next John Cage
up Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends
previous Franz Boensch
  Contents

Herbert Brün

Whether you met him in his home, or in a cafe, or talking about music or about food, or about marriage, or about taking another apartment, it was always the same person. You could not find Wolpe not hollering. He was singing consistently with a more or less sophisticated voice. It depended on the content sometimes, but it never depended on the content whether he would sing or not.

The way he composed was quite unique in the following respect. I met in the mean time other composers, among them composers I respect very much, and the difference between all of those and Wolpe that I remember most clearly is the way they spoke about their working. When Wolpe said he worked, it was always in the past. He didn't say, "I'm now going to work," but he reported to you "last night I really worked." The others speak about plans, problems they have, sometimes interestingly, always long and eloquently. Wolpe in this respect was rather strange. He could speak about a subject infinitely long and with great enthusiasm, and when it came to the point that he composed a piece, he was brief--not uncheerful, with a bit of cheer--he just reported, "I worked." And then he turned around and changed the subject. So any kind of witness-ship to his particular sequence or priorities while composing a piece is not known to me. I claim it cannot have been known to people at that time. I do not know how he spoke later in New York. Suddenly one day he said, "Here's a piece." And then there was one. Also I found him rarely flaunting pieces, showing them. There were some works. Everybody knew about his sensitivity, about him wanting them performed. It was undeniable. But it never came out in sentences out of his mouth. It was indirect. "You should get Stefan some performances," and "Who can we interest?" The futility of these attempts was one part, of course, of my history in Israel, in Palestine at that time. For him it was bitter. [...]

He analyzed Brahms, he analyzed Beethoven. He defended the Brahms First Piano Concerto against all verdicts of all critics of all times. He considered that one of Brahms's great pieces, and that it was slandered and libeled by the connoisseurs and the specialists. But that he did not prove by analysis. The Brahms Handel Variations, that was a real assignment he gave. Then he analyzed Schoenberg piano pieces, all of them, Opus 23, every one, depending on the maturity of the student. He made this judgment, and also Irma was then consulted. He preferred to analyze pieces that the people can play. Then if they can't play, he allowed that they couple with somebody who can play. I could play, so I had a nice Wolpe introduction to all the piano music, including the Suite, opus 25, and even the piano part to Pierrot Lunaire, which he liked very much.

He had a strange way to speak to us. He would not put any one really down. I suspected that he was far more in love with Schoenberg than with Stravinsky, yet he didn't want any one of us to think lowly of Stravinsky, because he admired the skill of this man tremendously and got turned off only when Stravinsky got popular, which happened at that time with the Petrouchka. I don't recollect any critical remark; I heard more about Schoenberg from him than about Stravinsky. L'Histoire du Soldat was his exception. I think there that he could get a bit warmed up.

He loved pictures, and he and de Kooning were friends, and some others. I mean he had always painters. He talked about Klee, and he made great friends in Palestine with the painters. And he always had paintings hanging all over the place. And one gave him paintings because he knew what he saw, and he knew to say it. So painters were simply eager. And he taught us, too, in his funny way, when he didn't mean to, sort of by delegate, to watch them, and to see them, and to look more carefully. Touch. Touch with the eyes, touch with the ears, touch with the fingers. Everything's touch.

Constructivism was not wanted. So many needs are not satisfied that this was one more. If people don't want what they need, it's very difficult to talk with them. And he, ja, it was needed. It's remained needed. Cage also was no competition for them, he was so the other side. Whereas Wolpe still was belonging to, he was another composer, right? And Nono and Varèse wse were considered, and Stockhausen and Kagel, and there comes Wolpe. Who needs another competition? There I'm a little malicious, but I'm afraid I'm not off.

I remember certain behaviors of his, and the tone of voice, and saying that definitely make it clear to me that he was also warning us of provincialism. He wanted us to have a view at the small detail in the music which we were to analyze (which he showed us, or which he allowed us to show him) to be so minuscule, so minutely pedantic, in order to not be provincial, since in his view provincialism consisted in categories with a lid on. That when people knew everything already, "Oh, well, yes, that's that." Now these clichés are still with us today. Nothing has changed. We always live in an environment that, with more or less affection, tries to calm us down. And the ruling word is down. Not to calm us up, which would be almost an encouragement, but calm us down. And that he couldn't stand. Wolpe was probably the first person I met where I learned that the words, "Oh, don't worry," are an insult.

Wolpe was a master of the implosion. What he succeeded in doing is to submerge what is prominent. The surface remains steady, the peaks form underneath. It is a wonderful entailment of rebounding from the highest and lowest toward a dramatic middle. The peaks show their profile out of the middle. So anybody who hears the music linearly, and only this way, gets tired after a while and thinks it's always the same. They hear only an average timbre. The moment you become analytic and think, "What's happening inside?" everything is exploding, you are full of stuff. That's the way it's got to be played, too. You must have no false dramatization of a plot nature. It has to always be played as if it would stop in a second and is only going on because of a hiccup. This is my description of the attitude you have to have when you want to have a piece in the Wolpe way. [...]

Wolpe spoke with us in German, because most of us were Germans. When he looked at a score, he said, "It's a marvelous idea," or, "You're doing fine." He might say loudly "You're doing fine" as a trumpet, fortissimo. He walked around, and then he picked it up again, picked up the paper and looked at it again, and he said, "Well, what here? Aha, ha, ha!" Then again the next page, "Aha, ha ha! Well? Now look!" And then came the word in some context or another, "Mittlere Zustand der Extase," which is, "mean-average state of ecstasy." This was a devastating criticism on his part, and it teaches two things. No matter who you are and what composer you would like to be, with his approval or not with his approval, you cannot serve your goals if you state only them, if you do not nest them in something. Now the word 'nest' is mine. I insist on it. I am very proud of that word, and I've used it in some other contexts. His idea was that you have to not only state what you want, but also that to which it is to be the answer. So you have to compose an analogue to a fictitious reality which gives rise to your idea, which has provoked you, and that which has provoked you must also somewhere be stated. You cannot just sit there and make your statement with the highest voice and a continuous, allegedly persuasive, but really dictatorial, imposing way. He was opposed to any kind of average, mean-average state, particularly the mean-average state of ecstasy. That was his bogus, he reacted to that violently, and sent people home because he doesn't want to look at it any more. It took a while to understand that, as you can imagine. He was never a great pedagogue. That was not the thing. The thing was still a mixture of the old tradition of the master and the political agent. He wanted to do both. On the one hand, he wanted to tell you how to do things, on the other hand, he didn't want to tell you what to do. He told you how to do what you want--that was the political side--and the other side was the master side. This all became totally awake suddenly. The relevance to our times is mine of course, since Wolpe is not around, and I don't have the opportunity to discuss it with him.

With Wolpe the situation was this. He understood, and taught, and in some way conveyed (is probably a better word) that dialectics are not only a method of philosophy, and thinking, and logic, and discussion, and argument, but are also a description of dramaturgical behavior. The good drama in the hands of a dramaturge, that is, a person who knows about sequence, reference, and durations--this is indispensable and has to be regarded as a sine qua non, as an indispensable condition to bring forth any thought whatsoever. After that you're free to do your thing. Do your thing so that it show itself in the profile that it deserves.

When I was still of a tender age, he gave me this suspicious look. He taught me how to not believe. I give him the credit for it, because I don't remember anybody else who could have done it. He elicited it from me; so if I want to be the counter-music, I must not believe anything, nor believe in anything. So these are the two points I wanted to make: Wolpe's concept of provinciality without using the word, and his concept of mean-average state, particularly that of ecstasy. He understood that every person who wants to break a barrier is an avant-gardist. Even though they don't call themselves that, they're always called so by somebody else. Whoever is an anarchist, or is a revolutionary, or is a rebellious person, or just doesn't want any of it any more but that--no matter--in order to have the strength to do that in a hostile environment, they'll probably get into the danger of becoming a preaching person. And the sermon also is a mean-average state of ecstasy. Therefore it mirrors itself, even in the best ideas of composers, that in order to get through, they become insistent. Wolpe simply said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but it's a bad composition." [...]

I was that year in Darmstadt when Wolpe was there [1956], and I was there again when Cage came the first time [1958]. There is a connection, because again it is the proportion rather than the sequence. It could have happened also the other way round. It was one year Cage and the next year Wolpe, or Wolpe was one year and the next year Cage. In Darmstadt both had an analogous impact, both encouraged looseness. In contra-distinction to the Adorno opponents, who couldn't stand Adorno's language and found everything too stiff and abstract and theoretic, both Cage (inadvertently) and Wolpe (advertently) became constructive looseness. They loosened something. Something became fluid which had been of a viscosity you couldn't move. This viscosity that I'm at the moment denouncing was a part of the students, not of Darmstadt or of Steinecke's direction of Darmstadt. It had happened after two or three years of something. Suddenly these little cliques formed. And as it is in the tradition of the academic world, even when you attack academics and are an academic, you academically attack academia. [...]

The first response to Wolpe at Darmstadt was stupendous. Proportionen [1960] brought the house down. I claim still to this day that his performance was really what stupefied the people out of their wits. For them it was shameless. He stands there for a moment, and then he starts with a howl! Not "Ladies and Gentlemen", I mean such stuff: "DAS SIND ALSO...!" nicht? und "DIE ERSTEN ERLEBNISSE...!" [makes a grunt]. Everything. Animal noises. There is not a sentence that rests on its content. The content flowed on the inflection, on the projection to the next high point. Downbeat changes that were unexpected. He is composing, and he has trained it, he has learned it, he has done it. He rehearses. I was so happy. [...]

It holds to a large extent for John Cage. John Cage the performer is the historical landmark. His contents vary. They may even be absent. They may be present, they may be just hinted at. There may be drugs, or provocations, challenges, anything you want. But he performs everything with such a dedication to the profession of performer that my respect never flags. Even when he got angry in my own house, in my home as a guest, and got angry with me and wanted to leave, he performed that so brilliantly that I had to run after him, embrace him, and ask him please to continue his performance inside. Which he of course immediately understood. With Wolpe it never came to such dramatic meetings. Cage for me was a provocation. Wolpe was an invitation.

The effect of Cage was a breaking down of things taken for granted. Wolpe was deep enough that he showed things that were already known but were not taken seriously. Wolpe showed the life-necessity of certain awarenesses that have fallen by the wayside, and he brought them out to the knowledge of the people there. Due to the ideas of Stockhausen, the people were skilled to know about time proportions. They had not learned about intervallic proportions. So Wolpe picked (whether he knew it or not) that concept of proportion, and suddenly made it a life-elixir. It was something on which you can build your existence, whereas before it was just one further parameter. Which is a loosening that really happened, that things that had been for the first time sorted out waited to be integrated again. There Wolpe was an immense help. Cage, not. He came as an advocate: "Forget about all that. We have other things to worry about." So their content was distinct. Whether they have something to do with one another I would like to discuss in another conversation. Cage was imitated immediately, Wolpe not at all. Wolpe was rather quoted extensively. The students said, "Like Wolpe," and "Remember Wolpe," but they didn't do anything about it. If people don't want what they need, it's difficult to talk with them about it. Wolpe was needed. He has remained needed.

Herbert Brün (1918-2000) emigrated from Germany and studied with Wolpe at the Jerusalem Conservatory (1936-38). After a lecture tour of the United States in 1962, he was invited to the University of Illinois in 1963 primarily to do research on the significance of computer systems for composition. He was appointed professor of music. Interview: AC, Urbana, Illinois, 8 November 1984.


next John Cage
up Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by former students and friends
previous Franz Boensch
  Contents