Three Interesting Scores by Christian Wolff
“Notation is before the fact; incentives and suggestions for action; is, by definition, incomplete, full of omissions; but, I think, should be as practical as possible. I have wanted to be practical about making it possible for musical action, performance, to be direct, each time as though for the first time; and direct too in the sense of moving outward, so that the play is not so much an expression of the player (or composer) as a way of connecting, making a community (the music itself sometimes involving internally those fluid and precise, and transparent, line or projections of connection).”
– Christian Wolff1

 

In 2007 with the Seattle Improv Meeting, a group focused on structured improv, I explored three scores by Christian Wolff. Christian Wolff was the youngest member of the New York School (and the only currently surviving member) and began his compositional career with very simple, spare scores sometimes using only a handful of notes. A key member of the New York school he followed and led the School in various techniques and solutions. He always was pushing the limits of notation, mutating the meanings of common terms and working to incorporate aspects of improvisation and indeterminacy. In the 60’s after meeting more politically active composers such as Cardew and Rzewlski he began to incorporate political awareness into his work.

“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.”
– Christian Wolff4

 

As that quote points towards part of this political awareness was the breaking down of the barriers between performers and audience and composer and interpretor. This concern was addressed in his semi-graphic score EdgesIII, with it’s lack of instrumentation, reduced musical notation and textual instructions. But for his Prose CollectionV,  this was the primary concern; to compose works that could be played by anyone regardless of any sort of training:

Stones and Sticks, along with the other pieces in the Prose Collection were written for use by non-professional players as well as non-musicians, people, people with an interest in music, especially experimental music, strong enough to make them want to try playing some.” – Christian Wolff5

It is these types of pieces that we have particularly been interested in playing in the Seattle Improv Meeting. Like Cornelius Cardew‘s Scratch Orchestra, this group was assembled from trained and untrained musicians all that, as Wolff put it, have “an interesting in music, especially experimental music, strong enough to make them want to try playing some”.  Works that border on improvisation, where the composer has provided some structure has been the particular focus. Working with the scores of Christian Wolff this year has been especially rewarding, leading to some of the greatest challenges in interpretation as well as some of the most satisfying results.

For the rest of this post I examine the three scores that we have tackled and some of the reactions, obstacles and revelations that came from playing them. For each score I have linked to the recordings of our attempts at them, but of course with this kind of music there is near infinite variety in the realizations. In that end I also reference the other recordings I know of for each score without comment. No realization should be considered definitive. All of these scores are readily available, see the references section at the end of this post for information on attaining a copy. The Prose Scores are available for download and by merely gathering sticks or stones you can make your own realization. Post links to these in the comments!

Stones (1968-1971)

Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours); for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not anything.
– Christian Wolff2

 

Stones was my first encounter with Christian Wolff’s Prose Scores which I heard on the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble recording of the piece. The liner notes for the recording included the entire score (reproduced above) which on seeing I immediately desired to tackled it with the Improv Meeting. On several visits to Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands (where I spent my childhood) I gathered a nice collections of sea stones. However we wouldn’t play it for nearly nine months as I was hoping to perform it when all four members of the group were present. Eventually my increasing fascination with Wolff’s music and scores got the better of me and in 2007 gave in and performed it with the reduced group. Later on in an outdoor session we did finally play this piece with the entire group, though we segued from it into a more free improvisation.

There are several things one should note immediately with regards to this score; first off the instructions are pretty opened ended and allows for a lot of activities. But it does instruct that the playing should befor the most part discreet and that it should be made of stones on stones. With those two restrictions you are open to do what you want. When performing the score you quickly find that there are a lot of sounds you can eke out of stones from rubbing them together, rattling small ones in your hands, tapping multiple ones together and so on. When you then add the occasional outside object or technique you are rewarded with a sound perhaps outside of the range that you have been hearing. Of course those for the most parts are important – if you spent the entire time using the stones to play your guitar you’d be violating the score. Likewise if you tossed them in a rock tumbler and let it run for an hour. The sounds are mostly supposed to be that of stone on stone separated enough in time to allow them to be heard. At the same time I think if you don’t stray from the two basic rules at least a little bit then you also aren’t in the spirit of the score. But it is more forgivable in that direction.

Recordings of Stones:

Download the Seattle Improv Meeting recording: Stones

Download the Seattle Improv Meeting outdoors version:  Stones/Improv

Also available on the following recordings:
Stones(Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble)released by Timescraper
YouTube videos:
Anton Lukoszevieze at Zeitkratzer ” Unprotected Music”, April 2007: Stones I, Stones II

Sticks (1968-1971)

Make sounds with sticks of various kinds, one stick alone, several together, on other instruments, sustained as well as short. Don€™t mutilate trees or shrubbery; don€™t break anything other than the sticks; avoid outright fires unless they serve a practical purpose.

You can begin when you have not heard a sound from a stick for a while; two or three can begin together. You may end when your sticks or one of them are broken small enough that a handful of the pieces in your hands cupped over each other are not, if shaken and unamplified, audible beyond your immediate vicinity. Or hum continuously on a low note; having started proceed with other sounds simultaneously (but not necessarily continuously); when you can hum no longer, continue with other sounds, then stop. With several players either only one should do this or two or two pairs together (on different notes) and any number individually.

You can also do without sticks but play the sounds and feelings you imagine a performance with sticks would have.
-Christian Wolff3

After our successful take on Stones I was compelled to tackle Sticks. Sticks had a bit more complicated score (reproduced above) then stone, though at it’s core it isn’t too different. Wolff does include a lot more detailed instructions for how the score should conclude which includes the option beyond sticks of humming. Most interestingly is the addendum  You can also do without sticks but play the sounds and feelings you imagine a performance with sticks would have. With this instruction you could take an orchestra, or rock band and perform this score. Also worth noting is that the restriction placed on the stones of performing certain actions, most of the time, is removed. In this score you apparently can play rapid sequences or on other instruments for a greater amount of time. Though he does state sustained as well as short, which seems to imply not doing one thing the entire time. A good rule to follow in general I think. During my preliminary research for performing this score I found no other recordings of the piece. While informed by our performance of Stones, as well as the one recording I had of that, we were somewhat on our own here.

I gathered up a selection of sticks from my backyard, the local park and my place of work on the day of this performance. I also gathered a lot of pine cones figuring they were stick-like enough or at least would fall under the other instruments clause. Like the stones the variety of sounds that you can produce by the sticks is incredibly varied. Stick like of course but what with breaking them, rubbing them together, whip in the air, beating them together, running them against  a series of other sticks, twisting them against each other and so on there was a lot of different sounds available. Some of my sticks was dried bamboo and that provided the option to blow into the hollows space, to crush them, rattle other sticks inside and on and on. Of course there was the option of the other instruments and in my friends practice room there were percussion, strings and other instruments to apply this to. With the directions on how to end the piece I think that this one took more to wind down. There was some humming from at least one of use, but basically it just got sparse and sparser. Overall this was as intuitive and as dynamic to perform as Stones and I think Wolff’s simple directions pushed this beyond mere screwing around with sticks. A good exercise I think would be to perform the two scores simultaneously.

Recordings  of Sticks


Download the Seattle Improv Meeting recording: Sticks

I am unaware of any other recordings of this piece.

Edges (1968)


Edges Score, Christian Wolff

The year before Wolff began work on the Prose Scores he created the graphic score, EdgesIV. Wolff wrote this score while in London and it was originally performed by the members of AMM plus Wolff and Rzewski6. It was performed by as Wolff puts it “drop-outs from conventional music careers” whom then went on to form the basis of the Scratch Orchestra6. Edges is a sparse score of various symbols place in space. The performance score can be seen above, but it also contains a legend for the symbols and a set of textual instructions.

“”The idea of the piece and its basic performing instructions are this: the notations on the score are not so much playing instructions as such as reference points, that is, you play around it, at varying distances from the state of being intricate, and you can, but only once in a performance, imply play “intricate”. The general notion I had was of the score’s something like a photographic negative the developed picture of which would be realized by the player; or, to use another analogy, the playing would be like movement, dancing say, in a space containing a number of variously shaped but transparent and invisible objects which the dancing generally avoids, but which as the dancing kept on would become evident, visible so to speak, because they are always being danced around.”
-Christian Wollf7

 

I consider Edges one of the most difficult scores that our group has tackled, difficult in wrapping ones head around it primarily. As that quote above implies, the score is like instructions on how to play something else, as if there was an existing sound and you are accenting it, or making it audible through your playing. Of course one can just methodically go through the score as if it was a list of sound events to play and I think that in our first attempt at it that is more or less the tact taken. Some good sounds and interactions come from it but it seemed lacking in its realization. The second attempt, informed by the first, was a step or two closer I feel. There was more of an awareness of the tools at hand to carve our the invisible objects and that helped. We weren’t so much feeling our way in the dark as more confidently wielding these tools in service of the unrealized music. Still I think that it will take a long time to be comfortable with the score and it is something that we should revisit more frequently. The simple elegance of this score underlies its massive potential and I think in performance that makes it seem impenetrable at first. This all I think stands as testament to how well constructed it is and the realization of Wolff’s goals. “The piece is not quite improvisation, but experience with improvisation is very useful in performing it.”7. A perfect piece for this group.

Recordings  of Edges:


Seattle Improv Meeting recordings of Edges:

Download:  Edges realization 1

Download: Edges realization 2

Also available on the following recordings:
Earle Brown, John Cage und Christian Wolff released by EMI Electrola
Bread & Roses (M. Goldstein, M. Kaul) released by Wergo
New York School 3 (Kleeb, Dahinden, Polisoidis) released by HatART
Goodbye 20th Century (Sonic Youth, W. Winant, J. O’Rourke, T. Kosugi, C. Marclay, C. Wolff) released by SYR
On YouTube: Edges (though a pretty dreadful interpretation)

Christian Wolff has become a favorite composer of mine in the last few years and I have greatly enjoyed performing these accessible and open ended works of his. I highly recommend seeking out the various recordings of his music and listening to these pieces as performed by others and perhaps even more so his through composed works. Additionally his book Cues (I), is an incredibly informative read and well worth reading by musicians and fans of this area of music alike. Wolff’s writing style is very clear and he is quite good at explaining complicated subject matter at multiple levels of detail. Additionally he lived though an incredibly interesting period of musical history and was a key player in it. He has an uncanny ability to talk about the events surrounding and including him at just the right level of detachment.


References

I
Cues:  Writings & Conversations, Christian Wolff, Edition MusikText 005, 1998 Koln
II:  Christian Wolff at Wikipedia
III:  Christian Wolff pages: bio, works, recordings
IV: Edges, C.F. Peters , Photoprint edition from Sheetmusic Plus.
V: Prose Collection, Republished in (I) free PDF available from Frog Peak Music

Citations
1: Christian Wolff,  Before the Fact (I)
2: Christian Wolff, Sticks, Prose Collection 1968-71 (V, I)
3: Christian Wolff, Stones, Prose Collection 1968-71 (V, I)
4: Christian Wolff Wikipedia (II)
5
: Christian Wolff, Revolutionary Noise, (I, p. 200)
6: Christian Wolff, Revolutionary Noise, (I, p. 207)
7: Christian Wolff, Revolutionary Noise, (I, p. 208)