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Christian Wolff (born March 8, 1934) is an Americanmarker composer of experimental classical music.


Wolff was born in Nicemarker in Francemarker of German parentage. His family moved to the United States in 1941, and he became an American citizen in 1946. He studied classics at Harvard Universitymarker (he is a specialist in the work of Euripides) and upon graduating took up a teaching post there which he kept until 1970 when he began to teach classics, comparative literature, and music at Dartmouth Collegemarker until his retirement in 1999.

His early work includes a lot of silence and was based initially on complicated rhythmic schema, and later on a system of aural cues. Wolff innovated unique notational methods in his early scores and found creative ways of dealing with improvisation within his written music. Later pieces also often give a degree of freedom to the performers such as the sequence of pieces entitled Exercises (1973-). Some works, such as Changing the System (1973), Braverman Music (1978, after Harry Braverman), and the series of pieces entitled Peace March (1983-2005) have an explicit political dimension responding to contemporary world events and broader political ideals.

At the age of sixteen Wolff was sent by his piano teacher Grete Sultan for lessons in composition with the composer John Cage and quickly became a close associate of Cage and his artistic circle which included composers Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, pianist David Tudor, and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

During the 1960s he developed associations with the composers Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew who spurred each other on in their respective explorations of experimental composition techniques and musical improvisation, and then from the early 1970s in their respective attempts to engage with political matters in their music. For Wolff this often involved the use of music and texts associated with protest and political movements such as the Wobblies.

Wolff recently said of his work that it is motivated by his desire "to turn the making of music into a collaborative and transforming activity (performer into composer into listener into composer into performer, etc.), the cooperative character of the activity to the exact source of the music. To stir up, through the production of the music, a sense of social conditions in which we live and of how these might be changed." [33201]

Wolff is the son of the literary publishers Helen and Kurt Wolff whose roster in Germany included works by Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and Walter Benjamin, and later in the U.S. a series of notable English translations of, mostly, European literature (An edition of the I Ching published by the Wolff's Pantheon Books would prove influential upon John Cage after Christian Wolff gave it to him as a present).

With his wife Holly, Wolff has four children: Hew, a computer programmer living in Oakland, CA; Tamsen, a professor of Drama and English at Princeton University; Nicholas, a graduate student in Archaeology at Boston University; and Tristram, a graduate student in Comparative Literature at University of California Berkeley.

Not to be confused with the German musicologist Hellmuth Christian Wolff (1906-1988).

Sonic Youth's "Goodbye, 20th Century" featured works by avant-garde classical composers such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, and Christian Wolff played by Sonic Youth along with several collaborators from the modern avant-garde music scene, such as Christian Marclay, William Winant, Wharton Tiers, Takehisa Kosugi and others.

Some major pieces

  • Duo for Pianists I (1957)
  • For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964)
  • Prose Collection (1968-71)
  • Burdocks (1970-71)
  • Exercises (1973- )
  • Wobbly Music (1975-76)
  • I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman (1985)
  • Piano Trio (Greenham-Seneca-Camiso) (1985) [33202][33203]
  • Percussionist Songs (1994-95)
  • Ordinary Matter (2001-04)
  • John Heartfield (Peace March 10) (2002)
  • Microexercises (2006)

Further reading

  • (1998) Cues: Writings & Conversations/Hinweise: Schriften und Gespräche, Köln: Musiktexte (eds.) G. Gronemeyer & R.Oehlschagel.
  • (2001) Robert Carl, Christian Wolff: On tunes, politics, and mystery, in Contemporary Music Review. Issue 4, pp. 61-69.
  • (2002) Frank J. Oteri, A chance encounter with Christian Wolff, in NewMusicBox [United States]; 3/11:35; Mar.
  • (2004) Stephen Chase & Clemens Gresser, 'Ordinary Matters: Christian Wolff on his Recent Music', in Tempo 58/229 (July), pp. 19-27.

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