew and others. Cardew was just starting to work with an improvisation group called AMM. By the way, at precisely that time Frederic Rzewski founded the Musica Elettronica Viva ensemble in Rome. This was the start of what is now a whole genre called “free improvisation.” I enjoyed that a lot and found it very interesting musically. It was very much in the spirit of that time as well. Unlike Jazz, in free improvisation there are no fixed parameters; there is nothing. With AMM there was no talk at all: We just started to play. Then usually the music would exhaust itself after about 45 minutes and that was it. Often everybody would just leave and go home without a word about what just happened. So that model of making music takes the notion of freedom to another place. I have been doing that ever since, but this is another line that does not connect to my compositional line at all.
JK: Why didn’t you take that line?
CW: I wanted to do other things too. It would have meant giving up my entire compositional practice and experience. It also limits whom you work with. Improvisers are improvisers and most performers–violinists, flutists, whatever–are not improvisers. I did not want to give that up. And I like writing pieces. If the question is, why I do composition in the first place, the answer is, I cannot help it! I have to do it to keep alive. I also do it because people ask me to. There are commissions: Someone would like a piece, so I would make a piece.| P
 Available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2018/10/01/modern-today-means-old-a-discussion-with-frederic-rzewski/>
 03.11.2018 19:30 Wiener Konzerthaus, Mozart Saal
 03.11.2018 19:30 Wiener Konzerthaus, Mozart Saal
 Rzewski, Frederic. “The Algebra of Everyday Life.” DRAM. <https://www.dramonline.org/albums/christian-wolff-ten-exercises/notes>, (accessed October 15, 2018).
 Available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2018/10/01/would-eugene-debs-support-socialists-running-as-democrats-sanders-shachtmanism-and-the-death-of-the-debs-legacy/>.