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.


Charles Wuorinen
photo by Nina Roberts

Frank J. Oteri: How much music do you expose yourself to? What do you keep up with? What is your listening paradigm?

Charles Wuorinen: The music that’s shaped me, as a composer, of course, I’ve heard. I don’t listen to much of it anymore. I’ve begun to lose touch with the youngest generation of composers; I don’t teach anymore, and even when I was teaching, in the last few years that I did, I didn’t really find very much of interest, so I don’t really think I’m terribly current with the scene. I am very busy with my own work, to be sure… I don’t do a great deal of recreational listening, I must say, and when I do, it’s most likely to be ancient. It’s usually something along the lines of the extremely good Bach cantata recordings which are proliferating all over the place now. Scores I look at tend to be old music, largely because of certain projects I have in view at the moment, but I don’t go to concerts much anymore, largely because I think they’re terribly dreary. They’re misconceived nowadays. They tend, mostly, to be too long. I despise intermissions on the grounds that if I like what’s happening, I don’t want to be interrupted, and if I don’t like what’s happening, I want it to be over sooner. So either way, positive or negative, the intermission should go, even if it means sitting there for quite a long time. What I am in favor of is short programs. The “Works in Process” series at the Guggenheim is a very good illustration of that. It’s a very good format—an hour and twenty minutes with no intermission, whatever it is that’s being done—and most things can be accommodated that way. But, for the most part, the listening I do is on business, in one form or another.

FJO: So, could I dare say you don’t listen to music for entertainment?

CW: In the case of old music, yes, sometimes, but it’s usually Bach or earlier—composers I’m extremely fond of, people like Dufay and Josquin, obviously.

FJO: Do you listen to your own music?

CW: Not as a rule. I know what it sounds like. Once I’ve written it, I usually don’t [laughs]. Other people can have it.

FJO: Nowadays many people are walking around with iPods listening to music—it was the Walkman a generation ago. They have a soundtrack accompanying them as they walk around the streets.

CW: It turns into wallpaper after a while, no matter what it is, and I just wonder why more people aren’t run over by buses. How can they pay attention to their surroundings when they’re having this stuff going into their head? I mean, it would drive me mad! I don’t have such a device, and I don’t want one, but that’s a special case. What I have is in my head, and getting it out is enough of a problem.

FJO: When you listen to music, do you focus on the music and do nothing else?

CW: Yes. I don’t like background music; it drives me crazy. And part of the problem, as I’m sure you know, and many composers are like this—it doesn’t matter what is, I can’t not listen to it, so if it’s in the elevator, doodling along, it’s something I have to pay attention to. It’s absolutely infuriating, and that’s very bad for people’s ears—maybe the iPod, the constant stream of stuff, the soundtrack, maybe it is a bad idea, I don’t know. People may enjoy it, but maybe it desensitizes one to music.

FJO: New York’s Port Authority bus terminal and Penn Station both pipe in classical music now. It used to be Muzak instrumental arrangements of pop songs, and now it’s standard repertoire classical music. I’ve wondered what would happen if they threw some contemporary music into the mix. It might help get these sounds in people’s ears.

CW: I don’t think anybody would notice – it would just come and go. I don’t go to the Port Authority very often, but I go to Zabar’s very often, and there we have Mozart blatting at us, and it’s just as annoying, to me, anyway, as elevator music. If I want to hear those pieces, I want to hear them, I don’t want them distracting me from whatever cheese it is I’m trying to figure out.

FJO: But do you think having the sound, let’s say, of more advanced harmony vocabulary—

CW: It might. It could. I don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, so I can’t tell you, but one can’t escape wondering whether the omnipresence of music doesn’t just sort of devalue it. Maybe if we don’t hear it all the time, it will mean more when we do. But, it’s too late to worry about that.

FJO: This brings us back to that word “entertainment.” I believe your music can, in fact, entertain, and it does.

CW: So does Bach, so does Machaut. The idea that there is a dichotomy is preposterous, or that there is an antithesis, but there are two different levels—it’s actually, of course, a little bit more complicated than that, but entertainment, in whatever medium and in whatever form, I say again, is that which we can get effortlessly. Art requires something for you to put in as the receiver—you are a participant in the experience, in the reception of the thing, which ought to be exciting. One of the things, ever since things like the running craze, which began a long time ago, started up, I’ve been bemused by the spectacle of millions of people actually making strenuous efforts to improve themselves physically and yet are not willing to spend brain energy to improve themselves intellectually, mentally, spiritually, or in any other way. All I mean by this is that anyone can do this; all they need, again, is leadership to convince them and demonstrate to them that there’s something to be gained by putting a little effort into reading something that isn’t just drivel, or listening to something that isn’t just pop stuff.

FJO: So, any listener without a musical background, without any exposure to classical music, or whatever you want to call this music, is theoretically capable of appreciating your music?

CW: Absolutely, and I don’t think, as interested as I am in chronology, that there’s any chronological requirement for the reception of my work, or indeed, anyone else’s. All you have to do is pay attention to it. That’s what seems to be the big problem—people don’t want to, or it hasn’t been suggested to them that they have to. On those occasions when I’m asked to give a little presentation before, say, an orchestra performance of mine, you don’t need to make people feel better. I always get up and say, “Well, here I am, sorry I’m the only non-dead person; I apologize for not being dead, but here I am, I’m a human being just like you, blah, blah, blah. There’s nothing—if you don’t know my work or don’t know the tradition from which it immediately springs—I could say in two minutes that could possibly give you any kind of a path through it, so don’t worry! Do whatever you do with the other music—just let it wash over you, or just do the same.” And I found that that, as an initial kind of piece of advice, works pretty well. And that’s the starting point, but it, again, requires leadership and a certain degree of honesty, and the abandonment of the pretense that there’s something that can be appreciated as distinct, or disjunct, from an immersion in the work in some form.

FJO: So, what to do to make more people aware—what role should a composer have in society? You apologized for not being dead, but you’re very much alive, and that’s a very valuable thing.

CW: Well, the composer’s role is to write music. I don’t think the composer has any social obligation whatsoever. Those people who have social causes in their minds—let them do whatever they want, whether it’s musical or otherwise, to pursue these. I don’t, because I’m interested in the work and I don’t regard people as members of groups, but as individuals, so it would be very difficult for me to embrace a social cause, although I probably could be persuaded into one or two of them. Generally speaking, art that is polemical in that sense usually doesn’t last very long. There may be some exceptions: do we think of the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as a polemical piece? I don’t know; I’m not sure. Maybe that’s a bit far-fetched, but there’s an awful lot of stuff—that sort of dreary Socialist Realism from the Soviet era that doesn’t have much merit on its own as music—but that has nothing to do with my world and nothing to do with my concerns. The responsibility of the composer, I say again, is to write music as well as he can. But the responsibility for getting this stuff before whatever audience may exist or may be caused to exist is the role of the mediators, that is to say, the heads of institutions, whether they be administrative or artistic, and that’s where things have fallen down.

FJO: Do you think this music is not reaching as wide an audience as it should be reaching, or could be reaching?

CW: Oh, absolutely, and that’s always been the case. Remember when Toscanini got put on a train in the 1920s? Joseph Horowitz wrote an interesting book about that which I imagine you’ve read. Some great and good rich people got together and decided that it was terrible that the people in the heartland don’t have this high culture, and they were going to send it around to them. So, they loaded Toscanini and his orchestra onto a train and sent them around, and they played standard rep concerts. Well, now, what was different about that and what we see promoted from the big institutions today? What was different then was that it was taken for granted that there was a thing called “high culture,” which, in a democracy, ought to be available to everyone, and so they did something about it: They made it available; they sent it around. What we have now is something quite different and pernicious, in my view, which is, “There’s something called ‘culture,’ and it ought to be adjusted so it’s acceptable to everyone,” which means it must be pop. It can’t be anything else; how could it be anything else? There are some exceptions: The first four notes of Beethoven Five and maybe some blurbs of Mozart that have happened to find their way into soundtracks or commercials, so they’re part of the general public consciousness. Are those exceptions? Well, I don’t know, perhaps, but they certainly don’t count as exposure to high culture in any sense. And, in fact, as you know, it has been intellectually unfashionable to talk about “high culture” for a long time, because that’s too elitist, and to be elitist means to exclude people from something, all of which is a crock, in my view. To be elitist is simply to have standards; to be elitist is to want everyone to reach those standards who possibly can, and keep no one out. Not to debase the standards, so that people who don’t care won’t be bothered by them.

FJO: Well, in terms of tampering with the model, to change the model, one thing I would say about those concerts back then is that there wasn’t any emphasis placed on the music of living composers and on American composers.

CW: None whatsoever. That’s fine, but that is a minor defect compared with the difference, that I tried to articulate, between the purpose of sending the Toscanini people around to places that had never heard orchestra music in their lives, and the kind of thing that is done constantly now, which is debasing the coin of the culture. Now, remember Gresham’s Law: “Bad money drives out good.” When you put crap in, that doesn’t get turned into something wonderful, it simply eliminates the higher things.

FJO: Is there a way to preserve the tradition and make people aware of “high culture,” if you will, and still encourage and really focus on the new?

CW: The worst possible way is to say, for example, “Oh, the symphony orchestra is a museum, and it should just sit there in its museum headquarters and play museum pieces forever.” I think that is sick, and that will inevitably, because of the cost of running such institutions, cause them to disappear; that should not be done. In fact that was one of the many other bad things that Leonard Bernstein did—his suggestion along those lines, which is where I believe this all started long ago, was one of the worst, and a typical self-serving remark on his part. No, one has to keep screaming! That’s the only thing I can think of doing. Look what I’m doing—I’m actually sliding into an advocacy role for composers, having just said that my responsibility is to write music.

FJO: I was hoping I’d talk you into it.

CW: But I’ve never ceased to say these kinds of things, as you know, but most people aren’t listening to them. What we need, somehow, and I don’t know how this is to happen, is leadership at the heads of these institutions. I don’t really know. The other imponderable, of course, is the role of the Internet—I don’t know how that is going to change. I think it’s going to be mostly a positive role. It’s unfiltered, which means, of course, a lot of garbage, as we know, is there, but a lot of things that might not make it through the institutional filters are also there. But, it’s much too soon to know, really, how that’s going to play out. I have no idea, but I’m glad it’s there.