Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Christian Wolff + Keith Rowe, AMPLIFY 2011: stones                                                       ©Yuko Zama 2012

John Cage’s official website lists almost 100 events, series and festivals celebrating his centennial – everything from concerts to lectures on mushrooms. Best name honors should go to the University of York for its four-day festival in November: Getting Nowhere. Certainly, everyone who has embarked on a lifelong journey through experimental music knows the feeling; and it’s hard to imagine that anyone was more OK with it than Cage. Cage probably wouldn’t have viewed his centennial neither as having gotten somewhere per se nor as a send-off for another 100 years, but just another year. In that light, it is just as important that Cage’s music is performed in 2013 as it was this year. Perhaps that’s the point the Beyond Silence series in Philadelphia is making by spilling its centennial schedule over into January – regardless, concluding the series on Inauguration Day is a particularly fine touch.

Two events during Beyond Silence’s next to last weekend include Christian Wolff – a Saturday afternoon workshop with Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro and a concert the next evening adding Pauline Oliveros to make a quartet. The inclusion of Wolff – once Cage’s student, now the last of the sagamores of the New York School – comes at a time of renewed interest in his music. Wolff is the subject of a new authoritative study by Michael Hicks and Christian Asplund for the University of Illinois Press’ American Composers series of short critical biographies. Additionally, two recent recordings reassert Wolff’s emphasis on improvisation: an untitled ErstLive CD that pairs the one-time adjunct member of AMM with its co-founder, guitarist Rowe; and Trio (Henceforth), which finds Wolff triangulating with fellow Dartmouth College composers/improvisers – pianist Kui Dong and guitarist Larry Polansky. All of this begins to set the table for Wolff’s 80th birthday in 2014.

“Composing,” Wolff said at a panel discussion published in Perspectives of New Music in 2007 (and reprinted in the sleeve notes for Trio) “is a two-step (at least) situation where you write something, yes, but you’re still a long way from even knowing what you’ve done, what it is. Because the thing has to be performed. The music isn’t there yet. Whereas when you’re improvising, that step is gone. You just do it directly. You’re composing in real time.” It’s impressive candor from someone who has spent over a half-century, in essence, advocating the predicate of composition in experimental music. As Hicks and Asplund meticulously chronicle, Wolff spent the 1950s and part of the ‘60s devising labor-intensive compositional systems and articulating polemics that reinforced the three Rs of the post-war avant-garde: rules, ratios and Die Reihe (Stockhausen’s influential journal).

Wolff pivoted in the ‘60s, but not without signals in late-‘50s works like “Duo for Pianists II.” With 20/20 hindsight, the performer-initiated cues Wolff extrapolated from “games” in Indian music were close – if not close enough for jazz – to the real-time decision-making processes of improvisation. By 1964, a year of tectonic shifts in jazz and rock, Wolff had articulated the pragmatism of increased performer empowerment in compositions like “For 1, 2, or 3 People:” tired of his earlier painstaking methods, he wanted a quicker compositional process to expedite the realization of the work. This impetus to communicate more simply, directly and efficiently with musicians was further shaped by his year in London in ‘67-‘68, where he encountered AMM and Cornelius Cardew.

Usually, AMM and Cardew are characterized as being compatible in their articulations of new social models realizable through experimental music. However, there’s a cleaving issue mostly passed over – autonomy. AMM places a high, if not the highest value on the autonomy of the individual musician (I’ve long surmised that AMM stood for Autonomous Music Making). Arguably, autonomy was the goal of Cage’s ideas of changing one’s thinking through art inasmuch as there is a telling absence of a prescribed outcome. However, Cardew was always a moralist; while the Confucianism that inspired The Great Learning now seems benign – even quaint – compared to his later Maoist screeds, it nevertheless reasserted the hegemony of the composer.Cage led by take-it-or-leave-it example; Cardew by manifesto.

While Wolff was not totally outside Cardew’s gravitational pull, works like Edges (1968) and Exercises (1973-75) were ultimately propelled by the musicians’ own choices rather than what Hicks and Asplund refer to as the delivery of “new instructions” that preoccupied Cardew (both Wolff pieces can be found on hat ART CDs by Morton Feldman and Soloists members Eberhard Blum and Jan Williams, and others). Yet, Wolff by then was also well outside Cage’s shadow. Increasingly, Wolff went off-road for inspiration; he distilled the hocketing and counterpoint of the music of Ba-Benzéle pygmies for what many consider his magnum opus Burdocks (1971); he based a few of the Exercises on hobo songs and Woody Guthrie tunes (granted, Frederic Rzewski was also clearing brush in this area).

Wolff’s optimism about new music’s social agenda may have been affected by the controversial, divisive Scratch Orchestra performance of Burdocks on WDR in 1972 – the music was preceded by a Cardew assault on avant-garde “imperialism;” folk songs for singer and banjo were inappropriately inserted into one section – as Wolff told an interviewer only several days later that he “cannot find a solution to the social problems ... I would like to relate my music to them as much as possible.” However, Hicks and Asplund identify Wolff’s “transitional point” somewhat earlier; specifically, the Tilbury pieces for solo piano written between 1968 and ‘70. Composed for pianist John Tilbury, one of the earliest champions of Wolff’s piano music and a permanent member of AMM since the early ‘80s, these piano solos are a response to the emergent minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass. They are largely comprised of single, delicately decaying notes and gentle arpeggios – the unknowing listener could well think them to be latter-day Tilbury improvisations.

Wherever the pivot point is located, Wolff’s melding of politics and music increasingly entailed a layer of historical references. In addition to the songs he incorporated in Exercises, Wolff turned in the mid ‘70s to the autobiography of IWW leader Bill Haywood and Songs of Work and Protest as sources for his first choral work, Wobbly Music, which revisits his interest in hockets. Wolff’s evocations are comparable in a general way to Ives summoning of the New England Transcendentalists in his Concord Sonata. They place the composers in larger American intellectual and activist traditions; whereas Ives was a top-down composer, Wolff aspired to creative democracy in his music.

The democratic strand in Wolff’s thinking is perhaps best reflected through declaring: “Let playing be composition and composition playing.” Wolff had complementary methods for achieving this in his scores; in ensemble pieces like Exercises, performers had to reconcile the disparate skill sets of reading and improvising; in solo piano pieces penned in the mid and late ‘70s (which continued to roughly parallel Rzewski’s), Wolff essentially notated improvisations. Both means resulted in music that flowed more overtly than before, even during the densest passages of the ‘76 piano version of Bread and Roses. It seems to be the simple matter of Wolff embracing musicality through playing.

While Wolff has continually refined his compositional output since the ‘70s, producing elegantly crafted works like Long Piano (Peace March 11), a surprisingly evocative hour-long piece from 2004-5 (the Thomas Schultz recording on New World is recommended), it is a mistake to give secondary status to his activities as an improviser. Wolff gets it: improvisation ignites the moment rather than conditions it; and when he isn’t striking the match on the ErstLive and Henceforth discs, he’s ready with the gas can. Both Dong and Polansky are virtuosos in the conventional sense – the pianist can rip across the keyboard like a tornado while the guitarist can sprint through the registers. They give Wolff an abundance of information to work with on a second by second basis; his keying and his direct manipulation of strings tend to offset the velocity and complexity of his collaborators but without blunting them. The trio creates a giddy polyphony at times, one which brings to mind Wolff’s early interest in Dixieland jazz. At other points, quanta of melody, pitch relationships and pulse begin to coalesce; the trio doesn’t back off abruptly but instead lingers just long enough to create an engaging – and passing – moment. The interplay’s the thing with Dong, Polansky and Wolff – and the frequently quick pace of it.

Quickness is not something commonly, if ever associated with Keith Rowe’s music. It is glacial in pace compared with much improvised music, a direct result of the laminal aesthetic the guitarist pioneered with AMM (“Laminal” is a term coined by Evan Parker to contrast AMM’s music from the “atomistic” approach of most improvisers). With a tabletop guitar and an array of filters, processors and peripherals, Rowe builds layer upon layer of granular sounds over the course of quarter-hours. Beyond its bracing sonic impact, there is a unique self-sufficiency to Rowe’s music; not only does it stand on its own, it sets stringent terms of engagement with other improvisers. Wolff’s approach to improvising with Rowe stands in sharp contrast with his playing with Dong and Polansky. Throughout the album, Wolff creates contrasting colors and textures for each of Rowe’s layers (some of which are buttressed by found sounds from a portable radio), rattling, scraping and striking the strings of a solid-body electric guitar and piano. Although Wolff’s contributions are starkly minimal in comparison to his work with Dong and Polansky, they are detailed and occasionally emphatic compared to Rowe’s washes. The almost 50-minute improvisation is a slow grind, but it is compelling music, nevertheless.

These two recordings find Wolff excelling in disparate approaches to improvisation; few who improvise full-time would be as engaging in both. That’s why “composer” alone is wanting in regards to Christian Wolff.


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