Postscript to The Curse of Taste: Christian Wolff

Monday 16 May 2016

There was another typically eclectic Kammer Klang night a couple of weeks back (the music of Christian Wolff, Vinko Globokar and… Chicks on Speed?). A new piece by Wolff received its premiere, Wade In The Water for violin and piano.

There’s a common criticism frequently made about Wolff’s later compositions. Simon Cummings neatly summarises this problem, that Wolff’s music is “sufficiently disjointed and internally inconsistent that it simply sounded incompetent.” As someone who enjoyed the performance of Robert last year, I’ve begun to think that Wolff has actually made a sort of aesthetic breakthrough. There is no deep harmonic interest in his music, no contrapuntal interest other than by accident, no sense of teleology, structure or process, rhythm and melody that’s arbitrary and nondescript.

All this negation of musical attributes has been done before and has resulted in types of music that were, at first, new. Drones and types of minimal music come immediately to mind. Pieces like Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IX, discussed before, also fit this description. Wolff has done something different, retaining just enough of conventional musical expectations to disguise the fact that his music is working on a different level.

It comes back to Wolff’s associates, Cage and Feldman. The idea of “letting sounds be themselves”, outside of serving a functional hierarchy. The focus on sound over pitch. Cage used chance to break up conventional musical logic. Feldman used indeterminacy. Both are alienating devices, both for musician and audience. Late Feldman used repeating motifs and patterns as a vehicle for conveying instrumental timbre and pitch as an end in itself. Wolff’s late music works toward the same end by alienation through banality, removing any interest in the listener for his “material”. He is the anti-Feldman.

By the same comparison, I’m finding that Wolff’s pieces are all different in the way that they are all the same. Wade In The Water‘s directionless meandering took on its own mood, with sudden but passing gestures of impatience or urgency that soon dissipated, stronger hints of playfulness and austerity from one moment to the next. A lot of this was due to the playing of Aisha Orazbayeva on violin and Joseph Houston on piano. They preceded the premiere with a realisation of a Wolff score from his earlier, more respectable careeer, the indeterminate For 1, 2 or 3 People. Their performance was exemplary in its subtlety, constrained richness and coherence. It went a long way to informing and illuminating Wade In The Water.