next Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt
up Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends
previous Fred Sherry
  Contents

Harvey Sollberger

Wolpe struck me as an immensely vital person, making all sorts of connections--musical, verbal, visual--things just poured out of him. My main impression was of a person who was very young in spirit. He was someone who was constantly observing and reacting to the world and somehow re-shaping it. And not only re-shaping it, but projecting that outward. It was not just his music, it was his whole persona, and that made the music a little more understandable to me. I remember also rehearsing at his house and being offered something to eat, and declining, not wanting to impose. And then Wolpe boomed out, "Oh, I suppose you'd rather eat a hotdog in the subway," shaming me into taking a little bit of cheese and cracker. At that time I was very touched by his magnetism and general aliveness as a human being. It's something that is very precious to me, because with the onset of the Parkinson's disease just a couple of years later, there was a tremendous transformation, and it was as if the flame that had burned so brightly was now reduced to conserving itself and parceling itself out in much more careful doses.

By the time I had learned his Piece in Two Parts for Flute and Piano and worked hard on it, it made a lot more sense to me. That was the beginning of a real commitment to his music ever since then, because I think of any living composers I've come in contact with, he is probably among the two or three who have meant the most to me. Certainly in my own music the effect of his work and his spirit as it was expressed through the work had a lot to do with the way my music has developed, or the shape it's taken. There are times in people's lives when they are dislocated for one reason or another. Whether it's moving to a new place, or illness, or great good fortune, or great ill fortune, one thing or another dislocates you and causes you to rearrange your thought configurations. I think it was fortunate for me that I came in contact with Wolpe at a time when I was reconfiguring myself in a certain sense and had the opportunity to really absorb what he had and to see its meaning for me in my own way.

In 1963 or 1964 Wolpe gave a lecture at the New School. Howard Lebow and I played parts of the Piece in Two Parts and then Wolpe discussed it and put the row on the board, which, as I recall, astounded me, because it had fourteen notes in it. Aside from the technical ways in which he moved the notes around relative to each other, he spoke about some of the underlying aesthetic base, the ideas underlying the ways in which the notes were combined. At that time he spoke very emphatically about treating collections of notes, what he would call constellations of pitches, as almost physical, concrete objects. He spoke about the opening of the Piece in Two Parts especially as being almost the equivalent of the space in a room, a sort of spatial metaphor, in which the particular groupings of notes--the flute's opening four notes, piano chords that interrupt--each of these was akin to an object in the same way that a room might be filled with objects of different sorts--a spoon, a table, a dish, a toothbrush, a fingernail. His examples were much better than mine perhaps, but his point was the way in which these objects could all be in the same room, sharing the same space, but not necessarily entering into any profound interaction. They were just there, and you could observe them sharing the space. In the same way he wanted his configurations of pitches, and what we would traditionally call the phrases, or the groupings of them, to co-exist spatially in this musical-temporal space. At times to get in each other's way, and at other times to avoid each other, at other times to collide and transform themselves. So I got a picture of a very dynamic and vital idea of music, a very dramatic idea of music, in which one was dealing with certain materials which had particular properties, propensities, potentials, whatever, and then (on the basis of the composer's imagination, his technical skills) what might happen in this situation. [...]

I think it's important to distinguish between, on the one hand, the other masters of twentieth-century music--Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Webern--who were established and known and, to a degree, enshrined, at least by those of us who maintain some kind of twentieth-century pantheon. Wolpe was not, and it was amazing to discover walking down your own streets somebody who was even more compelling than these people in a way, at certain times. I think of the fact that his music was growing out of the shared life and experience that we had here in New York at that time in the early sixties. Bartók and I had very little in common, at least in terms of our life experiences and even the intersection of our life times. The effect Wolpe had on me went far beyond the personal presence and the effect his intellect and spirit made. It was also a very compelling musical effect. I think it had something very much to do with the clarity and vivacity with which he was able to take life as it was being lived in this place and this time, and to reflect it in a very personal way.

Harvey Sollberger (b. 1938), flutist, composer and conductor, studied composition at Columbia University from 1960. He has performed and conducted many of Wolpe's works. He taught at Columbia University, the Manhattan School of Music, and Indiana University. He is currently professor of music at the University of California, San Diego and music director of the La Jolla Symphony. Interview: AC, New York City, 13 December 1982.


next Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt
up Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends
previous Fred Sherry
  Contents