»I don’t deliberately try to change«

Christian Wolff on »Metal & Breath«

11 August, 2023 | Kristoffer Cornils

Christian Wolff at AngelicA Festival Bologna 2022 by Massimo Golfieri
©Massimo Golfieri

If there is one term with which the name Christian Wolff is most associated, it is indeterminacy. Fittingly, the composer isn’t quite sure what to expect from the portrait concert »Metal & Breath« that will open this year’s Month of Contemporary Music, as he tells us via Zoom from his New York City home. The programme includes pieces written between 1968 and this year, since Wolff specifically wrote a new composition to be performed by the brass ensemble Zinc & Copper and his long-time collaborator Robyn Schulkowsky. Wolff discussed the political motifs in his music, working with microtonal ideas, and the dialogue between a score and the performers with field notes editor Kristoffer Cornils.

Whose idea was this concert originally?

Well, it wasn’t mine! (laughs) It was probably Robin Hayward and Robyn Schulkowsky who came up with it. They thought it would be nice if I wrote a piece for them and then that grew into the idea of doing a concert. For a moment there was talk of doing a 90th birthday concert—which is actually next year, but why wait? (laughs) 

You have known Schulkowsky for decades, but have you ever worked with Zinc & Copper?

With Robin, yes, but I have never met the others. Hilary Jeffery studied under James Fulkerson, with whom I have worked together, so there is a connection there, but I did not know Elena Kakaliagou.

How did you go about curating the programme?

Actually, I didn’t do that!

That creates an interesting situation in which you almost look at this programme from an outsider’s perspective. Do you see a common thread running through these pieces, created between 1968 and this year?

Good question—I made them all, so there’s that, right? (laughs) I don’t deliberately try to change. I hope that I change, I’m open to change, but I don’t arbitrarily try to do something different. Nevertheless, I have been composing for over 70 years and I have been changing all the time in one way or another. Although maybe it’s been less over the past 20 to 25 years—there’s a limit to how many ideas a single person can have! (laughs) 

I was also asking in regards to the earliest pieces on the programme, »Pairs« from 1968 and »Exercise 15« from 1975, a composition that has a political dimension to it because it uses material from the Woody Guthrie song »Union Maid«. [Please note that the programme of the portrait concert has changed since this conversation. Go here for an update.] 

A lot changed between those two. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I got interested in politics and started with folk songs, which is where »Exercise 15« comes from. There was political turmoil, the Vietnam movement. Along with other composers like Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew, I asked myself how I could combine these political issues with the music. And then … I think I just kept going! (laughs) In the past twenty years, I have been going back and forth, using older material, or older ways of working, and combining them with different things that I do at the moment. This means that each piece becomes a kind of anthology of stuff that I have done before, but I always try to do something that I haven’t done before.

Would you say that your interest in composing works that correspond with contemporary political issues has stayed with you throughout all this time?

In a sense, yes. I don’t write specifically political pieces, but I still use political folk songs as musical material in my pieces. Actually, in this new piece for Zinc & Copper and Robyn Schulkowsky, I use a song by Hanns Eisler: »Vorwärts und nicht vergessen«. (starts singing the chorus) For two bars, that will become absolutely clear in the trombone, emphasised by the percussion. In the 1970s, Eisler was a hero of ours as someone who came from an avant-garde background but was also highly political. He was involved with Bertolt Brecht and wrote all these songs that became part of the German left-wing folklore! People wouldn’t know anything about Eisler, but they would know his songs.

How did you approach composing this new piece for Zinc & Copper and Schulkowsky?

I have worked together with Robin for tuba pieces and knew he was interested in microtonal music. With Zinc & Copperhowever, that is their main interest. That was an issue for me because I had never addressed microtonality as such in my work. That’s partly because my ear isn’t that good—I can’t hear it properly! (laughs) However, I have used microtones as a type of articulation by asking for notes to be slightly out of tune in my scores, so a microtone up or down. This idea returns in the new piece, which addresses the issue of microtones right away. One of the notations I made is just a simple straight line and the performer chooses any pitch they want for that line. So whenever there is a note on that line, that’s the note they play. If there is a note above the line, they play a fraction of a tone—less than half—above the note that they chose; if it’s below the line, they play a fraction of a tone below. There are three different people doing this, so there should be microtonal qualities in the music, even though I haven’t specified exactly what they are. What I learnt listening to microtonal music is that the music I was mostresponsive to was James Tenney’s, who worked with microtones a lot. As I’ve said, my ear isn’t that good, so I didn’t hear the microtonal things. But what I could hear was that the microtonal harmonies, if you will, the combination of instruments playing microtonally, changed the colour of the sound in a quite remarkable way. A string ensemble wouldn’t sound like a string ensemble at all! I found that interesting and hope that something like that will be going on in this piece.

That does tie in with the concept of indeterminacy.

Yes, exactly.

You have said the indeterminacies in the score’s notation are “there to induce a kind of rhythm” that would otherwise not be realisable.

A lot of the notation is just straightforward barlines—2/4, 3/4, whatever. Other times, the notation gives an independent direction for one instrument and then there is an angled line to the next instrument. This means that the moment in which the first player stops playing, the second one picks up the sound. Nobody is counting, you do it entirely by ear. What happens then is that the second player doesn’t know when they have to play! (laughs) That creates a rhythm that you wouldn’t otherwise get.

You have also spoken about a »dialogue« between you and the players. Does that also tie into that?

That is a slightly different area, though they both have to do with some kind of indeterminacy; that something is not fixed. In any case, there is a space between a score which a composer makes and a performance which a performer writes. The best example would be a classic piece played by two different players: They’ll sound different even though the score is exactly the same. You could say that I address that by creating situations in which I make something whose outcome depends on how the players decide to interpret it. On a simpler level, there are very few dynamics in the piece, the notation is not very detailed. I leave a lot of things open, which by the way is also very characteristic of a lot of traditional classical music. Look at a Mozart score! There’s very little information on there except for the notes and the rhythms. Very little dynamics, very little phrasing, often no tempo. The performer has to figure out all of that. In that sense, the performer is conversing with the composer’s score. That’s what I talk about when I speak about a »dialogue«: It’s not so much one between me and them, but between what I’ve written and what they are doing to turn that writing into sound.

The four musicians will also interweave the different pieces with a composition of theirs.

Yes, I have only recently learnt about that and am still trying to get my mind around that! (laughs) That will be another kind of dialogue—something that is definitely not me, but them. On the other hand, they are presumably doing it because they feel like it relates to something connected to me!

So all in all, the entire performance will be as much of a surprise for you as for everyone else in the audience.

And I hope that it will be a happy surprise! (laughs) I have complete confidence in these folks. What they do is wonderful.

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