Wes Huss was the Director of Theatre at school (I see his wife Bea, baby in arms, crossing the field in front of the Lodges), and when he decided to produce Eric Bentley's translation of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, he cast me in the part of Sun, and we had some nasty tangles. But he was persistent, ever see him use his charm? Don't miss it, one of those directors who can act. Cynthia was to play the opposite lead, and be my love (she was anyway, despite the violent affairs she had with Tommy Jackson, Tim, Victor, Dan, and Creeley [before Jorge]). I accepted. Although angry, didn't mind playing the role of a pilot, but I was also to sing several (no less), songs, and I hadn't sung since church, in Kirkwood, Missouri. I was in a lot of plays in high school, but I hadn't sung on stage--ever, so being as I was going to sing, I would go to Stefan, the resident composer, for lessons, everything being decided for me, I went along. You know, until the curtain went up and I was on stage, and but for the prompter the play would have been the utter disaster I in part wanted it to be, because I hated it because it embarrassed me. And in the beginning I trudged up to Stefan's house, with a heavy heart and a head full of gloom. Hilda opened the door, cheerful: amused. I went in. She (academic or not, she was young and there wasn't a straight guy at school who didn't miss seeing her go by), turned, gestured to Stefan at the piano, and departed.
Their house had two stories, wood frame with shingles. Nice. Up the road on the side of the mountain.
I crossed the room to him, who rose from his piano (grand), and greeted me. Typical: elusive, head tilted, eyes bright, big grin. Arms out, fingers spread, seeing I was nervous, assumed a look of amusement, and slight reproach. Said I was nervous and I was nervous, said not to worry and I was worried, said he'd help me to learn to sing--we, together. We would do it together. Sit.
A small stand on top of which was a large plant, on a large, round copper tray, to my right. In the front room. Good-sized with windows. Sunny. Stefan very happy there.
He had written music for the play. Wes had decided not to use Kurt Weill's.
On a certain day
As was very well known
The poor woman's son
Will gain the golden throne
Stefan at the keys, I, dutiful, beside him. He began to play and sing the above lyrics, and as I could read music (Dan was teaching me trumpet), I read along, hummed a bit. Louder, he said, so I hummed louder, then sang, a little, and he said louder, stronger, so I kinda did that and he got up, reached across in front of me, took the plant off the copper tray and put the tray on top of the piano, put the plant back on the table, sat down and began to play telling me to sing loud, and strong, which I didn't do and he stopped playing, turned, put his hand on my shoulder, and said Fee.
You must, he said, SING! Whereupon he turned, and as both of his hands hit the keyboard, he began with that sort of yell he had ON A CERTAIN DAY, AS WAS VERY WELL KNOOOWWWNNN...
Sat back. Laughing at himself. Looking at me. I nodded. Unh huh yeah right, almost blushing in amusement and fright. He sat forward, fingers struck the keys, I sang pretty loud LOUDER he yelled and began singing again as I sang louder, but still self-conscious and he yelled SING FEE, SING! Which I did, a little louder and then some, but still--he stopped. Jumped to his feet. Grabbed the copper tray, and holding with his left hand smacked it with his right BOOOONNNNNNNNNNGG shook the whole house including foundations, LIKE THAT! Put the tray on the piano, sat down, glared at me, began to slam out the music. I began to sing. I mean, I sang. STRONGER, he yelled, and stopped singing, but kept playing and I began to yell and I mean I yelled that song JA JA he laughed as I cut loose, THAT'S IT!--a force, a call I never knew came out of my throat, I saw his face shine, as he played, and I sang, until the song was over, and we fell silent. He began again and I sang along, loud and strong GOOD GOOD he cheered, and finished he began again and I sang with him, clear through, I loved it, and after I'd finished, Stefan sat back, looked at me, expression warm, tender, triumphant.
"Good! See? What a good voice you have!"
I might have reddened. I'm sure I did, in my pride. But I acknowledged what he had said because it was true, and it was Stefan who had done it.
He (Stefan) played piano each Sunday evening before supper, the one formal activity of the week. We had to dress up. He played waltzes, and couples waltzed. It was funny and marvelous, like him, for he enjoyed it so, but also, right in the middle of a sweeping phrase he'd stop, and leap up in disgust, and turn away, angry. Because as nice as it was, and as much fun, it was the old world and the old music. He considered himself an innovator, a modernist, a musical radical, and that waltz stuff was behind him. No amount of pleading with him would get him back to play more. In that sense he was divided, not so much in a deep psychological sense (although that may have been true), but to us, the way we saw him, we identified with him and his vision of himself, and though we were charmed by those waltzes, we agreed with his decision to stop, and turn his back on it. Weren't we? I agree with him today, for those waltzes were the background to World War One. But each Sunday he'd play waltzes, and leap up disgusted.
He enjoyed his own wit, I liked Stan Kenton's big band, Stefan said "I can't Stanton!" Had a big laugh on that, I did too: he knocked himself out.
The night David Tudor performed the Battle Piece, Stefan was ecstatic. In the standing ovation that followed (all concerts were in the dining hall) Stefan rose, and ran along the aisle, crying out, waving his hands, half mad with joy, that it was the greatest performance ever, of that piece. He ran right into the spotlight (on the piano area) where David stood, smiling, seeing Stefan coming toward him, until Stefan embraced him. We cheered, applauding all the more. Needless to say Hilda, too.
He was a private person, so was Hilda. They didn't hang around with us. After supper they went home. Well, who didn't, but there wasn't the camaraderie that we had with some of the faculty, or, which marked Black Mountain, the tensions, with each other, that some of the faculty were drawn into. This has never been written about. But in one sense Stefan was you could say European, and was there to compose, and he did.
Excerpted from The Black Mountain Book (Wesleyan, N.C.: Weleyan College Press, 34-36). Also includes a written communication, 1999.
Fielding Dawson (1930-2002) attended Black Mountain College from 1949-53 and went into the United States Army from 1953-55. He is the author of 21 books, including both shortstories and novels. His novel The Black Mountain Book was published in 1991.