It was always the quality of the music to be incredibly energetic, almost nervous at times. I wouldn't say that Wolpe was a nervous guy, but he always talks about that energetic quality that music has. His background was so broad that you felt all of that in his music, and also from him whenever you met him. He collected paintings and was interested in literature, so maybe his intellect was very fast. He saw the limitations in using words to describe music, because, let's face it, music is a language on its own and words can't really describe what we do when we play or hear. The relationship of the performer to the music always changes, and I think he liked that changeable aspect, and even a sense of improvisation, though his notation was very craggy. He would have 3/32 bars and 7/16 bars and 4/4 bars, and often people would be playing simultaneously all kinds of different rhythms that made for, you could say, a cluttered texture, or you could say that it was just kind of a multiplicity of things going on simultaneously. It wasn't even counterpoint in the strict sense of rules being obeyed about how certain notes fit together. He seemed to work with various sets of notes that would always fan out. He would start with something very simple, and immediately it would take on different meanings as other notes were added to the texture. That's one thing about his music that is so great, because you couldn't really say it was tonal or atonal. There was always a sense of tonality and a harmonic center, or at least the center of a note at any given point in his music. But it never manifested itself in any kind of harmony but Wolpe's own sense of harmony. [...]
When you compare Schoenberg and Wolpe, you see that Schoenberg used a lot of nineteenth-century forms, there's rondo and sonata form and variation form. Although he talked about transformation, it was always set in the context of those rather well-known forms. With Wolpe you really do feel a sense of transformation, because you start out with a certain number of pitches being spoken out--it may even start with only two notes, he seemed to like that two-note figure, whether it was the G and B at the beginning of the Two Instrumental Units or the A and the B at the beginning of the Trio--then he had a way of making, for lack of a better word, some kind of wedge format. It simply spread out and fanned out among the instruments playing. So with Wolpe you see fewer of those old forms, but he had such a great sense of form that it comes out that you know where you are in the piece at any given point. And really that's the test of a good composer, whether he can lead you to expect the right thing to come next, or if he leads you to expect something and then changes that. The change, the surprise in itself is a formal gesture. [...]
The man and his music seemed to be inseparable in that way that he had an aura about him. Whenever Wolpe was around, it was kind of like you never knew what was going to happen next. Not that I can relate any stories of weird occurrences, but there was always a feeling that he could turn his attention to any part of the score or any player in the group and give them some inspiration on how to play or how to react to his music that was very important and would make a big difference in playing. And again, it wasn't the words he said, but it was the way he related to his own score. It really wasn't ever clear did he just miss all the mistakes that we made, or did he not care about that and was only interested in certain aspects of the flow or even the quality of tone on certain notes. He had a fascination with the way musicians produce tone and how that tone would affect his music. Therefore it wasn't that you lined up the right notes at the right time, [it was] if you were able to interpret his music and to say that each note had personality. If you play cello, for example, that if you played something on the A string or the D string, how you fingered things and how you bowed them. His music was not very exactly notated in terms of slurs and separate notes, [so] it was always a question of how much to play notes separately or connected. That he liked this constant sense of variety always came out in what he would say. You got the feeling that you could pretty much play it any way you wanted, but it had better make sense, and it had better not be too straight or strict.
Fred Sherry (b. 1948) studied cello and chamber music at the Juilliard School of Music. In addition to his role in co-founding several ensembles including Speculum Musicae (1971) and Tashi (1973), he is a frequent performer with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Bargemusic. He serves on the faculty at Juilliard, has recorded several works of Wolpe, and his book on cello technique is now in preparation. Interview: DC, New York City, 22 May 1990.