score of Christian Wolff's EdgesNo matter what we do... ends by being melodic

Christian Wolff is the last surviving member of the New York School of composers who revolutionized music in the 20th century. Along with John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, Wolff has changed the way musicians across the spectrum think about composition and performance, jazz, rock, and hip hop. Most profoundly, Wolff has impacted how classical musicians interpret their own craft.

In the tradition of Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens, Wolff has sustained two careers through most of his life, composing and performing while having joint appointments in both the classics and music departments at Dartmouth College. After retiring from Dartmouth in 1999, Wolff has been more active than ever as a composer, fulfilling commissions, recording, and performing with his own ensembles and with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company . He has, to date, completed over 175 works for soloists, small and large chamber ensembles, orchestras, vocalists, and other musics created for unspecified instrumentation.

In March 2010, Christian Wolff was a composer-in-residence at NEC, giving students an opportunity to work in intimate detail with Wolff. Music from Wolff's entire career, alongside classics of the 20th century, including works by John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, were performed in a series of multiple nights of back-to-back concerts, providing a rich context for the scope of Wolff's compositional discoveries. Christian Wolff's longtime collaborator Keith Rowe, legendary improviser and member of the British free improvisation group AMM, also joined the concert festivities, and worked with NEC students on Wolff's "open" scores.

A new work by Wolff, Songs from Brecht: The Exception and the Rule, commissioned by the Callithumpian Consort, a loose aggregation of NEC students, alumni, and new music enthusiasts, was given a dual world premiere during Wolff's March 2010 NEC residency, with the concert version performed at NEC on March 17, and the fully-staged version, with Bertolt Brecht's texts, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18.

Chronological list of Wolff's works performed

1950 Duo for 2 Flutes
Duo for violins
1964 For 1,2, or 3 People
1968-71 selections from Prose Collection
1969-70 Tilbury 1-4
1970-71 Burdocks
1973-74 Changing the System
1973-74 selections from Exercises 1-14
1977 Dark as a Dungeon
1979-1980 Three Pieces (Rock About, Instrumental, Starving to Death on a Government Claim)
1983 Piano Song (I am a dangerous woman)
1988 Exercise 26 (Snare Drum Peace March)
1992 Tuba Song
1993 Merce
1996 Violist and Percussionist
2000 selections from Berlin Exercises
2004 Another Possibility
2006 selections from Microexercises
2007 Quodlibet (U.S. premiere performance)
2010 Songs from Brecht: The Exception and the Rule (world premiere)

Dates of concerts and events during Wolff's residency

March 12, 2pm: public lecture/question and answer session with Christian Wolff on his compositions, and his history with working with John Cage and Morton Feldman

March 15, 5pm & 8pm: Duo for 2 Flutes, selections from Tilbury 1-4, selections from Exercises 1-14, For 1, 2, or 3 People, Berlin Exercises, selections from Prose Collection, Changing the System, Sonata

March 16, 1pm:public Liberal Arts themed lecture by Christian Wolff on why the ultra-modern should always look back to the ultra-ancient

March 16, 2pm: public improvisation masterclass with Keith Rowe, Christian Wolff's longtime collaborator

March 16, 5pm & 8pm: Quodlibet (U.S. premiere performance), Piano Song (I am a dangerous woman), Three Pieces (Rock About, Instrumental, Starving to Death on a Government Claim), Exercise 26 (Snare Drum Peace March), selections from Prose Collection, Dark as a Dungeon, Another Possibility, Tuba Song

March 17, 5pm & 8pm: Songs from Brecht: The Exception and the Rule (concert version; world premiere), Burdocks, Duo for violins, Violist and Percussionist, Merce, selections from Prose Collection, Edges (featuring performers Christian Wolff and Keith Rowe)

March 18, 10am: public masterclass with Christian Wolff discussing his works with NEC composition students

March 18, 7pm: Songs from Brecht: The Exception and the Rule (fully-staged version; world premiere) at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Performing forces on these multiple days of back-to-back concerts, at the core of Wolff's March 2010 NEC residency, include the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, the Borromeo String Quartet, the NEC Percussion Ensemble, [nec] shivaree, the Callithumpian Consort, the NEC Wind Ensemble, student soloists, and select small ensembles. Students from NEC's jazz studies and contemporary improvisation departments also performed alongside classically-trained NEC students in several performances.


A selection of tracks from previous NEC performances of Christian Wolff's works, including an exclusive NEC Jordan Hall recorded encore improvisation featuring Christian Wolff, piano, and composer/improviser Ikue Mori, electronics, plus a newly remixed version of a 2008 Callithumpian Consort performance of Wolff's Changing the System by Stephen Drury, Artistic Director of NEC's March 2010 Christian Wolff residency.



A Piano Piece - composed by Christian Wolff for NEC's PianoFuture festival, performed by Minji Noh '06 M.M., '07 G.D., piano - 2007-02-25


Duo for Flutes - performed by Heather Zenobia '06 M.M. and Jessi Rosinski '06 M.M., flutes - 2005-03-30


Exercise No. 1 - from a Pierce Jazz Series performance, performed by Anthony Coleman's Fatal Attraction Ensemble - 2008-12-02


Changing the System (Stephen Drury remix, 2010) - source material taken from NEC Callithumpian Consort performance - 2008-02-21


Christian Wolff, piano, and Ikue Mori, electronics - encore improvisation from NEC Callithumpian Consort concert - 2008-02-21

For further reference

Christian Wolff website
listen to Christian Wolff music on
listen to Christian Wolff music on iLike
Christian Wolff's entry on Wikipedia
Christian Wolff's entry on All Music Guide
Christian Wolff interview from Bomb magazine
Christian Wolff interview from NewMusicBox

Sonic Youth's 1999 album Goodbye, 20th Century featured several works by avant-garde composers such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Pauline Oliveros, and Steve Reich, and included not one, but two works by Christian Wolff: Edges (1968) and Burdocks (1970-71).


image from the score of Christian Wolff's Edges, courtesy of Christian Wolff
all other photos by Andrew Hurlbut