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Raoul Pleskow

Musically I found things that Wolpe played for me and showed me quite remarkable. Strangely enough I was on the same wave-length with him. What was that wave-length? At that time it was important to get away from linear writing. The idea of writing music that is no longer lines is something that I felt and therefore was very close to Wolpe's feeling it. All of the contemporary music that I heard was lines, all lines, counterpoint. Counterpoint, when it is total, and you have lines going on and they spell "mother," and they're pretty, it makes sense. When it's dissonant counterpoint, and you have two lines going on, and they sound like hell (you expect two lines going on to sound like hell), so what's the point of it? This idea of counterpoint stopped, and that I think was an important thing. Wolpe saw that I was leaning towards it, and that was exactly what he was involved with at the moment. The idea was space, where you break through four lines, three lines, melody and accompaniment, and so forth, at least in any consistent way. The return to that is another matter, but it is a return like a portrait painter comes back, let us say, after ten years of doing abstract expressionism. When he comes back then, that portrait will not be the same portrait as if he spent the same ten years doing nothing but college professors, old ladies, and gurgling children. In other words, the absence and the involvement with something else brings it back. I think that whatever linear writing I now do, the linear writing that one finds in the simple Wolpe pieces at the end of his career, like the Solo Trumpet piece, that's a linear writing that has passed certain dangers and has freed itself from it. It's never the same. That I think was the most important obvious musical impulse that I gained. [...]

Another piece that both I and Wuorinen absolutely fell in love with was the Sextet [In Two Parts for Six Players, 1962]. I went through the whole process of being at the inception of that piece, all his thought. His original thought was to add electronic sounds to it à la Varèse, and he imitated sounds that go [makes guttural vocal sounds], things like that, which he did so well. And then of course he discarded that. And he would play me the slow movement, but I really got nothing out of his playing from it. But when I looked upon it, it was marvelous. And of course the fast movement, those scales, that business became enormously important to me. It's the idea of writing within the belly-button of a piece, writing in three, four, five notes turning around. The thing that made this piece so remarkable was that it had this dualistic idea of being both a single voice piece--in other words, that in essence you could follow a melody, if you wish, if you allow a melody to be all of those little things. As well there was a kind of polyphony, and that polyphony existed not of several lines working together, but one line in many lines. It is really expressionism in painting when you see a figure that consists, like a Kokoschka painting, of many lines but it just makes up a face. Or those many lines sometimes make up a line. Essentially it's a piece that can be followed that way through. There's also the idea of having next to one another simple things, elegant things, and complex things, meaning, that the music that was written at the time consisted either of a very elegant--if you wish, academic--non-phrased, non-periodicized, pitch-oriented, complex music. Or it consisted of music that was considered old hat, classically-influenced, romantically-influenced, with phrases, and tonality, and so on. Wolpe managed at those times to put together things that were at opposite ends, for example, the running figure with which the piece starts, this little thing. It was a cheap thing, but it was a marvelously cheap thing, and exciting for its cheapness, in that one is allowed to write such cheap things. Next to it again were quite elegant things. There were things that were phrased and periodicized. There were things that were just left as pitch involvements. Also, the way that the instruments overlapped in this complex space was new and wonderful. And then there was just a kind of muscular energy to the piece that is so much of Wolpe, that comes about through rhythm, dynamics, really through a kind of phrase. It is all a kind of melody, a melody in a non-lyrical sense, but a melody of attacks, decays, tones, runs, chords, silences, and quips. This involvement was what was new and what was attractive to the young composers at the time. I remember only relatively recently speaking with Charles Wuorinen. We both fell upon this piece as a thing we remembered. Again, you know, when one speaks of performances, the performances were miserable. Shapey was conducting. He had to stop three times. It just fell apart. But in spite of this it was a successful performance and a successful piece.

The reprises in the Sextet and the Trio [Trio in Two Parts for Flute, Cello, and Piano, 1964] were done with great reluctance, where his musicality overcame his stance. In other words, the repeat for the Trio, I remember very well, was done about a week before the performance. They put in the double line and hesitated to the very end whether it should be done or not. I also remember certain sections in several pieces where he really would ask me, "Is not this too albern, meaning, too everyday, too banal, and so forth. So it was always a struggle. Reprise came from a sense of form, a classical sense of form that was innate. He wanted to have reprise, and he wanted to find a new-fangled, modern-sounding term to accept it. What he means by [reprise as] the zero-situation, philosophically speaking, is that one aspect of variation is non-variation! He said that consciously, for the sake of modernity. Yes, his Formgefühl [form-sense], his musical Formgefühl was a very strong, natural one. The fact that he never even looked at his earlier stuff [in the piece]! The only reason I can say is that when he wrote his String Quartet [1969], he gave me pages to thicken, to darken (because he had his Parkinson trouble). And I said, "Well, don't you need those pages to write the next step?" "No, no, no, no!" And he didn't. I kept them for a whole week going over them thicker.

And of course, it's not only a question of stance, it is a question that the more thematic, concrete shapes exist, the more these shapes allow themselves to be repeated and demand to be repeated. The more Webernesque shapes are, (let's put it that way, a-thematic, and so on) the less their repetition makes any sense, because then their repetition is not something aha, but something that you've run out of steam. But when Wolpe was aware of the sharpness, of the sculpturedness of these themes that he actually wrote, then he felt the need to go back to them. The other aspect is this, that since he used the row partially, he set up a kind of tonality, so that the opening five, six notes with which he often worked for a long time, in fact give you a tonality. And if you want to have a tonality, the idea of a reprise becomes very important. Then, of course, was the question of trying to justify this in philosophic terms. I think that in musical terms it is justified by the fact that, if you set up a pitch situation that becomes a memorable pitch situation, there's a sense to go back to that memorable pitch situation. When you set up a shape that is supposed to be a memorable shape, then it makes sense to come back to it. And sometimes these small changes were done for the sake of being virtually afraid to really go back one hundred per cent in the end. It was something that he had to overcome in the Trio. And also in the Sextet there was very much of a reprise.

There's also a morality about music that I learned from Wolpe, a morality about life. One very important lesson was that every performance was important. In other words, even if it was done in some small little place with five people there, one makes just as much of a fuss as one does if it's in Carnegie Hall, because, as Wolpe said, "Gott hört. God hears." It is important because one should not be so career-conscious that one worries about the critics. One should do it for the art itself. It's a very important lesson. Also important for performers that every performance is important and must be considered, because it's the art that is being performed, not the people that are being impressed. That was important.

And another instance having absolutely nothing to do with music. Wolpe did not live in the cleanest place in the world. One day I went to Wolpe, and I saw him on the floor scrubbing the floor. I said, "Why is this?" "Marx is coming over for a visit." I said, "Well, Marx will understand." I found it strange that somebody should clean up the floor for a good friend. I expected him to have a conductor or some important person coming over. No, he did it for a friend. I thought that was extraordinarily moral of him. If the poor person is important, then the gesture is important. I think, finally, that most important for the artist is a sense of priorities. When those go out the window, the art goes out the window. But Wolpe kept his priorities. There was never a sell-out, and there was never a loss of innocence. The innocence was always there. He regained his virginity in each piece. One thing I wanted to say about the morality, too, was that he did not lie about what he thought was good, what he thought was bad. He did tell people. He felt it a moral obligation to say to someone, "You played badly," when he did. When he felt the piece was bad, he did not lie about that for political reasons. That's a sense of morality. Also that he had a sense for pushing music that he thought was good, and for not pushing music that wasn't. And when he had a big fight with Shapey, and he liked a piece of Shapey's, he said, "I hate to say it, but it's a good piece." So it was that he divorced that from politics. Although, of course, he did have an absolute what I would say bias towards the new. He always wanted the new. And that was a Lebensobligation, a Funkenleben, a spark of life always to go on and not to move back. So, again, that cannot be put down as a compromise, but an obligation to a greater truth perhaps than the actual piece that he admired for being modern (although he didn't really like what came out).

One more incident that was memorable, because it was the last time that I saw him. It was the death of Stefan. He called me up and said, "I can't write any more, show me some freshly made music." I was writing the songs for tenor and instruments and brought the first of the three songs to him. He looked at them and he said, "The text, you wrote it?" Actually, I've always put down anonymous or something, but I did write it, and he was the only one who ever got that. Anyway, he liked the piece very much. And then he said, "It's like freshly made bread. It's good to see." Then he kissed me, and then he said, "Ah, I have enough--jetzt hab' ich genug." And I said, "What do you mean?" And he says, "Ahhh," and he made a gesture with his hands saying that it's over. And of course I said all the usual things, you know. You can't determine that, and you're just in a bad mood, and all that. He said, "I can't write any more. I see these hallucinations." We talk about that. And then when I left, I said, "I'll see you." There was a concert coming up. "I'll see you at the concert. I'll pick you up." He then made a gesture with his hands, "Ahhh--maybe not," and several hours later he was dead. It was the day of his death. In other words, he choked on something that was, I believe ... Hilda then was in her room, and then he was discovered. But other than Hilda, I think I was probably the last person to see him. That I still remember exactly. His calling me up, because he usually called me up in order to do something, not just to show him music. So that was strange.

I'm totally a person without premonitions about anything, but shortly before that I had a dream, and I remember in the dream something that he once said. And he just said, "Wir arme Juden, uns bleibt nichts erspart." And he actually said that: "We poor Jews, nothing is spared us." He said it much earlier, when he first got Parkinson's. Strangely, I dreamed of him saying that a couple of days before, and then I got the phone call from him to come over and show him music. It almost seems like he knew, or willed, or something. And it had to do with this feeling that he couldn't compose.

Raoul Pleskow was born in Vienna (1932) and educated in New York, where he studied with Karol Rathaus, Otto Luening, and Stefan Wolpe. His works have been performed by the Cleveland Philharmonic and the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra. He was professor of music at C.W. Post College, Long Island University. Interview: AC, Douglas, New York, 17 February 1985.


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