My wife Mary and I arrived at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1953. We had both decided that Stefan Wolpe the composer and Merce Cunningham the dancer were people to study with. I had been interested in Black Mountain since the 40s: emigrés Jas Jalowetz and Lowinsky were known to me, we had met William Levi, a former faculty member of Black Mountain, in Vienna when we were on a fulbright in 1951-52. We knew of the drama critic Eric Bentley, who had been at BMC and was now at Minnesota, and most importantly my teacher Ernst Krenek had taught summers at BMC in the 40s. We had discussed BMC with him, and he admired Wolpe.
We drrove from St. Paul to BMC and arrived in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday. Although we had corresponded with Charles Olson, the poet and head, we soon discovered that we seem not to have been expected and that Sundays were a day when everyone fended for themselves. We found a bedroom and discovered the college kitchen and made ourselves some sort of meal. During this time it was mentioned that Wolpe and David Tudor were combing for a Wolpe talk that evening.
This was an experience like no other, since my past teacher Krenek was a totally different kind of speaker about music. Krenek had been rather cool, lucid, and in a way more matter of fact. In contrast Wolpe's talk was extremely poetic with a murkiness that somewhat disturbed me. David Tudor played examples that were composed by Wolpe for the occasion and were dramatic examples of Wolpe's style.
Krenek and Wolpe were opposites in personality and musical style. Krenek was highly intellectual, gifted in languages, a fine pianist who was an exceptional score reader and had a strong interest in medieval music. Personally he was very kind and generous, but a somewhat objective and understated personality. On the other hand Wolpe was a hot and excitable person. Both gave students free rein to be themselves in musical style and did not try to create students in their image.
After that first day's introduction to the seeming semi-anarchistic Black Mountain style, Mary and I had a discussion whether to leave early the next day. Luckily we decided to stay. At our first breakfast with all of the musicians, dancers, artists, and writers, we heard this sudden dramatic howl of a theme or gesture, somewhat like I had heard David Tudor play the previous evening. It was Stefan. He had an idea and let us hear it, and then went back to eating his breakfast. This happened at many meals, and I got so I would look forward to his whoops.
Wolpe as a teacher was a joy and we seemed to hit it off immediately. We met perhaps three times a week whether or not I had made much progress on whatever I was writing. He had me keep a music notebook in which he would quickly write possible solutions to problems I might have. (I have kept the notebook as a sample of unpublished Wolpe.) What he stressed, as all know by now, was using the complete musical space available; throw caution to the winds. He had a great ear plus a vibrant singing voice, and his exuberant style was of immense inspiration. We also discussed Webern, and I recall we spent several sessions on the Webern Variations for Orchestra.
The College had a small cottage devoted to music and had the name on the door of the American music education Thomas Whitney Surette. As I recall there was a fair amount of music, perhaps left there by Surette after teaching at BMC during the 30s and later. The cottage was a mess and evidently hadn't been cleaned in months or longer. Another student and I clearned the place and found things like dead mice and remnants of a cheese sandwich under the piano lid. Among the various music were choral scores for the Bach cantata God's Time is Best. One evening I directed some of the College in a community sight-reading session of this cantata and Stefan came and added his vigorous bass to the chorus.
Because we had a car (I think a 1947 Ford), Wolpe thought he and his wife Hilda should learn to drive. I thought I would be a fairly adept teacher, but permitting Stefan to take the wheel could be traumatic. We drove on fairly safe country roads, but when another car approached, Stefan would let out some screams, release the wheel and put both hands to his head. After this happened a few times, we decided that Hilda be the student. I have sometimes thought that my most meaningful contribution to contemporary music was to convince Stefan not to drive an automobile.
Other events that summer were a series of talks by Hans Rademacher on new ideas in mathematics, piano recitals by Irma Wolpe Rademacher and by David Tudor (I particuarly remember the Battle Piece of Wolpe), Charles Olson reading his new Maximus poems, dance by the nascent Merce Cunningham Dance group, and a series of talks by the oboist, publisher, and sometime anthropologist Josef Marx, many talks with Earle Brown, and an extraordinary, inkless, embossed program by M.C. Richards for Cunningham.
Stefan and I kept writing to each other till near his death. He remained a man of courage in the face of a devastating disease and zest and generosity almost without equal. And a composer with the same qualities.
Thomas Nee was a student of Ernst Krenek, Stefan Wolpe, and Hermann Scherchen. He is now retired after teaching and conducting at the University of California, San Diego from 1967-91.