Christian Wolff: Exercises and Songs June 6, 1974

Anything that deals with freedom vs. control is going to have political innuendos, and some people see the performance freedom in Christian Wolff’s music as a symbol of socialism, communism, or even anarchy. Wolff is obviously aware of these connotations, and he occasionally uses left-wing texts when he writes for voices. Yet he seems to be a rather mild person, certainly not a political activist type, and I am convinced that his prime concerns are on a smaller interpersonal scale. His music does have a message, at least as far as I am concerned, but it is basically a humanistic message and not really a political one.

I don’t think any of Wolff’s scores bring out this humanism quite so well as his latest ‘Exercises and Songs,’ which were presented at the Kitchen on May 26. Throughout the 90-minute program, which was split up into eight separate ‘Exercises’ and three separate ‘Songs,’ the six musicians hardly looked at each other. Each was intent on performing his own version of the score. And yet the parts all fitted together in a most satisfying way. Though full of individual variation, there was a clear sense of cooperation and balance in this little six-man musical community.

The ‘Exercises,’ like most of Wolff’s scores, must be done without conductor, and may be played by any combination of instruments. The scores are basically just melodies, usually divided into phrases of about three to 10 notes. All the musicians follow the same score, but since the melodies may be read in either treble or bass clef, the music usually comes out in parallel sixths. Generally the musicians begin the phrases more or less together, but they proceed in their own ways.

It was a gentle, amicable sort of evening, and the atmosphere was strictly low key. No one ever got soupy with his melodic lines. No one tried to show off. No one ever got excited. The tempo never changed much. The music never sounded completely atonal, but it was never really tonal for very long either. The little phrases just kept coming, and the ends of pieces always sounded about the same as the beginnings, and the music never really went anywhere. Yet there was always something interesting going on.

Sometimes cellist Arthur Russell and trombonist Garrett List would be playing exactly together for a while, and then one of them would verge off into something else. Sometimes someone would change octaves. Sometimes Jon Gibson would shift from soprano saxophone to flute. Sometimes David Behrman would put down his viola, and Wolff would abandon his dimestore organ, and they would both start tapping out the melodies on some cheap percussion instruments.

But most of the time the melodies would just go on, in moderately slow notes, with everybody haphazardly together. And somehow we all knew that it was supposed to be kind of sloppy like that. And no one seemed to mind at all, just because it all seemed so friendly and pleasant, and because it was such a pleasant departure from the spit-and-polish precision one usually hears from professional musicians.

In the ‘Songs’ the procedure is roughly the same, except that everyone sings the melodies instead of playing them. As with most instrumental groups, these musicians were not particularly good singers. And since they were not together rhythmically either, it all sounded like a songfest one might hear in a bar or around a campfire. But that is the point, I think. Wolff is making a kind of music which does not depend on slick performance, intense rehearsal, and brilliant performers. It is music which can allow performers to be themselves, and can make a satisfying sophisticated statement at the same time. Wolff told me after the concert that he has even considered carrying this attitude so far as to allow audience participation in the singing, but that he has not been able to find a way of doing that yet without oversimplifying the melodies more than he wants.

Considering the informal quality of the performance, one would think that the sociological and humanistic aspects of the music would have been easily perceived, particularly when they got to the song lyrics about the problems of oppressed Welsh miners. Yet I sensed that these extra-musical considerations were not coming across to many of the less experienced listeners in the audience, at least not on a conscious level.

In a way, that is not too surprising. It has been customary for a long time to think of music as an abstract art, and I am not sure that it even occurs to people to ask how instrumentalists are relating to each other and what kinds of choices they are making. And even when listeners perceive the general attitude, it is not possible for them to follow specifics unless they know something about how the notation works and the kinds of rules that the musicians are following. Wolff himself admits that this extramusical level often seems to pass people by, even when they hear excellent performances.

This is not really esoteric music at all, but it appears that some form of audience educating might be useful. I suppose that is what critics are for. Or maybe program notes would solve the problem. Or perhaps, as with many new artistic ideas, the music will just have to wait for a decade or two before the general public will be ready to perceive what it means.