Amateur Music: Christian Wolff and Others July 19, 1976

Most contemporary music is addressed strictly to professional performers. Neither the serialists nor the composers of indeterminate music showed any real interest in amateurs, and it has been a long time since Bartok, Hindemith, and Orff did. But lately I’ve been noticing more activity in this direction. One new work I heard at the Kitchen this past season made the point particularly well.

Christian Wolff’s music has gradually become less and less dependent on professional polish, and in his recent ‘Wobbly Music,’ I sensed that he had finally gotten to the core of something that is important to him, and perhaps to everyone. ‘Wobbly Music,’ was written specifically for a student chorus at Wesleyan University, and it is truly music for amateurs. In fact, there is no way that a professional chorus could ever deliver the work as convincingly as dedicated amateurs could. And yet it is a fine piece of music, with a strong message and a sophisticated construction.

‘Wobblies’ was, of course, a nickname for the revolutionary International Workers of the World, who flourished here and in Europe early in this century, and much of Wolff’s piece is based on their songs and texts. The music speaks for the common man, and it seems to demand a certain lack of polish in some of its folk-song-like solo verses. Similarly, in a section where solidarity is symbolized by a gradual transition from hodgepodge antiphony to strong unison, these undergraduates, with their Levis and their sometimes strained voices, were able to drive the point home much better than professionals could.

Many other examples of good amateur music have been springing up, too, particularly in experimental quarters. This spring I reviewed a concert by Skip La Plante and Carole Weber which enabled everyone to make some attractive music with homemade percussion instruments. Another week I dealt with a student gamelan ensemble from Livingston College, which has been exploring sophisticated types of new music through this amateur, communal, Indonesian medium. Another week I wrote about the meditation music of Pauline Oliveros, Philip Corner, and others, almost all of which is addressed to nonprofessionals. Another week I wrote about Kirk Nurock’s ‘Audience Oratorio,’ which anyone can participate in. Some time ago I discussed ‘Nature Study Notes,’ a large collection of British and American avant-garde scores, most of which do not require specific instrumental technique. This fall Schirmer Books is issuing a large anthology, compiled by Roger Johnson, which will also include a great many pieces that can be played by nonprofessionals. The Aesthetic Research Center of Canada has published several volumes that reach out to amateur musicians. And with a little research, this paragraph could no doubt be expanded into a hefty bibliography.

The point is that amateurs have a lot more up-to-date material to draw on now than they have for a long time, and much of it is as sophisticated and listenable as scores written specifically for professionals.