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Charles Wuorinen

I've always regarded Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Varèse as the ground figures that established the language that I inherited. Then, immediately after, the three people who were seniors in my youth were always Carter and Wolpe and Babbitt. From Babbitt, I absorbed the whole range of systematic possibilities of the twelve-tone system; from Carter, ideas about morphology, musical time, other kinds of macro-structural things; and from Wolpe, something not quite so specific in one respect, but more specific in another. In the specific case, certain gestures of mine (I always thought) come directly out of gestures of his, especially the confined, rapid, equal-note articulations of restricted pitch-class collections, so typical of him; on the other hand, his extraordinary spontaneity and intuitive rightness. An awful lot of what he did structurally, the connections he made, were really intuitively found rather than systematically generated. Before I encountered his music, I had always had a kind of undisciplined Ivesian inclination to throw everything into the pot. What I found in Wolpe along these lines was a somehow more credible or organizable way of introducing cross-systematic, or cross-stylistic elements and gestures on a ground of solidity.

At that time, and earlier in the 1950s, we were all receiving the latest masterpieces from the post-war European avant garde. I always had a good deal of trouble with that music. What struck me about most of these composers was that they didn't seem to know what to do with notes. They were so busy avoiding on ideological grounds references to musical shapes of the past on the one hand, and on the other, developing algorithmic, and later aleatoric, means of pitch generation, and so busy refuting Schoenberg, that after a few years of this I think they lost their ears in a fundamental way and really couldn't tell the difference between a good note and a bad one. On the other hand, one found in Wolpe someone who although in many respects (at least locally) treated musical continuity in somewhat similar ways as these guys did, nevertheless the notes were always wonderful. Discovering that in him took care of the European question for me. Being very young at the time I would always wonder, maybe there's something in these great geniuses who are so heavily promoted that I'm too stupid to get. But I realized after I came across Wolpe and saw how it works with someone who knows which notes to put down that in fact there wasn't anything to get. It wasn't my fault, it was their fault.

Take the Boulez Sonatine and the Wolpe Piece in Two Parts for Flute and Piano. Harvey Sollberger and I played both of them. The Boulez always struck me as a kind of ideological statement, a piece of almost utilitarian music, the use here being to promote a fiercely anti-traditionalist point of view which is achieved by a lot of banging around, much of it physically impossible. That of course immediately achieves a kind of modern sound. For all that, it's really very conventional. It's impossible to balance and is a complete failure as an instrumental combination. My attitudes along these lines were not made more positive when we played it once for Boulez, who said that it didn't really matter if we got a sixteenth or so off in some of the fast places. I had busted my behind to learn the stupid thing as well as I could, and I was now being told that it didn't matter whether I played it right or not. Now the second movement of the Wolpe piece also has some really impossible things in it. But that is a piece whose mission it is to make music. Like all his work, it embodies very high artistic aspirations without an extra-musical agenda. One sees a composer whose total concern is making the best possible work of art that he can. So whatever the problems in the Wolpe are in performance, say, or the occasional miscalculation about balance, they are not epidemic the way they are in the Boulez. Whatever those difficulties may be, they are minor compared to the overall worth of the work. If I had to make a comparative judgment of the two pieces, there would be no question of superiority of the Wolpe: it is infinitely superior in every way.

Coming back to the question of pitch relations, two things are very clear. There really is no special reason except for very general statistical ones why any of the notes in the Boulez have to be what they are. There are the characteristic tritone predominance, and fourth plus tritone sonorities, which I think of as characteristically French, but that's about it. But I would never dignify pitch relations there or indeed in any of his music for that matter with a phrase like "structural harmony." But in the Wolpe Flute Piece you get right away at the beginning an absolutely clear statement of the tetrachord that's going to govern the whole work. When the second tetrachord is introduced, you get a very simple statement of that. All that pitch-relational parsimony, especially at the beginning, is balanced with an extremely fluid and flexible rhythmic, articulative, and registral behavior that makes a perfect balance. In other words, the complexity of the registral scatter and the rhythmic physiognomy of those opening pages is a perfect complement to the restricted pitch-class content. That's very classic and very traditional at the same time as being new to the time when the piece was composed. That is the kind of progressivism or avant gardism that I have always admired in music, not the kind that says we have to invent music again every time we write a new piece.

The first performance of Wolpe's In Two Parts for Six Players, which I suspect was not very good but was very enthusiastic, made a very deep impression on me. Certainly that was the first ensemble music of his I had ever heard. All of the characteristics I've just mentioned struck me very forcibly all at once in that piece, so much so that I gravitated very strongly in that direction when I wrote my Trio of 1962. My two-part Symphony and The Golden Dance are directly reflective of Wolpe's two-part form. I found the pattern very congenial. The idea of a gradual build-up of activity, intensity, gestural density is something that goes very naturally in that kind of shape, because it is not dependent on gross contrasts the way the classic three- or four-movement setups may be. There's a kind of prelude and fugue sense to the form, which means that one establishes the environment and deals with it at a somewhat slower pace in the first part than in the second, although there can be a lot of cross-cutting between them. One of the pieces I wrote shortly after getting involved with his music, which I would not have undertaken without his influence, is my Flute Concerto (1964), which has a shape that unwinds from a high density at the beginning, in an irregular way. I doubt that I would have taken that kind of shape-idea for the span of a whole movement if I hadn't seen how successful Wolpe was in controlling variable density. But it's not something that you would think of as derived from Wolpe just from hearing it.

In 1961 Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938) co-founded the Group For Contemporary Music, and in 1970 became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. He has taught at Columbia University, the Manhattan School of Music, and Rutgers University. Telephone interview: AC, New York City, 25 January 1998.


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