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Jonathan Williams

I was in New York City in 1949 studying graphic art with Stanley William Hayter, and I went to one of the Composer's Forum concerts at Columbia--MacMillin Theater, I think it was. The concert was divided between two composers I'd never heard any music by, but both of whom I'd heard of [Dane Rudhyar, played by William Masselos, and Stefan Wolpe, played by David Tudor]. [...] It was a curious evening, those two people in the same room. In those days the New York musical world seemed rather small and so you would see Varèse ase and Wallingford Riegger there. I don't know who else, but those two anyway I remember. David Tudor launched into the Battle Piece, got about a minute into it and obviously completely blanked out. Sat there for about two minutes and then started over. I don't know, it must be over a half an hour long. I think he played it with no score--incredible performance. A lot of people couldn't get it. Some people were very angry by the time it was over, and someone yelled before the applause, "It stinks!" which made Wolpe very annoyed. It was well received, but there were the dissenters. I haven't heard the piece played since, I don't have the recording. So, that's the first time I actually saw him and heard his music.

I'd never heard anything like it. It was tremendous. I guess my heart had been more in the Dane Rudhyar camp, some piano pieces called Granites [1929] I've always liked. Those were the days when as far as I'd gotten along in music was Messiaen. Rudhyar did have affinities to that kind of sound. Granites was played by Billy Masselos, who, of course, was a great Ives and Copland player. I heard him give the first performance of the Ives First Sonata, so I guess I was still more in tune with that than I was with Stefan. But, I'd never heard anything like the Battle Piece in my life. I don't think many people had. [...]

I had to leave Black Mountain because I was forced into the army medical corp. I chose to do that as a conscientious objector [rather] than go to jail, which seemed to be where I was headed. And I would come back to Black Mountain every once in a while. [...] That would be where I met him. I designed a piece of advertising, a mailer, for his record that came out in '55. Maybe I simply designed it at Black Mountain and had a printer in Germany do it that I'd used while I was over there earlier. I'd printed the first volume of Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems in Stuttgart in 1953, and I imagine that's the printer I had do the mailing piece. That's when our friendship started. And I was in and out of Black Mountain a lot in 1954-56, until the college closed. I saw a great deal of him and his wife Hilda. He came to the house here in Highlands on several occasions. We became very good friends.

The thing that impressed me most about [Stefan] was the kind of intensity that he embodied, or that Charles Olson embodied, or that Aaron Siskind embodied. Zeitgeist, I suppose. Here we were in that terrible McCarthy period, in the bland days of Dwight D. Eisenhower, but the energy that those people emitted was stunning, I mean it was absolutely stunning. It was wonderful to be there, and to be able to work with them and talk with them. I studied with Siskind in 1951 there and kept up my relationship with him closely until he died. Unfortunately, with Wolpe and Olson, after the college closed I didn't see them very much, but their example was all-important to me as a young person, as a young writer.

I was just reading a new novel by Peter Straub called The Throat, and there was something in there that struck me that you might apply to people like Wolpe. The exact quote from the novel is, "Do you believe in absolute good and evil?" And the answerer says, "No, I don't. What I believe is in seeing and not seeing. Understanding and ignorance. Imagination and absence of imagination." To which I think you could, in the case of Wolpe and Olson, also add that it was heat versus cold and attention versus carelessness, which was really what I got from them. The application was so tremendous in both of them, and the energy that came forth thereof. They had a lot to do with each other. I don't know whether Wolpe wrote about Olson or said much about him, but they were very close, I think, at times. I was witness to some very interesting conversations.

Olson really knew very little about music and I don't think really cared much. That of course could be a problem. I remember him listening to the Boulez Sonata No. 2 that David Tudor played at Black Mountain and saying, "Oh, it's the greatest thing I've heard since Buxtehude." Well, I mean, I was amazed he'd even heard of Buxtehude, but he surely hadn't been listening to much in between, as they say. I don't think music was his thing at all, though he seems to have been pretty interested in Cage and Cunningham, and so on. But that's probably the first time he had ever heard Boulez, and perhaps the last, [...] yet [Olson] himself I thought was as "symphonic" as anything you'll encounter. The poetry is symphonic and grand, like Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles can be, when you heard him do it. I pride myself on being able to read some of it pretty well, following his lead. It does have this wonderful spaciousness to it that you don't often hear in poetry. The range. As he put it, near-far. It's close and it's extremely expanded and distant. It just has this amplitude about it, the breath like a bellows--a big man.

I don't know B-flat from D minor, but that didn't seem to bother Stefan. It didn't bother me, either. In New York on several occasions we went to concerts together. I remember one night, it must have been 1960, it was the Mahler centenary. All the symphonies were being conducted by a group of conductors.

[...] The night we went we heard Mitropoulos conduct the Philharmonic in the Fifth. Stefan was absolutely overwhelmed. He was crying. He said, "Have you ever heard anything so beautiful?" He thought it was wonderful. He hadn't heard it in a very long time. [...] Once during Black Mountain days we went over to Brevard, which is about 25-30 miles the other side of Asheville from Black Mountain. There's a summer music festival at Brevard. The North Carolina Symphony was playing. They did a performance of Das Lied von der Erde, which was rather ambitious for them, and again, he was very moved by Mahler.

Born in Asheville N.C. (b. 1929), poet and author Jonathan Williams studied art history at Princeton University (1947-49), painting at Phillips Memorial Gallery (1949), engraving and etching at Atelier 17 (1949-50), and attended the Chicago Institute of Design (1950-51) and, intermittently, Black Mountain College (1951-56), where he met Stefan Wolpe. Founder of The Jargon Society, Inc. (a poet's press), Williams is very active internationally giving lectures, readings and seminars. Interview: AK, Highlands, North Carolina, 10 April 1993.


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