Christian Wolff at NEC Day 2: Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff 2

“And a more general thought, the movement of the music (and, I think, just about all the music I have worked on) is towards melody in its largest sense (as well as, sometimes, its familiar sense of the singable line). This may not be always obvious, but then the times are not conducive to easy optimism.” (1, p. 492)

Christian Wolff spent March 2010 as the composer in residence at the New England Conservatory in Boston and they concluded this with a week of concerts.  I personally love all of the New York School of composers and while they have certainly received more recognition in recent times, it is still a rarity to see a lot of their pieces performed.  I got wind of the residency performances as they were bringing Keith Rowe over to participate in the concert series and he was setting up a few other performance opportunities.  Wolff’s music has appeared on an increasing number of recordings in recent years but so much of his compositions are basically unavailable, I thought back to how revelatory seeing so many Cage piece performed at the Vancouver New Music Silence: John Cage festival a few years back and decided I’d make the trip to Boston to experience these pieces performed.

“Your first encounter with the music of Christian Wolff leaves you with the impression [that] you’ve just heard (or played, or read) something totally strange, unlike anything else you know. [“¦] Weird little tunes, sounding as if they had been beamed at some remote point in the universe and then bounced back again as a kind of intergalactic mutant music; recognizable melodic and rhythmic patterns, somehow sewn together in monstrous pairings, sometimes reminiscent of the demons of Hieronymus Bosch, composites of animals, fish, flowers, and common household objects: there is order, but also constant interruption, intrusions of disorderly reality upon regularity and lawfulness, combing to create an effect of both familiarity and strangeness: Shklovsky’s ostranenie. […] You can’t really say what it’s like (although John Cage came close when he said, after a performance of the Exercises in New York, that it was like the classical music of an unknown civilization).” -Frederic Rzewski (1, p. 10)

I’ve written before that I’ve found Christian Wolff’s music difficult to write about, that there is a level of expertise required to really do the pieces justice. Even with my level of understanding of modern composition, the large amount I’ve read on the New York School and Wolff’s own writings, I still don’t feel adequate to the challenge. Additionally  in the case of this festival, these were students at a variety of levels playing these pieces and in my mind it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to “review” the performances as the primary purpose behind these were educational. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, all of these students are, of course, already highly trained musicians and  many of them will be playing professionally in a few months or years.  Overall I found the performances nearly always top notch and even the rockier performances were still interesting in considering the challenges of these piece. There are a few cases though where the performance lends some insight into pieces that I do know well and it is inescapable to ignore that aspect.  But I want to emphasize the difference there is in a poor performance at a professional concert versus in  a student context:  it is in the later case part of the education process. It is also worth noting that it’s not just my relative lack of expertise that renders these pieces difficult to write about; time and time again over the week I’d hear students, faculty and professional performers discussing how difficult this music is. It is not difficult in terms of high complexity, but in their fragility, the way they are constructed can make it easy for them to sound bad even if decently performed.  It is this aspect, where a certain touch, or willingness to commit oneself completely to the ideas in the piece makes all the difference in the piece working or not.

March 15th 2010
Christian Wolff festival day 1
New England Conservatory of Music, Boston MA

I arrived in Boston on March 14th after a red eye flight from Seattle and saw that night an  improv set featuring Keith Rowe and Jason Lescalleet outside of the Christian Wolff festival (Brian Olewnick wrote a good review of this show). Weather in Boston these first few days was crazy with 50-70mph winds, driving rain and a chill, that while above freezing, was not deterred by the heavy winter clothing I had brought with me. This weather continued into the next day and for the beginning of the festival I’d be damp at all the concerts.  There were concerts at 5 and 8 pm Monday through Wednesday at NEC with a final night at the Gardner Museum near the conservatory. Additionally each day at NEC also included a performance from the Prose Collection at the halls entrance  in between the concert halls. This of course was a large amount of music much of it unfamiliar, or even unperformed. Thus any sort of writeup beyond a piece by piece analysis is going to be a bit of a gloss I’m afraid.  This post will be in that later category but as I have performed several of his pieces myself  (I wrote about my experience of performing a number of his pieces in this post), and I’d have a chance to see several of those very pieces performed here, I’ll also try to examine those pieces in that context.

The next day was the first day of the Christian Wolff concerts, the 5pm show being the only show in Williams Hall. The pieces that were played were: Duo for 2 FlutesTilbury, Tilbury 2, and Tilbury 4, Exercise #7, For One, Two or Three People and Berlin Exercises. I arrived a bit before 5pm and spent some time reading the very nice prepared materials they had made for the series. This was a book outlining the performances for each night (minus of course the inevitable last minute changes ) a printed handout that included descriptions of a number of pieces (mostly from Christian’s collected writings Cues: Writings & Conversations) and a document that included the text of some songs that were performed.  The first piece, Duo for 2 Flutes is one of Wolff’s earliest pieces, which I had not heard before. Wolff in his earliest pieces restricted himself to using just a few tones and this piece was in that vein. The two flutes would play these few tones in short or longer durations, with overlappings between the two instrument adding layers of interaction beyond the limits of the material. A short, charming, engaging work and a nice way to begin the festival. The next few pieces are these beautiful piano works that Wolff wrote with John Tilbury in mind (though not specifically for John Tilbury) of which I have several recordings (Sabine Liebner’s on Neos being my favorite). The early Tilbury Pieces are quite spare with notes  coming in and lingering and well seperated in time. The later pieces include several other instruments along with the piano. These are pieces that I’m quite familiar with and I didn’t recognize them at all when performed here, not quite spacious enough and the notes seemed to lack that floating feel. The following piece, Exercise #7 was somewhat stiff, but I felt the afternoon’s concert really snapped into focus with a performance of For One, Two or Three People.

“This music is drawn from the interaction of the people playing it. It requires for its performance independent self-discipline (unpoliced by a score defining fixed relationships and timings) and a capacity and special alertness for responding to what one’s fellow performers are doing, the sounds they are making or changing and their silences.” (1, p. 492)

In the sixties Wolff became quite interested in the social aspects of music making and the relationship of the composer to the performer. While he had since the fifties ceded control over of a number of aspects of the music to the performer (indeterminacy of performance) quite a bit of his music from this period places trust in the performers over the very structure of the piece.  While I haven’t had a chance to examine this score I have heard several versions of this piece including this incredible solo version by David Tudor on a baroque pipe organ.

Christian Wolff For 1, 2 or 3 Players, performed by David Tudor

In this performance three players set up on the floor in front of the stage with percussion, double bass and bass clarinet. This performance was lively, sounds coming in and out with clear interaction between the players. This trio seemed comfortable with performing and with tackling this piece. The sounds were engaging the percussionist expelling bursts of explosive percussion along with rattly, clattering sounds, the scrapes, plucks and dry sounds of extended techniques on the bass and whistles, breaths and low rumbles from the clarinet. The percussionist had a string in a drum that when bowed made this alien roar that was in stark contrast to the much more uptight sounds we’d been hearing earlier.  The piece that followed this performance seemed to relax into it as well, with Berlin Exercises , which featured spoken and sung texts in German (Vergnuegungen by Bertold Brecht). This was enjoyable I thought with the various sounds of the ensemble (which included recorders, vibraphone, piano, cello, etc) coming in and out as per the other exercises, contrasted against the spoken and sung text.

Christian Wolff at NEC Day 1: Fits & Starts 1

In between the afternoon and evening concerts there was to be a performance from the Prose Collection in what they were calling the “Christian Wolff Performance Space” which was the hallway in between concert halls featuring a statue of Beethoven. The Prose pieces are as the name implies scores that are written as a text instructions and that were created for musicians and non-musicians alike. Fits and Starts score is more of a list of instructions than some:

Fits and Starts

Four or five of the following sequences represented to start with.

Any number of players; any one player playing one or more of the sequences; any number of players playing the same sequence.

Each player follows her own pulse, generally within the limits of one beat per 5/6 of a second to one beat per 1 1/3. Generally, though without straining to, avoid another’s pulse.

The duration of a sound, unless some further articulation of it (which may include its stopping) is used to mark a rhythm, should not exceed about 2 1/2 seconds (and may be any shorter length).

1. 1 sound or articulation of a sound underway: every 21 beats, omitted every 6th time the 21st beat comes round.
2. 1 sound or articulation: at the 11th beat, then at the 12th, then 13th,, etc., always adding one.
3. 1 sound or articulation: at the 10th beat, the 29th, 60th, then 10th, 29th, 60th, etc., always repeating.
4. 1 sound or articulation: at the 120th beat; 2 sounds or articulations at the next 100th; 1 at next 90th; 2 at next 80th; 1 at next 70th; 2 at next 60th; 1 at next 50th; 1 at next 40th; 2 at next 30th; 1 at next 20th; 2 at next 10th; then 1 at next 20th; 2 at next 10th; then 1 at next 20th; 2 at next 30th; 1 at next 40th; 1 at next 50th; 2 at next 60th, etc., back to 1 at next 120th, then forward again, and back, etc.
5. 1 sound or articulation: 15 beats after 4 sounds or articulations heard; then 4 beats after 4 sounds or articulations heard; then 15 beats after 4 sounds, etc., heard, then 4 beats after 4, etc., always alternating; or (freely changing back and forth): 2 sounds or articulations: 21 beats, then 3 beats, then 50, then 21, 3, 50 always repeating, after 3 sounds or articulations.
6. 1 sound or articulation every 42 beats; or (alternating freely) 2 sounds or articulations every 29th or 58th beat.

Players may shift from one sequence to another at any point within a sequence.

When a player has a sense of the music of his rhythm(s) he may proceed simply on the basis of that sense, and hence to her own rhythms. (6, p. 12)

The Prose Pieces which included performers that I’d not see in the other pieces (perhaps some improvisation students?) were  uniformly enjoyable. A wide variety of sounds, as there is no restriction on instrumentation, that come and go as per the above instructions with lots of silences and interesting interactions.  Being in the middle of the hall there was a wide variety of ambient sounds, from the driving rain out the nearby door, to repeated fragments of music from students in practice rooms, to the suddenly hushed conversations as students rounded the corner to find a performance in progress.   This piece is timed by ones pulse which one tended to figure out as you’d watch the students make a sound and then test their pulse at their neck or wrist for a time before making another. Really an enjoyable event and in accordance with my performances from the prose pieces (though I haven’t played this particular one). These pieces I find highly musical and really love how that people who want to make music can take this simple instructions and produce highly engaging music.

There was a bit of a break for dinner after this, which I took with Keith and ended up also being with Christian and festival director Stephen Drury. This was unexpected and really nice, a chance to meet Christian as well as Stephen whom I’ve seen perform on a number of occasions. Of course those involved in the festival had a limited amount of time so soon enough it was back to the concert hall for the evenings program.  Before each nights performance there would be some pre-recorded music: tape pieces, electronic realizations and the like.  On this night it was Mayday Materials (1989) which Wolff had written for a dance and was his first tape piece since 1952.  He sampled various instruments and produced a number of pieces out of the samples and these would be selected from based on the needs at hand.  It had that sound of digitally constructed college of these instruments, with sounds fading in and out and rushing about. Additionally there seemed to be samples of  street sounds, groups of people and so on.

The main feature of this evenings concert was that it was all pieces for, or realized on, multiple pianos (the order of these pieces changed from the program, and I’m no longer certain if I have this entirely correct. Please leave a comment if you know that I’m wrong here).  Five pianos surrounded the audience with one at each of rooms four corners and the fifth in the center of the stage.  They played pieces by all four members of the New York School beginning with Christian Wolff’s, Sonata (1957). This was a piano trio and was played on the three front facing pianos. It is a piece for four pianists at three pianos and also involves some preparation. I didn’t go look at the preparations but Wolff’s always seem to be fairly lightly prepared, so closer to earlier Cage pieces.  This piece wasn’t too long and I don’t recall too much about it beyond the what seemed to be interlocking phrases across the multiple pianos and the occasional sound of the preparations.  Said preparations were then removed and were followed by  Earle Brown’s Twenty-Five Pages (1953) of which they played a subset (each pianist with five pages perhaps?). This was an active piece with the five piano’s material overlapping and forming connections by chance. Alas the next couple of pieces really drove the first two from my memory and I don’t recall too much about this piece beyond that it was fairly active and I enjoyed it at the time. The five piano version of John Cage’s Winter Music that followed was quite memorable and I thought really worked well in this configuration.

The work consists of twenty pages of music that can be used by anywhere from one to twenty pianists. Varying numbers of events are scattered on the twenty pages, but all the events have an identical profile: single chords. The number of notes per chord and their specific locations on the staff were determined by chance procedures. The notation can be ambiguous with regards to pitch, and Cage provides precise rules on how to interpret these situations. But he is absolutely clear that each event should be played as a single attack. There is to be no breaking up of the chord in any way. If the notes are too widely-spaced for the pianist’s hands to reach, then a technique involving sympathetic vibrations is used to compensate.

The method of Winter music explains its severe quality. Other pieces of this same period in Cage’s work may incorporate a wide range of possibilities, but Winter music limits itself to one. The same simple event — the single attack — occurs over and over again with no contrast, no development, no change. And because every event in the piece is an ictus — a downbeat — there is no sense of motion here at all. Events do not lead to one another. Events do not have the inner motion of a phrase or even an arpeggiation. […]

Considered in this way, the title of Winter music begins to make sense. This is a music in which time no longer exists, or in which it is frozen. The sparse and isolated chords of Winter music have more in common with points in space than with events in time. They stand out in the silence, totally separated from one another, the way that twigs, stones, and trees appear against the blank whiteness of the snow. – James Pritchett (8)

I’ve mostly heard Winter Music played along with Atlas Eclipticalis until the release of David Tudor Music for Piano on Edition RZ includes a solo performance of the piece by Tudor.  As Pritchett describes above the piece is these isolated chords, coming out of silence at varying dynamics. With the pianos in the round as at this performance the sense of stasis is even greater. It is as if you are on a frozen in a lake, surrounded completely by the chill of winter. Really great to hear this piece performed and with five pianos – something you could only hear in a music school.  In contrast to the sudden attacks and occasional loud chords was the final five piano piece, Morton Feldman’s Five Pianos (1972)

Pianos and Voices began by finding myself humming tones while improvising on the piano. The vocal or humming sounds were quite short, and as the piano sounds lingered, I began to hear other pianos, other humming. Two, three, four pianos were too transparent – the fifth piano became like the pedal blur needed to complete the overall sound I was after. – Morton Feldman (9)

This piece was just fantastic, definitely my favorite of the evening (though so much was so good on this night). The piece is made up of arpeggios, which in this setup just surround you, almost seeming like thye began in one part of the room, and continued in another part of the room. The front center piano played sustained single chords which the surrounding arpeggios seemed to just ripple off of. Lovely.

A break followed after this piece and then the final performance of the night, Christian Wolff’s Changing the System (1973/4).This piece was performed by four groups of four students in the round, mostly brass players but a variety of instruments. They played short melodic fragments, with hand signals and such to pass them along interspersed with chordal playing. Half way though the piece the system is changed (so to speak): two groups switch to percussion, the others to a fragmented text reading. The text they read from was from a speech by Tom Hayden five during the 1968-69 student upheavals in the US about the need for systemic social change(1, p.500). The text reading was like the melodic playing in that the performers would pass a sentence along, sometimes one performer starting a word and another finishing it. At other times they’d all say a word together, akin to the earlier chords.  This piece was really great, easily my favorite one that contained textual material. The way the text was broken up and repeated reminded me of Cage’s Living Room Music in a way and the performance in the round really worked well to the pieces advantage.

Thus ended the first night of the Christian Wolff festival at NEC. As this has gotten pretty long I think I’ll break this up into several posts. Stay tuned for the rest of the report. In the meantime you can check out all of my pictures from this festival in my Christian Wolff at NEC flickr group.

1) Christian Wolff,  Cues: Writings & Conversations Edition MusikTexte, Köln 1999, ISBN 3-9803151-3-4
2) Christian Wolff, Dartmouth page
3) Christian Wolff, Wikipedia article
4) NEC’s Christian Wolff Residency site
5) Stephen Drury’s site
6) Christian Wolff, Prose Collection, Frog Peak Music
7) Christian Wolff Interview with Damon Krukowski, BOMB 59/Spring 1997
8) James Pritchett, Notes on John Cage’s Winter music/Atlas Eclipticalis and 103
9) Morton Feldman, A note on “Five Pianos


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