Embodying High Culture, Crankily

Posted May 25, 2018 8:29 p.m. EDT

Composer Charles Wuorinen should be in good spirits. The San Francisco Symphony recently gave the premiere of a colorful new orchestral work. He is writing a ballet score and just finished a string trio.

Organizations large and small continue to commission Wuorinen, expanding a catalog of more than 270 pieces. New York City Opera will present the U.S. premiere of his “Brokeback Mountain” on Thursday, a little more than a week before his 80th birthday. But on an April visit to the Upper West Side brownstone he shares with his husband and manager, Howard Stokar, Wuorinen was characteristically carping.

“One doesn’t like the feeling of being just a placeholder,” he said of the City Opera production, which fills the company’s annual Pride Month slot for an LGBT-themed work. “If this didn’t work out, they would — I know they would — plug another damn thing in the same supposed connection.”

Indeed, he doesn’t view “Brokeback” — with a libretto by Annie Proulx, the writer of the story about the doomed affair of two cowboys on which the Oscar-winning film was based — as a “gay” opera at all. “Earlier operas often used to deal with some kind of deviation — in dramatic, literary terms — from the then-accepted moral code of behavior,” he said. “That’s the tragedy of the opera. Not poor, oppressed gay people.”

Smiling slyly, Wuorinen spoke with the assurance of a man who made up his mind about the ills of the world long ago. In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, he castigated orchestras, minimalism, populism, affirmative action and a poorly educated public, saying “the current tendency of transmuting art into entertainment will cause serious music to cease to exist.”

Little has changed in Wuorinen’s mind since. In the April interview, he said that awarding the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music to hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar marked “the final disappearance of any societal interest in high culture.”

And it is high culture — a particularly recondite form of it — that Wuorinen has long embodied. Along with composer Milton Babbitt, who died in 2011, he was once considered emblematic of so-called uptown, the world of the academic avant-garde. As the story tends to go, Wuorinen and Babbitt’s cohort seized control of U.S. composition at the height of the Cold War, creating an abstruse musical language that, in a post-Sputnik moment, gained prestige for engrossing specialists while alienating mainstream audiences.

Scholars have debated the merits of this narrative, and Wuorinen himself denies that he ever held such a position of authority. But he certainly served as an intransigent advocate for Arnold Schoenberg’s modernist 12-tone technique. In the opening to his 1979 book “Simple Composition,” Wuorinen wrote that traditional tonality “is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream. It has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.”

It hasn’t been. And while Wuorinen now acknowledges that his chosen style has fallen out of favor, he still doesn’t miss an opportunity to castigate tonal composers. “The apostles of the diatonic world,” he said in April, “have not produced work that measures up to the music of the past.”

The roots of his contrarianism date back to his early years. His father taught in the history department at Columbia University, and Wuorinen grew up in an elite intellectual climate — Jacques Barzun was a family friend — that instilled a lifelong commitment to the classical canon. At a young age, a piano teacher assigned him excerpts from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

“A little kid doing that, instead of getting crap to play,” he recalled, “that makes a big difference.”

“In those years and a good many years afterward,” he added, “it was considered essential for a civilized person to have some connection with literature or music. Now that’s completely gone.”

But his family was reluctant to support him as he began to compose. His father had immigrated from Finland and worked in factories before earning his doctorate. “His own life experience had made him so anxious to have his children avoid risk,” Wuorinen said. Such early conflicts may have informed his emphasis on the indignities supposedly suffered by U.S. composers. Even as he was made his name on the New York scene, he professed a bleak outlook. “It is difficult to be optimistic about the future,” Wuorinen wrote in 1963, enumerating the plight of young composers, including “their isolation, from each other, from their older colleagues, and from an unhearing, uncaring public.”

Around that time, Wuorinen was writing dense and steely works like his Piano Variations and String Trio, and had founded the Group for Contemporary Music, one of the earliest U.S. ensembles devoted to modernist works. In 1970, he became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, for his harsh but rhythmically vibrant, electronic “Time’s Encomium.” Still, he was denied tenure at Columbia a year later because of departmental politics.

Serving as composer in residence for the San Francisco Symphony in the mid-80s, he created a forceful, stridently persuasive orchestral sound in works like “Movers and Shakers” and “Bamboula Squared.” But even when granted such positions of power, he continued to gripe. In response to the 1988 Times profile, composer David Lang reprimanded Wuorinen’s generation for “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.”

Recordings of Wuorinen’s more recent music reveal a continued preoccupation with formal rigor but also a new sense of playfulness, as in the eloquent Fourth Piano Sonata and the absurdist cantata “It Happens Like This.” A 2016 album features his searing Eighth Symphony and his cogent Fourth Piano Concerto.

Both of those orchestral works were written at the request of conductor James Levine, Wuorinen’s devoted advocate over the past two decades, who was fired by the Metropolitan Opera in March after that company found evidence of sexual abuse. Still prominently displayed by the entrance to Wuorinen’s home is a photo of him with Levine, Babbitt and composer Elliott Carter. A Wuorinen work was to have its premiere by the Met Orchestra under Levine’s baton in June, but the ensemble no longer plans to perform the piece. Wuorinen described himself as “collateral damage in the Levine scandal.” He added: “Can’t you ever distinguish between the man and his work? Whatever happened about innocent until proven guilty?” Although Wuorinen has been a faculty member at several universities, since his tumultuous years at Columbia he has expressed skepticism toward the academy as a home for composers. Characterizing himself as “almost a libertarian” — he voiced some qualms about the Trump administration but described Hillary Clinton as “utterly repellent” — Wuorinen is also distrustful of government support for the arts.

If Wuorinen’s agitations seemed passé in the 1980s, they feel idiosyncratically archaic today. His aggrieved rhetoric once served to justify the dedication of new resources toward U.S. composers such as graduate programs and contemporary music ensembles. But with no shortage of either, Wuorinen’s self-satisfied defense of “Western art” and his dismissals of nonclassical music do not evince the kind of careful analysis he claims is needed to appreciate his own work. His sour take on Lamar’s Pulitzer is predictable from a man who once joked civilization’s decline would culminate with “concert rap.”

Like his grim cultural outlook, Wuorinen’s compositional process has remained mostly the same for the past half-century. “I’m assembling the thing out of what amounts to fragments of a larger entity whose lengths — this is the sort of thing I’ve always done — are proportionate to the basic intervals of the underlying material,” he said of his coming ballet score. He typically determines a set of intervals between notes that then shape both the large-scale structure of a piece and its individual details. The approach yields a kind of formal lucidity that is constant from his prickly early music through his more inviting recent works.

And although he writes in an unabashedly atonal idiom, Wuorinen often structures his music so that particular notes are frequently reiterated, giving the ear subtle guideposts. This technique is palpable in “Brokeback,” in which the angular vocal lines sung by the character of Jack orbit around B natural, and those of his lover, Ennis, tend toward C sharp. “Those things converge on C natural, which is the foundation of the key of death and sleep, in the old world,” Wuorinen said. “In my opera, C natural is the pitch class of death.”

Originally commissioned for City Opera before it declared bankruptcy in 2013 and went on hiatus, “Brokeback” premiered in Madrid in 2014. These New York performances will use a pared-down, chamber version of the original score. Such revisions are unusual for Wuorinen, who is not one to dwell on his back catalog. His newly completed trio, however, includes a rare gaze toward his earlier music.

“I used the hexachord, but transposed, that I had used to generate the old String Trio, which is now 50 years old,” he said. But he rejected the notion that such a harmonic nod represented any kind of nostalgia.

“I don’t like the present,” he said. “But I didn’t like the past, either.”