Sounds Heard: Christian Wolff—Pianist: Pieces

In Wolff’s music, one might say that the implied history of each piece, the fact of its composition, its notation, its interpretation and performance, is elevated to the point where it is not just present, but it is, in fact, how the piece is experienced. Every sound is a reminder of its own origin.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

[M]aking a play and not a speech, he gives us not contrary arguments but a doubling or blending of poetic accounts, not dissoi logoi [“dissonant words”], contentious and divisive… but a dissos muthos [“dissonant myth”] which indicates connections and makes out of divergences a kind of harmony.
—Christian Wolff, “On Euripides’ Helen1

wolff thomas cover

Christian Wolff
Pianist: Pieces
(Sub Rosa SR389)
Performed by:
Philip Thomas
Buy from Forced Exposure

Most composers have, at one time or another, done some moonlighting—in offices, mailrooms, taxicabs. On rare occasions, the moonlight, like the song says, becomes you: the job sticks and turns into a parallel career—Charles Ives, prominent insurance executive, being perhaps the most famous example. It’s usually regarded as more of a curiosity than anything, a commentary on the odd compartmentalization that sometimes results from the demands of making a living.

Christian Wolff—having, when still a teenager, been a student and then colleague of John Cage—decided against a traditional music education and career; instead, he earned a doctorate in classical studies and spent years teaching ancient literature at Harvard and then Dartmouth, all the while composing and performing outside the classroom. It’s often mentioned only in passing, sometimes as a tacit (or not-so-tacit) approval of Wolff’s bypassing of the musical academy.2

But, just as Ives’s insurance selling and music making were both marked by the same Transcedentalist morality, Wolff’s extensive sideline in antiquity is maybe not so foreign to his composing as it might seem. It’s not to say that Wolff’s music springs directly from his scholarly work, but, looking at the latter, you pick up echoes—there’s a consistency in the sort of things that interest him. For instance: Wolff’s particular area of expertise has been the plays of Euripides, simultaneously the most traditional and the most experimental of the Greek playwrights, constantly distending and smudging the expected outlines of classical drama with human unpredictability. Compare Wolff discussing Euripides’s play Ion in a 1965 paper—

Human feelings such as the play represents are immediately recognizable. We can call them realistic. Divine favor, on the other hand, is part of a myth, a poetic invention. Thus, similar to the repetitions in the present of a story out of the past shaping the play’s plot, there is a drama in the interaction of what is immediate and human with the remote and divine3

—with Wolff, looking back on the period in the late 1950s when a crucial part of his musical approach came into focus:

…I turned to indeterminacy at the point of performance. Chance was not used in the process of composing, but the performers were given choices to make from variously specified ranges of material (pitch, color, dynamics, location in a time space), and when there was more than one performer, they were required to play with specific reference to each other’s sounds, which were arranged to appear in ways that were not predictable. This resulted in a music that was always variable with each performance.4

And in a later paper, on Euripides’s Iphegenia among the Taurians, Wolff argues for a harmonization of the play’s use of history and ritual in terms that are not so far from the music, however varied, produced by Wolff and his New York School contemporaries:

I would like to suggest a kind of metatheatrical attention in the play to the process of interpretation. Aetiology here is both a dramatic instrument and, more abstractly, an explanatory mode. Formally it is addressed to an audience in a way somewhat different from the rest of the play’s dramatic speech, song, and action. This difference encourages interpretation and opens up the possibility of questioning….5

Aetiology—the dramatic technique of referencing a contemporary place or event by having a character reiterate its mythic origin story—is one of the most prominent of Euripides’s techniques; he didn’t invent it, but no other playwright used it as consistently, or as creatively. Wolff might well be the most stylistically restless of the New York School composers, but one possible connecting thread is aetiology. In Wolff’s music, one might say that the implied history of each piece, the fact of its composition, its notation, its interpretation and performance, is elevated to the point where it is not just present (as, one could argue, it is with a performance of any piece), but it is, in fact, how the piece is experienced. Every sound is a reminder of its own origin. Every piece is its own aetiology.

Christian Wolff, For Piano I (excerpt); Philip Thomas, piano

This new 3-CD recording of Wolff’s solo piano music by Philip Thomas itself comes with excellent provenance. Thomas is both a superb pianist, of the new music bright-and-precise school—everything in sharp focus, the range of articulations and dynamics unfailingly delineated—and an expert on Wolff’s music, his engagement with it both analytically deep and aesthetically sympathetic.

Still, the collection, even at three-plus hours, is not quite a fully rounded portrait. On the face of it, it is an Apollonian view of the composer. It combines a handful of pieces from the 1950s with a handful from the 21st century (three of which—Pianist Pieces (2001), Nocturnes (2008), and Small Preludes (2010)—are recorded for the first time). Most of the ’50s pieces are traditionally notated; the one exception, the formidable For Pianist from 1959, is the only glimpse (albeit an extensive one) of Wolff’s initial engagement with indeterminacy. The later works, part of the explosion in Wolff’s productivity since his 1999 retirement from Dartmouth, are eclectic in their compositional technique: the composer in full, experience and research now expressed as dividend. The program also might seem to make Wolff a more abstract composer than he is, especially in vaulting over those decades when he was producing his most explicitly politically engaged music (the ’70s in particular, which yielded three major works for piano: the Maoist-tinged Accompaniments (1972), and the protest-song-derived Bread and Roses (1976) and Hay una Mujer Desaparecida (1979)).

The piano solo format also makes for a more analytical portrait of Wolff, who normally has been more interested in music that plays on inter-performer communication. Thomas admits as much in his chapter on Wolff’s piano music in the analytical anthology Changing the System:

The piano music, then, provides a useful tool with which to survey developments within Wolff’s compositional technique and style. It also paints a picture which significantly differs from that usually accorded to Wolff’s output. By removing the element of performer interaction, analysis can concentrate instead upon matters of form and musical language (pitch, rhythm, texture). As the attention is more drawn to that which is determined, or present, in the notation than that which is indeterminate, and often not present, the presence of Wolff as a composer is more readily observed.6

It’s a little different in performance, or even recording—the indeterminate aspects are back on an equal footing with the notated elements. But the spirit is there. It is, I realized, not unlike director Steven Soderbergh’s recent exercise in turning Raiders of the Lost Ark into a black-and-white silent movie, the better to notice the construction. As Soderbergh instructed: “See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order?” In other words: what is the aetiology of this experience—technical, aesthetic, mythic?

Where to start? Probably the best place is Long Piano (Peace March 11), a singular piece, written between 2004 and 2005, that takes up the entire second CD of the collection. It’s at the same time the most monumental and mercurial piano work Wolff has ever written: an hour-long stretch of tiny fragments—95 of them, plus a prelude—composed (except for the prelude) in chronological order, but revisiting techniques and ideas from across Wolff’s catalog. There’s the political dimension: it is, as the title indicates, one in a series of works referencing Wolff’s long-held pacifist ideals. There’s the precise indeterminacy, be it sections in which (for example) only fingerings and rhythms are indicated, but in enough detail that the realization becomes even more concentrated and intense, or long sequences of fragments largely bereft of dynamic or tempo markings, leaving performer and listener to almost compulsively invent connections. There’s a chunk of the piece that reprises the intricate, mathematical rhythmic operations Wolff used in his most complex pieces from the ’50s. There are bits of folk-like diatonicism, rendered as streams of chant-like notes. There are quotations—from Schumann, from Ives; the finale is a 20-second hint of the ubiquitous medieval “L’Homme Armé.” But mostly, there’s the realization that Wolff has always been coming at the same goal from different angles: a music that finds a middle ground between the extreme, hard-edged brevity and clarity of the post-Webern avant-garde and a fluid, ambiguous mood and emotion not unlike that at the core of Romanticism. (Schumann, too, was a fan of fragments.)
That’s why the music’s aetiological bent is so enriching: it’s where a lot of that fluidity comes into play. Thomas includes two very different realizations of For Pianist, one short and scantily populated with attacks, the other longer and more dense, a demonstration hinting at what Wolff does and doesn’t leave up to the performer, even in this extremely enigmatic score—and why. For Piano I (1952) projects a jaggedly complicated rhythmic sparseness onto a restricted, almost modal collection of pitches; knowing that For Piano II (1953) was composed, in part, after Pierre Boulez criticized that limitation, and that Wolff, in response, expanded the collection to include all 88 notes on the keyboard, one can hear not only what changes—the more serial-like diffusion of harmonic implication shifting the attention to color and range and rhythm—but also what doesn’t, what remains essential to Wolff’s thinking, the high-contrast variations of touch, the respiration between event and silence, so intricately designed that it approximates an organic unpredictability. The Nocturnes 1-6 leave a lot to the performer, including the choice of what clef to use to read the notated pitches. The sound world is a solidly luminous, quasi-diatonic one. Was the notational technique the impetus for the sound, or was the sound a goal that defined the notational technique? It’s not completely apparent, which is part of the point. Wolff is getting you to notice the music’s source, its compositional and interpretive backstory, in order to get you to engage. As Wolff characterized Iphegenia, the music opens up the possibility of questioning.


1. Christian Wolff, “On Euripides’ Helen,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973) (back to article)
2. One exception: Michael Hicks and Christian Aplund’s recent study Christian Wolff (University of Illinois Press, 2012), which occasionally but perceptively makes parallels between Wolff’s musical concerns and his analyses of Greek drama. (back to article)
3. Christian Wolff, “The Design and Myth in Euripides’ Ion,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 69 (1965) (back to article)
4. Christian Wolff, “Experimental Music around 1950 and Some Consequences and Causes (Social-Political and Musical),” American Music, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter 2009) (back to article)
5. Christian Wolff, “Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians: Aetiology, Ritual, and Myth,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Oct., 1992) (back to article)
6. Philip Thomas, “For Pianist: The Solo Piano Music,” in Stephen Chase and Philip Thomas, eds., Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff (Ashgate, 2010) (back to article)