2LP (180 Gram)
Original Artwork by Christian Wolff
Numbered edition of 25 ex.
Signed by the Artist
- Short Suite (2:13) (1950) (Never before published or recorded)
- Four Small Duos (2:01) (1950) (Never before published or recorded)
- Six Melodies Variation (3:30) (1993)
- Duo for violins (6:06) (1950)
- Small Duos for Violinists (15:05) (2021) (World Premiere, composed and recorded for Astres d’Or)
- Bread and Roses (8:32) (1976)
- Violin Duo For Petr (6:12) (2011)
- The Death of Mother Jones (13:54) (1977)
All music composed by Christian Wolff.
Performers: Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim Harris
Christian Wolff Born on March 8, 1934, in Nice, France; son of book publishers. Education: Bachelor’s degree, 1955, master’s degree, 1957, Ph.D., 1963, all from Harvard University; studied piano with Grete Sultan and composition with John Cage.
French-born American composer Christian Wolff helped establish a movement in contemporary classical music collectively known as the New York School. Comprised of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and pianist David Tudor in addition to Wolff, the group lived on the edge of the classical world. And like many pioneering artists throughout history, the New York School composers were often scorned by their peers and critics, only receiving appreciation for their work decades later. Wolff’s explorations into indeterminacy in the late-1950s and early-1960s, for example, served as an apparent inspiration for John Zorn and other avant-garde musicians in the years that followed. He also gained prominence in the later 1990s through an expanding discography, as well as major commissions, most notably John, David, Wolff’s first large-scale orchestral piece.
Wolff studied briefly with Cage during a six-week period and derived inspiration from his New York peers at the onset of his composing career, but he quickly uncovered his own identity and considers himself largely a self-taught composer. He created intricate systems for his compositions; rather than employing standard notation, Wolff instead provided musicians with symbols, guiding them through each piece and allowing players to interpret for themselves. In fact, personal interpretation and the freedom of flexibility, for the listener as well as the performer, has always remained of particular interest to Wolff. He refuses to undermine the performer’s creativity by loading his pieces with too many directions–such as changes in tempo, dynamics, or articulations–and avoids emotional manipulation or rhetoric.
In a career spanning 50 years and counting (Now already 70 years (editorial note)), Wolff, while holding to his original ideas about composing, has undergone many transformations. Beginning with minimalism, he moved on to explore indeterminacy, open form, and works connected to popular music and political issues. His compositions–performed throughout the world, especially in Europe and the United States–include works for piano and keyboards, instrumental solos, chamber and other unspecified groups, choruses, and orchestras that appeal to a varied audience. Merce Cunningham and his dance company as well as dancer Lucinda Childs implemented several of Wolff’s pieces, while the influential post-punk band Sonic Youth tapped Wolff to perform two of his compositions on their 1999 album Goodbye 20th Century. Earlier that same year, Wolff appeared at San Francisco’s Other Minds Festival alongside luminaries from both inside and outside the New York scene. Such participants included Gordon Mumma, Bob Ostertag, and percussionist William Winant.
Although Wolff witnessed a renewed critical and public interest in his musical work later in life, he spent much of his energy on academic pursuits. Almost as soon as he established himself as a member of the New York movement, he left the city in 1951 after graduating from high school in order to study classics and comparative literature at Harvard University; he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from the school. He then taught classics at Harvard for a number of years and, since 1971, taught classics, comparative literature, and music at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Thoughts on Teaching
As an instructor teaching a new generation about music and composition, Wolff allows his students the freedom to express themselves in any way they see fit. He recalls that in his own experiences as a student, Cage had done the same for him. “What he did for me was to make a space–‘you don’t have to write like X or like Y, you don’t have to derive your work from this tradition or that tradition, just do what you think you have to do,'” Wolff said to Jason Gross in an interview for Perfect Sound Forever. “He did that at a time when most people thought I was crazy and that I wasn’t doing music. So I try to instill that kind of attitude in my students. I basically try to get the students to find what they need to do.”
Wolff was born on March 8, 1934, in Nice, France. His father, Kurt Wolff, was a well-known publisher in Germany whose authors included Franz Kafka. With the rise of the Nazis, however, he moved the family to New York City in 1941. Wolff has lived mainly in the United States since and became an American citizen in 1946. Continuing to work in the publishing business, Wolff’s parents, in the 1950s, ran Pantheon Books and also operated an outfit called the Bollingen series dedicated to producing the works of Jungian writers, and Wolff grew up in an artistic environment centered around the Washington Square area of New York. Some of the Wolffs’s neighbors and friends included writer and editor Joseph Campbell, dancer and choreographer Jean Erdman, and poet e.e. cummings.
Wolff’s parents also enjoyed connections with musicians–most of whom were the traditional type. Thus, when Wolff took up the piano as a child, he concentrated on classical music. However, Wolff’s interests began to broaden when he reached adolescence. Aside from music, he discovered a talent for drawing and poetry writing. “I got very interested in contemporary poetry and the whole notion of modernism, in a very simple, unreflective way–realizing that there was a way to do things other than the way the traditionalist does them,” recalled the composer in an interview with David Patterson for Perspectives of New Music.
Subsequently, Wolff, around the age of 14 or 15, decided to try composing music. At first, he tried to imitate traditional composers like Bach, but gave up, realizing such a feat both impossible and unnecessary. So, after a period of rest, Wolff attempted composition again. This time, he concluded to try something new. He drew inspiration from studying back issues provided by a friend of the publication New Music, which introduced him to the work of John Cage, William Russell, and others. Like them, Wolff desired to develop music that truly reflected its own identity. “I had this programmatic notion of making it ‘different,'” he explained to Patterson. “Whatever I was going to do, it wasn’t going to be like anything that anybody else was doing as far as I could make out.”
As time passed, Wolff grew more interested in composing than practicing piano and regularly brought self-written pieces to his lessons with Grete Sultan, a traditional pianist who later became a noted performer of Cage’s music. Though she probably knew little about Cage’s music at the time, Sultan thought Cage might be interested in Wolff’s work and arranged for the two to meet. And after becoming acquainted, Cage, who Wolff calls his first and only teacher in composition, agreed to take the 16-year-old on as a student–free of charge–at a time when he accepted few. Because Wolff knew little about the technical aspects of composing, he felt open to a myriad of possibilities when he initiated his studies with the composer in the spring of 1950. As a result of Cage’s influence, Wolff’s first compositions from the early 1950s, including Serenade for flute, clarinet, and violin and For Piano I, piano, were thoroughly written out and implemented few pitches and periods of silence.
Then, during the mid- to late-1950s, Wolff developed an interest in the role of chance in music, an occurrence he prefers to call “indeterminacy.” Cage, too, became intrigued with the music of chance around the same time, but Wolff’s use of it was distinctly individual. “From a practical point of view, Cage was initially interested in using chance as a compositional device,” explained Wolff to the Wire’s Andy Hamilton. “Once he had used it, he had made a composition which was then performed the way it was written; it was fixed. I have very occasionally used chance in this way. But what I became interested in introducing wasn’t even chance so much any more, but the element of what we called indeterminacy–not at the point of composition but at the point of performance. So my scores might be made without using any chance procedures at all, but they were made in such a way that when performers used them, unpredictable events would take place.” In other words, Wolff describes the results of his approach, as opposed to Cages, as “working actively with contingencies.”
Minimalism and the Avant-Garde
During the 1960s and early 1970s, aspects of minimalism again affected Wolff’s work. Important sets from this period include the Tilbury pieces composed in 1969-70, dedicated to British pianist John Tilbury, and Exercises 1-14 from 1973-74. In the 1970s, Wolff also began writing more politically and idealistically engaged music. Examples of his political works include Changing the System and Accompaniments, the latter written in 1972 for piano and voice with a text relating to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Although he soon abandoned composing within an explicit political context, Wolff continued to draw material from political folk and popular music for a number of years. String Quartet Exercises Out of Songs (1974-76), as well as Exercise 21 (1981), illustrate the composer’s connection to less politicized issues. Another example of Wolff’s move away from music with a direct social message includes For Morty. Completed in 1987, it was composed for vibraphone, glockenspiel, and piano in memory of close friend and colleague Morton Feldman, who died in September of 1987. The personal tribute further utilized instruments–and the sense of fragility–particular to Feldman’s work. Wolff also wrote a piece for mentor John Cage’s seventy-sixth birthday, entitled Digger Song, in 1988.
Wolff also made forays outside the world of strict composition. In 1967-68 while staying in London, Wolff joined the avant-garde group AMM–featuring Cornelius Cardew on cello–on electric bass and other miscellaneous instruments. At the time, he had no prior experience with jazz or free improvisation. “That was my first experience of it,” Wolff told Hamilton. “It was sort of quietly exhilarating, learning and experiencing making music without the mediation of scores, explanations, rehearsals, etc. Especially with musicians who’ve centrally always done that–Keith Rowe, Eddie Prevost, Lou Gare. You’re simultaneously entirely on your own and entirely part of a collective activity.” Inspired by his participation in AMM, Wolff composed Edges and Burdocks (1970-71); both pieces contained improvisational components and are featured on Sonic Youth’s Goodbye 20th Century.
(Biography by Laura Hightower)
Awards Loeb bequest grantee, Harvard University, 1967-68; fellow, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, D.C., 1970-71; Music Award from the American Academy and National Institute for Arts and Letters, 1974; Asian Cultural Council Grant, 1987; John Cage Award for Music, 1996.
Books about CW Changing the System: the music of Christian Wolff, edited by Steven Chase and Philip Thomas (Ashgate, 2010); Christian Wolff, Michael Hicks and Christian Asplund (University of Illinois Press, 2012).
Books by CW Cues: Writings & Conversations (MusikTexte, 1998); Occasional Pieces (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Conrad Harris has performed new works for violin at Ostrava Days, Darmstadt Ferrienkürse für Neue Musik, Gulbenkian Encounters of New Music, Radio France, Warsaw Autumn, and New York’s Sonic Boom Festival. In addition to being a member of the Flux Quartet and violin duo String Noise, he is concertmaster/soloist with the S.E.M. Orchestra, Ostravska Banda, STX Ensemble, and the Ostravska Banda, Wordless Music Orchestra, and Ensemble LPR. He has performed and recorded with such artists as Elliott Sharp, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, David Behrman, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Jean-Claude Risset, Johan Da Saram, and Tiny Tim. His recording of the Lejaren Hiller Violin Sonatas with pianist Joseph Kubera was recently released on New World Records. He has also recorded for Asphodel, Vandenburg, CRI, and Vinyl Retentive Records.
Pauline Kim Harris aka PK or Pauline Kim is a GRAMMY™-nominated violinist and composer. The youngest student to have ever been accepted into the studio of legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, she has appeared throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia as soloist, collaborator and music director. Known for her work with classical avant-punk violin duo, String Noise, she has toured extensively with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and continues to collaborate with leading new music ensembles in New York City. Pauline Kim was the first Music Director for the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company and has been the featured artist for choreographers David Parker and Pam Tanowitz. Pauline’s debut album, Heroine — a reimagining of the Bach Chaconne and Ockeghem’s Deo Gratias was released on Sono Luminus with worldwide distribution in September of 2019.
Duo for 2 violins (1950) is the first composition made after I started my few composition lessons with John Cage. He had me learn his structural procedure of systematized and fixed arithmetical proportions (“rhythmic structure”) and make single line melodies using no more than 5 or so pitches. That notion of using quite limited material to focus with clear attention probably led to my idea of making pieces with very small numbers of pitches (3 or 4), absolute pitches, no octave transpositions. I thought that, for careful listening, the actual resulting music was quite various. Because of my interest at the time in dissonance, in this piece the three pitches are adjacent D, Eb, E natural (with no octave transpositions).
Short Suite and Four Small Duos (both 1950) were made shortly after in the same way, but somehow were forgotten till quite recently when I was putting together my archive. This is their first recording (and performance).
Six Melodies Variation (1993) was made at the request of the violinist Roger Zahab for a collective tribute, by a number of composers, after John Cage’s 70th birthday. It uses material from Cage’s 1949 violin and piano piece Six Melodies, and from the 18th century United States composer William Billings whose work Cage was using at the time in his “cheap imitation” pieces.
Violin Duo for Petr (2011) was made for Petr Kotik’s 70th birthday and for String Noise. The composition, in the way I now work, is “free”, that is, I just start and he see where things go, not concerned with structural shapes or continuities except as they arise, so as if improvising, though I use various micro systems for pitch and some rhythmic procedures, and sometimes reconfigure notation, for instance specifying for the players, not pitches but which strings of the violin they play and whether the string is open or fingered (freely) or made to sound a (free) harmonic.
Small Duos for Violinists (2021) were made for Pauline Kim and Conrad Harris (String Noise), in part for this recording, so there might be something new. There are 16 small pieces, each made as described for Violin Duo for Petr, but now with a focus on a series with small structural units, each making somewhat different moves as they follow one another, and sometimes also having internal differences. Rhythms are sometimes free with free coordination, each player proceeding independently and “by ear”. There’s counterpoint. One duo is an hommage to Rameau’s sometimes crazy musical energy. Another refers to a Satie piece. In the last duo the duration of sounds is determined by how long they take to reach silence (natural resonance takes the place of measured counting).
The two solo violin pieces. Bread and Roses and The Death of Mother Jones were written in 1976 and 1977, the first for Malcom Goldstein, the second as a kind of follow-up, hoping for a performer willing to deal with the deliberately difficult technical demands of playing (there have been three performers I know of, all of them women). Both pieces are free variations on the songs that provide the titles. Arrangements of them begin the music. Bread and Roses was a song made in the early 20th century on the occasion of a famous strike of women mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA., which was successful. Mother Jones was one of the best known labor activists of the early 20th century in the U.S. The song emerged anonymously shortly after her death at age 100. These two pieces are among a group variously based on traditional political music that I made around this time, wanting to bring an explicit political element into my music.
Artwork by Christian Wolff (Dates 2006, 2007)
Pencil on Paper
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