In a post-modern world the possibilities are always endless. “Another Possibility” by Christian Wolff
Narratives are the pillars of this era, characterized by an intense economic, social and artistic acceleration. Without a story, without a narrative everything seems gray, devoid of taste and meaning, a dull inert form. Contemporary music is no exception, on the contrary, being devoid of the aura conferred by a glorious past compared to classical music and of its strong kinetic impact compared to rock music, it is even more dependent on storytelling to be able to impose itself on a wider audience. The case of “Another Possibility” by Christan Wolff is an emblematic example of this desire for narration that now unites us all. Its story deserves further study. It all started when Morton Feldman composed “The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar” in early 1966, at the request of his colleague Christian Wolff.
Wolff and Feldman were two of the most important American composers of the second half of the 20th century. Less well known is the fact that, at this time, Christian Wolff was also performing as an electric guitarist. Wolff played the instrument with no real training and with an idiosyncratic technique, often with the guitar spread out on the floor or a table. “The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar” seems to have emerged from one of those cases of fate, during a meeting between the two composers to play together. Feldman sat at the piano, picking up sounds that Wolff tried to transfer to his guitar. The result of this exploratory investigation was noted by Feldman, and thus the work took shape. On the same occasion, Feldman delivered the score to Wolff, in virtually finished form, although some statements by both Feldman and Wolff from the same period suggest that the work was not really finished when Wolff picked it up. Feldman composed this music to be performed in a concert in New York, but probably not yet intending it to become a definitive work and to be published.
At that time the electric guitar was still a rare instrument in classical and contemporary music, not to mention the possibility of a solo work, and so I think it was normal for Feldman not yet to seriously consider how a solo work for electric guitar could have a potential distribution. Christian Wolff performed “The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar” on three separate occasions: at the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts in New York (July 1966), at Radio KPFA, San Francisco (July 29, 1966) and at the University of Harvard, Cambridge (May 14, 1967). It seems that a recording of the second concert was also made, which will prove to be decisive for the future of this work. Christian Wolff kept the only copy of Feldman’s score in his guitar case, which was tragically stolen, along with the score, after the third performance. From that moment “The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar” became a sort of legend as far as contemporary music for electric guitar was concerned, a real myth that seems to have finally found a resolution in the reconstruction of the guitarist Seth Josel, published by Edition Peters. I promise we will come back later in time.
Almost forty years after his performances of Feldman’s original music, in 2004, Christian Wolff received a commission from Dutch guitarist Wiek Hijmans. The result was “Another Possibility,” a work for electric guitar with clear allusions to Feldman’s lost work.
To some extent, Wolff created a new piece trying to recreate the atmosphere of Feldman’s work, based on his own personal recollection of the music he had performed so many years ago, but at the same time bearing his own trademark. “Another Possibility” is undoubtedly to be considered a completely new work; when compared with Feldman’s reconstructed work, the differences are more striking than any similarities.
Wolff made several important contributions to the development of this instrument’s role in concert music, having composed some of the earliest works to feature the instrument (his 1960s Electric Spring series) and many other notable pieces.
This piece showcases many of the typical characteristics of his work, especially his esoteric use of musical notation, which seems designed to throw players off balance by encouraging them to find their own approach to interpreting Wolff’s often rather ambiguous playing directions. The composer deliberately writes passages that seem impossible according to conventional notions of guitar technique, forcing the player to find new ways to place his fingers around chords and melodic lines. These devices help create an atmosphere of whimsy and an almost childlike ingenuity and playfulness in exploring the instrument’s potential.
Christian Wolff certainly had a long, intimate and fascinating musical association with the guitar, especially the electric one. He has played guitar, bass and even some banjo, and has collaborated with a number of guitarists (including Keith Rowe and Larry Polansky). Wolff seems to have a keen sense of what is possible and imaginable for the electric instrument.
His music seems to be rarely (thankfully) ‘idiomatic’. It rarely refers to, depends on, or even acknowledges guitar techniques, or anything else musical that the performer may have learned or be familiar with. I think the hidden beauty in this piece lies in the fact that Wolff is a composer reluctant to provide expression marks, articulations, dynamics and so on in his scores, leaving the performers ample room for freedom and risk. Over time it has become a coveted piece by guitarists eager to expand their artistic boundaries and anxious to deal with such “open” forms.
A musical work emerges and disappears – Morton Feldman’s The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar by Peter Söderberg www.cnvill.net/mfpossibility-soderberg.pdf
Six strings, ten fingers and the heterophonic ideal: Some thoughts on Christian Wolff’s recent guitar music (pre-publication draft) by Larry Polansky Polansky.Wolff.Six_Strings (dartmouth.edu)