What I Learn From... Christian Wolff

How I know him: In 2002, Eva-Maria Houben organized a workshop called “Neue Klarinettöne” at the University of Dortmund, co-taught by Christian Wolff and Jürg Frey. I was the only trombonist among eight clarinetists. In 2003, Wolff invited me to perform with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 2005 and 2008, Wolff joined me and Frey for tours in Switzerland, and in 2009, he joined us for a performance with Larry Polansky at Roulette in New York City. Wolff played melodica on my first recording, On Foot, and at the release party for my book of the same title.

Christian Wolff. Photo: the Czech Center.

Influence works both ways: Wolff is often spoken of as a student of John Cage, implying a hierarchical master-apprentice structure often found in conservatories and music schools. When I learned that it was Wolff who gave Cage the I Ching as gratitude for free lessons, it changed how I understood “influence.” When I learned that Christian’s grandfather, Leonard, was a composer who worked with Brahms, I could imagine that Cage was influenced as much by Wolff as the other way around. This gave me permission to learn from younger musicians such as Jack Callahan and Doug Farrand.

Build our own community: Wolff composed his remarkable Exercises in the ’70s after working closely with Frederic Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew, the Scratch Orchestra, AMM, and, later, a young Arthur Russell. I can imagine the pieces were only possible because of his engagement with this community.

This shows me that I am responsible for building a community within which my music might be born. I need to find the musicians whose work I am enthusiastic about, and for whom I have a mutual respect and admiration. I need to support that community by doing mundane, tedious tasks: researching scores, booking venues, finding funding, scheduling rehearsals, keeping financial accounts, and communicating with listeners who have a need for this music. Only within this community will work which is true to who I am become possible.

Strange, but music: One thing Wolff told me was that he wrote the music for his performers. He wanted to make something that would engage them, to hold their interest, and to challenge them in some way. If he did that, then the performers would take care of the audience. He didn’t feel that he needed to consider as much what the audience might like, but felt that the audience should at least be able to recognize what was going on as music. It could be strange or unusual, but the audience needed to identify what was happening as music. This was important to me when I began to develop projects on the street. For 2005’s On Foot, I walked across Switzerland, composed a piece each day, wrote it down, and performed outdoors in parks, on mountain tops, on bridges, in village squares, and at boat landings. For 2009’s Trumpet City, eighteen or more trumpets perform on the street; the 2014 realization on Park Avenue had ninety-two trumpets playing from 46th Street to 72nd Street. For 2012’s On Foot: Brooklyn, I walked everywhere I went for thirteen weeks, composed a piece each week, and performed it on the street. Because all the performances were in public spaces, I felt that I had an obligation to the passerby. I asked what his or her range of experience was, and wrote music that fit within that range. I didn’t want the passersby to think that I was trying to pull one over on them.

“I was just getting started!”: Wolff attended high school at the Friends Seminary on 16th Street in New York City. Every week, he went to Quaker Meeting, which typically begins with at least thirty minutes of silence. When he first heard a performance of John Cage’s silent 4’33”, it didn’t shock him—“At the end, I was just getting started!” This helped me understand silence as an experience and a practice, not an idea or concept—as a presence, and not an absence.

Just like classical music, an effective performance of Cage’s music benefits from attention, individual practice, rehearsal, and care with staging and programming. How does one perform silence? By being present, by being able to sit still in an empty room without having to do anything. This is a skill that can be developed. For Cage’s music, it’s essential.

Part of a Quaker Meeting is sharing the gentle inspirations that might arrive during the silence. The call to respond to the intuitions and inspirations in the moment is an integral part of performing Wolff’s music. For the Exercises and Microexercises, it’s the unwritten instruction to the performer. The pieces, and the situations they create together with the other musicians, ask each performer to investigate what the moment is saying to them, and to respond.


Craig Shepard