Fingers, Fragility and Freedom – Christian Wolff’s Pianist: Pieces

DOI: 10.5920/divp.2016.04


This article examines two movements of Christian Wolff’s Pianist: Pieces (2001) to illustrate how in this work the physiology of the pianist’s hands limit and shape the music both in terms of what is played (which sounds are heard) and how they are played. Specifically it looks at how my hands and my interpretative preferences determine what is played and heard when I am the pianist in these pieces.

Indeterminate music in the tradition of what is generally referred to as ‘experimental music’ has mostly been considered a special case in scholarly discussion relating to music analysis and the musical work, albeit, in the latter instance, one which is particularly potent. Lydia Goehr’s discussion of John Cage’s 4’33”, for example, is limited in scope and constrained by a (not unreasonable) modernist reading of it. (Goehr, 264-5.) Related to this is the limited discussion of performance issues of indeterminate works, with the concept of Werktreue necessarily being confused. However the reality is that in almost all cases of indeterminacy, excepting perhaps the totally graphic score containing no performance instructions (most famously Earle Brown’s December 1952 and Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise), the options available to the performer are limited variously by instructions and other codes for interpretation, instrumental and physical (technical) possibilities, and ensemble dynamics. A valuable route toward analytical understanding can be found in the mapping of performance possibilities bounded by the prescribed limitations of the score. Bypassing issues of authorship, which seem to me to be less interesting today than 50 or so years ago, the concerns with which I am engaged pertain to limits, permission, boundaries, rules and freedom. As these topics are explored it is my belief that not only do we take a step closer to understanding any given work, but we also begin to come to terms with the pre-text, that is, the network of performative conditions that shape the notational frameworks of a piece and that subsequently determine both the actual performance decisions made – sounds, continuity, etc. – but also the wider components of what we call musical interpretation – character, energy, shape, pace, and so forth. This article examines two movements of Christian Wolff’s Pianist: Pieces (2001) to illustrate how in this work the physiology of the pianist’s hands limit and shape the music both in terms of what is played (which sounds are heard) and how they are played. Specifically it looks at how my hands and my interpretative preferences determine what is played and heard when I am the pianist in these pieces.

The music of Christian Wolff superbly demonstrates the ways in which performers’ choices in response to indeterminate elements within the notations are limited in various ways and consequently shape and define the limits of the work in question. Wolff’s music is well known for involving elements of indeterminacy, leaving choices for the performer, such as, variously, decisions regarding what to play, when to play, how to play, for how long to play, and with whom to play. Wolff’s notations variously navigate the tensions between freedom and discipline in response to the written text. His output explores the spectrum between highly graphic scores (such as Edges or For 1, 2 or 3 People) and text scores, and more traditionally notated pieces, particularly those composed during the late 1970s and 1980s, such as Piano Song (‘I am a dangerous woman’) (1983) or Piano Trio (‘Greenham-Seneca-Camiso’) (1985). Even then it can often be the case that those scores which look most open (such as Duet I for piano duet, or Pairs (1968)), come with several paragraphs (even pages) of text explaining the many symbols contained in the score and the process for performance, outlining limits, possibilities, and ways of playing. Likewise some of the more prescribed scores, when examined closely, include options for indeterminate silences and noises, or omit instructions for tempo, dynamics, articulation and other ways of playing. 

But the reality is that his output covers a wide range of approaches to notation and performance, from the very open, through to the quite open but with clear parameters, to the not quite fully notated. Indeed, within a single work Wolff frequently explores this spectrum of notational types, as if it were a compendium, rather like the Songbooks of John Cage. The idea that music should somehow pursue a single coherent, or organic, trajectory is thrown out the window when we consider Wolff’s music. A term he often uses to describe segments of his music is ‘patches’ and indeed works can often seem like a patchwork quilt of styles, textures and notations. Pianist: Pieces is one such piece, embracing quite different notational types across its five movements.

Composed in 2001, Pianist: Pieces is the first of a series of major solo piano works after a gap of some eighteen years during which the composer remained prolific but the output for solo piano was limited to short occasional pieces (and the beginnings of what has since been grouped as Keyboard Miscellany). Since then Wolff has composed a number of large-scale piano works, including the hour-long Long Piano (Peace March 11) (2004-5) and the recent Sailing By (2014). Pianist: Pieces was composed for Aki Takahashi and dedicated to the composer Iannis Xenakis, whose death was announced shortly before the piece was completed. (For a more full description of the piece see Thomas, 82-88).The first movement is a sequence of ‘patches’, little melodic and rhythmic ideas, perhaps obscure and disconnected. The second is, in contrast, a single stream of melody, joined part-way through by a second melody, both in semiquavers, moving between chromaticism and white-note modality. The final movement is a simple, though curiously a-rhythmic, chorale.

The third and fourth movements, about which the remainder of this article is concerned, employ tablature notations in which the pianist’s fingers are notated exactly but pitch is left indeterminate. The notations differ for each movement. The third movement indicates two 5-line staves, one for each hand, with each line indicating each finger. Thus, the upper stave, for the right hand, indicates from top to bottom finger 5 through to the thumb, whilst the lower stave, for the left hand, indicates from top to bottom the thumb through to the fifth finger.

Figure 1: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, movement 3 bars 1-7

The first four bars might be played like this:

There are two such systems, one above the other, with the lower system repeated. There are seven bars per system, in common time throughout, resulting in 21 bars (84 beats). Wolff writes ‘Pitches are free and can change (also on the same line). Tempo is free (experiment with variety), can change with each section…but also at repeat of a section.’ Each finger is accorded its own rhythmically precise line, with durations ranging from one quaver to five quavers, creating a complex ten-part counterpoint of note attacks and releases. (This method is used again in the prelude to Long Piano (Peace March 11) composed three years later.)

The fourth movement is quite different. After thirteen fully notated patches (that is, with regard to pitch and rhythm), lasting 111 bars with the time signature of 1/2, consisting of mostly two-part counterpoint, but occasionally three or four-part textures, Wolff writes a further 69 bars in tablature notation. Here again, rhythm is precisely notated, but now instead of each finger having its own line of counterpoint, there are three lines per system (these are not visible as lines but are clearly represented as three distinct positions vertically). Each note is then accompanied by a number between 1-5, indicating which finger of which hand to play the note. If the number appears above the note it should be played by the right hand, and if below the note by the left hand. (Figure 2.) All notes on the upper line have numbers above them and should be played by the right hand, and all notes on the lower line have numbers below them and should be played by the left hand. Notes occurring on the middle line have numbers either above or below them, and thus this line is shared between the hands. Wolff writes: ‘Each of the three lines in a system = a register or range about the extent of the reach of your hand (say, octave more or less); registers can overlap and change – by shifting where your hands are.’ He then, helpfully, gives two examples to illustrate how a sequence of notes might be realised in pitch (Figures 3a-d.), though (unhelpfully) the third and fourth quavers of bar 112 are transcribed as to be played by the left hand when the actual notation instructs that they should be played by the right hand (with the resultant pitches rising, as they would if played by the left hand second finger followed by thumb, instead of descending, as they would if played by the right hand second finger followed by thumb). The first patch (bars 112-118, see Figure 2) might be played like this.

Figure 2: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, movement 4 bars 112-118

Figure 3a: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, movement 4 bar 112

Figure 3b: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, preface: Wolff realization of movement 4 bar 112

Figure 3c: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, movement 4 bar 173

Figure 3d: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, preface: Wolff realization of movement 4 bar 173

The notational techniques explained here have their roots within Wolff’s own music in some of the music for strings, including Lines (1972) for string quartet, and Jasper (1991) for violin and double bass (movement 3, Figure 4). In the latter piece, both instruments have a microtonally adjusted scordatura and each line indicates the string on which to play a note; notes on the line indicate to play that open string, notes above the line indicate that the finger should be applied to play any pitch on that string. 

Figure 4: Christian Wolff, Jasper, movement 3 (opening)

Pitch has always been rather nebulous in Wolff’s music: high/middle/low notations occur in many other pieces, such as Apartment House Exercise, and are perhaps derived from Feldman’s division of register in his graphic Projections and Intersections pieces from the early 1950s. Likewise, the absence of clefs has been a feature of Wolff’s music since his early indeterminate pieces, and includes many works which look relatively traditionally notated in terms of pitch, such as the Exercises of the 1970s, except that pitch can be read in any clef, creating a distinctly Wolff-ian sound of irregular parallel pitch movement, often at the interval of a 13th.

Works from the late 1950s onwards have in many ways always been some kind of tablature notation, instructing performers as to actions rather than sounds. Today these techniques are often referred to as ‘action notation’ or ‘prescriptive notation’: ‘notation that informs us of the method of producing [the] sound’ (Kanno, 232). But whereas in many forms of tablature notation the results are more or less consistent from one performance to another, in Wolff’s music it is put to indeterminate use. Direct parallels with the notation found in Pianist: Pieces include the tablature notation in Wolff’s own For pianist (1959, page 4, which indicates direction of hands Figure 5a); Notation BE in John Cage’s Solo for Piano, from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-8, Figure 5b), and Kunsu Shim’s 12 Intermezzi, (2002, Figure 5c). Another influence upon Pianist: Pieces is Xenakis, to whose memory this work is dedicated. His Synaphaï (1969) notates the pianist’s fingers entirely independently, even if pitch specifically. However this is not to be taken totally literally, as in Wolff’s piece – the lines are given as independent dispersed lines, requiring different fingers to be playing them but not consistently – the pianist needs to figure a fingering to make this possible (Figure 5d). And Xenakis’s Evryali for solo piano, though notated traditionally, certainly conveys the sense of all ten fingers moving independently.

More recently the composer Weiland Hoban has composed a work – when the panting STARTS (2002-4) – which is possibly the most detailed notation for individual fingers composed thus far (Figure 5e).

Figure 5a: Christian Wolff, For Pianist, page 4 (extract)

Figure 5b: John Cage, Solo for Piano (from Concert for Piano and Orchestra), page 47 notation BE

Figure 5c: Kunsu Shim, 12 Intermezzi (extract)

Figure 5d: Iannis Xenakis Synaphaï, bars 36-41 piano part only

Figure 5e: Wieland Hoben, when the panting STARTS (page 1)

Wolff’s approach is perhaps more naïve and innocent than other uses of tablature notation, such as those found in the scores of Helmut Lachenmann, Klaus Hübler, Aaron Cassidy and Wieland Houben. Some might suggest Wolff’s use as whimsical. Oftentimes new music that does employ forms of tablature or action notation are done in such a manner as to produce noises and instability. Here the result is entirely traditional sounding, allowing solely for different permutations and combinations of pitch (though, as noted in the next section, non-sounding and the sound of fingers on keys are also possibilities). And yet the music has the potential to sound quite different from performance to performance in ways that many other works don’t.

Performing Pianist: Pieces

The implications and possibilities for the performer of Pianist: Pieces are many, and Wolff characteristically does not dictate how to play. Through practise it is more than likely that certain ways of playing become more or less engrained into the physiology of playing, much as in Feldman’s Intersections. Wolff points toward the choreographic elements of learning the piece in his preface: ‘The main focus is rhythm and the action of fingers. Could do an exercise with this material on a table top, and can play the keys somewhat like that, tapping and striking them; it’s even allright if the notes (pitches) don’t sound or you just hear the sound of fingers on keys.’



Pianist: Pieces is very much about the hands – the size and span of the hand, and the hand’s history, by which I mean the kind of music most familiar to the hand, combined with the tastes and sensitivities of the ear. For example my intuitive response is to play 7ths and 9ths, informed by my playing of Webern and also early 1950s music by Cage and Feldman.

However the continuities and changing densities of the music are such that options are necessarily restricted. Characteristically, Wolff composes into the process peculiarities that limit and obscure the liberating aspects of the notation. Some of these will now be examined, beginning with the third movement. 
Despite Wolff stating, in the performance notes to the third movement, that ‘Pitches are free and can change’, in reality there are so many held notes that moving the hand around frequently is not feasible. Certainly the hands could move between the two systems and at the repeat of the second system, and the right hand could move in the one bar rest (bar 4) in the top system (see Figure 1).



It is also possible that smaller shifts could be made occasionally, such as the left hand bar 9 (Figure 6).



But on the whole a certain consistency of pitch content characterizes the movement, such that each system is likely to sound as a single pitch collection with smaller shifts within that.

Figure 6: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, movement 3 bars 8-14

The notation is a little unclear but under close examination it can be seen that whilst most note heads appear on the line some note heads appear above or below. Wolff gives no instruction about these but the suggestion is clearly that fingers may move (and is probably the reason for inclusion in the instructions that pitches may change ‘(also on the same line)’). Given that many notes are held much of the time, the extent of that move per finger is likely to be no more than a tone. The implication, however, is that if fingers are to be allowed to move up or down a degree, a hand position which consists of fingers too close together (such as a five-note cluster) is not possible. If we allow for, say, a semitone between each finger then a total stretch of a minor 6th is the minimum. I find on the whole that my hand stretches over around an octave to a 9th or possibly a 10th for this movement.

Here are four possibilities, including different degrees of shifting within the hand span:

Given that each finger and each hand are entirely separate, there is no need for one hand (or finger) to assist another. Therefore the placement of the hands on the keyboard can quite literally be at any point reachable. The hands may be as far apart as possible (positioned around the highest and lowest octaves of the keyboard)



or may be situated close together at any low…






or high register:



Overlapping hands is unlikely to result in a happy situation, though the pianist keen to deliberately make the process more difficult and obscure may choose to do so, either by positioning the fingers of one hand between those of the other and maintain the pitch position without semitonal shifts,



or by accepting a non-sounding of the pitch as one finger tries to play a pitch already held down by another:



A more plausible subversion of the notation is to cross hands, such that the right hand plays in a register lower than the left hand, and the visual look of the score is confused. This is entirely within the ‘rules’ and is a technique I have employed on more than one occasion.



So the things that can be said for this movement are that:

  • Each hand will likely stretch between a minor 6th and a major 10th

  • There will likely be internal shifts of up to a minor third within the chord, responding to the shifts up and down in the notation, but the direction and thus character of these shifts will likely be consistent from one performance to another

  • The hands may be widely separated or close together

  • The hands, and this pitch areas, will mostly stay at roughly the same position but may change with each system (or repeat of a system) or the right hand may change at the bar’s rest

  • Tempo is encouraged to be experimented with, but a fast tempo is unlikely, or if adopted would make the internal rhythmic detail less perceptible

The fourth movement is much more flexible, however the instructions are a little ambiguous and limit certain choices. Although Wolff states that the register of each line covers a range equal to your hand span, he also states that ‘registers can overlap and change’ without defining when they might do so. His realization of bar 173 (see Figure 3) is revealing as to his understanding of this instruction: the lower line involves left hand fifth finger playing a dyad with left hand thumb on the middle line followed by a three-note chord played by left hand second, third and fourth fingers; Wolff realizes this with the left hand finger playing an Eb3 followed by a chord of D-C-A below the Eb.



Clearly, in this example, Wolff permits the hand position to change within the space of a triplet quaver. It is not clear from the instructions whether the middle line, when shared between the hands, should be at the same register for both hands, or whether the middle line could, in fact, represent two different pitch areas, one for notes which are played by the right hand and another for note played by the left hand. If the former (a single pitch area shared by the hands) then there are obvious restrictions as to possibilities for register, presumably requiring both hands to be close enough together to be able to share the register. 

At other times, however, there is plenty of scope theoretically for jumping across the keyboard, if each line were seen as, for example, high middle low.



However bar 115 demonstrates the limitations of this: a two note event is to be played with the right hand across the top two lines, with second and third fingers (Figure 7a). So the register of these top two lines have to be close together to accommodate this. There is a limit to how far apart the second and third fingers can stretch.

Figure 7a: Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, movement 4 bar 115


A perverse reversal of this situation can be seen at bar 166 (Figure 7b):

Figure 7b:
Christian Wolff Pianist: Pieces, movement 4 bars 165-166


where a two note chord has to be played by RH thumb and 3rd finger but where the thumb is on the top stave. The registeral positioning of the previous couple of bars have to be considered carefully to allow for this to happen before it becomes like a game of Twister.

So in both movements it is clear that what at first looks quite free is in fact restricted to varying degrees. The performer, as so often in Wolff’s music, is frequently involved in some kind of struggle. Here the struggle is sometimes physical, as outlined above. At other times the struggle is the result of confusion – it is sometimes oddly perplexing trying to reach notes that have not been predetermined; knowing that I’m going to play a D means that I in some ways focus upon the physical placement of that D on the keyboard, that I prepare for it in my mind’s eye as well as sometimes my actual eye. When no such specific pitch is prescribed I lose that kind of focus and very often end up splitting a note, as if my mind plays tricks on me, changing its mind just as I reach for the note. This can cause some rhythmic instability as well: confusion is a rhythmic device in Wolff’s music. So the performer can try to adopt a straightforward approach within the confines of these parameters, or might push the options as far as they might seem to go, enjoying the tension of freedom and discipline that is so characteristic of Wolff’s music.

Approaching performance

The pianist, composer and long-time friend of Christian Wolff, Frederic Rzewski talks about Wolff’s music as music primarily to be performed over being listened to, a position he has recently reiterated in the Dartmouth 80th birthday celebrations (Rzewski, 12). I disagree, though concur that the music can only be understood if heard, and therefore performed. At a performance I gave of Pianist: Pieces some years ago, I introduced the piece and explained something of the notations. One audience member approached me afterwards, clearly thrilled and inspired by the piece and the freedoms contained within it, claiming to have felt entirely free as a listener, knowing that the choices I was making with regard to pitch were spontaneous and unprescribed by the composer. This knowledge seemed to have shifted the listening experience significantly for this audience member, who perceived a similar freedom and consequent liveliness in the way I approached making sounds. As this article has demonstrated, such perceived freedom is not quite as true to the experience of performing the piece as this particular audience member might have liked.

In all my playing of Wolff’s music I try to allow for ways of playing that might surprise him whilst at the same time sticking to the confines of the notations and instructions. As Wolff himself has written about his music: ‘I am not unduly anxious about the specific identity of any given piece, though some element of recognition, especially if combined with elements of surprise, is usually a pleasure’ (1993) So I frequently use chance in making my choices of, for example, dynamics, silences, register, both to guard against the predictable and to reveal possibilities that might not have occurred to me. I like to test the notations – to push them to extremes, and consider what the limits of the notations are, what is permissible within the boundaries of the instructions. Likewise I try to use different approaches from one performance to another (my copy of the score is crammed full of photocopies from previous performances). Wolff is not interested in repeatability, and his experience and practice as an improviser informs something of my approach. It is important for me that performance is to be continually renewed and made fresh and so where and when possible I make changes to my previous practices. Some of these are decisions made in advance of a performance whilst others are more spontaneous in the performance moment. The notation withstands a range of approaches, from the fully realized to the entirely spontaneous. The following clips demonstrate a range of possibilities, from entirely spontaneous to fully notated versions.

An informal experiment with postgraduate students some years ago suggested that the character of the music was somewhat changed from a performance that was notated to one which was read spontaneously from the score, but was insufficiently conclusive to merit further investigation. However, maintaining a fixed, fully realized version of the piece feels, to me at least, a missed opportunity to engage with it as a work which comprises the total field of possibilities.

The instruction ‘poco rubato’ that occurs at the outset of the third movement is curious – the notion of ‘rubato’ is at one level ridiculous when applied to a non-pitch specific music, without any particular harmonic tension guiding the trajectory of the rubato. However, it has become increasingly clear to me that with each new performance of the movement, and thus with each new harmonic configuration, unpredictabilities arise that may have surprising tonal resonances, and these in some way inform an exploratory approach in the performance itself, allowing for an elasticity responsive to the curiosity of unpredictable harmonic relationships.

Wolff’s notations consistently conjure surprise and curiosity. As a performer I feel the need to make sense of this music and for it to make sense to me. And yet I also find that very often it doesn’t make any sense; that as I try more and more alternate versions it makes no more or less sense, but that I’m fascinated. I find myself being constantly surprised, and very much in the act of making music. In this sense, for me as a performer this is experimental music par excellence – so often the experimental aspects of a piece are those which came before the performance. This is particularly true of solo music by Cage, which so often requires realization before the performance.

No matter what or how the listener hears, I know that I play differently in response to these notations. That there is always the potential for something surprising and fascinating to happen that might take the music in a completely different direction. Perhaps, if a performance practice might be proposed relating to Wolff’s music it might relate not to sounds to be made, or limits of sounding material, but to the performer’s willingness to be surprised, to be curious in the performance act, possibly to fail, to push to her limits, maybe beyond those limits, and hopefully also to discover possibilities about the music through performance itself. The freedoms in Wolff’s music, including Pianist: Pieces, are very often less about the options as to what to play, but more directed toward how to play and the fragility of the performance situation. That somehow in the hesitations, confusion, curiosity and possible breakdown of the performance we are revealed not so much as actors within a music play but as human beings. Wolff has in the past quoted the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil as saying ‘vulnerability is a mark of existence’; a remark which begins actually with ‘the vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence.’ (Weil, 108)

Over the years that I have been studying Wolff’s music I have come to realise that often (and this may or may not be intentional) there are factors within the music and notation which tend toward fragility within performance, sometimes leading to breakdown or failure. This is not to say that the music makes a topic of failure or even fragility, but that the following of the music’s procedures can lead to these states. (This is a feature common to much of Alvin Lucier’s music too though for quite different reasons.) These tendencies can be seen in the earliest indeterminate works, and even before (when for example the complexities of the compositional process combined in a single moment to lead Wolff to notate tempo=0, a collapse of the compositional procedures).

And Wolff has talked in the past of how the cue-ing procedures work to create a rhythm that he found could not be notated in any other way. For the word ‘rhythm’ we might substitute ‘disturbance’, perhaps a way of energising an otherwise inanimate series of events, in a similar way, to take an extreme case, Ferneyhough makes use of irrational rhythms and non-normative time signatures – to make the performer move in some way. (Cardew)
Sometimes the fragility or breakdown comes simply in the matter of reading and understanding the instructions. There are times when Wolff is very clear in the matter of instructions, but other times when they are ambiguous. Within the context of an ensemble piece these ambiguities can create breakdown of relationship, arguments, requiring resolution.

I suggest that these tendencies are latent in all Wolff’s music. Perhaps even in one of his most used notational signs, the wedge, which variously means a pause, a break, a breath, a comma, and which has in performance the effect of silence, of rest but also of rupture and discontinuity.

So a great deal of the character of Wolff’s music comes about by the spontaneity induced in response to the tensions in the notational strategies. The score, as Wolff has said, ‘is one element in a conversation, an inducement to exploration, something flexible, reusable, consistently useful’. (Wolff, 1998, 314)

These ruptures, energies and instabilities are not measurable. They are also arguably qualities not easily accommodated by traditional notions of what constitutes good performance. But they are, I suggest, fundamental to the character and performance of Wolff’s music. And if work only has identity through performance, if the score really is only one element in a conversation and nothing more, then it seems to me that the study of performance is an invaluable means for us to engage with Wolff’s music.


Cardew, C. ‘Notation: Interpretation’, Tempo 58 (Summer, 1961) 21-33
Goehr, L. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
Kanno, M. ‘Prescriptive Notation: Limits and Challenges’, Contemporary Music Review 26/2 (2007)
Rzewski, F. ‘The Algebra of Everyday Life’, in Wolff, C. Cues: Writings and Conversations (Cologne: Musiktexte, 1998)
Thomas, P. Christian Wolff – Pianist:Pieces (sub rosa, SR389, 2014)
Weil, S. Gravity and Grace, Crawford, E. and von der Ruhr, M. (trans.) (London: Routledge, 2003)
Wolff, C. Pianist: Pieces (Edition Peters, 2001) EP68032. 
Wolff, C. ‘Sketch of a Statement’ (1993), in Wolff, C. Cues: Writings and Conversations (Cologne: Musiktexte, 1998)