Charles Wuorinen: Art and Entertainment

Charles Wuorinen: Art and Entertainment

Charles Wuorinen’s diatribes are still as polemical as ever, but he brings a passion and conviction to all of his arguments, and his remarkably prolific six-decade output as a composer is artistically and intellectually rich as well as often entertaining.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Formative Years

Charles Wuorinen
Charles Wuorinen age 6

Frank J. Oteri: You’ve been composing music since you were five years old, which is really extraordinary. Did any of those pieces survive?

Charles Wuorinen: Fortunately, no. There are some things from a little bit later on, but they’re not to be seen by anyone.

FJO: We can’t convince you to share any of those?

CW: I don’t think so. [laughs]

FJO: And you were composing music before you were even playing piano, is that right?

CW: Yes, if you can call it that. I was—for some reason—making little notations, though these things are not exactly advanced contributions.

FJO: What sort of music was it?

CW: Oh, God knows. A little diatonic doo-doo, that kind of thing; nothing special. Then I began to imitate the stuff I was being taught to play on the piano, so my models, without my ever having made a decision about it, were, first of all, the Well-Tempered Clavier, then Beethoven and Haydn, with Mozart to a lesser extent.

FJO: And your family? What was their musical background?

CW: Pretty much nonexistent. My mother plays the piano, as women of that era did, typically, but my family was academic. My father was a historian at Columbia for many years, chairman of the history department for nine of them, and that was the environment in which I grew up. Therefore, I didn’t know any 20th-century music until I was in my early teens.

FJO: Any siblings?

CW: One brother, seven years older.

FJO: Musical?

CW: No. As a matter of fact, I began taking piano lessons because he had been doing them before me and hated it, and I thought that, in an appropriate manifestation of sibling rivalry, I would take over. He had a talent for painting, but it was quickly stamped out by my parents.

FJO: But they had no problem with you being a composer?

CW: Oh, they had every problem with my being a composer, but one of the great advantages of being a younger child is that one can learn from the travails of one’s senior sibling, which I did. I made up my mind at a very early age that I wasn’t going to be browbeaten into giving up what was important to me.

FJO: Now, when did you start composing music that you would consider “you”?

CW: Oh, that’s an unanswerable question, especially for me, because I have no way of telling whether what I do is really me or someone else, a constellation of influences or a bunch of accidents; I just try to write the pieces as best I can. I don’t have an obsession with individuality, originality, or self-definition—that comes through action.

FJO: But you won’t let us look at those pieces you wrote when you were a little kid.

CW: No.

FJO: But there are pieces you will let us look at.

CW: Well, of course. The reason I don’t want anybody to see them—first of all, the ground of it is vanity, obviously. But beyond that, it’s simply that in my professional judgment they aren’t any good. Howard has upstairs, in his office, something called Gigue for Granny, which is exactly what you would expect from—well, I don’t know how old I was when I wrote it, but I was very, very young. It was on one of those loose-leaf pages with rounded corners, I suppose as a safety device, but it is not something that anyone should particularly look at. Early works are early works. For example, when I was nineteen—I believe, if I remember right—I wrote my first two symphonies, which are real orchestra pieces. I wouldn’t want them to be played now; I don’t think they merit the kind of effort that would be required to put them on, but they are certainly things I wouldn’t care if anyone wanted to look at.

FJO: That raises an interesting question, because you recently had your Eighth Symphony done. I remember when the Seventh Symphony was done, and I’m also familiar with the Percussion Symphony and the Two-Part Symphony, which are both really fantastic pieces. What are the others?

CW: Well, it’s very simple. One and two I just described. Three is a piece that I wrote in 1959 that was performed by a man who was a rich amateur, I guess, who became a conductor as best he could. He hired Carnegie Hall for some American music concerts. It was played and subsequently recorded on CRI, and I assume it’s out of print now. That’s a piece of juvenilia, but still, you know, it’s there, and I wouldn’t disown it. I feel very strongly, on the other hand, that one shouldn’t go around doctoring one’s early pieces in order to make them seem more than they were. There is so much dishonesty in our field anyway, for which the reward is nonexistent—you can’t make any money that way. I don’t see the point of disguising things. But, just to continue the chronology, that’s three of them. The Percussion Symphony would be four, and the Two-Part Symphony would be five. Something called Microsymphony, which I wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra, is six. When I got to Symphony No. 7 I decided I should start numbering these things, so I promptly numbered it No. 6 until I realized I’d made a mistake. It was actually No. 7, and then, of course, along came the Eighth.

The first page of Charles Wuorinen’s manuscript for his
Percussion Symphony (Click score image to enlarge.)
© 1976 C.F. Peters Corp.
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

FJO: But, of course, by naming a work Symphony No. 8, you’re automatically referencing and somehow acknowledging No. 1 and No. 2, even though you’ve suppressed them.

CW: Absolutely. I don’t deny them; I just don’t think they should be played.

FJO: Or looked at.

CW: I can’t stop you, if you can find them. Go in good health!

FJO: [laughs] Getting back to those early years, I recall hearing that you had won the BMI Student Composer Awards four years in a row. I think that’s a record which hasn’t been matched. Are the works that you wrote for those competitions pieces you have any feelings about?

CW: They’re all, of course, very early pieces, and I’m not aware that any of them have been played lately. If someone wants to do them, it’s fine; I don’t care. I mean, I couldn’t tell you at this moment which they were. I’d have to look it up.

FJO: In your earliest years, you were composing before you were a pianist. But soon you were a pianist, and later you were conducting, as well. To re-use a phrase that was often used for Leonard Bernstein, you were a “triple threat.” There aren’t too many people out there who are pianists, conductors, and composers. Do you feel that having that kind of purview, being on the inside of the music, around the music, and behind the scenes with the music has given you a certain perspective as a composer vis-à-vis how to write for performers?

CW: Without a doubt. I have always said—I’ve said it to my students and in other contexts—that it’s extremely important for composers to perform, and at the very least to be able to conduct their own work. When I was starting out, most of the composers that I knew were not performers; that kind of combination of musical skills had, to a large extent, disappeared. It’s back now, and it’s been back for a number of years, but, at that time, our performances as young composers—well, as old composers, too—were pretty much in the hands of people who, whatever their good will may have been, were nevertheless not always as comprehending of what we all were trying to do as they might have been. And when Harvey Sollberger and I started the Group for Contemporary Music, the basic principle there was that the composer should be in charge of his own performances, and that’s what we did. It was under those conditions that I began practicing like mad and became some sort of pianist and conductor simultaneously.

FJO: And you also played other people’s music quite well.

CW: I did, at that time, yes.

FJO: There’s a recording, I believe, of you playing the piano part in the Carter Sonata for Cello and Piano, which is really a remarkable recording.

CW: Yes, Fred Sherry and I played that many, many times; it’s well-digested. In those early years, or what seem now like early years, I played a lot of other people’s music. Now I don’t so much any more.

FJO: Do you still play your own music from time to time?

CW: From time to time, but my compositional commitments have become so heavy that it’s very difficult to keep in practice.</p