Christian Wolff’s music never bowls me over while I am listening to it, but often, after leaving a concert, I discover that it has made a strong impression on me. That is what happened Sunday afternoon when Wolff’s ‘Changing the System’ was premiered by the Ensemble at the Alice Tully Hall.
The composer has not specified specific instrumentation for this piece, but on this occasion it was performed by two quartets. The piano, bassoon, horn, and bass played together at one side, while the trombone, vibraphone, harp, and violin played their own music at the other side. At first the music is simply a long sequence of chords, with each quartet following its own leader. Later it becomes more melodic, with the players passing notes from one instrument to another. For the final section one quartet switches to simple percussion instruments, playing together in a slow irregular pulse. The other four players take turns delivering a rather long text, speaking one syllable at a time. The text refers to the Peace Corps and the New Frontier, and states that the system itself must change in order for priorities to change.
None of Wolff’s musical material here is particularly attractive or unusual, and his statement about systems is not exactly a new discovery, so I just clapped politely with everyone else. But later I began to think about how quartets had played against one another, each one intent on its own problems, and about how little communication there seemed to be between the two groups. Then the image became more provocative. The musicians in the Wolff piece have quite a bit of freedom within the improvisatory cueing games which Wolff has set up, but it is always the system, rather than the individual choices, which determines the result. Musical systems, like political systems, can tyrannize people, even when there appears to be a great amount of freedom involved.
This is only one possible interpretation of ‘Changing the System,’ but it is a good example of some of the extramusical considerations which a Wolff piece can stimulate. And in Wolff’s recent pieces, which use verbal material, I think it is really the extramusical considerations which are most important. ‘Changing the System’ is not so much a piece of music as a metaphor.