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.
To address the latter, I’ve chosen a handful of pieces from Wolff’s oeuvre that represent my own associations with Christian’s music: Edges for improvisation, Stones for populism or bringing people together to make music, Exercises for indeterminacy and social thinking in music making, and Bread and Roses for its political content. For each piece, I’ve asked a composer/performer/educator to talk about their experience with the work and how it relates to the broader concept and to the work they’ve chosen.
Stephen Drury on Microexercises
Christian Wolff's Exercises and the later Microexercises are an interesting point of entry to Christian Wolff's music. Personally, it wasn't until the New World Records release, Ten Exercises, that I started to look into the way that Christian wrote music and the way the pieces allowed for group interplay and discussion. To me, the Exercises will always remain an elegant model of how to write music with varying elements of indeterminacy.
An oversimplified way of looking at these pieces might be to include them in the realm of improvisational music. Certain parallels could be made between these works and the "game pieces" of John Zorn, et al. However, as Frederic Rzewski points out in his liner notes to the New World release, Wolff's relationship to the practice of improvisation in these compositions should be taken "...in a broader sense, as with a basketball player, who may be said to improvise, while at the same time adhering to the strict rules governing the game."
The rules, in this case, vary from notated material that leaves parameters such as dynamics, articulation or pacing open to the performer's discretion to the more abstract notion of "unison" as a general point of reference (mentioned below). The beauty of the Exercises, though, comes from the unwritten necessity involved in playing them. Beyond mere rule-following or open improvisation, these works require the musicians to ask and answer questions of personal and group performance practice. It is music made personal through consensus.
Because of this, the Exercises and Microexercises make interesting fodder for the exploration of sound and socio-musical dynamics within a chamber ensemble, as well as being an interesting avenue for young musicians to begin to responsibly undertake works of an indeterminate nature. To that end, I had a brief discussion with Stephen Drury, pianist and educator, about his personal experiences with these pieces and how he and his students begin to navigate the responsibility of performance.
Sound American: I want to ask you about the way the Exercises and Microexercises are structured and what you think makes them unique as pieces somewhere between very open, graphic oriented scores and through-composed pieces with traditional notation.
Stephen Drury: With a great deal of modern repertoire, especially from composers of the so-called New York School and those who came in their wake, there is a continuing tension between information provided by the notation and information deliberately left out or ambiguous.
[Morton] Feldman’s work provides great examples; the scores of the graph pieces determine rhythm more-or-less precisely while leaving pitch up to the performer, while much of his other work from the 60’s specifies pitch and leaves rhythm open. Many of [John] Cage’s works give no specific details of traditional musical parameters but provide tools to make those determinations; others provide windows of opportunity much like Earle Brown’s works do. This play between what’s given and what’s not is often the very subject of the composition; it defines the work as a composition as much as traditional notation does for a more traditional composer.
In Christian Wolff’s Exercises the score flirts with traditional notation but leaves enough ambiguity to take the performer to what feels like the next station just beyond “tempo rubato”; not a wholly indeterminate or improvised rhythm, but one in which an individual performer’s rhythm is sufficiently far removed from anything pre-determined that two or more performers will invariably not be in precise unison. Wolff’s music always focuses on the very presence of the performer, revealing the performer and making his or her true nature vivid on stage. The Exercises provide a framework and by doing so emphasize the performer’s activity in bending that framework, demanding and throwing a very precise light on the performer’s participation in the process. In an ensemble performance, the directive “try to stay together” encapsulates this ambiguity; not “stay together,” and not “go off on your own”; the deviations from the norm becoming the substance of the piece.
The precise wording of the score:
“In general the point of reference, where more than one player plays the same material (the normal situation), is unison. But, as rhythm and speed, articulation, amplitude, color, and modes of playing are all flexible, any player may try to establish what the point of reference for unison is at any point in the course of playing. If, however, a movement by a player, say, in the direction of faster is not generally picked up by the rest, he must return to the prevailing speed.”
The notation hints at but does not specify degrees of faster or slower movement; momentum rather than rhythm. The same kind of issues can be applied to dynamics, instrumental color, and to some extent pitch (clef reading and transpositions), although these are also more dependent on contingencies like who is available to take part in a particular performance. In the Microexercises Wolff continues further in this direction, variously making structure, counterpoint, and harmony subjects of interrogation while adding a new limitation: each exercise contains no more than 100 sounds in a performance.
SA: I know you told me you had worked with the Microexercises more consistently. What do you see as the difference between the two sets of pieces? Can you give me a bit of an overview of how you, as a performer, might go through the nuts and bolts preparation for one of those pieces as an example?
SD: The major difference between the two sets of pieces: the Exercises have the feel of an ore - something rough, unpolished. The Microexercises are polished gems in performance.
[As for nuts and bolts] Instrumentation is primary. When we do the Microexercises, we start with a given: who is in the total ensemble? The question is then which players play in which piece (rarely everybody in any one piece; among other reasons, that would often go over the 100-note limit). What instrumentation would bring out an inherent character in a given piece? Then, the rehearsal; some specifics [for the following Microexercises] would be:
#1 - how long & varied are the pauses?
#5 - how much space between phrases?
#6 - bowing/breathing articulations
#8 - how long is a ‘very long’ sound for any given instrument?
Also we do a lot of trying out of different clefs or transposing instruments (Bb clarinet vs. A clarinet vs. bass clarinet, etc).
SA: From your position as someone who has performed these pieces as well as using them as repertoire in an educational sphere, what do you think are the advantages to arranging performance of pieces like this? There seems to be enough parameters to these pieces to make the improvisational element feel safe to those who haven't done it before without cheapening the feeling of freedom the performer experiences.
SD: Well, I tend not to think along those lines precisely, & I don’t really teach improvisation. I think the emphasis here is not really improvisation, rather they develop an awareness of ensemble outside of conventional norms of precision. Listening to intention, working towards clarity of gesture, a feeling for larger stretches of melody (“phrases”) are all crucial in developing a performance. The pieces also ask the performer to focus on what parameters need to be considered in a performance; what elements actually make up a performance. There’s also an anarchic/social aspect involved, learning to come to a consensus responding to the scores rather than unquestioningly follow what’s notated, since so much is left out or ambiguous.
To more precisely answer your question, the advantage to playing Wolff’s music is to play great repertoire!
SA: I think you're probably right about the use of the term "improvisation" in these pieces. I tend to use it as a catch all for non-notation. But, these pieces (and Wolff's work in general) seem to encompass what you call "an anarchic/social aspect." It would be interesting to understand how you put that idea across to your students; get them into the mindset of coming to a consensus.
SD: There are two aspects to a consensus; in rehearsal, or in performance. The latter is closer to improvisation, and involves "listen more, play less." Discovering what "sounds good" in this context is tricky, since classical models (i.e., what your conservatory teacher told you) are not frequently helpful; an "interrogation of sound" is what’s called for, using as rough models some familiar dimensions: contrast, transparency, and most importantly commitment. Discovering new ways of implementing these aspects is, I think, the most important educational function of the Exercises. In rehearsal, the consensus-building is a way of developing an understanding of the work or a familiarity with the work, too often swept under the rug rehearsing standard repertoire (“play it better” – what does better mean? Louder/softer? More in tune? More like the record?).
Sally Pinkas on Bread and Roses
On one level Christian Wolff seems to be a composer's composer. His innovations in the way compositions are notated and structured helped to open up the way composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown were working. He was a major creative force of what later became termed "indeterminacy" in music. And yet, a large part of his compositional aesthetic has been based in giving the performer an opportunity to assert their own musical identity by exercising control over different parameters of the music.
In some instances, such as Edges or Stones, the performer's role is active to the point of possibly being a co-composer, taking Wolff's written instructions or a set of musical semiology as a foundation for a series of musical decisions in performance. There are a number of pieces, however, where the performer's choices are more subtle, while still emphasizing the performer's role in shaping the composition.
Some of the most interesting examples of this level of performer/composer collaboration are the later pieces for piano, including Bread and Roses, Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida, Long Piano, and the Preludes. Sound American talked Sally Pinkas, a performer that has provided rigorous and lively recordings of this work for the Mode label. She talks about the sense of freedom she gained in working on Wolff's pieces, as well as a nuts and bolts explanation of his Prelude #2.
Sound American: First off, I wonder what it is, as a pianist that drew you, not only to pieces of Christian Wolff's like Bread and Roses and Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida, but to his music in general? Is there something that drew you in technically? Emotionally?
Sally Pinkas: I was originally asked to play 3-4 of the Preludes for a New Music Festival in Center Harbor, NH in the late 80’s, shortly after I joined the Dartmouth Music Department (Christian was one of my new colleagues). The Preludes intrigued me by their incredible potential for sound, character and rhythmic definition. I was coming from a very different musical background (I was educated at Brandeis, and was initially active as composer as well), where I was surrounded by composers like [Donald] Martino, [Andrew] Imbrie, [Martin] Boykan and others whose musical world was on another planet than Christian’s—theirs was music that was controlled, intellectualized, over-notated at times. The Wolff Preludes posed a very different challenge in that they demanded I become a ‘composer’ again: since his scores do not supply dynamics, tempo, sometime bar lines, it is really up to you how you make sense out of the music, and this freedom greatly appealed to me. I programmed the entire set in my next solo recital and was very enamored with the work. Influences of Jazz, Ives, folk tunes, free improvisation, it was all there, but it was up to me to make it work, MY WAY. That’s what got me started on Christian’s music. I should say that for me it was (and still is) important not to play ‘NEW’ Music, but to play new MUSIC, and I found a lot of music in those Preludes.
SA: My presupposition somehow, when thinking about piano works based on populist music with a political theme (like the use of the strikers march song Bread and Roses) is that it will be a theme and variations. I'm sure that comes from Fredric Rzewski's work, but these pieces of Christian Wolff's seem to have a much deeper level of deconstruction. How deeply have you delved into how they are constructed and do you find that the theme takes on a different meaning in this work of Wolff's over, say, The People United Will Never Be Defeated by Rzewski?
SP: I am not deeply familiar with Rzewski’s work (never played it), so will not answer that part of the question; oddly enough I am now learning a new work by Dan Romān which takes The People United as its inspiration. Listening again to Bread and Roses, it sounds as though elements of the song were used as ‘teasers’ throughout the work, for generating new tangents: you come in with a snippet you recognize and then go into a new reverie, until the next one shows up. It is a novel way of using a Theme, and the word Variation is not exactly the right word, or at least not in the old meaning. In fact it made me think of some Baroque Concerti, where a new section is recognizable by the appearance of the same theme.
As to my structural thinking, at the time I probably had created a blue-print in my mind as to how the overall structure was going to work; now I cannot recall it, but the piece has its flow, its moments of intensity and of laid-back randomness, leading to a grand ending. After the miniature Preludes, it was refreshing to come into contact with the same language but used in a broader way, in a larger work.
SA: I'm wondering if you can do a little bit of a technical description of how the Preludes work. You said there was a lack of musical information like dynamics and articulation, but what information was given? These pieces strike me as being much more "composed by Wolff" than some of his work that involve a great degree of improvisation or choice on the part of the performer.
SP: Rather than use words, I am attaching an image of a page from the 2nd Prelude, as an example.
You can see the pristine sparseness of the score. The rhythm of the opening measure [see below] keeps coming back throughout the work, and one can make phrase groupings according to its appearances. In this sense the Prelude is definitely ‘composed’, rather than improvised, and is very clear structurally.
All the Preludes are thus fully notated pitch-wise, with wiggly beams and free metric groupings, no dynamics, articulation or characterization markings. Only the whistled line on Prelude No. 5 is left to the performer’s free improvisation (and this was a challenge, whistling and rolling cords at the same time!). I do not think of is as a “lack of musical information”, rather more like a Bach score, where the performer is given the freedom to create phrases and dynamics according to his/her understanding of the story line. It is a sort of ‘good faith’ Christian extends to his performers. It was interesting to hear him talk last May about how, still, he can very easily discern between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ performance of a work.
SA: As a performer/composer, did performing these pieces of Christian's have any effect on the way you thought about your own music? Not to say influenced by the compositions themselves, but did you get something out of arranging them in your own way for the performance?
SP: By the time I recorded this disc I already stopped composing (apart from cadenzas to Mozart Concerti), so there was no effect on my own music. All of Christian’s works challenged me to impose order on music which appears without intrinsic order—or to make explicit a deeply-hidden implicit structure. I liked the challenge. I don’t like easy, shallow music, I love a puzzle. By the time I became familiar with this sort of work there was indeed a strong sense of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ note, an almost tonal sense of what belongs and what does not. The big question then is whether I managed to convey it to a listener. I suspect it would take many hearings before this would transmit aurally; the equivalent of the numerous hours it takes to practice one of these compositions.
SA: How much of the right/wrong decision do you think comes from your experience as a performer and how much from what you get from the composition?
SP: suspect it varies piece to piece, but is always a combination of the two. In the case of Christian Wolff’s music, it can come only after spending a lot of time with the music, to the point you internally ‘memorize’ it. When you get there, then you know when you get it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and this doesn’t necessarily have to do with right or wrong notes, but with the flow, overall sense of structure and narrative. So still, it is a combination of my experience as a performer, and things dictated by the composition. I have a feeling it can never be 100% one or the other! It does take two to tango, if you get my drift…
Michael Pisaro on Stones
Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours);
for the most part discretely;
sometimes in rapid sequences.
For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified).
Do not break anything.
Composer Michael Pisaro was the first participant on the list for this pseudo-festschrift of Christian Wolff. Like all of our interview subjects, Pisaro has had some amount of first-hand knowledge of Wolff and his music, either through one-on-one interaction or his performances of Wolff's work as part of the Wandelweiser collective. Beyond that, though, there is a subtle feeling of a similar focus on the act of making music; on a community activity; on rigorous production and spontaneous modification of musical materials that belongs to both composers.
Wolff's composition, Stones, from his Prose Collection (1968-74) was the centerpiece of our conversation. The piece itself is a series of poetic and witty instructions to the performer (as seen above).
As is evident, the possibility for interpretation is very broad, and yet the last sentence (almost a postscript) implies, with a bit of a wink maybe, a signpost toward possible performance practice. But, for every performance like the the one by the Wandelweiser Composers Group, excerpted lower in the page (sparse, elegant, bordering on the ambient), there is one like the live performance seen in the video below, which is, in relation, raucous and percussive. One of the beautiful constants of Wolff's music is that there is an element of expressing an essence of the people performing it. Stones, particularly, is almost a conduit for personal expression as opposed to a structure for composition. Or, as Pisaro puts it so eloquently, it's "an invitation to play."
Sound American: I have two ways that I tend to think of the piece, Stones, as someone who has only ever experienced it from the outside [via recording or text score]. One way, based more on concept than performance maybe, is to view it as a populist piece, one that can be understood and performed by anyone, regardless of musical training. The second is something that really has, to my mind and ear at least, some sort of feeling of a "correct" aesthetic. When you're performing it with a group like Wandelweiser collective or your Experimental Workshop at CalArts, how much of these two ideas (if any) enter into your thinking?
Michael Pisaro: Stones and the Prose Collection in general are, I think, conscious attempts on Christian’s part to write music that anyone can perform. Stones doesn’t require special equipment and is easy to understand. The text is nicely written: funny, challenging, imaginative. It takes the form of an invitation. I believe Christian had small children at the time he wrote the piece and one can easily imagine kids doing it. In some cases the pieces in the Prose Collection clearly stem from children’s games and play. The first thing anyone should do with Stones is play it.
In some ways it is very much like a kind of folk music (and we know that he is interested in folk music). It is entirely consistent with Wolff's political interests to have a music that can involve a “generic” group in the musical process, without any distinction between professionals and amateurs.
The question of performance practice is really interesting though, and more complex than it seems at first. I think of this piece and several others of Christian’s as being easy to enter, but difficult to escape. That is, the higher the demands you place on the musical outcome, the more difficult the piece becomes - and there’s nothing stopping you from making high demands.
I think Antoine [Beuger] knew when we laid out the rules for the recording of it on Edition Wandelweiser, that this group would respond with a very specific set of sounds, in each case derived from the limits of our personal practice of the time (in 1995). Thomas Stiegler made a gently virtuosic version involving tiny stones on the surface of a violin - even interweaving them in the bow hairs. Kunsu Shim sat “stone-still” for 55 minutes before making his very small sounds. Jürg Frey rubbed two fairly heavy stones together, very quietly, for nearly 30 minutes. In a sense each of us took the opportunity to push ourselves, to take this as an invitation to go beyond a normal situation.
Although I know what you mean, “correct” is not a word I often associate with playing Wolff’s music. Certainly, like anyone else who loves his music, I have strong ideas and preferences about how I’d like to do it, and even hear it done. But over the years of watching him interact with people, I’ve really come appreciate how Christian usually steps back from offering his idea of how something should be done or how it should sound. It’s not that he doesn’t have preferences, but even those are overruled by his commitment to the score itself as a process of discovery - for the person and for the collective. I think he knows that as soon as he starts discussing how he thinks something should be done, people will defer, sooner or later, to his judgement. But that runs the risk of negating the whole reason he wrote this score and so many others. I have tremendous admiration for his discipline.
SA: From a composer's standpoint, what is the attraction of a piece like Stones (text based, relatively open with flexible parameters) to your own compositional aesthetic?
MP: Pieces of Wolff's like Stones and the Prose Collection, but not at all limited to those, were crucial for me in the development of my work. They taught me to always ask: Who will play this? Who will listen? Rather than to just assume that there’s an “obvious” answer to such questions, an answer one can give once and then be done, Christian’s music tells us that there is still and always potential in these questions. Perhaps we need them especially when we think we’ve got them “solved.” There’s no getting around the fact that a score is an idea of social activity amongst people. Do we stay alive to this? How do we continue to invent unique situations that offer a potential for liberation? I cannot begin a piece without having some form of these questions in the back of my mind.
There’s one more question I can’t escape when starting a new piece, and I think it comes from Stones specifically: will it be fun to do what I’m proposing?
SA: I like your characterization of Stones and the prose pieces as being a kind of invitation. I also tend to think of those pieces as a way to learn. Your example of the way the musicians for the Wandelweiser recording approached that performance made that argument for playful experimentation on a somewhat rigorous level, but the same seems as if it would hold true for the completely uninitiated. What do you get, purely as a performer, from these pieces? Are you able to separate the conceptual possibilities and take pleasure in the pure exploration of sound, or do you "learn" in a different way?
MP: I don't really need a score to explore sound. This comes naturally, I think, for many musicians. (That might not be true for "the uninitiated" -- where the score serves as an impetus.) What I need and love is some formalization of the process. It's hard to think of another composer who has thought the process of formalization as deeply or with as much variety as Christian has. For every piece like Stones there's a piece of a more formal nature (in the sense of a score with a complex set of symbols or instructions). What's more, it seems to me that this depth comes from the very fact that Wolff understands the limits of formalization. It's as if by going to that horizon so many times, he has a better sense of its geography than most of us.
SA: Can you tell me what you mean by “limits of formalization”?
MP: By limits of formalization, I mean the degree to which what is eventually performed is represented or can be formalized in a score. If the European avant-garde went one direction, towards increasing trust in the page to represent sound, Cage, Feldman, Wolff and so on went the other direction - working with the understanding that what is written could never account for what sounds, or at least only a limited part of what sounds. What is fascinating is that this took so many forms, whether Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) or Feldman's graphic scores of the early 50s. But I don't think either of them spent more time and effort working on the interstices between what is written and what happens that Wolff. Christian discovered a lot of hidden potential there - places where a symbol on a score could have a special meaning (say for coordination of the parts) or where a verbal instruction could open up the creative process for the musician (Stones being an obvious case, but far from the only one). Some (like composer Frank Denyer) have surmised that in fact, Wolff's expertise in Classics is a hidden point of reference here. The whole question as to how the text of an ancient Greek play can be assembled from the various existing fragments has very real consequences. It brings the fragility of writing alive in a distinct way.
SA: I think one of the characteristics of Wolff's music that I also see in yours is a certain fierce desire to look for the non-obvious way of doing things and to write for musicians as individuals as separated from a notion of whatever we may call traditional virtuosity. I'm not defining you (or anyone for that matter) as a student or acolyte of Christian's work, but just drawing parallels. How do these aesthetics play into your work, or am I totally off-base?
MP: I remember how striking it was to see, for the first time, the title For 1, 2 or 3 People in around 1980 or so (when I started to play Wolff's music while still at student at DePaul University). People! Before virtuoso (no matter how many notes), before instrumentalist (no matter which instrument), even before musician, Christian writes for people. Even complex and demanding scores like Long Piano feel as if they were written for a person. Not necessarily a specific person and not a generic person either. There's hope embedded in it -- something almost utopian rides along with the practical.
I really hope that some of that has rubbed off on me.
Larry Polansky on Edges
Christian Wolff's Edges is a work that allows a series of choices to be made by the performers in negative. The score features a series of signs denoting how the performer can think about timbre, placement of sound in time, pitch, and activity level. The text explaining how to perform the piece runs as follows:
Each player should have a copy of the score. There can be any number of players. The signs on the score are not primarily what a player plays. They mark out a space or spaces, indicate points, surfaces, routes or limits. A player should play in relation to, in, and around the space thus partly marked out. He can move about in it variously (e.g. in a sequence, or jumping from one point to another), but does not always have to be moving, nor does he have to go everywhere. Insofar as the signs are limits, they can be reached but should not be exploited. The way to a limit need not be continuous, in a straight line. The limits, or points, can be taken at different distances-for example, far away, like a horizon, or close, like a tree with branches overhead-but decide where at any given moment you are. You can also use the signs as cues: wait till you notice one and then respond. Or you can simply play a sign as it is, but only once in a performance.
The piece allows for a certain kind of interaction that is similar to the practice of free improvisation. Choices are made and may be based on the actions of those around you. Often you are intended to approach an idea without making it explicit. To my mind, this piece has had analogs in the way that some of the more rigorous large improvising ensembles (i.e. The BSC or King Ubu Orchestra) approach creating music in an improvised setting.
Of course, this idea doesn't come from thin air, as Wolff has a long history of work related to improvising and being an improvisor himself (usually on piano or melodica), with AMM, MEV or the longstanding Trio with pianist Kui Dong and guitarist Larry Polansky, both phenomenally forward looking composers in their own rights.
I approached Larry Polansky to talk about his experience with improvising as a composer and his work with Trio. For this interview, we sidestepped the issue of Edges to concentrate on improvisation as something separate from the compositional practice.
Sound American: You, more than any of the other participants in this issue, have a performing relationship with Christian [in the improvising trio with composer/pianist Kui Dong]. What was the impetus for three composers to start a regular practice of improvising together?
Larry Polansky: For Christian and I, improvising had always been an integral part of our musical experience. We had done a few informal things together, or with various people, before Kui arrived at Dartmouth (which was a few years after I did). We were a small community of composers and musicians there, and though Christian and I travelled a great deal to play music elsewhere, the isolation of small town New England encouraged us to play together “at home" for fun, and, well, because we are musicians and enjoyed and needed to play our instruments.
But Trio emerged after Kui arrived at Dartmouth, which must have been in the mid-1990s. Kui had a strong but conventional musical training at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and was (is) a phenomenally gifted pianist and musician. She had never improvised, and asked us if we would teach her. We met one night in a room at Dartmouth, which had two grand pianos. Kui sat in the front row and asked us to improvise for her. Both Christian and I insisted that she join us, which she did reticently. But she dove in head-first. We played regularly after that, whenever we were all in town, as three friends and colleagues. I had recently acquired a fretless electric guitar, which I decided to use as my main “axe” for this group, alternating it sometimes with mandolin, fretted guitar, and later, occasionally with live computer (which Christian and Kui didn’t seem to like very much).
Our intention was to play, and have a musical reason to get together. We always played in the same room, with the door shut. Kui, whose office was closest to the Music office, signed out the room. I commandeered Christian’s old bass amp (still one of my favorite amps), stored it in Kui’s office. We played at night, and never for very long (usually under an hour, consisting of a few “pieces”). We didn’t talk about what we did, in a tacit agreement to keep things simple. It’s true that we began to notice things about each other’s playing, and as a natural process, I think, we tried to always stay fresh individually, and as a group, without ever talking about that. Other musicians were sometimes invited to sit in when they visited Dartmouth. We recorded (informally) a lot of what we played, with no intention of doing anything with those recordings. (Ultimately, I transferred all the different formats to an archival set of 15 CDs, made a set for each of us, and a few more to be donated to music libraries).
Importantly, we had no intention of playing for an audience, although occasionally a friend or visitor would come and sit quietly in the hall. We enjoyed the simplicity and clarity of it all, and the half hour or so of just hanging out on cold winter nights chatting. We were (and are), it is important to say, three close friends. We had no professional agenda in this activity.
Though we were relatively circumspect about the group’s existence, after a few years we got a few invitations to play in public. We were initially reluctant, since that was not our purpose in playing together. But we performed a bit, and had a good time, nonetheless. At first, we all felt a bit unnatural playing our private music in public, at least I did. After a few more performances, we started to have good time being on the road together, and became more relaxed playing in new places and contexts. On the other hand, we continued to play privately when we could. The public performances undoubtedly had an impact on the evolution of our music.
Due to Christian travelling more and more, Kui’s dual residence in California and New Hampshire, and my gradual relocation to California, we haven’t played together in a while. I think we all feel that the group had fulfilled its various purposes (the main one, for me, was just to play guitar with two musical friends). Characteristically, none of us seems to care whether the “group” is still a group — we all have busy musical lives and remain close friends and collaborators in other ways. Yet Trio, in its 15+ years of existence, was an important and joyous part of my 23 years in New Hampshire, as I hope (and believe) it was for Christian and Kui. As during our cold Wednesday nights in New Hampshire, we don’t talk about it much.
Sound American: I'm interested in the characterization of the improvising you've done with Christian and Kui as part of both a musical/compositional practice which I take to be somewhat rigorous but also truly social and friendly. Of course, I'm sure they're not separate things in your mind, but I feel like they are ideas that are very present in Christian's compositions, as well as your own. What do you think ongoing improvisational practice like this does to the way you structure your music? Do you see things in the compositions of Christian's that you've played that feel like they come out of this practice?
Larry Polansky: I think that he and I are each sufficiently developed compositionally so that improvising may not suggest many new ideas in that domain, particularly in terms of structure. However I might describe “structure” ([John] Cage: things in time; [James] Tenney: the relationship between gestalts at different hierarchical levels), it seems antithetic to the kind of playing that Trio does, which contains little precognition, or “foresight.” Our particular improvisation had very little temporal flexibility or nuanced temporal structure, except over relatively brief time intervals and simpler surface levels.
That’s fine, and it’s one of the reasons we all like to improvise. My own work as a composer often deals with scores, which allow for “out of time” creation of complex time structures. Improvising offers a refreshing and necessary alternative: a serious musical situation in which one has to think differently, more locally about time.
I think that in Trio the structure of improvisation is mostly determined by “communication” with the other musicians. Though I can’t remember any of us saying anything to this effect, it has always been implicit in Trio’s playing. The mechanics of “response” are more salient than those of “structure.” In that regard, I think your characterization of the “social” aspect of the group is apt.
Communication requires some form of syntax, or grammar. Music has no clear semantics, which I think is a minimal requirement for a language (along with recursivity, perhaps). One can’t play on the piano: “That’s a snake” (which is, oddly, expressible, more or less, by some monkeys), much less “That was a snake!”, or to add recursivity “That was, a few moments ago, a living, breathing mutha’ of a snake!” Grammatically correct doggerel like “Mi tío es enfermo, pero la carretera es verde” is several levels above music’s semantic powers.
Syntact and grammar in music are style-dependent. A may follow B, but the A’s and B’s vary widely in different musical styles. Nor does the idea of “following” have a consistent meaning across history, geography, or culture. The more restrictive the style (usually the result of limited pedagogical vision), the more easily musical grammar is codified.
But the words “grammar” and “syntax” are still too strong. At best, they are germane when a musical style is in a kind of beginner “default” mode (like jazz students playing from the Real Book, or students harmonizing chorale melodies). In that grammar, there’s no real communication, but mainly rudimentary demonstrations of competence, apery, and what’s worse, a disheartening “decay of information.”
The idea of rhetoric, and in particular, the avoidance of same, is key to Christian’s improvising and composing, as well as the relationship in his work between those two activities. By rhetoric I mean: the making of an effective argument within the structure of a language, and using advanced facility in that language, without, fortunately or unfortunately, an objective evaluative criteria for the veracity of that argument. Rhetoric is only evaluated by its ability to convince. Arguing the virtues of a political candidate or reviewing a piano recital can be rhetorical, convincing, fascinating, poetic, misinformed, biased, maddening, or any number of things. But these arguments can’t be true (or false) in the same way we talk about the truth or falseness of a mathematical theorem, or even, less rigidly, experimental evidence in science.
Christian has famously expressed that the “New York School” was interested in the avoidance of rhetoric (what Cowell called “getting rid of the glue”). That’s an interesting way to put it. If music doesn’t have any “meaning” what is there to be argued? I think what he means by “rhetoric” in this case is in some sense style, and sense itself (as opposed to non-sense). He’s steering clear of any perception of a musical logic not endemic to the structure of the piece itself. In his notated scores, he goes to considerable length to avoid known or familiar logics. Christian’s music is a combination encyclopedia and how-to book of this — each piece invents new ways to disrupt the possibility of perfunctory and/or familiar musical conversation. He does this by challenging the musician and the ensemble in unusual ways, and through very personal (and to me, sometimes untraceable) compositional methods that guarantee an unforeseen rhetorical result. Simply put, he doesn’t want to argue. He wants a group of friends sitting around a table contentedly reciting poems in different languages.
That’s the connection to improvisation, at least in Trio. When people have asked me about playing in the group, I’ve often said, somewhat in awe of my bandmates, that Kui’s astonishing ear allows her to take anything that anyone plays, and quickly imitate it and develop it. Douglas Repetto (who played with us occasionally) once joked that I would play some nasty, noisy, slippery, heavily distorted, six-part scrunch on my randomly detuned fretless guitar, and a half-second later hear it on the piano. Like ear training for aliens.
Christian is the opposite. I always know, when playing, that he is not responding in any way that I typically understand response. Kui and I might pose questions, but he doesn’t supply answers. If he asks a question, he doesn’t pay any attention to the answer. As in the text to my set of four graphic rounds (Christian Music): “When you play/music with Christian/sometimes you get/questions/before you answer.”
I think that Christian’s idea of musical communication has to do often with not allowing the group to settle into a rhetorical mode, even momentarily. The one exception, which I find quite lovely, is the occasional moments where it seems that he and Kui are simply enjoying the sound playing four hands piano together. At those times, I sometimes feel like an interloper, not sharing their deeply rooted connection to the piano. This passes quickly, as I remind myself how much fun it is to play electric guitar.
Christian seems to have a readily available, voluminous mental and musical lexicon of non-communicative ideas. That is to say, he improvises like he composes, and composes like he improvises. There is deep method to it, and tremendous discipline. While the latter is apparent, the former is mysterious. That’s what makes him so much fun to play with.
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