Monday, 9 October 2017

Christian Wolff

The notion of experiment, contingent processes, matters because I think it represents an image and attitude which allow for the possibility of change (for the better). 

In an earlier blog (Creativity and aging) we discussed characteristic stages of artistic endeavour at different periods in our lives. It would seem that Wolff is now in a mid-stage between the “Summing-up” phase (looking at the events of one’s past and creating a narrative from these events), and the “Encore” phase (reaffirming beliefs and opinions and exploring variations on those opinions). His lecture in London 2014 available as a podcast from iTunes New Music insight lectures demonstrates this, as in discussing his new music the greater part of the talk focuses on the past. There is no judgement on my part in saying this, time has moved on and reflection on how we arrive at a given point is illuminating particularly when we are hearing it from one closely involved with the great figures of 20th century American music.

It is also part of my own summing up phase as I had the opportunity to talk with and perform some of Wolff’s music many decades ago in Manchester, an event I was reminded of when I came across the scores we used as exercises in a far from regular clean out of music on my shelves. The image below is part of the optional percussion part. There is a multi tracked performance of the pitch material from the first page available on soundcloud:

Having spent some time with his works on You Tube and shared some of the best performances on the New Music Hub on G+ I came to the conclusion that his music is primarily concerned with economy, interaction, adaptability and sonority. It is a style that has many strengths and some limitations.

In essence Wolff’s compositional intentions and methods can be reduced to a small number of significant experiences and beliefs, several of which were formed in the earlier days of his musical development. There was a period of conventional musical study but it was hearing the music of the second Viennese school that sparked a desire to write, particularly after coming into contact with the Webern symphony which he describes as a sounds in isolation but within a logical scheme. It seems that Feldman consolidated that view of the Webern symphony as the unification of parts and wholes. It is the potential for parts to exist as events within and outside a structure that changes the perspective in relation to earlier music, the hint of the possibility in Webern becomes a flowering of new music.

Wolff asks himself a question in the podcast, one which is more significant than it seems at first, “why does one make a deliberate effort to make one’s music different?” He considers his youthful opposition to the ‘tired’ styles, and reflects on the term experimental, starting anew. Every composer that aimed at controlling or even defining experimental brought out divergent views and results, as the following comparison of Cage and Wolff demonstrates.

Cage summarised an experimental action as one where the results of a composition would be unknown. Added to this was the view that with chance you use what you get (never a choice). Neither the composer of the performer is privy to intelligence about the actual outcome, the performance. Wolff has a less severe outlook and believes that the unforeseen in music permits the possibility of ‘useful detachment’, giving consideration from moment to moment without too much anxiety about expression or having to create a narrative. Expression can exist but as a by-product of composing. This difference in the view of detachment takes Wolff into permitting flexibility in the hands of the performer to determine the musicality of his / her actions, and this musicality need not arise from instrumental training but experience and personal artistic insight. The integration of a wider range of performance attitudes brings a different focus and becomes in the composer’s mind a metaphor for social change.

Another significant difference between the two composers is shown in Cage’s opinion that once the piece was complete it was fixed. Wolff’s social attitude integrates the indeterminacy into performance, into music that can be endlessly renewed.

Usefully for less technically proficient performers Wolff’s music is characterised by passages playing with a limited number of different notes, and as he suggests the less material the more invention is required. Let’s restate that after the experience of hearing Webern’s symphony, creating pieces with sounds, permutations of notes, playing individually or sustained became his main intention. It is this economy that diminishes the role of drama and surprise within the music, but as said above, one gains a lot and loses a little.

It seems that on reflection Wolff’s considers his working with Rzewski in 1957 on Duo for Pianists I as a seminal moment.  A piano composition was required with insufficient time to prepare, so a system for improvisation based of time units and sounds was developed. Foe me his view of the outcome on reflection is significant: “It sounded fine, just as complex as the complex music. It was different every time, and different because of what the other performer did.” The significance comes in two parts, the evaluation of the outcome in relation to composers like Boulez and the social interaction.

Performances of Wolff’s improvisatory music are akin to role playing, sometimes one is in charge of the performance other times passive. The notation is designed to make the performer focus on progression in a different way to the conventional demands. The reward is that rhythm takes on a unique character.

Over his career Wolff has explored various degrees of indeterminacy or ‘flexibility’ from largely rigid to very free; no instrument, dynamic, tempo or register specified, free durations and options for repetition. He has also reworked original material though that is outside the consideration of this blog. His music is primarily for smaller forces simply because the degree of interaction becomes more difficult the more people are involved. The possibility of mixing fully composed and indeterminate music was explored, but Wolff cites clarity as an issue in such a scheme, his solution is to divide the forces into coexisting ‘subgroups’.

When Wolff describes his manipulations of pitch and rhythm we are given processes of expansion, transposition, loops and cycles, he could be describing the techniques encountered in Feldman’s compositions, but it isn’t the manipulation that is important it is the outcome, and as in all social interactions each person takes responsibility for the choices made.

 Selected videos from New Music Hub on G+

Preludes for piano

For Morty for Vibraphone, Glockenspiel and Piano (1987) [Score-Video]

Another Possibility (2004)