Monday, April 14, 2014

Christian Wolff at 80

by Amy C. Beal
Christian Wolff at recording sessions
for his Exercises, September 2005,
near Poggiolo farm, Pozzuolo, Umbria, Italy.
Photograph by Larry Polansky.

I most recently saw Christian Wolff this last February, just three weeks before his eightieth birthday, which arrived on March 8th. Apparently neither impressed nor intimidated by the looming milestone, he spent much of the weekend shoveling massive amounts of snow at his houses in Hanover, New Hampshire and Royalton, Vermont. (No resting on his laurels for this hearty New Englander!) These days, moving regularly between those two properties, Christian divides his time between helping out on the family sheep farm, sorting through and cataloguing his extensive and historically significant personal archives, traveling the world in high demand as a performer, speaker, and celebrated guest, and somehow finding a few quiet hours each day to compose new work. He clearly inherited John Cage’s uncompromising work ethic. He also likes to watch the Yankees on TV.

Christian Wolff with Trio (Larry Polansky and Kui Dong).
Photograph by Douglas Repetto.
The first time I contacted Christian, in June of 1997, he was busy making hay—it just happened to be that time of the year. I was in the early stages of my dissertation research, and I wanted to interview him over the phone about his experiences in postwar Europe. Due to the hay, and, I suppose, a stretch of good weather in Vermont, the phone call was difficult to schedule. But eventually we talked, and he was patiently tolerant of my glaring ignorance about the things I intended to write about. Nonetheless, he was generous with his time, and genuinely helpful. He was only the second composer I had mustered up the courage to contact directly (the first was Earle Brown). Somewhere, many years of research later, I came to the conclusion that “American experimentalists” are generally people who answer their own phone. Christian confirmed this back in 1997 when he answered my call; many others have confirmed it since. But recently, the notion of “answering one’s own phone” has taken on a greater metaphoric meaning. It seems to represent a kind of openness—not just Cage’s “from zero” attitude (the Zen “Beginner’s Mind”), but a kind of curiosity and welcoming worldview that led to Christian’s beautiful notion of “abundance.”

Since that first phone call, our paths have crossed in various places, and I’ve mustered up (more) courage to write about him on occasion, about his activities in Europe, about his volatile Darmstadt seminars during the early 1970s, and about his connection to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to read his collected writings (forthcoming, Oxford University Press), and I felt lucky to be able to call this person a friend, someone who has spent a lifetime (so far!) filling the world with thoughtful writing—both music and prose. Christian is rooted, burdock-like, in a rarified world rich with ideas—and the consequential actions those ideas suggest. He is beloved by many around the world who probably, in some part of their minds, still think of him as a promising youngster: The New York School’s little brother. Maybe he still feels that way himself. I haven’t ever asked him. But here he is at 80, traipsing around the globe with a backpack on his shoulder, a good mystery novel in one hand, and a melodica case in the other. He doesn’t seem a bit tired.
Christian Music IV (2007)
From a series of graphic rounds, by Wolff’s longtime colleague
and close friend, composer Larry Polansky, and designer Laura Grey. 

Amy C. Beal is professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is  director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble. Her research explores the history of American experimental music.She is author of New Music, New Allies—American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification (University of California Press, 2006); Carla Bley (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series; 2011); and Johanna Beyer (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series, forthcoming).

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