Christian Wolff

Christian Wolff emerged in the 1950s on the New York experimental music scene and became a prominent champion of the aesthetics of musical indeterminism. His works, which became increasingly explicit in their political content as his career progressed, stress choice, artistic co-operation and interdependence, and an accommodating attitude toward the potential relationships between music, sound and silence. Wolff studied classics and comparative literature at Harvard University. Though active as a pianist and electric guitarist throughout his career, he was largely self-taught as a composer, and from the beginning his works relied more on careful aesthetic design than compositional “craft” in the traditional sense. Although his works of the 1950s already conveyed a decidedly “democratic” subtext, with their reliance on freedom and reaction (“parliamentary participation”), they did so through traditional notation and sometimes invoked, however obscurely, traditional forms. The flexibility of their realisations owed to Cage’s influence, while their sparse surfaces recalled Webern, and in some cases resonated with La Monte Young’s early works. His compositions from the late 1950s and 1960s placed increased effort on real-time cooperation between performers, who worked somewhat freely, within certain set parameters (set durations with unspecified pitches, for example), but were required to alter their performative decisions consequent to each other’s actions. Later works turned inwards to more specifically musical topics, perhaps due in part to Wolff’s somewhat self-effacing assessment of the composer’s role. As he observed in a 1991 interview: “Most political music, paradoxically enough, is for the converted; it’s an instrument of cohesion for a group that already knows what it wants.” – Jeremy Grimshaw, Allmusic