At first sight, Christian Wolff‘s Tuba Song looks odd. It looks like a sketch, something unfinished. And actually, it is. The interpreter is responsible for bringing the music to performance in her own way. You might ask, What‘s new about that? Well, like many other composers, Wolff writes chains of notes. In his case, though, he writes almost no other parameters: no tempo, no dynamic, no articulation, very flexible durations. In other words, an open field for interpretation. This is a work for solo instrument, but also his ensemble writing is often very free, leaving many decisions to the performers.
This reflects his association with free thinkers and experimentalists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons, Frederic Rzewski, John Tilbury and many others. It reflects his engagement for a just and egalitarian society. It mirrors his interest in making New Music available not only to specialists, but also to Every(wo)man. It shows us how playing music together can become a model of society, a field of experimentation not only for performing but also philosophizing about and actually living together. He has an ongoing series of works all of which are titled Exercise, which deal with precisely this model.
At the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s Wolff was in close contact with the English Experimental composers, mainly Cornelius Cardew - who at that time was increasingly developing Markist-Leninist leanings - and other members of the Scratch Orchestra. At this time Wolff tried to find new ways to create works which could be realized by Every(wo)man: the result was Prose Collection, a set of pieces written entirely in non-specialist language which has since come to be recognized as a classic of the New Music repertoire.
Wolff is clearly part of the American Experimental Music tradition - Ives, Varese, Ruggles, Partch, Nancarrow, Cage. He can also be seen in the German context of Brecht/Weill/Eisler; also the workers songs of the organised labour movement in the US are an important reference within his compositional work. In many pieces he has utilized songs of First Peoples as source material.
In the case of Tuba Song „The pitch material of the piece is drawn from transcriptions of two Navajo songs, rhythms are freely composed and flexibly performable (pauses between phrases, sustained sounds, running figurations are all of relatively unspecified duration). Structural units are arranged in a manner somewhat analogous to the song structures. The music is written to be played as a solo or, with two tubas or one of two tuba parts on tape, in free heterophony.“*
*Wolff, Christian, Cues: Writings & Conversations/Hinweise: Schriften und Gespräche, Köln: Musiktexte (eds.) G. Gronemeyer & R. Oehlschagel (1998).
-Melvyn Poore, 31.5.2020