American composer Charles Wuorinen, 1938–2020. (credit: Nina Roberts

Charles Wuorinen: a student’s recollections

American composer Charles Wuorinen was born in New York City on June 9, 1938. He passed away on March 11, 2020, at age 81. Today marks the late American composer’s 85th birthday. To honor the occasion, we asked Karl Henning, one of our writers who was also a student of Wuorinen, to offer some recollections about studying with the distinguished dodecaphonist. Here’s what he has to say:

Karl Henning | 9 JUN 2023

In the late 1980s, I wound up pursuing my doctoral work in Composition at the University at Buffalo (or the State University of New York at Buffalo, “if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”). I say “wound up” because my path to Buffalo was no bullet train. To be fair, it sounds like a line from Comedy Improv Night: “Who chooses to go to Buffalo?”

I had entered the Graduate Composition Program in Buffalo, not knowing with whom I might study. Morton Feldman, who had been l’Eminence grise in the UB Composition Faculty, and of whom I knew nothing but his name and the title Rothko Chapel had passed away, and the two front-rank composers whom the Department brought in pro tempore were Louis Andriessen, who would take a pied-à-terre in Buffalo, and Charles Wuorinen, then on the faculty at Rutgers, who would shuttle to Lake Erie weekly.

I was not given the choice of which gentleman to study with but was simply informed (not that I had any quarrel with the result) that I was to work with Charles.

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We graduate composers met each of the two at a weekly seminar in which either Louis or Charles would present a piece of theirs. So possibly the first I saw Charles was in this seminar, during which he played for us Garrick Ohlsson’s recording (with the San Francisco Symphony) of Charles’ Third Piano Concerto. Somehow, I was the one who ended up silently volunteering to turn the pages of the score, so my entrée to Wuorinen’s work was listening to this powerfully athletic, exhilarating concerto while keeping abreast of the score in real-time as a page-turner.

Soon after, when we met in his studio for the first time, he told me, tongue-in-cheek, that in the composition studio, ideally, he would train up “little Charles Wuorinens.” Only now, as I write this, I think of the satirical Soviet cartoon of the miniature Dmitri Shostakoviches, and I wonder if Charles had this in mind.

In any event, my experience working with him in the studio was that, if he did not always laud the work which I brought in (he didn’t), he did give me some space. I wrote the pieces I was interested in trying out, and did not try to “write into” Charles’ world. To my benefit throughout our work together, he consistently and, on the whole, patiently encouraged me to expand my own sound world. My music would never sound as if I were seeking to imitate Charles, but rather I internalized the musical benefits.

Charles Wuorinen (credit: Susan Johann)

Charles Wuorinen (credit: Susan Johann)

The second notable incident in Charles’ studio followed a Graduate Composers Concert. Nobody on the Graduate Composition Faculty defended or justified the practice, but we Graduate Composers were given exactly one and only one concert each semester in which we might present our work. If it sounds ridiculous and stultifying, it probably is.

As I’ve said, Charles spent only part of the week in Buffalo, so he did not attend the Graduate Composers Concert in my first semester. The Chairman of the Graduate Composition Faculty did and also joined us students for the obligatory beer and Buffalo wings after. In his opinion, none of us had been adventurous enough in our compositional efforts on the program.

Even at the time, it struck me as next door to a sarcasm that the Department only gives us one chance per semester to present our work, and then upbraids us for concentrating on what we already understand to be our strengths. “All right,” methought, “you want outside the box, I’ll give it to you. So, for the second semester’s concert, I devised a piece completely unlike anything I’d written before, incorporating elements that I was not sure would really fly.

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Six of us Graduate Composers had formed a performing ensemble for ourselves. For this piece, I had a blackboard on stage, and I began by writing the phrase “Tranquil Ankles” on the board, and I invited the audience to speak the phrase aloud. For the first section of the piece proper, I re-harmonized “Silent Night,” displaced the notes of the melody registrally so that there was no discerning the tune, and expanded the time scale in a manner that was something of an homage to Feldman.

The second section was a kind of invention for two clarinets, both leaping between high and low registers so that the listener might puzzle as to which was playing what, accompanied by bowed notes on the marimba (this section afterwards drew a compliment from the new head of the Electronic Music Studio, Peter Otto.)

For the final section of the piece, I stood up, and walked out of the ensemble and up the aisle amid the audience, declaiming line by line a poem I had written. At the end of each line, the ensemble remaining on stage responded with a musical phrase. For the final line of the poem, I was at the back of the hall and I punctuated the line, “I sang to the sky, and day broke,” by snapping the metal bar to open the door. The whole piece probably ran ten minutes.

Contrary to expectation, and indeed to my astonishment, Charles had remained in Buffalo for the concert. I wondered if I might “have some explaining to do,” since I wrote this piece quite apart from the music I was showing to Charles, week by week in the studio, and this designedly quirky piece, I had kept dark from him.

I therefore went into my weekly meeting with Charles, completely unsure what to expect.

“That piece of yours,” he opened, with mild bemusement. “It was twice as long as it needed to be.” Which, the plain truth to tell, was fair. “That said,” he went on, “There was something in your piece that nothing else on the program had.”

The last I met Charles was here in Boston in 2005. He was in town when Peter Serkin played the première of his Fourth Piano Concerto (another absolutely cracking piece). I met him in the lobby of Symphony Hall at intermission. He was most gracious and did, in fact, remember me.


About the author:
Karl Henning is a composer, clarinetist and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Henning has also written reviews for MusicWeb International, and