Four Versions of Christian Wolff’s ‘Burdocks’ June 7, 1976

Indeterminate music, which Cage, Brown, Feldman, and Wolff began writing in the ’50s, still poses some interesting questions. If the outcome is uncertain, how do we know whether we are hearing a particular piece? How different can a piece sound and still be that piece? Consider Christian Wolff’s ‘Burdocks,’ written a few years ago for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I have heard quite a few versions of ‘Burdocks’ by now, both with and without the choreography, and at an ensemble concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on May 15, I heard four more. These performances have all varied drastically in length, instrumentation, and general mood, because the score leaves things of this sort up to the performers. The piece is no casual matter though. In fact, one could spend a good hour just reading and absorbing Wolff’s basic instructions. There are limits to the performer’s freedom, and as I have become more familiar with the 10 parts of the score, it has become clearer and clearer just what those limits are. Sometimes they are exceeded.

For example, one of the BAM performances that purported to be an interpretation of ‘Burdocks’ actually wasn’t at all. During the opening bars I could tell that the two members of the Roger Lax Ensemble were following a procedure suggested in part II, but from there on, I could discern nothing that had any direct relationship to the score. I’m not saying that the performers didn’t think they were playing ‘Burdocks.’ They may even have been trying to play ‘Burdocks.’ But they were not using Wolff’s specific materials, were not following the rules, and were going way beyond the limits of the piece.

An ensemble from Livingston College gave the piece a light touch. They chose to deal with Part VI, which simply provides a few accompanimental rhythms and a melodic line. The melody is 22 beats long, can be read in either treble or bass clefs or both, and can be played continuously or with interruptions. Wolff has never worked in a jazz idiom, and I suspect that when he wrote Part VI it never occurred to him that, when played continuously in the treble clef at a fairly brisk pace, his melody can be made to sound like a repetitious kind of low-key jazz. But that is exactly what occurred to the musicians in this ensemble, many of whom seemed jazz-oriented. At the same time, however, they never actually changed the tune or broke the rules, and I had the feeling that Wolff would have been pleased to hear musicians relating his score to their own sensitivities in this way.

A wind quintet from the New England Conservatory had a much different approach. These musicians were technically quite proficient, and they could handle the intricacies of Ligeti or Carter almost as smoothly as professional groups that have been together for years. But in the meantime, they have also developed a very fast sense of pacing. Whereas the Livingston group elongated that one melody of Part VI into a relaxed, gradually evolving performance of 10 minutes or longer, the Boston wind players went through that material plus three or four other parts in less than 10 minutes. Again, I don’t think this is what Wolff had in mind when he wrote the piece. The 10 parts, after all, were intended for performance with a full evening dance work. But again, I suspect that he would have been pleased. The musicians followed the instructions scrupulously, but they also followed their own musical instincts. In other words, they used freedom responsibly, and that, to a great extent, is what ‘Burdocks’ is really about.

A group from York University in Toronto presented yet another approach. There were some 20 players, which was larger than any ‘Burdocks’ ensemble I had ever heard before, but the approach was quite similar to performances I have heard organized by Wolff himself. There was much emphasis on coloristic variety, and a number of toy instruments and sound effects were deployed in that direction. It is within the rules to overlap parts, and even to play two or three parts at a time. The Toronto group was apparently doing this, as the texture was often quite dense, and I sometimes had difficulty determining just what part was being played by whom. Still, the music was clearly ‘Burdocks.’ Meanwhile, this provocative, challenging score continues to be played fairly often, and I suspect that this is only the beginning of a long history of ‘Burdocks’ interpretations and misinterpretations. Eventually, perhaps listeners will begin to realize that Wolff is not responsible for both.