First published: Spring 2012
Adolf Wölfli, a Swiss peasant who suffered from rage and depression, was incarcerated at the Waldau hospital in 1895 until his death in 1930. While there, he began work on his imaginary autobiography, which consisted of over 25,000 pages of prose text, interwoven with poems, musical compositions, illustrations and collages. Many of the illustrations in the 45 volumes he completed incorporated musical notations in their designs and patterns. Wölfli, it is said, thought of his drawings as musical compositions, or ‘sound pieces’, and signed some of them as ‘composer’. Walter Morgenthaler, a psychiatrist and Wölfi’s primary physician at Waldau, wrote that Wölfli would often make music for hours at a time, alone in his cell. He would roll up a piece of cardboard and use it as a trumpet, rehearsing passages and playing variations on a certain theme in different keys.
While Wölfli is recognised primarily as an artist rather than a composer, at least seven musicians have attempted to translate a few of his indecipherable scores. In 1976, parts of his manuscripts were analysed and performed by Kjell Keller and Peter Streiff, which was later recored by a musical trio and two speakers as the album ‘Adolf Wölfli: Gelesen Und Vertont’. In 1992, Terry Riley formed a small theatre company to play his opera theatre piece titled The Saint Adolf Ring. It was four movements scored for flute, clarinets and saxophone, violin, cello, piano, two percussions and a narrator.
Riley, born in California in 1935, launched what is now known as the Minimalist movement with his groundbreaking classic In C, composed in 1964. This seminal work provided the conception for a form comprising interlocking repetitive patterns that was to change the course of twentieth-century music and strongly influence the works of Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and John Adams, as well as rock groups such as The Who, Soft Machine, Curved Air, Tangerine Dream and Robert Fripp. His best known album is A Rainbow In Curved Air, which incorporated multi-layer, polymeric, brightly-orchestrated eastern-flavoured improvisation that later set the stage for the New Age Movement. Before he performed his homage to Wölfli at the San Francisco War Memorial in 1992, I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the piece.