A portion from Christian Wolff's Pete, written for the International Contemporary Ensemble
Joshua Rubin: It’s interesting about his music; the kind of improvisation that you’re doing in his music is very specific. In some ways it emerges out of some of the ideas of his New York School experience, but he clearly also wanted to work with all these jazz improvisers as well, people that had experience doing a certain kind of improvisation. But, his notation is so specific that it really allows for only a few [choices]…it really should just be entirely notated.
Sound American: The limitations are not severe, but are more extreme than a freely improvised piece.
JR: Which is why I think performances of his music can vary so much. Some performances of his music can be kind of dull. It requires a certain kind of energy of performance to make those limitations so comfortable that the piece feels successful. That’s my experience in hearing his music anyway.
SA: What about your experience playing it? I know about Pete, which is a piece he wrote just for International Contemporary Ensemble [ICE}, but there was also a period when you were doing the Exercises, right?
JR: Basically our connection to Christian is through Nathan Davis [ICE percussionist and composer]. He taught at Dartmouth with Christian, and they were very close. Nathan, when he joined ICE in 2004 or 2005, brought all this Christian Wolff music, and we started doing it at our performance. We then got in touch with him to work on a concert for Valentine’s Day 2010 at Issue Project Room, which was a lot of fun.
Simultaneously, I was working with Christian on various other projects. For example, our violinist, Erik Carlson, had a project called the NY Miniaturist Ensemble that commissioned pieces under 100 notes. And, he would write all of his favorite composers and ask them, straight up, if they would write a piece. 75% of the time he could approach any composer. [Karlheinz] Stockhausen wrote his last couple of pieces for this ensemble; [George] Aperghis, Milton Babbitt, everyone wrote pieces, because it [the 100 note limit] is amazing challenge. They can use it as an exercise. Christian Wolff wrote a series of pieces for the ensemble called Microexercises.
SA: Stephen Drury talked to me about those pieces.
JR: Right, well he wrote the first book of those pieces for the Miniaturist Ensemble. He wrote the second book for someone else; maybe Drury. So, for me, that was an amazing connection. I was overwhelmed to have this set of pieces written for us.
The pieces are like the Exercises, but each one is a contrasting ensemble work for one to maybe ten players. Some of them have a mathematical cohesion that is different from some of the other Christian Wolff pieces. You know Tom Johnson’s music?
SA: Yes, we just featured some of his work.
JR: Right, so you know how some of Tom Johnson’s work is made up from a simple algorithm or formula sometimes…some of the Microexercises have something like that; there’s an iterative process or a kind of written out algorithmic process involved. I really appreciated how he put so much thought into what the maximum possibilities of a piece that was under 100 notes could be. So, that was my initial connection with him.
We commissioned Christian this year through a grant that Mount Tremper Arts got to do this piece. Pete Seeger had died last year and that was on his mind, so he wanted to base this piece on inspirations from Pete Seeger, so that’s how that ended up happening.
SA: ICE and you are in an interesting position with regards to Wolff’s work. I think it’s probably an idea I hold too dear, but he seems to do very different kinds of pieces; Exercises/Microexercises has one way of work, the Text Pieces work in a different kind of way, more open to interpretation, but then there are these, for lack of a better term, political pieces like Bread and Roses or Una Hay Caminar (check sp?) that seem to have a different aesthetic. You and ICE have been working in all the different aesthetics with Christian, it seems.
But, to get to Pete specifically, I was listening to it online…
JR: You know, I don't know where Pete falls in that spectrum, but I think that Christian feels that all his music has a political connection to the chamber music that he's writing. The ways that the members of an ensemble interact is like a community exercise. And, I’m not a Christian Wolff expert, but I do think that a lot of his political ideas emerge from this idea of community…
SA: The social interaction…
JR: Exactly, and so even within those pieces that have political themes the styles vary but they usually revolve around this idea. For example, he’ll write out a line that has some sort of engagement, either decisions made beforehand or in the moment and the [musical] exercise is to come together in the moment and realize a melody using listening…and selectively ignoring, too. That can become the political action. I’m not sure how Pete fits into that scheme, because there’s a lot more notated music in this than in some of the other works.
SA: That’s the thing that’s interesting to me because the music of his that I group into my own category of overtly political pieces have more written out material. When I went to listen to Pete, though, and maybe I was looking for something specific in regards to Bread and Roses and pieces that are based on folk and political music, I was looking for those folk song materials which he says he runs through “transpositions”; algorithms and things like that create the musical materials for the piece. This piece, though, had aleatoric and improvisational sections that were very pronounced. In contrast, when I talked to Sally Pinkas about her recordings of this work of Christian’s I was surprised how much aleatoric music there was in the score as it didn’t come across in the recording, whereas when I listened to Pete, it seemed more clear when you were in an open section, either aleatoric or improvisational on some level.
JR: It’s true. The piece has really clear divisions and you can see it in the score. And, in working with him, too, it was interesting that this piece does have improvisational elements. I think it had something to do with the instrumentation. The band we put together for that piece was sort of like an old-timey band: clarinet and trumpet, one string instrument, etc. So, there’s something like a stage band sound when you hear the folk song pieces that are old-timey type songs. I don’t think they’re Pete Seeger songs, but more like reminiscences of a time. But, because those folk song sections sound so stage band like: a little bit ragtime, a little bit stride piano, the dialogue between those sections and the improvisatory sections are much more contrasting. I also think, when you look at the score, you’d be surprised how many of the improvisatory sounding sections are notated. There are a few sections that are very minimally written out. They are more like graphical notation; more spatialized.
An example from Christian Wolff's Pete showing one of the more aleatoric sections of the composition simultaneous with more traditionally notated material.
SA: One thing that you brought up about the political being a social aspect, I’m always fascinated with ensembles that work with specific composers and how playing that music affects the way you rehearse or perform. I know you’ve done music of Pauline Oliveros, and a lot of people I’ve spoken to who have worked with her have mentioned how it affected the way they worked on other composers’ music. I get a feeling that Wolff has a similar effect. It seems like he sets up a social situation that has a lot of unwritten rules about how you interact based on that situation. Do you think that changes the way the group dynamic approaches something like the Chaya Czernowin stuff you just performed at Miller Theater?
JR: Oh for sure. Some of us are trained improvisers and some are trained in contemporary music and have come to working with people like Pauline and George Lewis and Christian later on. And, there’s one common theme that has absolutely informed the way we work as a group in all kinds of music, notated or not. I’m thinking about when we worked with George Lewis on his piece, Artificial Life 2007, an improvisatory composition that we’ve played a lot. That piece is like a flow chart that takes you through an improvisation in a very specific way. One of the things I hear in my mind when we’re playing that music is George saying that, in the moment of coming up with an idea that you want to realize or express in an improvisatory setting, part of the action of playing involves deciding whether what someone next to you is playing can take the place of what you might do individually in the context of the overall performance. Pauline is the same way. A lot of her music revolves around whether you’re playing or not. Those can be equivalent in her music. Christian doesn’t have as much silence or space in his music as, say, John Cage’s or Pauline’s music, but I think that the idea of deferring to your neighbor, but also stepping on them, both interactions, are crucial to his composition. And, he would always advise us in the direction of making more room and creating more space, textures sparse. That way of listening and deferring in chamber music is something that applies to all the music we play in ICE.
Photo of Joshua Rubin by Nathan Keay
Joshua Rubin is a founding clarinetist and the co-Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), where he oversees the creative direction of more than sixty concerts per season in the United States and abroad. As a clarinetist, the New York Times has praised him as, "incapable of playing an inexpressive note."
Joshua has worked closely with many of the prominent composers of our time, including George Crumb, David Lang, John Adams, George Lewis, Philippe Hurel, Kaija Saariaho, John Zorn, Magnus Lindberg, Steve Lehman, Nathan Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, John Zorn, and Mario Davidovsky. His interest in electronic music throughout his career has led him work on making these technologies easier to use for both composers and performers. Joshua can be heard on recordings from the Nonesuch, Kairos, New Focus, Mode, Cedille, Naxos, Bridge, New Amsterdam, and Tzadik labels. His album "There Never is No Light," available on ICE's Tundra label, highlights music that uses technology to capture the human engagement of the performer and the listener.