Adolf Wölfli, composer


Wölfli ’s artwork is dense with text, numbers, and musical notations. Repetitive music was droning at the  Wölfli museum in Prague and I thought it interesting that they had matched such discordant sounds to the exhibit. It is hard to describe the music – haunting and somewhat eerie. There were photographs of  Wölfli  playing his hand-made instruments – rolls of cardboard rolled into a trumpet shape. Although my son manages to produce deep, rumbling sounds from a didgeridoo, I couldn’t see how anyone could produce such sounds on a cardboard tube.

The Adolf Wölfli Foundation addresses the big question: do these musical notes mean anything?

Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli’s can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances – as Wölfli indicates – waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music. How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well. More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli’s concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting.

I saw a CD for sale at the museum and asked (through silly sign language) if it was Wölfli’s compositions. Yes, it was. When I finally got to play the CD, I discovered that it was not the music playing at the exhibit, but something similar – more rumbling notes, more discordant sounds in a minor key. The CD cover is blank. I have no idea who composed or performed this music, but suppose it was compiled especially for the exhibit. The Internet offers a bit of help with recordings of  Wölfli ’s simple tunes as well as pieces “inspired” by him. The simple tunes are what you would expect from someone who had grown up hearing folk music.

A few musicians have composed music “inspired” by  Wölfli . Danish composer  Per Nørgård, is probably the best known of these. Here is one of his compositions:    It is ominous. It won’t make you think of a spring meadow…

Finally, we’re back in Canada for the next blog. I’m off to the Toronto area to meet up with Leigh Cooney and Alma Rumball’s family.