- Christian Wolff by Michael Hicks and Christian Asplund
This slim volume devoted to the life and work of the avant-garde composer Christian Wolff is past due. Despite the fact that Wolff is listed in every music history textbook as a member of the so-called New York School alongside John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, he has received relatively little scholarly attention. Hicks and Asplund have made a significant effort to balance the scales with this excellent narrative.
It is fortuitous that the book was released in 2012 during Cage’s hundredth birthday year. Wolff had a busy 2012, as he toured as the only surviving member of the New York School and as Cage’s close friend and colleague. Hicks and Asplund point out that Wolff’s longevity and position as “survivor” have served him well. Since Cage’s death in [End Page 126] 1992, Wolff has enjoyed some of his most productive years. He was recognized with the prestigious John Cage Award given by the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in 1997, and has received a number of significant commissions from all over the world for ensembles large and small. The height of Wolff’s notoriety in the world of popular culture was with the release of Sonic Youth’s album Goodbye 20th Century (1999), which included Wolff’s graphic notation masterpiece Edges and a movement from his highly indeterminate classic Burdocks. Willie Winant, Takehisa Kosugi, Christian Marclay, and Wolff himself appear with the band (p. 85).
Wolff himself is the likely cause of his lack of celebrity in the avant-garde world. He is remarkably humble, not given to talking about his own work. David Behrman said that Wolff’s music was “honest … and funny.” According to Hicks and Asplund, “The music is unassuming, even unimpressive. It contains little obvious rhetoric, lacks the ‘in-your-face’ assertiveness that characterizes modernism” (p. 94).
Wolff’s personal life is equally uncomplicated. He taught classics and music at Dartmouth for decades, and raised four children with Holly, his wife of almost fifty years. The routine of a “day gig” and the warm home life created stability for creative work, but kept him at the periphery of the new music scene. Despite the fact that Cage claimed to have removed the ego from his compositions through the use of chance operations and indeterminacy, Cage’s career was bolstered through constant contact with the public and the media. Wolff’s works and musical status are both testaments to a genuine absence of ego. Larry Polansky, a colleague of Wolff’s at Dartmouth, said that “because of Christian’s humility, he may get the short end of the stick, more so than someone who’s put on a lot more airs. But he’s just one of the band, really, and that’s all he really wants to be: just a musician playing music. He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than that” (p. 97).
But, of course, Wolff is much more than that. Hicks and Asplund’s slim volume describes a creative mind that seeks constant innovation. He rarely employs the same compositional technique twice, although he has gone back to certain themes and perspectives in his work. Almost all of his works have a political aspect. Many works are designed to be inclusive, with some written for non-musicians. Most of his works require some kind of negotiation and cooperation within an ensemble. One of his better-known works, Burdocks, demon strates this kind of cooperative work. Burdocks is written for “one or more orchestras”—although Wolff redefined “orchestra” to indicate an ensemble of as few as five players. Sound sources are mostly free and the overall structure is open: “no set number of movements need be played, movements could be played in succession, simultaneously or in any combination of overlaps.” What is most important, however, is that “an elective political process undergirded the piece: players were to ‘gather and decide’ or ‘choose one or...