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Beatrice Witkin

What led me to Wolpe was all these teaching-learning experiences I had which I found somewhat frustrating. I'm studying with Mark Brunswick in '43. When I brought my scores in, my assignments, he said I was writing too much, and how could I write so much. This has a lot to do with Wolpe, because it shows you a different way of teaching. So Mark Brunswick said you have to analyze every composer, you have to compose in the style of everybody before you can start composing on your own. First we start with a sixteenth century motet, Orlando di Lasso, and then we're going to go to who comes next, and then we're going to go to who comes next. With the motets I was interested, because I had never done that before as thoroughly, and it was fascinating, because you have your small palette, and you do the most musical you can with a small palette. It ended up finally when he said this is the best work I've ever had, and this should be published. He encouraged me. But then when he said to me you have to go on to imitating every composer, I was just wondering about it. So then by '45 I worked with him for two years, and the two years only the sixteenth century and only Orlando di Lasso.

Around '58 or '59 Irma Jurist said to me, "If you want to [compose], you should go to Stefan." I said, "I don't know. I heard his piece at the Philharmonic [The Man From Midian], but I don't know." So she started carrying on with me to go see him. "He's right for you." And I resisted. I said, "Oh well, I'll go with Ursula [Mamlok]." So the both of us went. And the first thing, we brought scores. I brought my scores from a long time, and she brought her pile. She brought more than I did. And first thing, Stefan looked at us and said, "Burn everything!" I thought that was the most marvelous thing I had ever heard. I thought, my God, how wonderful! Right when you start fresh. This man is really wonderful. Of course he said other things. He said, "What do you two think of Stravinsky now writing in the twelve-tone?" He started asking us. I said, "I don't know. I really don't know whether he should, because I had my fill with the twelve-tone, counting the tones." He said, "That's a good idea he should. He has to try something though. I think that's very good that he's doing that. He's getting into a new way." And [that] was just like the sunshine, because I thought this was really a marvelous thing that he told me. Just what I needed.

He didn't teach notes, concepts, scales, or anything. He gave me an attitude which started with "burn everything." The attitude was what got me out of this rut, and from then on I knew what to do. Even these Cantillations, my latest piece, I know what to do, because he said, and this was important, "You are the god of your composition, and you ordain what is going to happen, and you make up the rules for your piece. Call it a system, call it anything you want. You can write the piece based on three tones. You can write a piece based on a hundred tones. But make a decision what it's going to be, and then stay with it, and that's how you'll get unity. But you make up your own way of doing it, and the piece will have some cohesion, but you're the one who does it. Don't listen to anybody else. You're the composer, and you decide. So now when I have this Cantillation, I made up my own system. I'm still doing what he told me.

And then he brings in psychiatry. This is what I got out of him. He said, "When I was in Israel, my psychiatrist,"--you see, what we were talking about was the block that I couldn't write. And he said, "All composers have a block. I mean that's part of it." And he said, "When I was in Israel with a psychiatrist, he gave me some very good advice. His advice is, don't wait for the idea to come from your conscious. That's what creative people do. It should come from your own unconscious, that's the best part. But if you wait for the idea, that's where the block comes, that's where the stress and anxiety come. Work from your unconscious. Go sit down and put down notes, anything. Just write, make charts. Write, and write, and write from the top. It works the other way. The bottom influences the top, and the top influences the bottom." That's what he told me. So you start with the top of your brain, it'll influence your unconscious, and your unconscious will give it to you, and that's the way. These are the things that he gave to me. He got me working again. You're the god. If you work, make up your own system. That's what he meant by break with the past, and you don't have to have anyone tell you what to do. Start working. Don't wait for the idea. Just start writing, writing, writing, writing, writing. The idea will come to you, and then you'll handle it. He said, "The heck with all the harmony, and theory, and counterpoint, and everything, because all that was a waste. Throw it all out. It's not useful." I don't agree with that. It's useful. He had it But that's what he said. "You don't need it. You do it all by yourself."

He was, well, the word is democratic. There was no such thing as student and master, and master and student. And he was not a snob. If he liked you, he liked you. He didn't demand that you give him any worship, or look up to him, or look down. You were always a one-to-one relationship. You were equals. And he liked women, and he liked men too. He was very open and friendly. He was an original that way. He didn't have any aura or mystique about him, he was very approachable, very human. He was interested in the human aspect of people, in the individual. He liked to go to parties, and he didn't act like a great man. But he was really upset because his music wasn't played, he wasn't getting recognition. He was very aggravated about it. That's why I got going organizing.

Composer Beatrice Witkin attended Hunter College, and studied composition with Mark Brunswick, Roger Sessions, and Stefan Wolpe. In 1968 she was invited to work at the Electronic Music Studio at the New York University School of the Arts. Two years later, her electronic composition Glissines was a winner in High Fidelity Magazine's Electronic Music Contest. She was also recipient of the ASCAP Standard Awards, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Interview: AC, New York City, 18 December 1984


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