Stefan was never authoritarian in his teaching. When you teach, there are two ways of doing it. There are only two ways to teach. Either you help the student do what they are doing better, or you try to lead them into something else. And what's interesting about the years I was with Stefan is that he didn't employ any one of those approaches. He didn't help me make what I was doing better, and he never led me into something else, which has become a model for my own teaching, that particular attitude. It's not like someone once said to me when I once went to Yale to give a lecture, and a friend of mine that picked me up--I ask him what's going on here--he said, "Well, if they're heavy into twelve-tone, we lead them out of it. If they're not involved with twelve-tone, we lead them into it." Which is essentially his teaching philosophy, that particular era at Yale. But with Stefan it was always that confrontation actually with the piece at hand. And that's some kind of overriding point of view of what you're going to have a piece. That was a very singular lesson for me, how he focused into the piece at hand, which a lot of teachers don't, you know. They have definite points of view. That became a very important model for me.
I think if there was one aspect of my music that seemed to provoke essentially a Socratic dialogue--I would say that even more than me he certainly allows his student for Socratic dialogue, loved the conversation, loved the questions and the answers, and the questions and the answers, and the questions and trying to find the answers, which is almost like the basis of the antecedent-consequent aspect of his own music [laughs]--was the fragmentary element in my music, the fact that it wasn't organic, work from seeds, work with that strong variational approach which was part of his generation. I think that was the one thing. He didn't understand why or how my music was so fragmentary, that is, stop-and-go, stop-and-go. That was essentially the whole core of both our problem as student and teacher. That was essentially the basic confrontation, and never resolved.
He was never hostile when I met John Cage. He was very, very open. He was certainly more open, outside of someone like Henry Cowell, who was professionally open, and outside of Virgil Thomson, who was open in relation to his own personal friendship with Cage. I would say that Stefan was excited--by excited I mean in a negative sense--taking it all very seriously, and again wanting always to talk about it, while other people felt they had all the answers about what was happening. And I remember it made for some very lively conversations with Cage about a lot of things, because it went beyond just the technical devices used.
This is circa 1951, and it wasn't just a question of Cage, it was just the whole circle now of Cage. And of course, I was his student not too long before. David Tudor became our crown prince, and his terrific involvement with Stefan and Irma, and his great fondness for Cage as a person. So he was very close. The first time I ever saw Cage before actually meeting him was at Cathedral Parkway. Stefan and Irma had these soirees, which was very exciting for me, a young composer across the river. Whoever was in town will come up. Kirchner was in from the West Coast, played two or three of his pieces. I remember Leibowitz was in from Paris with Helen.
I thought he was actually incredible. What can I say? I mean, I'm not trying to eulogize him because he's dead. It's just the energy. And I don't think it was just to me. Just waiting for him to finish up with Ralph [Shapey], or with someone else. The energy that he extended to his teaching was I thought perhaps a little too much in that respect.
I don't know how in the hell he didn't do it [show students his own music], 'cause I think I'm a damned good teacher, and I still have to pick up a piece of mine sometimes and show them an example of something. Only rarely, only rarely! I always felt that he was more involved with the formulations of formulas one can discover from insights and just bring it again into the moment of what I just feel that he's involved with, without even discussing it on any classy intellectual level. He was involved with something and talked about something, and what he talked about all the time was shape. That element of shape instilled me, and he'll look at me, you could just see his quizzical look, when I would say that it's essentially what influenced my music. Stefan's big influence. It's a big influence when a teacher talks about shape. In so far as that consciousness of just that word could go into any style. I could bring a shape into a simultaneous chord, I could shape a chord, so to speak. I don't have to mean shape in terms of asymmetrical units working with each other on a chain.
Also, being a dialectical materialist, he also liked opposites, the world of opposites. In the sense that he brought to me--and I never think of my thinking about that--helped me tremendously. But what I would consider opposites, you see. [laughs] But that's what a teacher does, that's what coaches do. They bring in things which you feel are either used wrongly or misunderstood. But that's what civilization is based on, is it not? My early civilization was based on so many concepts of Stefan's which I took and put [to use]. The consciousness that these terms existed. I mean, the young students don't know the various key words, the vocabulary, the baggage you take. They don't know that you have to take a toothbrush, or something like that. Words like 'shape' is a toothbrush, 'opposites' is the underwear. And I grabbed onto those terms, 'cause those are the only terms you know. Those were real terms. Other words like continuity doesn't mean anything. Continuity doesn't help you like 'shape.' Shape was a very, very important thing. And he would many times play or sing something that he wrote, and he loved the shape. The biggest compliments that I ever got from him for certain pieces, when he got excited about a certain passage, [was] where he felt that the shape was just terrific.
I think that one of the most important pieces that I wrote with Stefan--it's my most Wolpe piece--I wish I had a tape of it, I never had it, damned successful! If I ever recorded it, it would be a famous piece. It was called Journey to the End of the Night, and it's very Wolpe-ish. That was my last piece with him. I made a collection of Celine [plays theme on the piano]. You know my subject matter, "You're going to die soldier boy, you're going to die, so hurry up and die" [sings the words and the melody]. Fabulous piece, a tour de force, incredible piece! And then there's a last thing, which is a love song to a prostitute, and there was one passage that he played over and over again, and he kept saying: "Oh, sehr schön, sehr schön!" That was coming through, you see. The pieces that I was writing before that were more fragmented than the pieces I was writing after. I came through, and I came through via Wolpe. But I came through actually because the text wrote the piece. But anything I learned from him in terms of what he thought maybe I should have learned came through in that piece. And his teachings made that piece possible. Without the words I never would have gotten into that world with those shapes that he liked so much...
Interview: AC, Buffalo, 13 November 1980.
To have known Stefan Wolpe well would have benefited greatly in equating the music to the man. His vitality alone was exceptional. After 35 years I still feel the sparks of his personal electricity when remembering my first lesson with him. Along with his incredible vitality--it never seemed to subside--was a delicacy of manner which is also very much in his music--those abbreviated benign shapes of his that suddenly appear and leave off with a smile. There is nothing contradictory in all this. Wolpe was the kind of man who used all eighty-eight notes of his personality. He loved what was on the opposite side of the coin. He always talked about opposites, in fact, the Hegelian dialectic of unified opposites was essentially his compositional philosophy throughout his life. Would a composition student guess that an understanding of both Hegel and Karl Marx could result in a very valid compositional concept? Listen carefully to the piano accompaniment of his Palestinian songs for a glimpse of what I mean.
In pre-Hitler Germany Wolpe wrote militant songs for the real working class that sang them and loved them. He studied with Webern--he knew the painter Paul Klee--he utilized twelve-tone techniques. Though in disagreement, he was very friendly to John Cage. His intellectual appetite was boundless. When I first went to study with Wolpe soon after finishing high school, I was just another smart kid who thought that writing music was some clever way of pushing notes around. I soon learned differently. The rules of the game were clear enough, but how to jump the hurdles were not. I learned it was a lie, that old dictum, "Rules are made to be broken." They were, in fact, obstacles to be jumped--that our musical history and the realities of note-pushing into shapes and forms was a treacherous steeplechase. You get a clear sense of this in his own music. It never settles, though organically its initial assumptions have nothing to worry about. Logic is more than walking a straight line, especially if there is an obstacle in front of you. Wolpe used these obstacles as part and parcel of his musical language. Though, as I have just remarked, they were referred to as opposites.
I took this overall concept with me into my own music soon after finishing my studies with Wolpe. It was the basis of my graph music. For example: the time is given but not the pitch. Or, the pitch is given and not the rhythm. Or, in earlier notated pieces of mine the appearance of octaves and tonal intervals out of context to the overall harmonic language. I didn't exactly think of this as opposites--but Wolpe taught me to look on the other side of the coin.
Soon after beginning my studies with Wolpe he took a studio on New York's big proletarian promenade--Fourteenth Street on the corner of Sixth Ave. "Street music" he would call what he was writing. He loved it down there--a beautiful balance between those faces out the window and all his artist friends a block or two away. Varèse wse was not too far from his window view. Both these men admired each other--and there are great similarities in both their personalities and music. With both Wolpe and Varèse you feel the idiom can barely contain the granite-like substance of its musical thought.
The String Quartet we heard last week and the two Forms for piano are of recent years, and the Hexachord, Oboe Sonata, and the Palestinian Songs date the period of his exile from Nazi Germany to Israel and finally settling in New York.
Morton Feldman (1926-1987) studied composition with Wallingford Riegger and Wolpe and greatly admired Varèse. His aesthetic crystallized in the early 1950s through association with abstract expressionist painters and collaboration with David Tudor and John Cage. From 1973 he was professor of composition at SUNY Buffalo. Memoir written at Buffalo, 1983.