Charles Wuorinen

By: Brian Berger
June 9, 2010

In a country where classical music is almost entirely marginalized, and in an era in which modernist composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varese, and Webern seem to have done it all, CHARLES WUORINEN (born 1938) represents the possible. The son of a historian father and a biochemist mother, Wuorinen won a New York Philharmonic Young Composer’s award at the age of 16. Since then, he’s earned great acclaim as both a pianist/conductor, and a a tireless composer whose vast output ranges from piano pieces to percussion ensembles, ballets to symphonies, including — with Annie Proulx’s approval — a much-discussed commission for a Brokeback Mountain opera. John Zorn called him “one of the world’s greatest composers.” But Wuorinen’s unabashed avant-gardism is rarely embraced by either opera queens or the opera-going public and has sometimes rubbed even fellow composers the wrong way. Despite winning a Pulitzer for his 1970 all-electronics piece, Time’s Encomium, Wuorinen was the next year denied tenure at Columbia for what one observer called “arrogance, ruthlessness and contempt for anything outside his bailiwick.” That seems a bit much, particularly as so much of Wuorinen’s invention is so obviously fun. Watch Arabia Felix (1973) for one stunning example.



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