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Howard Rovics

I joined an analysis group of six to eight people during '60-61. Wolpe had us get the Webern Piano Variations and he began talking about them. They were a springboard for him to unfold his philosophy of composition, so where ordinarily you might analyze that piece in three or four sessions, after about six or eight sessions he had barely gotten through the first page. It wasn't so much an analysis of the work as a way to focus his thoughts. The sessions were two hours, and it was not uncommon for them to run three hours when he got going. He was not preoccupied with numbers at the beginning. He talked about shapes, mirrors, trying to imagine time flowing forward and back, challenging us to imagine something other than time flowing only in one direction. He drew our attention to proportions, balance, and symmetry, the imaginary flow of time, and what he loved to call the thirdless unit, the hallmark sound of the 20th century. Maybe a month or so into contemplating the piece he started to lay in the row and did the row analysis. Here's the row and watch what happens. I always use the Variations in my own teaching. [...]

Wolpe impressed me with the idea that style is not a single entity, that creating a piece of music consists of making many, many hundreds, thousands of decisions. Style is the result of a decision-making process. He said, "Don't worry about style." I learned that. Trust in your own unique decision-making process, create your decision-making process. His emphasis is on not letting the conventions of notation confine you. Teach yourself the difference between music and notation. The notation is not the music. The music is these sounds and gestures, shapes, events, all these things that are going on. What you need to do is learn to perceive your own thinking and be detailed enough about your perception, capturing the dynamic, the articulation, the rhythmic nuance.

Very early on he taught me to be specific about whatever it is. If I said "soft" on a piece of music, he would pull out the dictionary and start delving into the synonyms of "soft" until we got a long list. He fought with notation. He was absolutely cruel in the way he would twist and bend notation. He wouldn't hesitate to give you a 1/32nd extra in the notation for a nuance of time, which is absolutely terrifying for conductors to have to deal with. There's a big change over the years. Being a performer I really evaluated a lot as to how radical I wanted to be with notation. I have moved more toward convention. I can satisfy myself as a composer with a more conventional approach to notation than Wolpe. It was wonderful to have had the challenge of what he did with notation. If he had been a performer or conductor, he might have moderated his notation a bit. But since he wasn't a performer, he left the challenge up to them. It was good that we had to wrestle with that.

What he encouraged was to capture your ideas with spontaneity but then to be able to justify them. Always analysis after the fact of the music. It was a very delicate game that you played between analysis and composing. Not analysis to inhibit, but analysis to unleash. Spontaneity might come first, but then the analysis and the consistency had to be there. He'd talk about the need for a pretty high degree of control, but not total control. There's a big difference between Babbitt and Wolpe. Wolpe would allow for and be open to the unexpected. I came to think of that in composing terms. For myself I want to have 80-85% control, but I love the 15% of the unexpected.

I dedicated my piano work Events (1971) to Stefan Wolpe. Anne Chamberlain premiered it at Tully Hall and Wolpe heard the performance. Afterwards, grinning joyously, he said to me, "Howard, you are radicalizing your musical language." I thank him for giving me a musical language to radicalize.

Howard Rovics (b. 1936) earned the M.M. degree at the Manhattan School of Music and did further studies at New York University's film school, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and with Stefan Wolpe. He was awarded a National Endowment bicentennial grant, commissions from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Bruce Museum of Greenwich Connecticut and the Trustees Award from Long Island University. The Connecticut Music Teachers Association voted him Distinguished Composer of the Year in 1996. A CD, Retrospective, representing thirty years of his composing was released in 1998 on the North/South Recordings label. He is currently Professor of Music in the School of the Arts at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. Telephone interview: AC, Danbury, Connecticut, 9 January 1998.


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