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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Weekend of concerts will recognize composer Christian Wolff

Over this weekend, three concerts and more than a dozen international musicians will honor the music and legacy of composer and former music and classics professor Christian Wolff in the performance series “The Exception and the Rule.”

Wolff is best known for his work in experimental classical music. In the 1950s and 1960s, he worked closely with pioneering composer John Cage and National Medal of the Arts-winning choreographer Merce Cunningham. In 1999, Wolff’s music was featured on the Sonic Youth album “SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century.” Larry Polansky, music professor emeritus and a guitarist who will be performing this weekend, described Wolff as “one of the most important composers of the 20th century.”

Wolff, who taught in the music, classics and comparative literature departments at the College from 1971 to 1999, said that he loved his time at Dartmouth, especially his interactions with the students.

“I got to teach in different departments and got to do a variety of different things,” he said. “The students were fantastic to work with.”

Wolff said that the weekend’s performances will be united through their use of experimental music. He said that students who attend the concerts can expect world class improvisers and strong performances.

“It’s not like anything else, but at the same time, what I hope is that it will be interesting and affecting and moving and terrific performances,” he said.

The weekend’s commemoration will start with a concert that features a series of Wolff’s most famous works, including “Duo for Pianists” (1957), “Serenade for flute, clarinet and violin” (1950) and “Exercises” which he began composing in 1974 and is famous for the improvisation it allows for its performers. Members of the International Contemporary Ensemble will join a larger ensemble to play the pieces.

Ensemble co-artistic director and clarinetist Joshua Rubin said that he will be playing “Serenade for a flute, clarinet and violin” in Friday’s concert and that he considers it an honor to play, since it was one of Wolff’s earliest pieces.

“It is very personal for me,” he said. “It’s one of his earliest pieces, and it’s very lovely and unusual.”

Rubin said that the Ensemble will be playing with their “musical heroes” during the concert. He said that he is excited to see how a variety of genres by different performers will come together.

Saturday’s concerts will feature the pieces “Pete” (2015) and “Brooklyn” (2015). The Ensemble will be joined by well-known improvisers Polansky, Robyn Schulkowsky, Joey Baron and George Lewis.

Polansky said that Wolff’s pieces look at improvisation in a non-traditional way.

“There’s a lot of performer freedom, choice and I would say, most importantly, trust in the musicianship and intelligence of the players,” he said. “Although I believe as part of one concert we will simply improvise, freely, that’s not a piece of Christian’s, but rather one that he will take part in, as a fellow improvisor, not dissimilar to the way he takes part in the performance of his pieces as a fellow musician.

Rubin said that “Pete,” which was composed by Wolff, was written to honor the activist and folk musician Pete Seeger.

“I don’t think it takes direct inspiration from Pete’s music,” he said. “It shows homage to [Wolff’s] feelings about [Seeger] as person and to [Seeger’s] political ideas.”

Rubin said that “Pete” displays Wolff’s skill at balancing the improvised and the traditional in experimental music. He said that he enjoys the piece because of how its sound is reminiscent of an old-time band.

“His challenge as a composer is to balance those two things,” Rubin said. “He makes music with spontaneity. It has energy and vitality to it that no one else has come close to.”

The other main piece in Saturday’s concert, “Brooklyn,” features large spaces for improvisation and room for at least six separate musicians.

The second Saturday concert will mostly include improvisations by the performers featured in the earlier performance.

Rubin said that Wolff’s music has been an inspiration for the Ensemble since the group’s conception and that they are excited to have another chance to perform with them. He said that Wolff is a key member of the “New York school” of experimental musicians who had a key role on the group’s music.

“We got interested in contemporary music through his music because he is such an incredible musician with such an incredible legacy,” he said. “He is in the category of composers who have been real mentors for our group, which includes many of the people joining us at the festival.”

Rubin said that he is specifically glad for the opportunity to play both “Serenade for flute, clarinet and violin” and “Pete” in the same event because of how well they summarize Wolff’s work.

“To present one of his earliest works and one of his most recent, to show that sort of breadth, that range is incredible,” he said.

Polansky said that he is excited to both get to return to Hanover and to interact with other musicians who care about Wolff.

Friday’s concert will be held at 7 p.m. in Faulkner Hall. Saturday’s concerts will be held at 2 p.m. in Rollins Chapel and 7 p.m. in Faulkner Hall. All three of the weekend’s concerts are free to students and to the public.

In addition to the weekend’s events, Baker-Berry Library has an exhibition of Wolff’s work “Christian Wolff: Beginning anew at every ending” on display from Sept. 18 to Dec. 10. The music department will also be hosting a panel on Wolff’s work on Friday in Faulkner Hall at 4:30 p.m. Polansky will moderate the panel.