Christian Wolff

Wolff was born in Nice in France of German parentage. His family moved to the United States in 1941, and he became an American citizen in 1946. He studied classics at Harvard University (he is a specialist in the work of Euripides) and upon graduating took up a teaching post there which he kept until 1970 when he began to teach classics, comparative literature, and music at Dartmouth College until his retirement in 1999.

His early work includes a lot of silence and was based initially on complicated rhythmic schema, and later on a system of aural cues. Wolff innovated unique notational methods in his early scores and found creative ways of dealing with improvisation within his written music. Later pieces also often give a degree of freedom to the performers such as the sequence of pieces entitled Exercises (1973-). Some works, such as Changing the System (1973), Braverman Music (1978, after Harry Braverman), and the series of pieces entitled Peace March (1983-2005) have an explicit political dimension responding to contemporary world events and broader political ideals.

At the age of sixteen Wolff was sent by his piano teacher Grete Sultan for lessons in composition with the composer John Cage and quickly became a close associate of Cage and his artistic circle which included composers Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, pianist David Tudor, and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

During the 1960s he developed associations with the composers Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew who spurred each other on in their respective explorations of experimental composition techniques and musical improvisation, and then from the early 1970s in their respective attempts to engage with political matters in their music. For Wolff this often involved the use of music and texts associated with protest and political movements such as the Wobblies.

Wolff recently said of his work that it is motivated by his desire "to turn the making of music into a collaborative and transforming activity (performer into composer into listener into composer into performer, etc.), the cooperative character of the activity to the exact source of the music. To stir up, through the production of the music, a sense of social conditions in which we live and of how these might be changed."

Wolff is the son of the literary publishers Helen and Kurt Wolff whose roster in Germany included works by Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, and later in the U.S. a series of notable English translations of, mostly, European literature (An edition of the I Ching published by the Wolff's Pantheon Books would prove influential upon John Cage after Christian Wolff gave it to him as a present).

With his wife Holly, Wolff has four children: Hew, a computer programmer living in Oakland, CA; Tamsen, a professor of Drama and English at Princeton University; Nicholas, a graduate student in Archaeology at Boston University; and Tristram, a graduate student in Comparative Literature at University of California Berkeley. (wiki)

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1961 Summer 3.50 stars 2CD
In Between Pieces for Three Players Comments:
The Concord String Quartet
1963 In Between Pieces for Three Players 3.50 stars LP
In Between Pieces for Three Players Comments:
Ensemble Musica Negativa cond. Rainer Riehn & Earle Brown
1966-1970 Electric Spring 2 3.50 stars LP
Electric Spring 2 Comments:
Ensemble Musica Negativa cond. Rainer Riehn & Earle Brown
1972 Lines For String Quartet 3.50 stars CD
Electric Spring 2 Comments:
Judiyaba - Cello
Nancy Ellis - Viola
Nathan Rubin , Thomas Halpin - Violin
1972 Accompaniments For Piano 2.50 stars CD
Electric Spring 2 Comments:
Frederic Rzewski - Piano

ACCOMPANIMENTS, for pianist who is also required to sing or chant and play percussion with his feet (drum with pedal and high hat), was written for Frederic Rzewski in the late summer of 1972. This piece marks a break from what preceded, due partly to a growing impatience with what seemed to me the overly introverted feeling in much of my earlier music, with a sense of contradiction between the situation of its players - social, cooperative as well as calling on great individual alertness - and the way the resulting music seemed to affect its audienceas something remote, abstract and "pure." At the same time my interest in social and political questions had intensified and taken a more specific direction, and so I decided to attempt to make a more explicit connection between it and my music. ACCOMPANIMENTS began that attempt, including a political text and using musical material of a more direct character. The text is from Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle's book China: The Revolution Continued. It is part of an account of a veterinarian and a midwife, in their own words, of their experiences in a village in the area of Yenan during and after the Cultural Revolution. It was chosen both for its concreteness and for its illustration of the principle of applying a revolutionary political orientation to immediate and practical problems, indicating that these can only be understood and dealt with within such a political framework. The music is in four parts. In the first, one chord or single note drawn out of a chord accompanies each syllable of the text. The text is sung freely (no pitches are specified), and the rhythm is free but tends to be shaped by the movement of the words of the text. The text is musically formalized by allowing optional repetitions of segments of it. The chords come in sequences of sixteen which make a kind of harmonic progression (though a full sequence may not often occur). In the second and third parts, single llne keyboard figures are intended to have a propulsive feeling and accompany freelycombined percussion phrases (the drum and cymbals were practical in combination with kevboard and here partly suggested by their appearance in China during mass assemblies and marches). The addition of singing and percussion playing to the pianist's tasks is to extend one player's sound resources and to combine his professional competence with non-professional capacities - which we all have - in using one's voice and making percussive sounds. The fourth part of the piece requires only the use of the piano, and comes as something of a release. CHRISTIAN WOLFF (b. 1934, Nice, France) has lived in the United States since 1941. He started composing in 1949 and a couple of years later met John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor and Earle Brown and through association with them found the initial direction of his musical activity. He has also been helped immeasurably, at various times, by work with (among others) David Behrman, Frederic Rzewski, Kurt Schwertsik, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier, John Tilbury, Garrett List, Jon Gibson, Cornelius Cardew; the groups AMM and Musica Elettronica Viva; and Merce Cunningham and his dance company. Wolff acquired a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard in 1963 and taught there, in the Classics department, between 1962-1970. Since 1971 he has been teaching at Dartmouth College in the departments of Classics, Comparative Literature and Music. He was composer-lecturer at the Internationale Ferienkurse, Darmstadt, in 1972 and 1974, and Composer-in-residence in Berlin under the visiting artists program of the DAAD, 1974. In 1975 he won the Music Award from the National Institute/American Academy of Arts and Letters that made this recording possible. Among his recent compositions are: CHANGING THE SYSTEM (chamber music with text 1972-3), EXERCISES (any number of instruments, 1973-4), STRING QUARTET EXERCISES OUT OF SONGS (1974-6), WOBBLY MUSIC (chorus with instruments, 1975-6). FREDERIC RZEWSKI is a pianist and composer known both in the U.S. and abroad for his work in widely varying areas of experimental music. As a pianist, he has performed and recorded works by Carter, Cage, Braxton, Stockhausen, Boulez and others. He is a co-founder of MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva), a member of the Musicians Action Collective in New York City, and is affiliated with the Creative Music Foundation of Woodstock, N.Y. This recording of LINES was made while the composer was in residence at Mills College under a grant which also supported a recording project. NATHAN RUBIN, member of the music faculty and distinguished for his performances of contemporary music, organized and coordinated the performance; the other players are known in the Bay area for their work with new music. Text from CHINA: THE REVOLUTION CONTINUEDMy mother is very old now. I asked for leave of absence to go and see her. In such cases we're always granted leave. Obviously. There are some who call looking after sick animals dirty work. But Chairman Mao has taught us not to be afraid of filth and excrement. And that's right. Chairman Mao has pointed out how necessary it is to develop stockbreeding. And that's why we are getting ourselves more and more animals, and why I'm studying all the time. We've been successful in our work. Now the new-born babies don't die any more. Formerly sixty per cent of all new-born infants died. The old way of giving birth to children was unhygienic. Dangerous, both for mother and child. To begin with it was necessary to spread a great deal of information. But now there are no more problems over childbirth. Now the women understand why hygiene is important. Today I deliver all the women in the village. Formerly many women were always pregnant. Most now understand that this is bad. But we must go on spreading information. There used to be some men who spoke against contraceptives. It was easier to convince the women. But now even none of the men are against them. Now everyone says they agree. But some families are thoughtless. And of course there are accidents too. Other things are more problematic. There are so many bad old customs which must be combatted. There are those who aren't careful enough about their food. Not everyone looks after their latrines properly. Dry earth must be used for covering them. There must be no flies. We have got quite a long way with our hygienic work, but not the whole way. That is why unremitting propaganda is needed against the bad old habits. Not to look after latrines properly, that's one such bad habit. Hygiene is a political question. The old bad habits are deep-rooted, but we're fighting them all the time, and things are getting better every year that goes by. This work we do during study meetings. To study and apply Mao Tse-Tung Thought is a good method.Text from CHINA: THE REVOLUTION CONTINUED, by Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle, translated by Paul Britten Austin. @ 1970 by Random House. Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

1960s and 70s art at its most obnoxious.