The Contemporary Music School began in the fall of '48. Isaac [Nemiroff] wrote the charter and submitted it to Stefan, and Stefan said it was wonderful. We had a school, all the teachers, all the pupils, and all we needed was to get a building. The first one was on Second Avenue near Fourth Street. None of the rooms were finished, and the amount of money allowed to us was just enough to keep going. Stefan was the musical director, but the actual financial affairs of running the school fell on Isaac. It began in September '48 and continued until June '52. I was the only one who got a salary [as secretary]. It's what we [Isaac and Joy] survived on. It was quite low, fifty dollars a week.
It was Stefan's idea of a school where all of the teachers were focused upon teaching musical creativity directly, not indirectly through exercises, which was the basic theme of the old scheme of teaching. This new theme of teaching was so driving an idealism that it somehow held the school together. The end of World War II was not the end of war. The intense effort needed to move creativity against this situation of unrest required some very forceful dynamics. Why Stefan was such an effective teacher was the students were looking for ways to break patterns that were holding creativity in stasis. That was the dynamic of the Contemporary Music School--determination to challenge forcefully all of the barriers and most established rules of classical music for a positive reason.
Stefan's innovative way of teaching allowed these students who had only heard jazz to move into expressing themselves in a complex language without having to learn traditional, classical stuff, which their ears were closed to. In all of the students who came around and who had anything to do with composition studies, this is what they talked about. The difference between concert music and jazz performance, the difference between having to learn to read music from music script and playing spontaneously from sound, which was the jazz way, you just pick it up. They became interested in writing it down, in learning to read music. Many of them had been antagonistic to that concept--"It gets in the way of my playing." He was always pushing them to try the untryable, to reach for sounds. He was working in space of sounds, very high sounds, and then in a crashing way throwing them to the bottom of the piano.
[Stefan] had no practical ability whatever, though music appointments he remembered. I felt Stefan as a person who lived music so totally that it was like a different species of being. And there he and David [Tudor] met all right, because they were both music beings. And the personal life somehow or other struggled to keep up.
David's connection to Irma [Wolpe] was of a more metaphysical sort than with Stefan. It was the metaphysical level that drew David to John Cage. David was the only one who could really develop a performance of a piece with understanding of what the composer was hearing and the working-out of the Battle Piece was exactly that. David was essential to that piece. David would laugh about a particular passage that Stefan had composed because it was impossible. David would work it out and work it out until he found either that it truly was impossible and had to be changed, or that he could find a way of doing it. That went on for the whole working-out of that piece. If David had not been there, the piece would have been later and very different.
[The premiere of Battle Piece, Feb 1950]. I was standing out in the hallway waiting for David. I head the audience clapping for Jack [Maxin]'s performance a nice long time. Really with my heart in my throat I was watching that door. David came in. He had a coat on. He heard the clapping, it was just ending, and there was a quiet. He walked right to the door, taking his coat off as he walked, dropping whatever he had in his hand. He walked right out on stage and sat down at the piano and started to play. He played a very short passage and stopped. He said afterwards his mind went blank, he could not remember. He pulled himself together and started again from the beginning and played the piece. I found the performance so wonderful, absolutely wonderful! There was a burst of applause, and then because some were also intensely antagonistic, the applause stopped for a minute. Then it came back in a wave.
It's true he [Stefan] had a spiritual concept. Even though we saw how formidable the opposition could be, what he [Wolpe] would do was to challenge the opposition, always. He would never not do that. It was the onlyway he would react. Still we (I, David, John [Cage]) understood this was a spiritual recognition in Stefan that tyranny must be opposed. Cage had a different way. It was the difference between a karate expert and a t'ai chi master. Cage was like a wizard. He knew how to work into the enemy stronghold and sit there quietly until he was noticed. I see him as even after he was noticed sitting there quietly, and then making a little movement and getting up. That being a statement in spiritual terms that there is another way to look at this. [Stefan had to do it] with sound and fury. I felt for a while that there was a triangle with David in between: David being one corner of the triangle, Stefan another, and John another. David balanced the two. He was the triangulation between the two opposites, and as three they brought this creative idea into the world of music at that time, which was their purpose. Music was his [David's] purpose totally. This concept of sound was Cage. What I saw in those years was that for Cage music was not so much sound--physical sound, space, the hearing of spatial tonality and resonances--his actual music was very dry. But it was a concept of opening the ears to hear the different qualities that each sound has.
At the earlier time [David] was insisting he was not a composer. Stefan was undoubtedly pressuring him into being a composer. He was not only not ready to do that, he was intent on being a performer at that time. Yet the very way he went about it was with such a complete comprehension of composing that it couldn't help but become what David's work became. So when he finally did do something that he acknowledged as composing, for me it was just, "Uh-huh, now you know." I think it must have been in writing out those graphic pieces that he accepted the realization in his own mind that he was going to be a composer, that he was composiing. Until then, it was still, "Well, I'm not doing this, I'm doing the other."
Joy Tudor Nemiroff (b. 1923), sister of David Tudor, studied painting. She married Wolpe's student Isaac Nemiroff in 1947. From 1948-52 she was secretary of the Contemporary Music School. She is a long-time student of metaphysics and a practicing astrologer. She currently lives in North Carolina. Telephone interview: AC, Burnsville, North Carolina, 14 April 1999.