Born on March 8, 1934, in Nice, France; son of book publishers. Education: Bachelor's degree, 1955, master's degree, 1957, Ph.D., 1963, all from Harvard University; studied piano with Grete Sultan and composition with John Cage. Addresses: Office--Department of Classics, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755. Record company--Mode Records, P.O. Box 1026, New York, NY 10116.

French-born American composer Christian Wolff helped establish a movement in contemporary classical music collectively known as the New York School. Comprised of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and pianist David Tudor in addition to Wolff, the group lived on the edge of the classical world. And like many pioneering artists throughout history, the New York School composers were often scorned by their peers and critics, only receiving appreciation for their work decades later. Wolff's explorations into indeterminacy in the late-1950s and early-1960s, for example, served as an apparent inspiration for John Zorn and other avant-garde musicians in the years that followed. He also gained prominence in the later 1990s through an expanding discography, as well as major commissions, most notably John, David, Wolff's first large-scale orchestral piece.

Wolff studied briefly with Cage during a six-week period and derived inspiration from his New York peers at the onset of his composing career, but he quickly uncovered his own identity and considers himself largely a self-taught composer. He created intricate systems for his compositions; rather than employing standard notation, Wolff instead provided musicians with symbols, guiding them through each piece and allowing players to interpret for themselves. In fact, personal interpretation and the freedom of flexibility, for the listener as well as the performer, has always remained of particular interest to Wolff. He refuses to undermine the performer's creativity by loading his pieces with too many directions--such as changes in tempo, dynamics, or articulations--and avoids emotional manipulation or rhetoric.

In a career spanning 50 years and counting, Wolff, while holding to his original ideas about composing, has undergone many transformations. Beginning with minimalism, he moved on to explore indeterminacy, open form, and works connected to popular music and political issues. His compositions--performed throughout the world, especially in Europe and the United States--include works for piano and keyboards, instrumental solos, chamber and other unspecified groups, choruses, and orchestras that appeal to a varied audience. Merce Cunningham and his dance company as well as dancer Lucinda Childs implemented several of Wolff's pieces, while the influential post-punk band Sonic Youth tapped Wolff to perform two of his compositions on their 1999 album Goodbye 20th Century. Earlier that same year, Wolff appeared at San Francisco's Other Minds Festival alongside luminaries from both inside and outside the New York scene. Such participants included Gordon Mumma, Bob Ostertag, and percussionist William Winant.

Although Wolff witnessed a renewed critical and public interest in his musical work later in life, he spent much of his energy on academic pursuits. Almost as soon as he established himself as a member of the New York movement, he left the city in 1951 after graduating from high school in order to study classics and comparative literature at Harvard University; he earned bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees from the school. He then taught classics at Harvard for a number of years and, since 1971, taught classics, comparative literature, and music at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Thoughts on Teaching

As an instructor teaching a new generation about music and composition, Wolff allows his students the freedom to express themselves in any way they see fit. He recalls that in his own experiences as a student, Cage had done the same for him. "What he did for me was to make a space--'you don't have to write like X or like Y, you don't have to derive your work from this tradition or that tradition, just do what you think you have to do,'" Wolff said to Jason Gross in an interview for Perfect Sound Forever. "He did that at a time when most people thought I was crazy and that I wasn't doing music. So I try to instill that kind of attitude in my students. I basically try to get the students to find what they need to do."

Wolff was born on March 8, 1934, in Nice, France. His father, Kurt Wolff, was a well-known publisher in Germany whose authors included Franz Kafka. With the rise of the Nazis, however, he moved the family to New York City in 1941. Wolff has lived mainly in the United States since and became an American citizen in 1946. Continuing to work in the publishing business, Wolff's parents, in the 1950s, ran Pantheon Books and also operated an outfit called the Bollingen series dedicated to producing the works of Jungian writers, and Wolff grew up in an artistic environment centered around the Washington Square area of New York. Some of the Wolffs's neighbors and friends included writer and editor Joseph Campbell, dancer and choreographer Jean Erdman, and poet e.e. cummings.

Wolff's parents also enjoyed connections with musicians--most of whom were the traditional type. Thus, when Wolff took up the piano as a child, he concentrated on classical music. However, Wolff's interests began to broaden when he reached adolescence. Aside from music, he discovered a talent for drawing and poetry writing. "I got very interested in contemporary poetry and the whole notion of modernism, in a very simple, unreflective way--realizing that there was a way to do things other than the way the traditionalist does them," recalled the composer in an interview with David Patterson for Perspectives of New Music.

Subsequently, Wolff, around the age of 14 or 15, decided to try composing music. At first, he tried to imitate traditional composers like Bach, but gave up, realizing such a feat both impossible and unnecessary. So, after a period of rest, Wolff attempted composition again. This time, he concluded to try something new. He drew inspiration from studying back issues provided by a friend of the publication New Music, which introduced him to the work of John Cage, William Russell, and others. Like them, Wolff desired to develop music that truly reflected its own identity. "I had this programmatic notion of making it 'different,'" he explained to Patterson. "Whatever I was going to do, it wasn't going to be like anything that anybody else was doing as far as I could make out."

As time passed, Wolff grew more interested in composing than practicing piano and regularly brought self-written pieces to his lessons with Grete Sultan, a traditional pianist who later became a noted performer of Cage's music. Though she probably knew little about Cage's music at the time, Sultan thought Cage might be interested in Wolff's work and arranged for the two to meet. And after becoming acquainted, Cage, who Wolff calls his first and only teacher in composition, agreed to take the 16-year-old on as a student--free of charge--at a time when he accepted few. Because Wolff knew little about the technical aspects of composing, he felt open to a myriad of possibilities when he initiated his studies with the composer in the spring of 1950. As a result of Cage's influence, Wolff's first compositions from the early 1950s, including Serenade for flute, clarinet, and violin and For Piano I, piano, were thoroughly written out and implemented few pitches and periods of silence.


Then, during the mid- to late-1950s, Wolff developed an interest in the role of chance in music, an occurrence he prefers to call "indeterminacy." Cage, too, became intrigued with the music of chance around the same time, but Wolff's use of it was distinctly individual. "From a practical point of view, Cage was initially interested in using chance as a compositional device," explained Wolff to the Wire's Andy Hamilton. "Once he had used it, he had made a composition which was then performed the way it was written; it was fixed. I have very occasionally used chance in this way. But what I became interested in introducing wasn't even chance so much any more, but the element of what we called indeterminacy--not at the point of composition but at the point of performance. So my scores might be made without using any chance procedures at all, but they were made in such a way that when performers used them, unpredictable events would take place." In other words, Wolff describes the results of his approach, as opposed to Cages, as "working actively with contingencies."

Minimalism and the Avant-Garde

During the 1960s and early 1970s, aspects of minimalism again affected Wolff's work. Important sets from this period include the Tilbury pieces composed in 1969-70, dedicated to British pianist John Tilbury, and Exercises 1-14 from 1973-74. In the 1970s, Wolff also began writing more politically and idealistically engaged music. Examples of his political works include Changing the System and Accompaniments, the latter written in 1972 for piano and voice with a text relating to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Although he soon abandoned composing within an explicit political context, Wolff continued to draw material from political folk and popular music for a number of years. String Quartet Exercises Out of Songs (1974-76), as well as Exercise 21 (1981), illustrate the composer's connection to less politicized issues. Another example of Wolff's move away from music with a direct social message includes For Morty. Completed in 1987, it was composed for vibraphone, glockenspiel, and piano in memory of close friend and colleague Morton Feldman, who died in September of 1987. The personal tribute further utilized instruments--and the sense of fragility--particular to Feldman's work. Wolff also wrote a piece for mentor John Cage's seventy-sixth birthday, entitled Digger Song, in 1988.

Wolff also made forays outside the world of strict composition. In 1967-68 while staying in London, Wolff joined the avant-garde group AMM--featuring Cornelius Cardew on cello--on electric bass and other miscellaneous instruments. At the time, he had no prior experience with jazz or free improvisation. "That was my first experience of it," Wolff told Hamilton. "It was sort of quietly exhilarating, learning and experiencing making music without the mediation of scores, explanations, rehearsals, etc. Especially with musicians who've centrally always done that--Keith Rowe, Eddie Prevost, Lou Gare. You're simultaneously entirely on your own and entirely part of a collective activity." Inspired by his participation in AMM, Wolff composed Edges and Burdocks (1970-71); both pieces contained improvisational components and are featured on Sonic Youth's Goodbye 20th Century.

by Laura Hightower

Christian Wolff's Career

Held various academic positions including instructor of classics, Harvard University, 1962-65; assistant professor, Harvard University, 1965-71; associate professor of classics, comparative literature, and music, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1971-78; professor of classics and music, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1978-80; Strauss professor of music and classics, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1980-. Other career-related appointments include visiting composer, Deutsche Akademischer Austauscdient, Berlin, 1974; member of the Akademie der Kuenste, Berlin, 1999.

Christian Wolff's Awards

Loeb bequest grantee, Harvard University, 1967-68; fellow, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, D.C., 1970-71; Music Award from the American Academy and National Institute for Arts and Letters, 1974; Asian Cultural Council Grant, 1987; John Cage Award for Music, 1996.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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