Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen (born 1938) remained at the forefront of the contemporary music scene throughout his prolific career. Following in the tradition of the post-World War II serialists, his works employed techniques to achieve new heights of lyricism, richness, and subtlety.
Charles Wuorinen was born in New York City on June 9, 1938. His father taught history at Columbia University for 40 years, and his early training in composition came from Jack Beeson and Vladmir Ussachevsky, both Columbia University professors. He started playing the piano and composing at age five. At 16, he won the New York Philharmonic's Young Composers Award. Wuorinen enrolled at Columbia in 1956 and studied composition with Otto Luening. He wrote his earliest orchestral work, Into the Organ Pipes and Steeples, at 18. While working as a piano accompanist, recording engineer, and singer, Wuorinen attended the Bennington Composers Conference in Vermont for four years. At 21, he composed his first three symphonies.
At Columbia in 1962, Wuorinen founded the Group for Contemporary Music, which became the prototype for many university new music ensembles. Organized in collaboration with Harvey Sollberger, it became one of the most important agencies for the performance and recording of contemporary music. Wuorinen received a bachelor's degree in 1961 and his master's degree in music in 1963. He taught music at Columbia from 1964 to 1971 but resigned when he was not granted tenure. He held Guggenheim fellowships in 1968 and 1972, and taught at the Manhattan School of Music from 1972 to 1979.
Wuorinen's early works use conventional tones but are still modern and exhibit a penetrating control of detail. His Third Symphony (1959), for example, shows a mastery of large form orchestration and 12-tone techniques. However, Wuorinen's best-known works feature rigorous serial applications similar to the works of Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, and Milton Babbitt. His compositions were based in a "time point system" in which pitch, time, and rhythmic divisions are related.
Throughout his career, Wuorinen was receptive to new musical resources. As early as 1961 he incorporated magnetic tape in his Consort from Instruments and Voices and combined tape with orchestra in Orchestra and Electronic Exchanges (1965). In 1969 Wuorinen created Times Encomium, which used synthesized sounds in every element of the composition. In 1970 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Times Encomium, the first ever awarded for a composition created solely for a recording.
Wuorinen's works have been widely performed and he is one of the most significant American composers of his generation. Most of his compositions are abstract instrumental music. He created pieces to showcase nearly every musical instrument.
Some of Wuorinen's music may appear dry and un-inspired on first listening. Conventional elements such as melody and harmony are superseded by the shaping of melodic contour and the creative interaction of ensemble forces. Wuorinen believed that "art is itself because it demands an active relation with him who perceives it. He cannot appreciate' it; he must himself create the work's meaning." Listeners must absorb a Wuorinen piece several times before they appreciate its depth and dimension.
Wuorinen recorded for Gold Crest, CRI, Cambridge, Advance, Nonesuch, AR-DGG, Mainstream, and Desto Records, and his main publisher was C.F. Peters. He wrote essays and articles for High Fidelity, Musical America, the New York Times, Perspectives of New Music, the Saturday Review, Prose, Musik Geschichte und Gegenwart, and the New Grove Dictionary, as well as liner notes for CRI and Nonesuch Records.
Composer, conductor, lecturer, and performer, Wuorinen was so prolific that by the age of 37 he had over 150 compositions to his credit. His reputation allowed him to work exclusively by commission. Wuorinen was a founding member of the American Society of University Composers. He was also notable as the author of Simple Composition (1978), a valuable textbook for composition. From 1985 to 1987 he was composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony.
His range of work is extraordinary. Wuorinen's opera The W. of Babylon (1975) is a "baroque burlesque" with an assortment of lewd 17th-century French men and women. His Bambula Squared (1984) is a piece for orchestra and computer-generated tape. Starting in the 1980s, Wuorinen increasingly composed chamber works with sharp textures, strong rhythms, and sustained, clear melodies.
Further Reading on Charles Wuorinen
In addition to his instructive publication Simple Composition (1978), recommended reading includes Introduction to Contemporary Music by Joseph Machlis (1979), American Music Since 1910 by Virgil Thompson (1970), David Ewen's American Composers (1982), and the New York Times (June 7, 1970, and April 10, 1983). Wuorinen is interviewed in T. Caras and C. Gagne, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (1982).