SA10: The Christian Wolff Issue
It’s somehow fitting that this issue features the musical thought of Christian Wolff. There are very few living composers who have done more to expand the abstract possibilities of how we compose music; how we perform music; and what the human potential of music can contain than Wolff. The aesthetic concerns of his music have mirrored ideas that have been central to almost every issue of Sound American since its inception: how humans make music, what it means to them, and what the creative act consists of.
Christian Wolff’s position in circles of formative 20th century composers is unassailable. Yet, he has managed to quietly live a life of family, work, and making music. In the pages of this journal, the word “iconoclast” has been thrown around a lot, as well as the idea of some transcendental American maverick musical figure. Christian Wolff is the quietest, most rigorous, and fiercely original version of both the word and the idea.
Christian Wolff was born in 1934 in Nice, France. His parents moved to New York not long after where they started Pantheon books with a group of like-minded emigres fleeing fascism in Europe. The household promoted learning, discussion, and critical thinking; a general attitude that seems to be the basis of Wolff’s personality and approach to his art still.
At the age of 16, Wolff was introduced to John Cage. He took his first compositions lessons with the revolutionary composer and was soon creating his own works like For Prepared Piano (1951) that were affecting the ideas of his teacher and other established artists such as Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Earle Brown, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Even while still a teenager, he was being mentioned as a major influence in the new musical movement during talks by Cage and Feldman. The legendary example of Wolff’s affect on the direction of American music in the 1950s was his gift of a new Pantheon edition of the I Ching to Cage. This gift provided the impetus and material for Cage’s subsequent work with indeterminacy and chance from that point forward; work that was to redefine the way that generations of composers have approached music making.
Perhaps because he watched his earliest peers and friends struggle under the economic weight of composing “new music” in America, Wolff went to Harvard to study classics (his specialty is Euripides) and ultimately find a place in academia; first at Harvard and, from 1970, at Dartmouth College where he taught both classics and music until his retirement in 1999. And, in many cases, this would have been the, rather anti-climactic, end to the meteoric rise of a teenaged musical mind. The pragmatism of household, family, and work, however, did not put an end to Wolff’s ability to develop radical new ideas about music composition.
The works of the years during which he was teaching and raising a family, including the pieces that provide the architecture for this issue, occupy a broad aesthetic space that includes the hyper-notated serialism of For Piano to the textual calls to action of Stones with works like Exercises, Burdocks, and For 1,2, or 3 People (to my mind his most radical and deep pieces) occupying a musical middle ground. These last mentioned pieces combine notated material with elements of decision left to the performers. This allows the music to be affected, to a greater or lesser degree, by the personality and musical history of the performer, as well as achieving the flexibility of performance that is a hallmark of indeterminate music.
There is a wealth of information about Wolff and his relationship to the New York School (Cage, et al.) on the internet and in print for those interested in a blow by blow account of his career and to see the way in which his ideas have developed. This issue will be more concerned with what Christian Wolff thinks right at this very second, and how his music has affected other generations of equally radical composers, performers, and educators.
And what does Christian Wolff think right now? The answer to that is expressed in two separate interviews with man himself: Douglas Detrick talks about the personal process and ritual of writing and my own discussion tries to get at the heart of some of the bigger questions of why Wolff writes and how he views his own music.
Christian Wolff and Nate Wooley
During my research for this issue, it became immediately evident that the ubiquitous "what do you do and how do you do it" sort of interview wasn't going to suffice. I laughed out loud upon receiving Christian's agreement to be a part of the issue in which he said something to the effect of not being sure he would be able to add anything that he hadn't said before. After reading interviews [I highly suggest Damon Krukowski's conversation with Wolff for Bomb Magazine], liner notes, and lectures, I found myself just starting to get a feel for the insurmountable odds of attempting a historical narrative or aesthetic overview of his work in this issue.
Instead, it seemed best to simply try and add more information to the vastly growing online and print conversations with and about Christian Wolff. To do this, I gave Douglas Detrick, a composer who has worked with Wolff, carte blanche to ask Wolff the questions he always wanted to see answered in print. The result is as fascinating in what he chose to ask as how Christian chose to answer and can be read here.
Following the same guidelines, I found myself concentrating on the overarching aesthetics that Wolff has employed throughout his fifty-plus years of composing, and how he's managed to allow himself to change and grow as an artist. In the following conversation he talks about how he composes and, most especially, how he views the act of composing.
Sound American: There’s something about your ability to change the way you compose in relatively drastic ways without losing your identity. I’ve read that you work based on a series of five criteria. Can you describe the five ideas to me, and how they come into play as you’re composing?
Christian Wolff: I'm not sure what the 'five criteria' you refer to are, so I'm thinking: what criteria are there when I'm writing? And how specifically, technically might these be meant? My first response is that I don't have any criteria in my head when I start writing, I just start and see what happens. Of course there are criteria, but they are more or less subliminal, left over from previous work, or adapted from the work of others.
For instance, in the early pieces, the study of the first movement of Webern's Symphonie (opus 27) had an extensive effect. I admired the transparency of the writing, the instrumentation, especially as it fragmented or hocketed melodic lines; the harmonic stasis; all pitches, except one, in the same register, even though the pitches and their sequences were independently derived and followed strict twelve-tone rules; all this as part of a double canon: counterpoint which is almost not perceptible as counterpoint, turns into just a rhythmicized sonority.
(Much) more recently, I've engaged, for example, with Haydn's music quite a lot: where I admire his inventiveness, lightness, strength and ability to be humorous without making a big deal out of it; and, again, transparency, clarity. But it's not that I set out to be “inspired” by Webern or Haydn. They are encouraging examples out there, and, paying attention, one can learn from listening to their sounds and how they come together. Whether or not that affects working on a given piece is open when I start.
Generally, there is the criterion of just wanting to make something that hasn't yet been done, either by others or by me. The latter is not so easy as my work accumulates, but I try and hope. This may be partly realized by technical procedures, that is, finding new ones or using older ones in a different way, or in different combinations. These procedures are devised partly just to make it possible to write; I don't write, or very rarely, "freely", in the Feldman way, by pure impulse without any system or pre-compositional sketches. On the other hand, I don't normally do sketches. I make up or call up some procedure, say, for pitches, a way of transposing (say, by a cycle of intervals) and start with a small made-up fragment, or a bit of something taken from a song or other piece of music, then start the transposition process and see where it takes me. Apart from the initial determination of approximate total length and instrumentation (or, if that isn't specified, some notion of how many performers might be involved), everything else at the start is open.
As for the systems (and there have been a number, some rarely used, some repeatedly, and I keep open the possibility of making up new ones): their purpose is:
1) to make it possible to write at all (like having the words and some of the grammar and syntax of a particular language with which to make a poem, or from which to deviate while making a poem)
2) to produce situations in which I cannot exactly foresee what is going to come out, in which the music that comes out is somewhat out of my (local) control.
Your initial question - about how my musical identity seems consistent while my composing methods, and at least at some level the music itself, can be quite different - is interesting. Maybe some of what I say above helps to account for that. But there's also the phenomenon that one's work may change fairly drastically, but at some basic level, one is who one is and one's work has an inevitable, recognizable identity. I think of the example of John Cage for whom taking up the use of chance operation in the composing marked a really radical change. And yet, taking the long view, the pre-chance Cage, the percussion and prepared piano music, clearly belong to a musical identity, which continues throughout the later work. Or so at least it strikes me.
SA: To clarify the “five criteria” mentioned above, I borrowed that idea from a book I had read on your work by Michael Hicks and Christian Asplund. I think I used the word "criteria" incorrectly and so it confused issues. They refer to it as your "series of ideas." Here they are, more or less verbatim from the text.
Change: new and strange things
Teaching: conveying ideas to listeners, connection to political thought here
Unpredictability: embracing the randomness and spontaneity of life
Freedom: Asserting its fundamental value in relation to the previous ideas
Noise: challenge the nature of sound
CW: Yes, those came from a lecture I did in Victoria in the 90s. They were laid out as five items to make the writing of the lecture easier and maybe clearer, but weren't intended as a long-term program or anything like that.
I think what I wrote so far partly addresses the first: change or trying not to repeat myself, looking - by more or less indirect means (technical procedures) to surprise myself. Now at my age finding new things to do is not so easy. I think one's individual brain has just so many possibilities wired in it and, eventually (or sooner than you might think), the possibilities are used up. Which is not say that I give up! But I'm realistic about the possibilities available. Partly I try to ignore what I've done before, or at least manage to forget it, so if I'm repeating it doesn't feel like it (to me). On the other hand, as you observe, there is a continuity of "identity" in my work, which suggests something is repeating, or remaining consist throughout. What is that?
(Incidentally, I've noticed that visual artists have no trouble repeating themselves. Say, Jasper Johns, who does innumerable variations on the same motifs, say the flags or the numbers, which even after 40 or more years he will return to occasionally. I guess the key term is "variation". What in the music might correspond to "the same motif"? Or "variation"?)
How does that happen through the music (rather than in the usual way of my long-term, now retired from, occupation as teacher/professor)?
For the performers it's through having to deal with music that is not fully prescriptive, where important decisions are left to them, because my scores may leave out a lot of expected information, say, what dynamics to use. And I don't necessarily just leave something out consistently. Say, in the case of dynamics, there may be a stretch of the music that specified only the dynamics, perhaps within time frames (e.g. make 2 loud sounds within the next 1 second, then 1 very soft, one soft and one very loud sound within a next space of 2 seconds, etc.). And nothing else is specified about the sound, so the player is focused (apart from the timing) on just dynamics, and doesn't have to worry specifically about pitch, color, kind of sound. This can make a kind of "sound" which has a characteristic feel to it. It also reminds the player what it's like to focus on dynamics, which can then be applied, retroactively as well as forward, when playing where no dynamics are specified. The dynamics only notation may "teach" the player something about the use and choice of dynamics.
And the listener? Well, that's harder. I do generally try to make a kind of music that is not primarily intended to sweep the listener off his feet, rather the music assumes not just passive listening but rather listening in an engaged way. You have to meet the music partway. I hope that the music might make you both enjoy the listening to it and notice what is going on, i.e. listening with thought, reflectively. This notion I've found described in how Bertolt Brecht talks about what he's doing in his plays (which I admire).
Of course if there's a text involved with the music (for singing or speaking), there's specific material to take notice of and think about.
Yes, that's doubtless something I picked up by being around Cage at the time that he discovered Zen and related thinking and took to working with chance operations. It's partly an idealistic view of the artwork (a piece of music) - that it exists in a privileged space which should not be otherwise disturbed - as against a realistic one, that the artwork…however special…will be subject to life's contingencies (like extraneous noise at a concert). I go with the latter, and, at least for my own work have no problem with it. The "extraneous" noise is going to be part of the acoustic experience of a listener in any case, so why not accept it and, if possible, enjoy it, if only as something surprising, which might also cast a new light on the music which it "interrupts." The issue came up first I think with the use of extended silences in the music (Cage's, Feldman's and mine early on). In those silences there would be inevitably be sounds from the environment and these would noticeable. And, because the acoustic/time space was there, they'd be "listenable" too.
Another kind of spontaneity and unpredictability happens all the time in, is part of the essence of, improvisation (which I got involved in starting in the later 60s and still enjoy).
How "assert its fundamental value..."?
Well, by letting people experience it; the performers (as partly described above), also the listeners, by not "pushing them around" with aggressive musical rhetoric. By avoiding models of hierarchical control and organization, de-centralizing control over how music is produced (composed, performed, presented). Working with an orchestra is a great challenge here. The orchestra, I think, can be an extraordinary resource, but is a problematic institution. In writing for orchestra I try, within practical limits (I do compromise), to have situations where, for example, the conductor does not control what is happening in the music; or members of the orchestra usually invisible (e.g. back bench second violinists) may be given solo material.
Well that's been a notion that's been around at least from the time percussion came to be commonly used. As extraneous sound it's related to what was said above about unpredictability. And then it's a matter of re-thinking the range of possible sounds usable for music, which, again, has been around quite a while. For strings, for instance, from the uses of, say "sul ponticello" (first I think in Beethoven's C# minor quartet, in any case everywhere in early Webern, and Schoenberg and Berg).
SA: There’s a quote of yours that I came across that composition is “not so much an expression of the player (or composer) as a way of connecting, making a community…sometimes involving internally those fluid and precise, and transparent, lines or projections of connection.” What priority does the social interaction of the musicians hold for you in one of your compositions?
CW: Well, the first interaction in a group of musicians is going to be social in any case, no matter what the music. They will have to interact more if the notation of the score leaves questions and decisions open. A recent case: Pete written for the ICE ensemble (7 of them), which goes from straight ahead scoring to passages where, say, there is music on four lines (just single lines, no pitch specified: focus on rhythm) and the players have to work out who will play which line and what kinds of sounds they will use (pitched and/or noise; and when pitched, whether to agree on pitches or each just choose as they go along). Now I don't exactly do this to get the musicians to talk and decide something together, though of course I realize that's got to happen and I think it's a good thing. I'm initially interested in the musical implications of the situation: a rhythmic counterpoint texture realizable in a variety of ways, which I can't, and don't want to, predict.
SA: Along those same lines, a composition like Stones seems to be “an invitation to play” as Michael Pisaro put it in my conversation with him for this issue. You have pieces like this that are, for lack of a better term, populist, while others, like Pulse for example, are very technically virtuosic. How do you view your role as composer in the music making in each case?
CW: Well, in general the composer's role (mine) is basically the same, that is, to make a "score", whether with conventional notations or some alternative, including (for those who might not read music) just prose instructions (either of which might be simple or complex) in such a way that it can lead, through its performance, to persuasive music. It's more a matter of thinking about the abilities and inclinations of the performers; and making something that's useful for them; that is, both technically manageable and challenging (variously, according to what kind of performers you expect).
Your term "populist" applies if you mean the availability of performance to a wide range of performers, including non-professionals or even people who have never tried to perform music. The music itself may or may not be "populist", that is, somehow musically engaging for a wide, non-specialist audience, whether it is like "Stones" or like "Pulse".
SA: When did you make the decision to start using folk songs, primarily political, as source material for some of your music? Does it change your approach to composing?
CW: I'd guess with the "Bread and Roses" pieces (first solo violin, then piano, then in "Wobbly Music", and more), which is mid 1970s. I first tried making my own "tunes”; in "Burdocks" there is one (that would be 1970), and then a handful to go with the Exercises 1-14. It does change my way of composing, makes it less abstract. I have the tune - its intervals and rhythms - to work with, that is, more or less modal pitch material and pulsed rhythms. Also the words of a (especially, political) song will often give me a title (say, "Starving to death on a government claim" [one of the "Three Pieces"] or "Dark as a dungeon") and the content of the song's text will be on my mind when I'm writing. However, I don't do "arrangements" of the song, except possibly for starting a piece with a direct playing of the song tune. More or less the model is variations, but subject to my way of writing, for instance, discontinuously, and in ways that seem to me exploratory.
SA: What do you get from the practice/act/play of improvising?
CW: Just the pleasure of doing it! Of playing with others in a completely open, unpredictable situation. I don't relate it, at least consciously, to anything I do compositionally. It's like experimental drawing, quick and in the moment. You never look back (though with a drawing you can look at what you've done, and with music you can hear a recording, though I usually don't do that).
There have been different improvisation situations. Regular [improvising in] concert is one. Another used to be playing with one or two or more others (including, say, Takehisa Kosugi, William Winant, Steve Lacy, Keith Rowe) for a Merce Cunningham company dance "Event". There you are part of a larger theatrical situation, though without any specific coordinating intentions: you don't, you can't from the pit, see what the dancers are doing. And the dance may be quite long or on a time scale that may or may not be how the improvisation is going; there may be stops and starts, agreements among the players to not play a given amount of time within the total performance time. I have occasionally used the expansive scale of the situation and the feeling that the music is being taken care of by the group to try out bits of material from compositions that I'm working on (so not really improvising at all, except insofar as a 'quotation' might be dropped into the mix, choosing the timing of it with regard to the ongoing improvisational situation).
SA: Finally, I think one of the things that attracts me to your music is the feeling that the processes involved in making the music are more important the composition as an exactly reproducible sound object. Even though this, in itself, is a strong personal philosophy, it never feels like the music is stale or stylized. How do you maintain this sense of flow and flexibility?
CW: I don't really know. I suspect that if I knew specifically, or worked with such a specific awareness, the freshness would get lost. This refers to the process of composition. What you say about the importance (for me) of the process of making, that is, performing the music, is important. Because the compositions have, in whatever various ways, open-ended features, the music inevitably will be part of a changing process; will come out, at least somewhat (sometimes a lot) differently each time it is performed. And this results in surprises, for the players in any case, and for listeners more in a feeling that there is surprise in the situation. They won't be able to tell what is or is not unexpected as such, but there might be a feeling.
Otherwise, back to the compositional process, it has to be undertaken with as much care, judgment and attention to detail as possible. The trick is to have the surprises not feel forced or arbitrary. But it's not only about surprises. The music has to sound good too, has to have the possibility of being expressive (of which surprise may be a part, but not the only one).
Christian Wolff and Doug Detrick
As we prepared to do this interview, Christian Wolff said “Things are a bit crazy at the moment—house full of family, including small grandchildren, plus visitors in and out, and an orchestra score deadline with lots of proofreading.” Being a new father myself, I was eager to ask Christian—who probably wouldn’t mind me calling him an old father—about the concrete details of the actual work of making his work.
The needs of children take precedence, and can do so at odd times. And knowing Christian has a relatively large family, I thought it would be fascinating to know more about the minute details of his working and decision making process. He described his pencils, his notebook, the kitchen table where he uses them, and the din of family in the background. Its probably not the first time he’s answered these questions, but, at least, I hope, we can step closer to this composer’s working life in a concrete sense.
I came to know Christian when I played trumpet on the world premiere of his “Song (for 6)” in December of 2010. We performed the piece with the composer and Robyn Shulkowsky—one of Christian’s greatest interpreters—among other great players, with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its farewell performance in New York. We kept in touch after the performances with the Cunningham Company were over, and in 2013, I commissioned “Octet for brass with a violin” as a curator of the Festival of New Trumpet Music. In this far less well-funded gig, I found Christian to be every bit as generous as he was before, and even more so.
In rehearsal for the Cunningham performances, I was at first just plain star-struck. To be working with one of my musical heroes was surreal—I felt fortunate just to be there. But, after that, in rehearsal for the Cunningham performances, came some frustration, on our part and on Christian’s too, though he wouldn’t have let on. His music relies on a deftness of interpretation that is hard to express in words, and so at first this naturally quiet man just didn’t. With six different viewpoints on the same score, we handled the tiny springs and cogs of his music like well-intentioned watchmakers with mittens on our hands.
I was glad that Robyn was there. She asked Christian play his part in a few places, for the rest of us to listen, and that was all we needed. Soon the piece began to sound like it was meant to sound, with all the subtleness and gentleness that I associate with his music, but also with the surprises that twist sometimes like a country road and sometimes like a knife.
This man’s warmth, generosity, and happy curiosity have led me to think of him as a grandfather in my personal musical mythology. The domestic analogy seems appropriate, for reasons I’ve already stated, but also a bit for his good-natured old-fashionedness. When I suggested he might include some photos of his workspace he said, “Photos of workspace? Well, as I said, a kitchen table...people, children (now sometimes grandchildren) coming in and out. And I don't have a camera.”
So, there you have it. The real character of his process comes through just as well with his words, anyway. We can imagine the various kitchen tables he’s worked on, or the many notebooks that have balanced on his knees in any of the planes, trains and automobiles across the world just fine, I think.
Douglas Detrick: When you sit down to work on a new piece, what does this look like for you? Do you actually sit? Do you pick the same place to work, or do you move around? Is this something you choose, or is it a function of circumstance or chance? Is there any noise, is it perfectly quiet?
Christian Wolff: Physical conditions of working: are various. Depending on circumstances, where I am, am I alone or not, when in the course of my life—long ago (say, 1949), going to high school (living at home), later trying to keep up and do well in college, struggling determinately in graduate school, being in the army (almost 2 years), teaching full-time at Harvard, getting and being married, having children (final total: four, over about 12 or so years). All this education and teaching until 1970 had nothing to do with music. Well, except early on (1949-51), when I had piano lessons and a short time of composition lessons (and so assignments).
To fill out the chronology: teaching winding down in the later 1990s (and before that there were sabbaticals of half or full years, the latter involving going with the family to live in England, three times), then full retirement from the academic life in 1999. Since then, at last, I've been a full-time musician.
I do always sit down, but not at a piano. From the start a piano was at some point in the process necessary (unless I'd be writing for un-pitched percussion, or prose pieces, or pieces like 'For 1, 2 or 3 people' where pitch choices are very few), but only to check what I had written. The whole point of composition I think is that you write something, with deliberation, time and working out of procedures and structures, what you could not do simply (improvising) at the piano.
I have no fixed place to work, never had a studio. Usually it's just the dining room or kitchen table (I don't mind other people around, or noise (unless it's the kind that would annoy you whatever you were doing). I make a point of not working in the same room as a piano, not to have too easy access to it. There should be some lapse of time between writing and going to check it out.
When traveling (which in the last decade or so I do quite a lot, on account of the music), I usually have some small music notebook handy, so I may get some work done in airports...or waiting at the dentist, the doctor's, car servicing, at a concert if I've arrived early...
So, working conditions are circumstantial, contingent.
DD: Once you’re actually working, what do you do next? What's the first step in writing a new piece? Can you give as much of a step-by-step description as possible?
Once located, what's next? Again, various, depending on what life-stage I've been at. Early pieces mostly involved rhythmic structures (that is, the scheme invented and taught me by Cage, whereby the time proportions of smaller structural units are the same as the larger (total) structural units). So I start by determining about how long this new piece is going to be and working out the arithmetic of the total number of beats (or measures), at what average tempo, will come out to that length (and adjusting that to get a number that has a square root). Before that I would know my instrumentation, whether freely chosen or determined by a request/commission/performance opportunity, and, if there's a specific concert in sight, what the appropriate duration of the piece might be.
If I'm making something vocal, the choice of text comes first (not easy for me), after that the text determines pretty much everything else.
Again, over the years the actual process has varied a lot. Earliest pieces which had extremely restricted pitch material (3 or 4, up to, say 9, absolute pitches, never transposed) would require determining next what particular pitches to use, which determination has to be adjusted to the ranges of the instruments to be used.
The more indeterminate pieces, like 'For 1, 2 or 3 people', or 'For 5 or 10 people', or, for that matter, 'Burdocks' were made less systematically, or rather, once the main idea or circumstance of the piece (say, varying number of players, unspecified instrumentation, the kind of notation (i.e. what, more or less indeterminate material would be specified) were decided on, I'd proceed pretty much intuitively, but keeping in mind as much as possible what the indeterminate notations might actually cause to happen.
I had a rough procedure: imagining (working out) what the "worst" or most outrageous thing that might result from a particular notation might be. If that "worst case" was acceptable, then it was ok. If I could imagine someone using the notation to do something I really didn't want, I'd change or adjust it. What did I want? Well, a certain kind of sound/sound texture, usually with spaces (silence) in it, but also with some variety, with sonic interest, with a kind of floating rhythm; generally that things happened at any given moment unpredictably.
DD: How has this changed over time?
CW: Over the years I go back and forth between quite strict procedures, systems (the most extreme probably in the later 50s, though occasionally later I'll try it again, e.g. in the Tilbury pieces and 'Snowdrop' (late 60s) and the percussion pieces 'Fall I-III' (90s), which are highly 'systemic', ) and freer, more intuitive ones. Or rather I generally mix it up. The systems are there 1) to get some kind of coherence (underlying, not to be perceived directly, but some feeling of logic) and 2) to have the composing process have a kind of resistance to work with, to push it, if possible in directions one would not have otherwise thought of; a fixed structural requirement, for instance, that you have to observe, like a rhyme scheme in poetry.
More recently (well, maybe the last 20 or so years at least), I just—having first determined instrumentation and approximate scale (duration)—jump in and see what happens, and where whatever I've just done, if I decide it's ok (and I may change my mind), could go next; or rather, what different thing I might do next.
The starting off point may be a tune, or part of a tune—from some collection of folk or political songs, or just some simple initial gesture, say, two whole steps, a half step, a minor third. After that various procedures are used, transpositional, rotating, and the like, applied to pitch and (less consistently) to rhythm. The procedures may vary, according to ad hoc decisions; they aren't consistently maintained. They make smaller continuities; the overall procedure is more about dis-continuity; but so that a lot of discontinuous material somehow adds up to a piece that works as a piece.
DD: How do you actually write notes on the page from a concrete, physical perspective?
CW: I write with pencil first, usually in a smallish music notebook (that's easy to carry around, I also recently found very small notebooks - about 3 by 4 inches, with 8 staves, one happily called (a misprint I think) "the red musician's notebook", fits in some of my shirt pockets). I like as much material on a page as possible, to get maximum overview, and economy of use of space. There's some contradiction because my eyesight isn't all that good, and when I get on to copying what I've written, I sometimes need to use a magnifying glass to sort it out.
So pencil, trying things out on the piano (getting up and going to another room), finding (sometimes often) that what I wrote doesn't work—so gets crossed out (occasionally I look again, and use the crossed out material after all). Then when the piece seems finished—somewhere within the range of duration required—I do a fair copy—ink on 8 1/2" x 11" music paper; not a dimension I much like, but because of copying machines and scanners it's the easiest to reproduce. The publisher usually has to reduce the size to make a bound copy because I go too close to the margins. I don't like that either.
I'm a computer idiot, and generally am prejudiced about any use of it (though communication is ok). I certainly wouldn't dream of writing music on it, even were I able to. It's ridiculously constrictive. For instance, it can't do, at least without complicated and time-consuming procedures, what I regard as perfectly reasonable, simple notations (usually my own particular ones) that I can do in a moment by hand.
This (physical) process hasn't changed much over the years as far as I can make out.
DD: So, when you go to the other room to your piano and “try things out,” what are you listening for? Can you describe what will cause some material and not others to get “crossed out?” Is this process distinct from imagining what the “worst case” of a particular notation might be?
CW: Your follow-up question is difficult to answer, essentially: how do I decide what I find musically ok? It is a bit different from the "worst case", but, as you observe, there is a connection. On the piano, since that is a pitch situation only, the "worst"—or just not wanted—notes, gestures, chords is just what doesn't sound right. And what is it about a pitch combination, or stretch of music that doesn't sound right?
Well, if it's a somewhat larger unit (six measures, say), then structural questions may arise: is this unit ok here? Or better somewhere else? More likely though, I'll find there's something that's slipped through which hasn't been done with enough attention, a (maybe quite short) sequence of notes that don't have a feeling of being necessary. This may also happen if I've set up some procedural thing which interests me, say a systematic pitch rotation like this: a given sequence of pitches and rhythms is made, and it feels ok; then I take the first pitch (and duration) to start up again, follow it with the last pitch/duration in the sequence, then second pitch/duration from the beginning, then the second one from the end, and so forth until you get to the middle of the number of pitches/durations.
Sometimes this produces a new thing, drawn out of what is already there, but also different and not quite expected (I can't foresee what will actually happen, exactly what new pitch-rhythm line will be generated) and something I like (there: we come down to some non-verbalizable feeling). Or I may not like the results, so I cross it out and try something else.
What I don't worry too much about is if something that's been generated by some calculated procedure whose results are not quite predictable turns out to sound like some musical bit that suggests, say, Schumann, or Feldman or blues or whatever. That is, if it has a 'musical' feel, I don't mind a casual suggestion of music other than what is strictly mine. And in any case this would be a fairly brief passing moment.
But let's face it, I can't really explain my musical judgement. I can speak of music out there that I like and admire, that I find congenial (again a subjective thing) and that therefore might affect how I feel about what I'm making myself, though of course I also hope to be making something that is somehow new. As for what I like of music out there, there's a lot and it's very various; for instance, a Ray Charles song, something (actually a lot) in Haydn, the toughness (for us now anyway) of Machault...and so forth. Incidentally, that larger, potential frame of reference may include poetry (say, John Ashbery or Brecht) or visual things (say, Jasper Johns or Cy Twombly).