Christian Wolff and Social Aspects in Music

An Introduction by Lucie Vítková

Christian Wolff and Social Aspects in Music

An Introduction by Lucie Vítková

In the Compositional Techniques of Christian Wolff and Social Aspects in Music, I share research on Christian Wolff’s music in the social-political context. The book deals with his compositional techniques and inner structures of his pieces which are connected with the relationships between the players, particularly how these relationships are constructed in a democratic manner and their influence on the audience and players in a broader social sense.

I was very pleased to read a wonderful commentary directly from Christian in his email to me this year: “I finished your book/dissertation. I think it's very good, especially the combination of analysis with your direct experience of performing. You are the first to do that on such a scale. The pianist Philip Thomas has done something like it, writing about his playing of some of my piano music. But that's for solo playing. You treat the ensemble situation which is closer to social issues.”

I'm happy to share an excerpt from my book below, the first run of the book sold out completely but it has received its second printing. If you'd like to purchase a copy (copies are $25 + USA shipping), you can contact me directly via email:, Instagram: @lucie__vitkova and Facebook: under the name Lucie Vítková. This excerpt is shared with the expressed permissions of JAMU Publishing.

Temporary Ensemble playing "Changing the System" at Underland Gallery, Brooklyn NY August 10, 2022. From the left: Teerapat Parnmongkol, Lucie Vítková, Leo Chang, Elizabeth Adams, Melinda Faylor, Drew Wesely, Mae May and Kwamé Sorrell. PC James Ilgenfritz

3. Compositional Techniques of Christian Wolff: Introduction

3.1 Five Main Aspects

There are five common aspects which underlie Wolff‘s work. (ASPLUND, HICKS 2012) In his compositions, there is always some degree of change, teaching, indeterminacy/unpredictability, freedom, and noise. In this chapter, I will introduce these aspects, since they will often be present in my analysis and maybe key to understanding his pieces.

a) Change

Wolff tries to avoid the repetition of “compositional tricks” and to include new ideas in each piece. He thinks of this principle of change in terms of Ezra Pound’s instruction to “Make it new”, or the concept of “Making strange”:

“make it new”, a notion, I believe, which derived from the generation of Russian and Czech literary critics who grew up around the 1917 revolution, and who spoke of “making strange”, that is, de-contextualizing the familiar, the conventional and status quo, thus making it an object of critical reflection […] My notion of change extends also internally, not just to the relation of my work to others’ but also to itself over time. (WOLFF 1998)

In most of his pieces, Wolff avoids the use of repetition, he is always developing his pieces and pushing them forward. When he exhausts a certain technique, he continues with a new one. When reusing techniques, there is always an element which is new or different; it may change with instrumentation, or even depending on the people he is composing the piece for.

For example, In Between Pieces uses a symbol to instruct players to play a sound which has not been heard in the piece before. In this way, the players can bring something unexpected, something that changes the piece and the composer’s choice of sounds for it, coming from the player’s own experience and history.

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