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.

Electronics, Difficulty, and Music Criticism

Charles Wuorinen
photo by Nina Roberts

Frank J. Oteri: You won the Pulitzer Prize very early in your career for Time’s Encomium, a piece that I think is amazing, but in some ways is not exactly definitive. It’s the only time an all-electronic piece has ever won the Pulitzer to date, and it’s your only completed all-electronic composition.

Charles Wuorinen: I’ve never considered myself an electronic composer although there is that one. There are a couple pieces that have digitally synthesized sound with them, including one version of New York Notes, but those are exceptions. I have to say that at this stage in the development of electronic music and my own thoughts on music, that it’s about time something interesting happened. We’ve had now more than a half-century, and I’m appalled to think that I was present almost at the beginning. I wasn’t around in the musique concrete days of the 1940s, nor quite in the ’51-’52 era when tape music began. But very shortly thereafter I was closely associated with the people who were doing these things. And the propaganda that we received about how this was going to free everything, and liberate the composer, and make it possible to do all kinds of wonderful things, and on and on and on like that, has never been realized. And I found, myself, even very early on, a kind of anxiety developing as I contemplated the electronic medium, at whatever stage it was—of course, computers were far in the future at that time—wondering whether people were paying proper attention to the role of live human beings in the dynamic of performance and in the influence that the fact of live performance had on every composer since the beginning of time. This was also fluffed off and dismissed as unimportant, but it seemed critically important to me, and that’s one of the reasons why I have never pursued the development of the electronic medium more aggressively than I have, which isn’t aggressively at all.

FJO: But I could turn around and say, “If it hasn’t been developed, I blame you in part for not continuing to do more. You wrote that amazing, amazing piece, and you were actually given an imprimatur for it with a Pulitzer.

CW: Well, you remember what Charles Ives said about prizes: “They’re the badges of mediocrity.” I have a slightly different version of that same idea, which is that, “Merit is not an absolute disqualification for success, but it doesn’t help,” meaning that there are some occasions where meritorious work is rewarded but a great deal of the time it isn’t, and a lot of stuff that isn’t meritorious is. The fact is the Pulitzer Prize in my day was worth one thousand big dollars; now, I believe, it’s ten [thousand]. People think it’s like the Nobel Prize, with immense amounts of money, but it’s nothing. It doesn’t really make any difference at all.

But, to your question, or your notion, that I had a responsibility to develop the medium more, I immediately answer that I’m not a toolmaker. You don’t expect me to build, let alone invent the piano if I’m going to write a piano piece. There are people who like to develop tools, musical tools, and in the case of digital synthesis and computer-controlled stuff, all of this, there are people who have done a lot of things that are fairly interesting. But still, there’s no standardization; there’s no stability in the medium. I don’t feel—and I think a lot of other people must agree with this—that there is much point in expending immense amounts of energy to express something in an imperfect, undeveloped, and unstable medium, or much that one can do given the marvelous resources we have of a more traditional nature, and also of a less traditional nature, but still played by live people. That’s really my problem. And if you contemplate the non-development of the electronic medium over the past half-century, you see what’s happened to it: it’s moved completely into the commercial sphere where it has proved to be what one might call the “instant coffee of sound,” and the sound quality remains, for all alleged possibilities that there might be with sound shaping, pretty primitive and far less interesting than all of the things we’re familiar with on instruments played by real people. I don’t mean this as a big diatribe against the electronic medium; I’m simply trying to describe my own relation to it and why I’ve done so little with it over the years.

FJO: But you’ve regularly explored just about every other compositional medium—orchestra music, choral works, songs, and operas, plus tons of chamber music for all different kinds of ensembles. You’ve written a bunch of string quartets, but you also have a phenomenal saxophone quartet. You’ve written for brass, and really intense and I think very important work for percussion, both solo percussion and percussion ensemble music. In fact, even though you said earlier in this talk that you are not too interested in individuality or originality, your music for percussion probes completely new and unexplored territory.

CW: Well, with percussion music you have the Varèse model; I’m not thinking of the big pieces, but rather, Ionisation. For whatever flaws there may be in other various pieces, that’s a fully realized work. And it’s absolutely extraordinary in that, while there may be a few others if I thought about them, offhand it’s the only piece that I think really is able to dispense with precisely defined pitch and make a convincing continuity of it. On the other hand, it’s only a little over four minutes long, and that ought to tell us something. But, it’s nice of you to say that there’s a certain amount of path-breaking involved, especially in my work with percussion, but that comes about, not because I sat down one day and decided I‘d go on a crusade to develop a new medium or expand an existing medium, but because, as is the case with practically everything else I’ve ever done, I was lucky enough to be in association with or in the presence of people who wanted the stuff. In particular, in the case of percussion music, it was the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, which was started by Raymond DesRoches, who you undoubtedly know, and still continues under his successors. The time and effort that those kids—I want to call them kids, but some of them are not so young anymore—devoted to the preparation of these big ensemble pieces was absolutely inspiring, and that’s why they exist, because there was a willing outlet for them.

A page from the score of Charles Wuorinen’s Percussion Quartet
(Click score image to enlarge.)
© 1994 C.F. Peters Corp.
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

FJO: And now there are several groups that do this music regularly. Once upon a time it took a zillion rehearsals to make sense of Ionisation; now groups can get together and, with a couple of rehearsals, pull it off.

CW: Well, sure, that’s always the way it works with these things. I’ve always maintained that 90 percent of difficulty is psychological, and the mere fact that something’s been around, even if it’s not played very much, for a decade or two, does something to the attitude the players have toward it when it comes time to do it; it makes it easier. Along the same lines, I’ve always insisted, for example, in keyboard music, that there really is nothing more physically difficult than the heights of 19th-century virtuosity, but that doesn’t even bother people because they all think they know how it goes. They may not, in fact, but that’s not the point. Their attitude is one of confidence with respect to it, even if there may be digital difficulties. But, of course, with a new piece, there’s the unknown, the unfamiliarity, and when that’s coupled with something that’s maybe demanding, even a little bit, physically, the psychological environment is such as to make it seem much harder than it actually is. And that’s the case with Ionization: Everyone knows it’s a classic in the medium, therefore it’s easy to put together.

FJO: In terms of your own music, the word “difficult” has been used to describe it frequently and that word has a lot of polemical association.

CW: Don’t forget thorny! And angular!

FJO: [laughs] Difficult, angular, thorny, gnarly. It’s interesting—your book about composition is called Simple Composition. It’s ironic, in a way, considering its assumed difficulty.

CW: Or accurate! I didn’t intend it ironically; it’s accurate. That book is about trying to show someone who is starting out and doesn’t have an adequate guide—which is practically everyone, let’s face it—how one might put together a piece by putting a piece together in an orderly fashion so that one isn’t just flailing around because our environment is so chaotic, and has been for so long. I was going to say “systematic way,” but by that I don’t mean using a system, as I am often accused of doing. The book is always thought of as a primer in the twelve-tone system, which it might be in part, but it’s not about that at all. There are no standard guides for people who want to learn how to write music, so they either regurgitate models from the past which haven’t been current for more than a hundred years, or they simply try to cobble together what they regard as interesting sounds, neither of which is likely to lead to success.

FJO: So then, do you think your music is difficult?

CW: Not at all. Some of it is hard to play, although, there again, I’ve been around long enough, so I have seen my contention vindicated that pieces that were very hard to play earlier on seem less so now because they’re more familiar than they used to be. But it’s not music for beginners on various instruments; it’s hard to play, but so is practically everything else, and a lot of things which seem very simple are, in fact, extremely difficult to play well—Mozart’s a good example.

The first page from Charles Wuorinen’s The Blue Bamboula
(Click score image to enlarge.)
© 1980 C.F. Peters Corp.
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

FJO: Now, would you say, then, that the majority of the performances you’ve heard of your music are to your satisfaction?

CW: That’s hard for me to say. Of course, I’ve not heard all of the performances of the works, so I can’t tell you. But, I’ve been very fortunate over the whole course of my career to be associated with very fine players and singers, and so I’ve been blessed with a great many very, very good performances. The tendency is for them to get better as time goes on, obviously that goes without saying, but an awful lot of first performances I’ve had have been extremely, extremely good. I should say, however, that at the very beginning of my career, as I tried to indicate earlier, a principle reason for my interest in forming The Group for Contemporary Music was that we didn’t have adequate rehearsal and the kind of people who wanted to play new music, and who took me up at an early age, I’d say were very well meaning but not terribly expert. These were, in those years, typically studio musicians, because there was a great deal of commercial work in New York, which moved West since then, and these were people who were used to doing things on the fly, and doing rather simple things, and would then come in with a minimum of rehearsals and get through pieces; the performances were often not very good. I’m grateful they took place, don’t mistake my attitude, but they weren’t that great, and that was the start of this other development.

FJO: But sometimes there are situations where it’s so bad: A performance happens of your music and what people hear is not at all what you wrote. This is much more common with challenging contemporary works played by orchestras that rehearse only twice. And the composer gets the blame for it. The performance will be a bit of a train wreck, the reviewer comes, writes a bad review of the piece, and it’s actually not the piece that was bad, it’s the orchestra’s performance that was.

CW: Well, of course, but that’s just a subset of the more general evils of music criticism, which, as we all know, is appalling, and has been for a long time. One of the interesting forms of degeneration that it has undergone during my career, that I’ve observed, has been that whereas, at the beginning of my professional life, mainline critics, never any better then than they are now, had at least developed a certain sense of embarrassment over saying things were not beautiful anymore, or didn’t express, in other words, the kind of sentimental 19th-century layman’s language; it was something they’d begun to get nervous about using. Well that’s all back now, as we know. I saw a review by one of the writers in one of the local papers here praising a symphonic work allegedly composed by Paul McCartney, talking about how he was “not afraid to use beauty in his work.” What the hell does that mean, other than what we know it means, which is that it is a regurgitation of clichés provided to him by those who actually wrote the piece? But that’s a side point. In any case, the language of criticism is so degenerate and meaningless that it is astonishing that anyone still takes it seriously. In my experience, the only people who take it seriously are institutions, which is a shame.

FJO: Sometimes a critic through advocacy in reviews can help a composer reach a broader audience. The same is true when a radio programmer advocates for a composer.

CW: Well that’s different. When music is played and heard, that’s one thing. But I doubt a good review has much effect on whatever public is actually reading the review. Where it has an effect is on the presenters, and that’s truly appalling, because they should know better. They pretend to be sophisticated, and presumably, to some extent, dedicated to culture, in some form, the meaningful form, the non-anthropological form, but apparently are not. There is a real problem. I remember many years ago, a colleague of mine—a very fine composer, by the way—who was on the faculty of Yale as a junior member, about to be judged whether he was worthy of tenure, was told by the relevant committee not to bother sending any scores because they couldn’t read them, rather to send them reviews. He, of course, was not [given tenure], and that’s just a typical instance. This kind of thing goes on with never the slightest thought that there might be something wrong with such an approach, which tells you a lot about why things aren’t in the wonderful shape they might be.

FJO: Would you say a music critic is someone who should be able to read scores?

CW: Absolutely! It is grotesque that they cannot. They should be mediators, in some sense, between a lay public—whether it is a symphony subscriber or people who buy recorded music—and the professionals who are performing it and composing it. Instead, Harold C. Schoenberg, writer for The New York Times, once famously declared that his mission in life was to “protect the public from,” as he put it, “all this new music which is pushing them around.” Now I don’t know how many people you see on the street being pushed around by new music of any sort—I haven’t noticed any lately, or ever. I mean, that kind of attitude is an extraordinary combination of viciousness, stupidity, and vanity that’s really hard to beat.

There’s no embarrassment about using the most primitive forms of description and in committing every form of that basic fallacy which says, “My reaction to a composition, or any artwork, is a property of that work. So, if I think a piece is ugly—if my response to a piece is ‘It is ugly,’ then it is, objectively.” That’s an impossibility, it just is! I thought we had been through that, many, many decades, not to say centuries, ago, but now it’s all back. And so, “If I think a piece is sad, then it has the property of sadness.” That’s asinine!

FJO: Now we’re at a further stage, where people who write about any of this music, old or new, are losing their jobs left and right. We’re being told that the general public doesn’t care about any classical music, certainly not contemporary music, and the only stuff that’s getting covered is the popular music.

CW: There are so many ways that one can approach this. There was a very sharp discontinuity at which this phenomenon began to develop, which was the end of the ‘60s. There was, in the general social and political upheavals at the end of the ‘60s, an assault not just on what some of us might regard as illegitimate authority, but on every form of authority, which included, of course, high culture, cultural history, and all this. It was a fateful moment when I noticed that popular music suddenly began to be called “contemporary music”, a term which, up until that point, had been reserved for art music, and no one would have thought to do otherwise.

So what has happened since then is a kind of operation of Gresham’s Law in the attempt to elevate popular music. Let’s face it, whatever anthropological meaning it may have in society, it is rather slight to say the least, artistically, for the most part. (There are exceptions, I should say, before anyone gets upset.) But the elevation of this into a zone of high critical discourse has done enormous damage, because it is confused. It has blurred distinctions that ought to be made. Why is it bad to say, for example, that there is art on one hand and entertainment on the other? We all want both, we all use both, but the entertainment aspect is something that comes to us without our effort, while the artistic aspect requires us to put something into it as a nuclear fusion, and we get more out of it than we put in. What is so hard about that? What is so objectionable about that? And yet, it seems to ruffle feathers when you say this. I think that there’s a kind of cosmic laziness involved in all this, a self-indulgence coupled with a deep insecurity that makes people upset by such very simple, and, to me, self-evident notions.

But what happens when the critic becomes an arbiter of pop music? The pop music world pays no attention whatsoever because in the pop world, what sells defines what is successful. When that is then conflated with a degenerated—if such a thing is imaginable—form of discourse about serious music, you have a situation in which everything is confused with everything else. And the public—again, which has to be defined; there isn’t just one such thing—is denied the leadership that it ought to have. And that brings us to another area which is equally critical, and it has to do with music criticism, but also with the big institutions, and a lot of small ones, too: the lack of leadership. Marketing and public relations, these are the touchstones. That’s the American contribution to civilization, it would seem, to know how to sell garbage to people who don’t know better, and to promote that which isn’t something worth paying attention to into something everyone can’t stop talking about. It’s all very interesting from a sociological point of view, but not very helpful to those of us who want to try to do something that is meaningful and that is enduring.

Unfortunately, therefore, we now are in a period where there are very few people at the heads of institutions either administratively, fiscally, or artistically, who really can stand up for their own artistic values. I’m not talking about mine, but anyone’s. They’re all looking for things that will ingratiate and be successful. What a difference from the old music directors, the writers, Mitropoulos, even Stokowski, for all of his grandstanding, and Koussevitsky, for all of his other problems. Those were people who believed in one form of music or another, and actually made sacrifices in order to present it to the public. There is one such person now, James Levine. I’m not so sure that there are others.

FJO: You mentioned the era since the late ‘60s, but during this period you’ve continued to write a ton of music despite all of this.

CW: That’s right.

FJO: So, then, are you thinking of the audience of now or are you thinking of the future? Who are you writing the music for in your mind?

CW: Well you know what I always say, “If you can’t please yourself, you can’t please anyone else,” and people who try to behave according to what they think other people are going to think of them will always, in the end, be disappointed and be rejected. I’ve had my share of rejection, of course, but that’s actually nowadays much less than it used to be, and I’ve got a pretty thick skin for such matters anyway. But the question of addressing a public is very difficult. I want to write the best possible piece I can. When I finish something, it doesn’t mean that I think I’ve done something that is absolutely wonderful, it means that I’ve done what I can with it. Then I send it out into the world, and since I only compose, with almost no exceptions that I can think of, for specific circumstances, under specific commissions, for specific performances, the question of who’s going to hear it is already taken care of.

When I write an orchestra piece, as opposed to a work of chamber music, I am likely to deal with somewhat broader strokes, not because I want to patronize the audience, which is one of the things, by the way, which I think is so awful about the timidity of our institutions. They patronize the public, they think they’re a bunch of idiots who can’t be lead into anything worthwhile. I think that is really appalling, and that is such a bad attitude to have toward your customers, if you want to put it in those terms. But, putting that aside for a moment, when I write, as I said, an orchestra piece, I do it in somewhat broader strokes than a piece of intimate chamber music not because of anything having to do with the public, but because of the acoustical realities of the beast. It has all these people—inevitably it has to respond more slowly than a small group will.

Similarly, if I write a vocal work, I am likely to behave in a somewhat different way than I would if I wrote a piece for, say, four percussionists. When I write vocal music of any sort, the first thing I think about—after I’ve digested the text, so I think I know what it means, and I know how I want to treat it in a general way—is prosody. I’ve never been very sympathetic to funny kinds of prosody of the sort that were regarded as terribly avant-garde and interesting, like the Boulez settings of Mallarmé. Of course, when you set French, I suppose it doesn’t really matter what you do. But my model for prosody has always been the naturalistic model—that is to say, one takes the accents of natural speech, and maps them onto whatever the harmonic language is. Purcell has always been my principle example for that, very much as opposed to Handel, whose setting of English is a bit clumsy, since it wasn’t his language. So that’s what I do in the actual setting of texts. Then, if it’s a dramatic piece, clearly the narrative has to be reflected in the music flow, so I try to set up any structural underpinnings there are going to be for the whole work so they accommodate that, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a theater piece. That’s a very general way of describing it. There’s a lot of detail involved, but that’s basically it. But the heart of it all is what I regard as the natural expression of the text, and that’s a very old-fashioned idea. It all has to do with the medium and the acoustical realities, and the physical nature of what’s going to produce the sound.

FJO: Now, of course, many more people hear music on recordings rather than attending a concert performance, so this music exists for many people outside of the concert hall. Potentially your music could be reaching anybody.

CW: Years ago a friend of mine wrote a biography of Leonard Bernstein which was much derided, though that isn’t the point. The thing went on The New York Times bestseller list for a while, and I was curious to know what that actually meant, quantitatively. I’m just repeating what I was told, but that meant that above 75,000 copies of this book had been sold. At that time—I was then with the San Francisco Symphony as their new music advisor—a work of mine was played by the San Francisco Symphony on tour, and broadcast. I began to do a little arithmetic, and figured that at least a million people must have heard this piece. Now, how is that obscure or something that nobody cares and nobody wants, when a New York Times bestselling book is bought, and not necessarily read, by 75,000 people? It doesn’t count because the music is “thorny” and “angular,” but the book that sold 75,000 copies is part of mass distribution. Something is a little bit off with all of this stuff.

As you know, with writing about music and talking about music, people just repeat what they’ve heard, and they don’t know a damn thing about whether the facts underlying it are correct. For example, one of the more distinguished music critics floating around at the university at the moment wrote a book on new music in which he confidently asserted that I was a student of Milton Babbitt’s. Now, I’ve been a friend of Milton’s for 45 years or something like that, and I’m very fond of him, I love his music, but I have never had a composition lesson with Milton Babbitt, I never studied with him, I never had anything to do with Princeton, with one exception, when I was a guest there for a semester much later. Now why the hell does that go into a book? Why didn’t that get checked? Another book said I lived in Germany. I can go on endlessly about these things, but it simply tells you that what is written is written not only wrongheadedly, but also, as a general rule, completely irresponsibly. And I may say also, on these lines, that—I really regret this—I think composers would know better, but one of the things I found most depressing when the current populist surge began at the end of the ‘60s and developed its intensity in the ‘70s, was to find composers writing essentially the same kind of prose about the musical scene in general, about their own work, as a music critic would. I would think, “My God, how do these people put two notes together? Do they really believe what they’re saying?” Very sad, very depressing, and as we know, it still goes on today.