I met the composer Christian Wolff for this interview some time ago in Hamburg, Germany. There were a few other people in the room—from the festival klub katarakt, which had a commissioned a new work from him—and I asked Wolff if he felt like performing an impromptu version of his prose piece “Crazy Mad Love.” He said, “Isn’t it kind of complicated, actually, do you really want to do this?” and laughed. We got down to business.

VAN: Looking through your “Prose Collection” pieces, I noticed that the instructions are often very witty—one of the lines in “Sticks” is “Avoid fires, unless they serve some practical purpose”—but reading elsewhere about your work and your philosophy of composition, you’ve said generally that the composer himself shouldn’t go too much into the work. Isn’t the wit in the “Prose Collection” a good example of why the composer should put himself in the work?

Christian Wolff: The composer is going to be there no matter what. There’s no avoiding that. I think originally, when I started—I mean, I wasn’t the only one talking this way—we were reacting against the notion of artists’ self expression. That’s really not very interesting when you get right down to it. You have to be really interesting to have that work. It seems to me that art has more facets than that, and that is were the notion comes from. The idea of artists’ self expression is a 19th century, Romantic idea. When I was growing up, that was the assumption, and it still is. It seems very limiting, put it that way.

An oft-cited part of your biography is that you were a professor of classics. What are some of your favorite works?

Greek literature, mostly. I specialized in Greek tragedy. Euripides, in particular. But almost any Greek literature more or less up through Homer. It’s just all great stuff, so I just really liked being involved with it.

And do you think that had any effect on your music at all, or was it completely separate?

I think everything has some effect. Not that I noticed, put it that way. I thought of it as a totally different activity. There am I doing this ancient stuff, and here I am doing new music, right? And yet there are sort of funny connections. One of them that I at one point realized was that I liked to teach a lot—that’s how I got into being an academic. And then it occurred to me that my music has a very didactic character to it, in the sense that you engage with it. It’s not just a matter of reproducing a score: you have to learn about how that score works, how music works. So that’s kind of abstract, but at the level of teaching, there’s a connection there.

The amazing thing about the very old stuff is that it still means something. There’s something there that’s really very powerful. And that attracts me. I don’t know if I should say it, but I would like my music to have the kind of durability that the old stuff has.

Do you every think about ancient Greek music? It’s the subject of a lot of research.

I avoided it for a very long time. Because we don’t know that much about it. The part that would have interested me is the music that would have accompanied the early poetry, and also the plays. But it’s mostly guesswork. There’s a lot of Greek music theory, but it’s about 100 years later, and it’s just, I find, totally indigestible and unreadable, just awful stuff. [Laughs.]

Do you feel like your day job complimented or interfered with your compositional work?

It interfered. I mean, I knew what I was getting into. I knew that I had to earn a living. I was going to have a family. Even now I couldn’t get by on the music. Forget it. So I had to do something else. And the trick was to find something that I liked to do; and I liked to teach, I got motivated already in college. I went to Harvard, so there were very eminent people teaching me, and a lot of them didn’t teach very well. I could do better than that. It’s a good thing if your alternative work is something you enjoy doing. And then the music you do as best you can.

It came with support from the very start, because of Cage, who organized concerts in New York, so my music was actually performed from a very early period. But not very often. Then by the time I was out of New York, I had to do it all myself. But as far as doing the two things simultaneously, there would be times when I had to publish an article on something Greek, and then someone said, ‘We’re doing a concert, could you make us a new piece?’ No, I can’t. I gotta do this other stuff. And the other thing is, I almost blew my academic life, because I didn’t do enough articles to get promoted. It was a bit of a juggling act.

If I get a chance. My politics haven’t changed at all. My music has changed. I mean, there was a fairly short time, where I felt, in the 1970s, and I wasn’t alone, that everything I did should have some political connection. That every piece should have some explicit political dimension to it. You can do that for just so long and then things change.

As a Vermonter, what do you think of Bernie Sanders?

He’s absolutely great!

Piano was your first instrument, but you stopped practicing seriously as a teenager. Do you play now?

Yeah. My wife likes to hear the piano being played. We have a wonderful piano which comes actually through her family, it’s a 1887 Steinway. We finally had to have it rebuilt, but still, it’s just a gorgeous instrument. It only comes up to high A, it doesn’t go to high C. And she has memories of her mother playing it, so she likes me to play. But I only play old music on it.

What kind of music do you play? Stravinsky always used to read through Bach.

Yeah, mostly Bach. [Laughs.] It’s quite playable, my technique will just about, maybe not at top speed… the Fugues [from the “Well-Tempered Clavier”] are interesting to play.

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In an article for a Dartmouth celebration, Alex Ross called you a kind of “hyper-radicalized Brahms.”

That’s kind of a riff: My father actually met Brahms, when he was about eight years old. So there is a Brahms connection, and Ross knew that; that’s what he’s riffing off of.

You once described a concert of Cage’s that you saw where the musicians deliberately sabotaged the piece. Do you think this kind of behavior from musicians was unique to the time when that happened, or is it something that all young composers need to go through?

Cage was a very controversial figure. I think the example you’re referring to is the New York Philharmonic, at a time when they just had no idea what was going on, and Bernstein wasn’t really serious, that was the problem. Bernstein just didn’t communicate to the players that he really meant this. As a result, they were just totally out of control. It was quite shocking actually. Completely unprofessional behavior from a distinguished symphony orchestra. But I think that’s sort of an unusual case.

The other issue is more, with these open scores, say like the “Prose Collection,” if you don’t take that seriously, then you’re going to get a mess. And that’s the kind of problem I’ve had, and Cage, repeatedly: people will figure, Ah, never mind the score, we’ll just do something. And of course it’s not going to be any good. Usually, if something doesn’t sound right in those open scores, I immediately go to a player and say, What is it that you’re playing? Show me on the score what it is you’re doing. And very often they can’t. Or they haven’t understood the notation. It turns out they totally misread the instructions. So that’s an issue. But I haven’t run across that for a while, things have improved a lot.

Looking back at the works that you’ve written over the years, which ones would you say are your absolute favorites?

Well, I do like “Burdocks” a lot. I’m also very fond of “Changing the System.” It seems to me, if I may say so, very elegant, very simple, the structure, and it works. And I like that. Very economical. I still like my very early ones, the ones with just a few notes, that run for six minutes on just a few pitches. I like it that they still sound OK after all this time.

YouTube video

Wolff, Burdocks

Do you have a composing routine?

I don’t really have any routine. I mean, we raised four kids. And I had a full-time teaching job. So whenever the opportunity arose, I was ready to work. I always had my notebook, and I’d be in the kitchen and suddenly some kid has fallen asleep, and it’s quiet: alright, quick! [Laughs.] I can work anywhere at any time. I’ve never had a studio.

You’ve written about working with sound in and of itself—“Sound comes into its own.” It seems to me that the general idea about the primacy of the sound has since become pretty widely accepted, except that now there are tons of different interpretations of what that means exactly. I’m thinking for example of Gérard Grisey, who would probably also have said that sound comes first in his compositions, but whose music is so completely different from yours.

It’s a good point. It’s all very well to say that sound comes first, but you have to make it happen. You can use recordings and then you’ve got your sound, but if you’re writing for instruments you’ve got to put something down on paper for them to do, which is not sound, that’s pen and paper. I have the feeling, the more I’ve thought about it over the years, that all really good music has that character. It’s about the sound.

Even something that’s technically and musically very complex, like Renaissance counterpoint. It’s not really about having all these voices, it’s about having a certain kind of sound which is produced by writing that kind of counterpoint. It’s true even of Bach in a way. It’s about sonority. It’s about the kind of noise that a certain music makes.

You are asked to speak very often about the group of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Earle Brown and Morton Feldman. Do you miss them? And do you ever get tired about talking about the group?

Not necessarily, no. I get tired of repeating myself, which is inevitable, because I just have so much to say on the subject. Sure I miss those guys. On the other hand, I’m younger, so it was inevitable that they would go first, in the ordinary course of things. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.