Christian Wolff John Tilbury Howard Skempton Robert Worby
From L to R: Tilbury, Wolff, Worby, Skempton Photography by John Eyles
London, June 5th 2010
Over the weekend of June 4th, 5th and 6th, St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, London, hosted the festival Christian Wolff in London, with the composer himself present throughout. The event was hosted by CoMA (Contemporary Music-Making for Amateurs), a charity dedicated to getting amateur musicians involved in contemporary music, and one of the main strands of the weekend involved CoMA members from London and the Midlands plus other interested musicians and non-musicians forming the CoMA Allcomers Scratch Ensemble to work with Wolff on rehearsing and performing his 1970-71 composition Burdocks. The graphic scores of some of the composition's ten parts occasioned particular comment among participants.
On the opening evening, a concert of Wolff's music was given by the nine-strong ensemble Circle, led by conductor Gregory Rose. However, given St Leonard's location amid the bustle of the City of London, the sounds of traffic, sirens and city workers unwinding on a Friday evening were frequently more audible than the music itself.
Saturday featured two concerts plus other events involving Wolff. In the afternoon, John Tilbury gave a solo piano recital that included pieces by John White, Michael Parsons, Erika Fox, Christopher Hobbs, Alan Bush, Dave Smith and Hugh Shrapnel alongside two by Howard Skempton, including the premiere of a new work, Force to be Reckoned with. Most notably, Tilbury performed three works by Wolff: Tilbury 2 and 4 (written for him in 1969), 60 (+14) for JT (originally written for Tilbury's 60th birthday in 1996, updated by Tilbury now that he is 74) and 13 Piano Pieces.
The evening concert, billed as "Cabaret", was preceded by a session in which Christian Wolff, John Tilbury and Howard Skempton were in conversation with composer, writer and BBC broadcaster Robert Worby. The wide-ranging conversation threw light on many aspects of the weekend and on the musical careers of the participants..-JE
Robert Worby: I want to begin, gentlemen, with glue. In 1958 in an essay entitled "History of Experimental Music in the United States", published in his book Silence, John Cage writes about a remark of Henry Cowell's that was made before a concert of music given by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. Henry Cowell said, "Here were four composers who were getting rid of the glue." And in the essay Cage explains, "Where people had found the necessity to stick sounds together to make a continuity, we four felt the opposite necessity – to get rid of the glue so that sounds would be themselves." So, Christian, is Henry Cowell's comment accurate? Were you trying to get rid of the glue?
Christian Wolff: I don't think we worried that much about it. We were certainly not interested in the conventional kinds of continuity. This was a long time ago, so I tend to look at things from the way I see them now. But I think one of the things we weren't interested in was the notion of transitions, of making material whose only function was to get you from point A to point B. We were just interested in point A then point B then point C and so on, but not in this business of tying them up somehow with a ribbon.
Worby: Are they all point A's?
Wolff: You could say that, if you like. But they were different.
Worby: So you weren't interested in transitions; what were you interested in?
Wolff: Music. Music which had some life to it and where all of the sounds counted, were all valued, rather than being functional in the sense that they got you from one point to another.
Worby: John, how does this absence of glue that Cowell was referring to – Christian said they didn't really consider that, but there seems to be an absence of glue in this work – how does it affect an approach to performance if it is all section A's, if there are no transitions? How do you approach that kind of work?
John Tilbury: Well, it means that you have the opportunity to make spontaneous decisions about how you are going to play, how you are going to follow something that you have just played. This absence of transitions, as we are calling it, means precisely that. Clearly you have to move from one thing to another – that may mean a longer or shorter silence; in any case, you are actually stuck with that, but you are stuck with the idea of continuity anyway. "The glue" is one way of describing it in a derogatory way, but there are different kinds of continuities. I think that is what Christian found, certainly with my performances of the music, even relating to today's performance, there are all kinds of ways which I felt at any given moment, despite the information that was given to me, I still had an exhilarating feeling of freedom. I could go in various directions which would create quite a different music, irrespective of the fact that pitches are given, even – to a certain extent – rhythms. So that was a very important part of my psychology, if you like, as I worked my way through the piece in real time. Decision-making which, of course, brings us to improvisation as well. There are times in the music where one is free to repeat things or cut things or leave things out and so forth. All of these have to be dealt with and one has to trust one's musical instinct at that. I think it is one of the things that we have to thank Christian for, that he does trust musicians to use their musical instincts the best way they can.
Worby: Howard, what effect did it have on you, this idea of glue? Is there a glue you need to get rid of?
Howard Skempton: Yes. I am going to be very enthusiastic about this remark. I think it is a very useful statement. Of course, glue makes things glutinous, doesn't it? I think there is a sense in which music can be glutinous and there has to be liveliness – the sort of liveliness that Christian is talking about; there has to be coherence, but you can take that for granted, the continuity is there. Two things I want to quote about Christian's music, for which Cage was probably responsible, I think; one was that when you listen to Christian's music – and he was writing in the 50's – you suddenly listen in the way you suddenly sneeze… Something that happens very suddenly, very surprisingly, very musically, so that you wake up to the moment. As Cage would have said, you wake up to the very life you are living, which is so excellent if you know how to do it. The other thing that he said – and he was probably quoting you, Christian, so you'll be able to confirm this – is that whatever you do it becomes melody.
Wolff: I did say that.
Skempton: So, in a sense, whatever you do – even if you have these star maps, in the case of Cage's work, or these points, which you have to remember, this was in the air, pointillism was in the air, so music was fragmenting, wasn't it? Not just in the States but in Europe as well.
Tilbury: That is interesting because when you say that everything comes out as melody, in a way you are saying something in favour of continuity of some kind, aren't you?
Wolff: It is more like what you were just saying before, which is that continuity is going to happen, no matter what, because we are working in time and you can't stop that. One thing is going to follow another no matter what you do, no matter what it is.
Skempton: That is why it was so useful. In a way, it is a necessary corrective. Because all of these composers, they come out with an idea and they are so anxious about what they should do next, so anxious about transitions, about development. What you are saying is, "Don't be anxious about that. Trust the musical material. Trust the sound and the continuity will take care of itself." To a point.
Wolff's Burdocks, page 7
Worby: What about notation? It has been said, Christian, that one of the ways that you have got rid of the glue is through notation. We were looking at Burdocks today and looking at many many different notational systems on one A4 piece of paper. So I was wondering, is notation one way of getting rid of the glue? And what, for you as a composer, is the purpose of notation? What does it do?
Wolff: OK, let's take care of one thing which is fairly simple: notation is meant to record something that you have already done or that you want available. It is a kind of note taking, a record so that you have got it down on paper. Then other people can use that to play the piece, read the book or whatever it is. Otherwise, I think you could say notation is the next step on the way to performance, which is where you are headed. That is what it is all about. Music doesn't happen until somebody does it, and notation is one of the ways of getting it there, if you are not improvising.
Y our other question had more to do with looking at continuity in a somewhat different way…
Worby: I think one way you have done it is through notation. I was looking at the 13 Piano Pieces that John played this afternoon. I was intrigued. I thought, "How is this done, all of this, these abrupt interruptions and fissures?"
Wolff: It is one notation which I now think of as the single most important notation that I use. It simply consists of a wedge, and what it means is that it is like a rest but a rest of indeterminate duration. So it is a break but it could be of any duration whatsoever. It could be very short – a pause before the next phrase – or it could be two minutes of nothing. And that space is there for the performer to use in any way that s/he thinks is appropriate.
Tilbury: Yes, it can have quite contradictory results or effects on the performer. You can use it to wait and cancel out what you have just played or you can use it, in a way, to reflect on what you have just played and to continue in the same vein or, at least, with some kind of relationship to what you played.
But going back to the definitions, I have to bring Cornelius [Cardew] into this. He usually had something interesting to say about everything, whether it was making a stew or making a notation. And what he said was that making a notation is about making people move. Of course, the word "making" is not quite Cardewesque. I am not sure about the making, but it is to do with generating and inciting and encouraging movement of some kind – which, of course, makes it therefore not necessarily music. And that brings us onto Treatise and some of your pieces too, Christian. The outcome of the notation and the reading thereof maybe takes you outside music, into something that Eddie Prévost would call some kind of meta-music. Those are the best kind of notations, I think. You provide us with many of those.
Wolff's Burdocks, page 5
Worby: I was thinking – particularly after going through Burdocks, this afternoon – and wondering if sometimes, with particular types of notation systems, there are other kinds of information that you need besides the graphic image on the page. And I was thinking about the kind of information you need to prepare a piece. So, John, when you were preparing a performance – coming back to the 13 Piano Pieces – you had written some extra information onto the score, some little detail to help you perform it. And the other thing I'm thinking of is that we are here with CoMA today and there are people here who may want to try and perform some of the works that they've heard in the two concerts that we've had. So what I'm trying to get at is the general sort of approach, maybe even advice. If you want to try a piece of music by Christian Wolff or Morton Feldman or John Cage or Earle Brown, what kinds of things do you need to know? How can you approach it?
Tilbury: You are talking about experience here, years of experience which is impossible really to take apart, to dissect, to evaluate what is important and what isn't. But I would say that you were looking through the pages and I had written a few notes, pretty obvious things like I play a section piano or pianissimo – things of that nature. But I think the most interesting things are the things that happen spontaneously. Because those ideas of suddenly playing something pianissimo, which I probably found out while I was playing – practising that is – they become in a way quite contrived: "That's an idea. That works." As Feldman used to say, "That'll knock them flat." You think that is something that will really take the audience with you. So they can become quite contrived, and it is a dangerous thing. I find it sometimes with Feldman; a theme comes back after an hour and you think you can highlight it in some way. And it becomes almost like a performance gimmick somehow.
The things that were good about my performance today, I felt, were the things that happened quite unexpectedly. And the music – the notation, if you like – allows you to do that. The thing I like about Christian's music, among other things, is that it has a kind of rough hewn quality about it. It is not fancy but, at the same time, it is inviting the whole being into the music to express things that you've perhaps never thought of expressing before. It is like playing a kind of folk music in a way, an urban folk music. It has something of that feel – "I don't give a damn, I'm going to do that, I'm not going to do that." It is not pernickety. You are not thinking, "Am I doing the right thing?" and so forth. It is encouraging you to use your imagination, encouraging you to make the wrong decisions. That is fine. That is what I like about it. The results can be invigorating and exciting, not only for myself but, if all goes well, for the audience as well.
Worby: I remember you performing in Huddersfield. You weren't happy; you came off and you said, "I made all the wrong mistakes."
Tilbury: That was a quote. The great Thelonious Monk – one of my favourite pianists, along with Dinu Lipatti and Clifford Curzon – he said that, "I made all the wrong mistakes." I know exactly what he meant, having improvised a lot over the years. Nothing you do sounds right; whatever you do, it always seems wrong. Your mistakes seem wrong, your decisions seem wrong. You feel you want to walk off the stage. And sometimes if you are in the company of people like Eddie Prévost and Keith Rowe, you can actually do that. You can stop and say "Bugger this. I'm off. I'll leave it to them to clear up the mess. Let them sort it out."
Worby: Let's talk a little bit about melody. We talked about notation. I've got something that you wrote, Christian, in 1993, about melody. This is a bit of text called Changes and Continuities: Sketch of a Statement: "I also continue to think that all music, on a wide spectrum from plain and simple to intricate, is melody." Could you say a bit more about what you mean by that? Because we associate melody with pitch and we associate melody with that continuity that we talked about. We associate melody with the idea of a tune; pitch articulated by rhythm.
Wolff: Perhaps think about it more as sonority, sound. And then come back to the notion that since it is happening in time it is going to be linear. If it is linear it must be melodic, in that sense. I think that is all I'd add. Also I think that the mind disconnects so that you hear one sound then there's a pause then you hear another one., and it is very difficult to hear that one, forget it, then hear the next one.
Worby: So the listener makes the continuity.
Wolff: I think so, yes. Even though the composer may not have thought of it that way. Feldman had this interesting thing when he wrote; sometimes he would say, "I try to make each sound after I have completely forgotten the one that preceded it." As though he was making each one for the first time.
Worby: A unique event.
Wolff: In fact it was following a bunch of other ones, so inevitably it became part of that continuity and therefore it became, in a sense, melodic. I think that is all right.
Worby: Howard, many listeners associate your music with melody. We were talking earlier when you were rehearsing about harmony and the way that the harmony gives rhythm sometimes. How does all of that accord with getting rid of the glue? Going back to this original idea of trying to get rid of this continuity.
Skempton: Well, I think that you set something up in order to subvert it, in a sense, so that there are surprises. You are trying to engineer surprise. You are playing with something that is familiar but you are giving it a twist. It is difficult for me to justify it. Certainly at the beginning I was very excited by the idea of immediacy, by waking up to the sound, by being completely absorbed in sounds themselves, in sonority. Actually Stockhausen talked about it one time; he imagined a melody of noises.
Worby: And, indeed, a melody of spaces. He talked about the idea that a continuity of location of sound and space was melodic
Skempton: One reason I am wedded to melody – you just look around. John earlier talked about an urban folk music. When you hear an unaccompanied folk song you realise how rich it is. It is a pity not to recognise that. Of course, it is very liberating. I don't want to confuse things, but I love some of those late works of Shostakovich which are stripped right down. You suddenly realise that a simple melody of just two lines can create a whole world. The point is that we are complex. But part of it is simple mischief, you know, to some extent. I bought an accordion, a twelve bass accordion. I thought, "Well, I'd better learn this." And there was little else I could do with that instrument except play tunes.
Worby: Wasn't there pragmatism there? You didn't have access to a piano and you needed some…
Skempton: Pragmatism is very interesting because I think that part of being an experimentalist is essentially practical. Part of it is an acknowledgement of reality, of the way things are. You work with instruments; you work with sound; you work with something concrete. Painters work with paint; it has to exist as paint first. So I think that in a certain social situation you would write a lot of pieces because that is the right thing for the occasion, and you do it.
What is interesting for me is to do something, to write a tune. It has worried a lot of people; a lot of people say, "Why these tunes?" But one writes these tunes because one knows that they are not going to be like other tunes – that they are going to be surprising. They are going to come out wrong, in a sense.
I mean, for me for example, the question of a score – I would say that scores excite me. I was particularly interested in Cage's scores and Christian's scores because they were arresting images. The pieces from the 50's, which were very transparent, are exciting and interesting in themselves. As a composer you are always developing and actually through writing music your ideas change. Talking about writing letters; when you actually write something down, you think in a different way and your thinking develops through the process of writing music down. So it is not simple. It is partly a matter of preserving something for future reference but it is also exploratory, so one thinks, "Why not?" Why not write a twelve note melody? Why not wrote an atonal melody? Why not do this, do that? Why not take a folk song and let's see what we can do with that? When I say it is mischievous, it is basically this "Warum nicht?" Why not?
Worby: Talking about mischief-making and melody, I wanted to ask a question about popular classics. I wanted to address it to John, in the first instance, because "popular classics" was one of the categories of material that was mentioned in the draft constitution of the Scratch Orchestra, and there was a great interest in popular classics in the early 70's. They seemed to be important in experimental music-making. I think it is that idea of "Why not?" There is something about hearing them again having heard the music of Christian Wolff, hearing them again in a different way. What was it about popular classics in the early 70's? In some of your early concerts, you played Ezra Read.
Tilbury: I think that didn't really affect the overwhelming majority of the Scratch Orchestra. They didn't know what all that was about. That was purely a personal thing; my dad learned with a tutor called Ezra Read. You could do that thing in the Scratch Orchestra. But basically in terms of the classical repertoire, the Scratch was a bunch of ignoramuses. They just didn't know things. They might have heard a performance of the 1812 Overture at some point, but it wasn't a concern of them at all. It was only some of the musicians who found it amusing to go along with. The idea – which was Cornelius's idea, I think – was that we just had to propose a fragment of the score – a note, a page of aggression, a memory; it could just be something to do with the imagination and memory. I think it wasn't a particularly important category; the others were much more. The musicians led themselves – and Cornelius led them – to believe it was something important, but for the majority it wasn't at all.
But may I move something – we haven't got much time. I would like to ask Christian a question myself, if I may, which concerns us all: – You have often spoken about the social dimension of your music. I mean, I could say a few words about that but it is better coming from the horse's mouth. You might like to say something. You've got about three minutes from now. [Wolff: Thanks a lot.] It is important because it has always been there. We have always thought about it, right from the beginning before you started to write music with socialist texts. Back in the 50's and 60's, there is that thing about collective music-making – the word "collective" itself, of course.
Worby: But maybe it also ties in with melody and even the idea of popular tunes…
Wolff: I was going to say, that image that you raised of the glue only applies to the music until about 1967 or 68 and then things changed. It doesn't necessarily go away, but there were many other things happening. I wrote my first real tune in Burdocks in 1970. So, it is not as though that went out the window; that was there too, and then came back. It came back partly for social reasons. At the time, I began to feel that this music we were making with its exclusive emphasis on sonority had a very rarefied quality, was rather esoteric and belonged to a rather closed circle of people involved with music. And that began to concern not just me but a number of us at the time, so one way out would be to try to write or to involve real melodies. Usually we borrowed them, often from folk music of one kind or another. And then, by choice, we would prefer songs that had some political associations through their texts and so forth.
I think John is talking about something a little bit different, which is more to do with the way that the music is made available to performers. I'd say it becomes social the moment it becomes performed, because it involves at least one other person and therefore you are already in a social situation. Then, to be aware of that and to work knowing that that is the case and not that you are sitting in a desk in some corner and producing something then somehow hoping that it will get out into the world, but rather that you are doing something that will get out into the world and therefore how will it get out there and what will it do when it is there. So that is the kind of thing that we became more and more aware of.
Skempton: Yes, the crucial thing is: how is it going to be perceived? It is the psychology of the situation, which is where Alvin Lucier comes in. How is this music experienced? And there is a sort of experimental approach to that as well. But there is definitely the concern about how this music is going to be perceived, how it is going to affect people and so on. This really comes back to the popular classics, because you are presenting people with something they think they know but, of course, the effect is quite different.
Worby: The popular classics gave rise to a huge number of amateur orchestras that played popular classics – the Portsmouth Sinfonia, the Ezra Read Orchestra, the Ross and Cromarty Orchestra, Foster's Social Orchestra. All of these, usually made up of students and amateurs, playing tunes that they thought they knew, but the experience of listening to that was entirely different. Only a few weeks ago, Michael Parsons led a Scratch Music workshop at King's Place and we played the tune from Karelia Suite and he said, "Everybody knows this." And I thought probably there are quite a lot of people who don't, but they all did; they all knew the tune, even people who didn't read music. They joined in, they all played. And it worked in the context of the performance we gave. So that idea of social music-making and working with material that people can get hold of is obviously very important. It is what we are doing now, here this weekend.
Skempton: But it is very sophisticated what is happening. When you all play the Karelia Suite, it is not what Sibelius did. [Worby: Not at all.] It is not even a poor imitation of what Sibelius did; it is something quite new.
Worby: But the sound of it was something that our hosts, the London Sinfonietta, could never do. They could never play it like that. It would never sound like that. It was a unique experience. We have just got a couple of minutes if there are any questions at all from the floor.
Question from audience: Where do you think music will be in fifty years time?
Wolff: I haven't the faintest, actually. I have hopes. What bothers me now is that it becomes more and more technologically dependent, produced out of computers and listened to out of things sticking in your ears. I would like to see some element of music survive that does not need to use electricity, for example. But I have no idea what is going to happen.
Skempton: I echo Christian on that. I imagine that people will still sing choral music. A lot of people will sing and choral music will become more important. I do think that the technology, in a very interesting way, will develop. I have to say that. There have been huge developments, and a lot of this has been happening out of the limelight. But I agree that the worst possible thing is that it becomes purely a domestic, private experience so you lose that sense of occasion. Again, it is the perception of music and what happens when you are hearing it in a particular place with a particular group of people and you can hear it directly. It is very important.
Tilbury: I think that more and more we will need a music of dissent.
Worby: To finish, I've got a little text here which ties up all three of these gentlemen sat here. This is a very old concert programme from a series that John Tilbury did in 1970. And this is a text from it by Howard about Christian Wolff, which ties up everything. And it links to conversations we had yesterday evening, after the concert. Many people were talking about the sounds that we could hear that come from outside the building. People were wondering if the sounds of sirens and people shouting and the traffic noise somehow interrupt the music. And people were wondering particularly if Christian would be disturbed by that. I found this, this morning, looking for stuff.
Howard wrote this in 1970, about Christian's music: "It may not be obvious that the music has begun, with sounds reflecting environmental sounds, reflecting the principles of nature drawn together through the application of chance operations innocent of purpose. And when the future seems uncertain, we can then become totally involved with the present, an exciting region, unexplored and continually surprising. While I write, the window remains open, the sound of the leaves tickling the most ticklish areas of the memory, sometimes in rapid sequences, sometimes interrupted by the inescapable drone of the aeroplane, sometimes there is nothing at all. But then the irritating buzzing of an irritating insect proves so irritating. But then the mind drifts away with the wind, to be revived by the wind. For the window remains open."
St Leonard's, Shoreditch
Many thanks to the participants for allowing the text above to be published, and to John Eyles for his enthusiastic documentation of the weekend. - DW