Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wolff piano

Christian Wolff is probably best known as an associate of John Cage and the composer of open works such as Edges and Burdocks, predecessors of John Zorn's game pieces, with scores that assemble instructions for performer interaction rather than straight musical notation. He has written more straightforward works, although little that could be called conventional. His compositional career is well into its sixth decade, and his pieces cover a fairly wide stylistic range within the general sound world of the classical American avant-garde.

Steffen Schleiermacher's album of Wolff's early piano music, released last year on the Swiss label hat[now]ART, encompasses three different styles of Wolff's compositions from the 1950s. In his earliest work, he restricted his sound palette considerably, using an extremely limited number of pitches and specific dynamic indications for each note. This style is represented here by For Prepared Piano from 1951 (whose four pieces use seven, eleven, eleven, and nine notes respectively) and For Piano I from 1952 (which uses nine notes). Wolff was enraptured early on by Anton Webern's pointillistic style — his only formal study was with Cage, and they analyzed Webern's Symphony together — and these sparse complexes punctuate the surrounding silence. For Prepared Piano hews closely to this ideal, with single notes or chords standing alone. Only in the last of its four movements do we hear anything connected, and these gestures are still fairly sparse. For Piano I puts its nine notes, through short but complex and carefully notated rhythmic sequences, with each note given its own dynamic indication. It was one of the few times Wolff used the I Ching (which Cage had famously adopted) for musical composition, and the goal was to allow the silence to appear "free from willful rhetoric."

By the middle of the decade, Wolff had lifted these pitch restrictions and used intricate (and inaudible) structural devices to produce an even more discontinuous sound. For Piano II from 1953 deliberately uses all 88 keys, and although the piece doesn't use tone rows, it reminds me of a phantom serial work from the period, where half of the notes have been filtered away. Wolff continues to use silence, but he allows the performer more liberties with fewer dynamic specifications and no tempo markings. Schleiermacher's performance still emphasizes the pointillist textures with abrupt dynamic changes, but Wolff's later interest in melody is not apparent here. The other two works from this period, For Piano With Preparations (from 1957) and Suite I (from 1954, also for prepared piano) add timbral complexities to the mix, and show how Wolff's handling of piano preparation was so different from Cage's. Where Cage would typically only use the prepared notes in a piece, Wolff uses the preparations to add color to what is otherwise a straightforward keyboard piece. In the three-movement Suite I, the first movement doesn't use any prepared tones at all, gradually introducing them into the second and third movements subtly to alter the piano sounds.

The final stage represented on this album uses Wolff's cueing system rather than notes. He had written two piano duos to play with Frederic Rzewski, and in 1959 he wrote For Pianist, a solo piece using the same cue notation as the Duos. It is a wonderously imaginative rethinking of the role of composition. The score has eleven loose-leaf pages, but with a sly sense of humor anticipating Monty Python's Bruces rules, page five is an inset into a corner of page six, and page eight? There is no page eight. Wolff provides six pitch classes, containing five, three, five, five, thirty-four, and five pitches respectively, and a given instruction block will say how many pitches and from which class (or from none) should sound in a specified time. The directions may specify to alter the pitches, up or down a half step, one or more octaves, or both. Sounds may be played normally, manually dampened to produce harmonics, plucked with the fingertip or finger nail (two different specifications), scraped, or played so quietly as to activate the hammers but otherwise silently. Any number of pages may be played in any sequence, possibly more than once, but after any unwanted sound, the pianist must go immediately to page six.

Here's an example (click to enlarge). Numbers before the colon are for times. Indications after the colon are what should happen during that time. At the left, simultaneously, in 1.54 seconds play two notes from pitch class C, one of them pizzicato, and in a quarter second, play 4 notes from pitch class E transposed up or down one or more octaves, followed by 1.25 seconds of silence. The end of the system on the right shows how Wolff specifies an action and what happens if it's successful or not.

Wolff still specifies periods of silence between the directions, so there is a clear continuity with the other pieces in this set, but with all of the different timbral possibilities, it is a much more colorful piece. It may also reflect an influence from Wolff's new musical partner, Rzewski, whose background in improvisation may have stimulated Wolff's musical direction in a way that the virtuosic David Tudor, for whom he wrote all the other pieces here, did not.

Schleiermacher's release contains the same pieces as the first disc in John Tilbury's two-disc set released in 2002 on Matchless, with Tilbury also including a disc of the early works for two pianists (with Wolff on the second piano). Schleiermacher's recording has a slightly greater dynamic range, and he orders the pieces to alternate the prepared piano pieces, making a more diverse listening experience (Tilbury's program is in straight chronological order). Wolff wrote the liner notes for Schleiermacher's release, and Michael Parsons wrote the notes for Tilbury's. Interestingly, even though Schleiermacher's album came out last year, it was recorded in 2000, over a year before Tilbury's recordings. Other than to point out these superficial differences, there is no point in trying to determine whether one of these recordings is "better" than the other. Even the more fully notated works contain seeds of indeterminacy, not only in the dynamics, but in how the pianist chooses to break up various impossible combinations of keys. For music of this nature, more recordings and more performances, especially of the caliber of these two pianists, is always welcome.

Christian Wolff's music is a preeminent illustration of the open works that I've discussed on this blog before. In an essay written in 1960, Wolff asserted that his work stopped and started based on the actions of the performers, a theatrical event completely unrelated to the sounds of the piece. "That form ... can be derived out of the nature of the sound material is, I think, illusory." In a comment to my previous post, on Thomas Bernhard, Jon took issue with my comparison of Bernhard's prose to drones, hearing more of a circling around the same material, and always pushing forward. Perhaps Wolff's music is a more apt comparison. It's static in the sense that Jonathan Kramer defined vertical music, which has no clear hierarchy or defined goals in the same way that one finds in tonal music.

One of the other characteristics of open forms that I've noted before is that the target audience is not so much the listener as the performer. In an 1991 interview, Wolff admits, "I was writing for performers and myself. The kind of music we were making clearly was not popular in any sense whatsoever. There wasn't much point in worrying about the whole question of the audience." Although I'm writing about recordings here, my fascination with Wolff comes from studying the scores, thinking about how one might prepare to play them. His music has a wider appeal than many of his contemporaries because it expands to a much broader audience of performers who are interested in unorthodox methods of musical communication. Indie rock group Sonic Youth has released recordings of Edges and Burdocks, and another version of Burdocks appears on John Zorn's Tzadik label with an ensemble including Wolff, Fred Frith, Bob Ostertag, and William Winant. The Seattle Improv Meeting met monthly for three years, including Wolff among the composers they regularly tackled (and they have a number of recordings posted as well).

Early Piano Pieces is available from a number of distributors around the world, all of which are listed on the Hat site. Neither of the recordings discussed here is available as a legal download, although David Tudor's recording of For Piano I and Frederic Rzewski's recording of For Pianist, both from a long out-of-print Wergo LP, are both available at the Avant Garde Project.

The excerpt from For Pianist is from the score published by Edition Peters.


robert said...

Hey Caleb,

Thanks for this post, this is truly a great album that hasn't gotten a huge amount of discussion. When I did my 12 days of Interesting Music posts this year, this was one I had planned to do. But I felt I couldn't do it justice (especially as I was writing those from my parents place away from my library). Wolff's music I think is poorly served by simple surface reviews - a lot of the action goes on under the hood. Your piece here I think is just the way that this album needed to be tackled, with some explanation of the composition history and forms along with actual examples. So well done and thanks.

Also thanks for the Seattle Improv Meeting shout out (though we did manage to keep it together for four years ;), some of Wolff's text pieces (Sticks and Stones) were among the most fun to play and make for some of our best recordings IMO. Edges was one we tackled on multiple occasions and it was one of the most challenging graphical scores we played. Really great stuff in general. I wrote a post on the blog about our experience in playing three of his pieces that readers of this post might find of some interest.

Caleb Deupree said...

Hi Robert,

It was actually your 12 days mention that got me to seek out the album. I've been interested in Wolff's music for years, and this album was a good avenue to reconsider it. I have Sabine Liebner's album too, and plan to write something about it soon. I also have Cues checked out from Interlibrary loan — not renewable — so I want to process it before I have to return it to Utah.

Thanks for your comments.