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.

Twelve-tone Music and Tonality

Charles Wuorinen
photo by Nina Roberts

Frank J. Oteri: I know that at one point you famously said that you wanted your music to speak for itself and you did not really want to talk about it.

Charles Wuorinen: If it doesn’t, what else can, after all?

FJO: Well, other people will talk about the music no matter what and you’ve already said that you dislike words like “thorny” and “angular.” If somebody’s trying to find a descriptive term to convey something that they’re hearing, what would you use instead of those words?

CW: Well, I wouldn’t, because, look: When the same people who are going to use those words about me, or someone in my general area, write about the classical repertoire, they don’t use words like that, or they may use descriptors, but they know that everybody knows the music, and they’re writing on the basis of assumption that they already know, although as we know that is a disappearing phenomenon also. But, when they apply an adjective to something that no one’s heard, what can that possibly mean? Why don’t they just call it green? It makes absolutely no sense, and—you remember the famous thing, “A man whose breakfast egg is rotten is not obliged to lay another in its place.” And therefore, I don’t feel it is really my responsibility to provide a substitute adjective. Alright, I will if you like: Beautiful, meaningful, profound, entertaining, delightful—those are perfectly good adjectives, and I can think of a few more if you want me to, but what does that contribute? Suppose you don’t like what I’ve written—does any of that help?

FJO: I want to defend the word “angular” for a moment; I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative or positive word.

CW: Well, it’s meant negatively, as you know. As a descriptive term, you could use it, but I would rather say that the melodic characteristics of a lot of my music feature large intervals. They jump around a lot. And there’s a reason for that—it’s not something that I just decided to do, it has to do with the fundamental nature of my harmonic language. If you say that, it’s better, because if you say it’s disjunctive, that suggests it is a departure from a conjunctive norm, which may be something that applies in older music, but doesn’t apply in mine.

FJO: But there still are tons of connections between older music and your music, particularly early music. You’ve even referenced works of Josquin and Machaut, and those references are a prominent part of your own musical language.

CW: Absolutely. If you want self-description, I would say that the most fundamental connection I have with the musical past is a sound belief in narrative form, which I try to express, obviously, in different ways than anyone in the 19th century or any of the composers earlier would have done. But I have, after thinking about this for a long time and writing a lot of music, remain convinced that this is the ground of our entire civilization. There are other parts of the world, other cultures—very great ones—that don’t necessarily operate that way; they may have a cyclical view of time, and so forth and so on, but everything in the West is a story of some sort or another, it seems to me. We assign a definite beginning to the universe—our literature, all of our artistic traditions, and of course our music, are all teleological, goal-directed, or directed in some way so that one returns to a starting point. I’ve never given that up. And, I suppose out of a sense of the fraudulence of certain contentions made, especially by some of the “Euro” folks in years past, that you don’t do that anymore—now we have this kind of form and that kind of form, which I’ve always thought was simply the assertion of the defects of such works as a new kind of virtue. I never bought that. So, coming back to your notion of connecting with the past, that’s the fundamental one; everything else is secondary.

The second main one has to do with my sense of how highly chromatic music, music that uses the entire twelve pitch-class collection, should be organized. I don’t regard it, as composers say, like Babbitt did, or used to anyway, as disjunct from practices of the past. I found a lot of inspiration, as I’m sure you know, in the late works of Stravinsky, which were full of diatonic puns, or puns on diatonicism, and I’ve continued to incorporate those both in the surface of my work and in the fundamental materials for any given piece. So those are all things that connect me. Then there is the old music interest and all of that.

FJO: I know all of these words are so charged with associative meanings, but are terms like “serial” or “twelve-tone” accurate to describe your music at this point?

CW: I’ve never accepted the word “serial” because, for me, it’s like the word “atonal,” which should be only used historically to describe a certain repertoire: the pre-twelve-tone chromatic music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and maybe Schreker or somebody else, but that’s it. It’s used, again, as a pejorative adjective. “Serial” likewise, to me, means the sort of automatic program music written by Europeans, mostly in the ‘50s and a little bit into the ‘60s—stuff which, if you take one look at how they put it together, couldn’t possibly survive. It was completely arbitrary, and they had basically no control over the outcome—that too was made into a special, new kind of virtue! “You don’t know what’s going to come out, isn’t that marvelous?” I don’t think it’s marvelous. The phrase “twelve-tone,” on the other hand, is accurate in the sense that it assumes the use of the total chromatic (maybe segregated into collections of less every once in a while), and that it is based on ordered sets (usually involving all of the twelve elements, sometimes more, and sometimes less). Whatever nasty connotations it has had slathered onto it by mean-spirited critics and insecure composers, that is a designation I’m happy to accept. Although, as I said for many years, if you went hunting in any of my works for the last, at least quarter century, looking for the row, you’re going to have a very hard time.

FJO: You’ve even described pitch hierarchy in your music, and there are discernable major and minor triads in a lot of your pieces.

CW: Yes, of course, and I usually put those things in the beginning of my fundamental works. Often the actual sets I use are, in some sense, scalar, or interpretable in a scalar fashion, so when I want that kind of thing, it’s at my disposal. I also often use what essentially are rings, rather than sets, that is to say, orderings that, at the most fundamental level, return to the beginning, which is perfectly in keeping with everything else I’ve said. So, I don’t know how helpful any of these designations or descriptions are, in a broader notion of music, let’s say, that uses the total chromatic.

A page from the score to Charles Wuorinen’s Heart Shadow
(Click score image to enlarge.)
© 2005 C.F. Peters Corp.
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

FJO: Do you think that it’s viable to create music with more than twelve intervals?

CW: I do, and if I were younger I would probably pursue it aggressively. I made one little abortive attempt years ago, which was a complete bomb—I didn’t write a piece. I encountered a psychologist of perception at UCSD who had developed an arithmetic model of the diatonic system which started from an interesting premise. He said, “Forget about the idea that the triad and the fifth and the octave ought to do with overtones and all that stuff. But rather, look at the diatonic scale and its internal hierarchies in arithmetic terms—how many elements there are, how they span the octave, etc.” And he came up with a model. So I thought, “Well, that must be interesting to look into.” He then developed higher order forms of this, which are very simple arithmetically, and I thought, “Let’s see what can be done with them.”

The first of these involved a 20-part divided octave. A friend of mine tuned a keyboard for me so I had these pitches. I fooled around a little and realized that this was utterly unworkable for a very simple and primitive reason: namely that the referential sonorities—the things that were going to be like triads, which I thought ought to have four elements, with intervals that were analogues of thirds—came out sounding like minor seventh chords, and could not possibly be introduced into a context. Maybe if you spent many years doing it you could, but it seems to me that this kind of approach wasn’t going to work. And there’s a reason for that. We take the seven-note diatonic scale, with its twelve-note collaboration, for granted—especially if we’re only semi-literate musically, or if we never think about music—forgetting how long it took to develop. As far as I know, every instance of a chromatic note is already present by the end of the 14th century in some form or another—almost never used, to be sure. It took, then, more than 500 years for people to get used to that pitch continuum enough even to produce music like Wagner’s, let alone early Schoenberg, or any of those other people, Reger, whomever you like—or Mahler. But then it took even longer to develop a vocabulary that could dispense with the old-fashioned, triad-based diatonic organization, however chromatic it was. These things don’t happen overnight. The twelve-part divided keyboard existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. This comes back to the electronic question again, we don’t have stable tools.

I remember something that John Chowning said to me once when we had a little tour of that CCRMA facility at Stanford. This was about 20 years ago. They had just developed some fancy new keyboard instrument. (I don’t remember much about the instrument itself.) And he said “It’s all very nice, but none of this, this instrument included, is ever going to”—he didn’t say “catch on”, but that’s what he meant—”enter the mainstream until you can play standard piano music on it convincingly.” What he meant by that was the same sort of thing we mean by playing Bach on the piano: It’s not that we’re trying to reproduce the sound of the harpsichord or the organ; it’s that the piano is an instrument which is capable of realizing, in a different way, that music to universal satisfaction. It’s nice to have the authentic way, and it’s nice to have the newer way to do it. The piano is an instrument that happens to be able to do that. His electronic keyboard wasn’t.

I don’t follow the development of these instruments, but I’m not aware that instruments for the convenient, playable division of the octave into greater than 12 parts are yet around. And it seems to me that nothing is ever really going to develop until you can have something like that, where you can mess around until you find a language. But that has to happen, because we can’t go on regurgitating what we’ve been doing. Yet, we live in a world where people are only too happy to give themselves historical anesthesia and pretend that they can still write a great C major something. I haven’t heard one yet; I’ve been waiting.

FJO: So, at this point, do you think it’s intellectually dishonest to write music in C major?

CW: No, but I think it depends on who you are. I remember—again, I hate to give so many pointless anecdotes from my past, but I’ve reached the age where that’s unavoidable. In the ‘70s, a—at the time—semi-well-known rock musician came to me because he couldn’t read music, and he wanted to learn how to write down his songs. I said, “Well, do you know anything about harmony?” And he said no, he didn’t. He just felt his way around, as I guess they all do. Anyway, I gave him something to read, and he went away. He then called me a little while later and said that he decided instead of studying to hire a secretary to notate his stuff, and I said, “You have made the right choice, because if you knew enough to write down what you’re doing, you would find it unsatisfactory. If you had knowledge, you would be unable to continue with what you’re doing.” And this seems to me to be very much the case with popular music today and has been for a long time.

What’s interesting about that is that it wasn’t always so. In the earlier days of old-fashioned jazz, big bands, whatever it was—I’m not a historian in these things, I don’t know the exact sequence—until sometime around the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, I would guess in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, popular musicians recognized a hierarchy, and tended to look up, or else tended to be defensive about or to be angry with, classical musicians. Everything they did, of course, ultimately derived from classical practice. The harmonic language they used, and still use now, comes from the work of serious composers of an earlier time. Jazz is the same—it’s grafting on via Baptist hymn tunes, diatonic harmony from Western music, and African elements and rhythms. In any case, just to finish this off, there wasn’t necessarily a great profound knowledge on the part of pop musicians, although a lot more than now, you really had to be able to play, you really had to be able to do those arrangements, you had to know what you were doing, to have real instrumental skills, to be a good musician in those genres. They may not have known a hell of a lot, but they knew that there was something there which was worthy of respect. It wasn’t their thing, and they did what they did.

Following that we had—don’t forget—the pronouncements of the students of the late 1960s. In their colossal ignorance about everything, they pronounced themselves the best-educated generation in history; that attitude has continued since then. And you have now pop musicians who really don’t know anything. They regard themselves as moral colossi who are going to tell the world how to live and what’s wrong with everybody else via their immortal poetry, but their musical substance is very, very slim, and there is no recognition of any sort of higher forms of musical discourse or musical practice. That is a very a profound change, and it’s something which, when you then see the pathetic spectacle of certain composers, you know who they are, aping pop behavior as a way of trying to grab an audience that expects not to be pandered to, but to be given entertainment that it can receive effortlessly, without paying very much attention to it. You see that we’re in a very different place than we were at one time.