A Composer Who Understands Fractals: Charles Peter Wuorinen


I recently read The Fractalist , a memoir of the late Benoit Mandelbrot, the great geometer who pioneered our understanding of fractals and their significance in nature and human society.

The usual way to consider fractals is to start with the Mandelbrot set, an exceedingly complicated geometrical configuration (as left) that arises from a very simple initiating formula.

As Mandelbrot himself wrote, in his groundbreaking 1982 book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth….” None of the things amidst which we live our lives has the smoothness and regularity of traditional geometrical forms. Studying the geometry of fractals – of detailed (rough) patterns that are self-similar from micro to macro scales – means coming to grips with the actual shapes of coastlines, mountains, and even clouds.

What about music then? Musical form is a natural extension of the fractal idea. Indeed, the first page of Mandelbrot’s memoir lists music as among the sorts of beauty-in-complexity to which fractal geometry may be well adapted.

Mandelbrot (photo on the right) returns to the subject late in the memoir, chiefly to praise Charles Wuorinen, a “composer who understands fractality.”

Who Wuorinen Is

That’s as good a reason as any to discuss the career of this fellow Wuorinen. Another reason is simply that his life has been a fascinating one. Here’s a complete discography from his own website. He’s a New York City born composer of Scandinavian roots, whose career certainly illustrates that music today, even orchestral music, [an art form that has enthusiasts who bask in what they see as its unchanging character], can and does change.

Wuorinen took a BA from Columbia in 1961, and an MA from the same institution in 1963. He was a faculty member at Columbia for a time but left there in 1971 soon after he had been denied tenure.

His work in the 1960s and early ‘70s was sufficient to bring him favorable attention from the heirs of Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, the composer of L’oiseau de feu (1919) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913) was one of the giants of the early years of the 20th century. His heirs wanted Wuorinen to work up that composer’s final sketches into a complete work for publication and performance. He naturally complied with that flattering request, and the result was A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky. You can listen to it here.

Reliquary and Fortune

The word “reliquary,” by the way, is used metaphorically there. A reliquary is a container for relics, sometimes the bones of ancestors or other revered figures.

Years later the Stravinsky/Wuorinen “Reliquary” would be put to a related use in the world of ballet. The head of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins, used it as the scoring of a balletic tribute to George Balanchine (below), one of the founders of that institution, in 1996.

But let’s go back to the 1970s and to chronological order. For in 1976, soon after the appearance of Reliquary, Wuorinen completed his first opera, one expressly based on classical materials, called The W. of Babylon. Though this opera doesn’t seem to have actually premiered until 1988, it was at once a tribute to Mozart and a work clearly of the mid-1970s, as was its libretto by Renaud Charles Bruce.

Pseudo-Random Material

Click here for another sample of Wuorinen’s work. That is “Fortune,” a composition for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, that dates to just three years after The W. of Babylon, that is, to 1979. This gets us back to fractals, because Wuorinen (photo below) has said that he sometimes begins with “strings of pseudo-random material, usually pitches but sometimes other things, [which] were generated and then subjected to traditional types of compositional organization, including twelve-tone procedures.” That description will sound familiar to Mandelbrotians.

It was around that time, the late 1970s, that Wuorinen became interested in Mandelbrot, and vice versa. In a sense, fractality is something that every successful composer must understand, for every piece of music, beyond a motif or a brief whistled tune, operates on different scales of time, and the art of the composer is a matter of making those longer and shorter duration patterns cohere, and even generate one another in a way pleasing to the ear. From the late 19760s on, Wuorinen became conscious, one might even say self-conscious, about this compositional task.

Wuorinen has also married the idea of fractality with the modernist 12-tone program that Wuorinen had learned from Stravinsky, and from others (Milton Babbitt, Anton Webern, etc.). This program, part of serialism, raises complicated musical issues itself and is something I hope to discuss in future entries in this blog. For now, let us simply say that for those of us accustomed to the older 7-note scale (do, re, mi….), serialist music can at first sound dissonant.

If the samples of Wuorinen’s work above are your first encounter with serialism, I fear you’ll have to train your ears to it a bit.

Present and Future

In more recent years James Levine, who was until 2011 the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has become an important champion of Wuorinen’s musical significance. Levine commissioned from Wuorinen the latter’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which the BSO premiered in March 2005.

Wuorinen also composed (or perhaps is still at work composing) the music for the ballet Brokeback Mountain. He has no responsibility, by the way, for the soundtrack of the 2005 movie of the same name. That soundtrack’s music was the work of Argentine musician Gustavo Santoalalla.

But the ballet, based on the same Annie Proulx short story as that better known movie, is expected to premier in 2014 at the Teatro Real, in Madrid, Spain. It will be fascinating to see what is “fractal” about it when it appears, and what is serialist.

In the meantime, we can enjoy Santoalalla’s take on the music appropriate to that particular mountain.


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