Wolpe as Teacher
A Collage of Quotes


Claus Adam (1917-1983). Composer. Cellist of the Juilliard Quartet.

Stefan was never interested in the ordinary, the obvious, he always was interested in why did the composer turn to that or another idea, and what was the germ, and how did it develop in his mind. He would even project. He’d say, “Well, he could have gone in this direction.” He would make some sketches and say, “Now that’s another possibility.” And this is where he was the greatest teacher, because he opened up your process of thinking how to develop what possibilities you had. That was the great thing. (1980)

Haim Alexander (b. 1915). Composer, teacher.

Stefan’s music always made a really immense impact on me. I mean, you couldn’t say, “all right, neutral.” What I said to his personality I would say to his music. He was a man you could accept wholeheartedly, or you could reject wholeheartedly. So with me, first of all, I loved him. I liked him very much as a personality. He made an impact on me as a young fellow. I was here alone, I had nobody, and he was like a father to me. I thought that it must be a man with an absolute genius personality who is able to do such things in such a manner. That he is fearless about what he is doing gave a real impact on me. We discussed very often how the music should be taught. And he said, “For my opinion, you shouldn’t start with Beethoven or Mozart, you should start with twentieth century. And your students should be aware of what’s going on today, not of yesterday. 1985.

Milton Babbitt (b. 1916). Composer, teacher.

The piece of mine that Stefan pressed me most about, and obviously delighted him for rather esoteric personal reasons, was one that never made it quite to the top of the charts. It was a piece called Composition for Tenor and Six Instruments. He heard a performance which the Group for Contemporary Music did up at McMillin and professed to love it. Now I must confess to you, I think the reason he felt that was because in many ways it was my most difficult piece both to perform and to hear. It was a piece that made many people very angry. It had long, long, long periods of unchanging notes, or very, very slow-changing pitch combinations, which was not like my usual music and which intrigued Stefan. Now that piece we did go over in enormous detail, for two reasons, the first being the tempo organization. He wanted to know about phonemic structure. Obviously he knew not a great deal about vocal acoustics and vowel acoustics, and many of us were involved in this, not merely for musical purposes, because we were involved in electronics. That is the piece with which I can remember the most discussion about the organization--spatial organization, division of the musical space, as well as musical time, and possible analogies between the two. 1983.

Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg (1928-1996). Mathematician, conductor, lawyer.

He was one of the most intensely vibrant of human beings, really volcanic in his energy, with those wicked eyebrows always much in action. He was also given to making occasionally wicked remarks. I once asked him in general about how he saw his own music fitting into what you might call the great tradition, by which I mean basically the notions which until very recently have governed our view of art in civilization, which is to say as a way of communication from human being to human being. Essentially the question was, “Do you intend by means of your music to stir the passions of human beings?” He said, “Oh, no, for that I use something quite different.” That’s an absolute marvelous Wolpeism.

Elmer Bernstein (b. 1922). Film composer.

No individual had a more profound impact on my life and music than Stefan Wolpe. I must say that as my music was “freed up” my piano compositions became more and more complex, and I would find myself going to lessons when I found it impossible to play what I had written, it being too technically difficult. Not so for Wolpe, who could sight-read almost anything I could write, which was among his many startling talents. I learned a great deal from him about rhythmic intensity and how to achieve it. (1998)

Herbert Brün (1918-2000). Composer, teacher.

He preferred to analyze pieces that the people can play. Then if they can’t play, he allowed that they couple with somebody who can play. I could play, so I had a nice Wolpe introduction to all the piano music, including the Suite, opus 25, and even the piano part to Pierrot Lunaire, which he liked very much.
Wolpe was a master of the implosion. What he succeeded in doing is to submerge what is prominent. The surface remains steady, the peaks form underneath. It is a wonderful entailment of rebounding from the highest and lowest toward a dramatic middle. The peaks show their profile out of the middle. So anybody who hears the music linearly, and only this way, gets tired after a while and thinks it’s always the same. They hear only an average timbre. The moment you become analytic and think what’s happening inside, everything is exploding. You are full of stuff. That’s the way it’s got to be played too. You must have no false dramatization of a plot nature. It has to always be played as if it would stop in a second and is only going on because of a hiccup. (1984)

John Cage (1912-1992). Composer, writer, visual artist.

And I went several times to 110th Street, out where Stefan had an apartment with Irma Rademacher. And it was always filled with students who were absolutely devoted to him, so that one had the feeling being there that one was at the true center of New York. And it was almost an unknown center of New York. And that was what gave a very special strength to one’s feeling about Stefan, that it was in a sense a privilege to be aware of him, since it was like being privy to an important secret. (1984)

John Carisi (1922-1990). Jazz trumpeter, composer.

He was very concrete, very to the point about how one does things. He said, “I give you these techniques to put in your arsenal, what you can use." And they were very practical, very known procedures. Like one of my best pieces [Israel]. Every time we spoke about it when he was still alive, I used to try and give him credit. I’d say, “That’s partly your piece.” Because somebody would say [to him], “Well, boy, your student here, he wrote that great piece Israel.” I’d say, “Well, that’s partly Stefan’s piece, because he did make some changes.” This was for Miles [Davis]. I think originally I wrote a big arrangement of it for Woody Herman’s band. (1984)

Robert Creeley (b. 1926). Poet.

Stefan was one of the [Black Mountain College] company without question. Everyone liked him. But I can't recall anyone there, when I was there at least, recognizing quite who Stefan, in an old-fashioned sense, really was. Remember that Stefan comes after the extraordinary impact, or fact, of John Cage, Lou Harrison, et al. It wasn't that his music was from another disposition, but it was from another location entirely within that same pattern. The college was used to the curiously dramatic, communal aspects of Cage and his music, and Stefan was not like that. He enjoyed his privacy, had his very clear determinants, was thoughtful of others, but he wasn't hail-fellow-well-met. He was a generous host, but he certainly did not have a need for constant company. He came literally from a very different European world. This one was, after all, a Deweyistic, grassroots American company. 1992.

Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Composer, teacher.

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.
Stefan Wolpe is our Léger. Now, I don't feel that I'm putting him down by saying that he's Léger. But his work is very singular. It is a synthesis, just as Léger was a synthesis. It wasn't synthetic, [
laughs] it was a synthesis. And it's marvelously strong,wonderful music. It doesn't reach the kind of abstraction [the serialists] did, not only because of the materials, but because, I think, the pressure of the materials is more phonetic.
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. (1982)

Bill Finegan (b. 1917). Composer, arranger.

I think he had an effect even on people [in jazz] who didn’t study with him. It was almost like an underground at that time the way it spread, a lot of word of mouth. The arrangers would get together and talk all night long about specific things, get at the keyboard, and play things, and discuss them, and a lot of information would pass that way. (1998)

Joseph Fiore (b. 1925). Painter.

There’s something about the way events occur in Stefan’s music that seem to come from various places that would somehow relate visually or to painting. It wasn’t something from a fixed classical perspective, if you put it in visual terms, that one thing proceeds to the next somehow. But there was always this sense of displacement in space about Stefan’s way of working. I remember sometimes paintings of mine that Stefan particularly responded to, certain things may have struck some kind of a chord in his mind about certain convolutions of form, or where things come into the painting. I got some sense sometimes of what he responded to in visual art, in paintings. 1985

Ed Levy (1930-2002). Composer, teacher.

I would bring in something, he would hear it inside, the way I heard it. He would hear what I was trying to do, and then he would write out another solution of it, invented right at the time. I would look at that solution, and then I would look at what I did, and I would not take his solution. I would work out something else of my own, but along the lines he indicated. And we would proceed like that. So that he went over every note I wrote. He heard it in his head. He played it through occasionally. He was meticulous in terms of every single note being in the right place--rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, everything. And if something was wrong, he would create an alternate version. He would never fix mine. He would never say, “Here, you don’t need a B.” He would create an alternate version in order to give me a sense of comparison. On the basis of the comparison with the alternate version I would then be able to create another alternate, which was different from mine, but at the same time not his. That was mine, but better than my original. So he always led you to the next stage. (1984)

Ursula Mamlok (b. 1928). Composer.

I learned from Wolpe how he would free me from writing in narrow ranges and symmetrical phrases. And today I can’t fathom not accepting his suggestions. It has become a natural language for me to write long arches melodically, and that is something that he showed. He would write down some words--very much like you would teach a child--a sentence where the words could be rotated and there would still be a meaning. There would be permutations of a sentence. I think that’s a valid way of teaching music, especially to a beginner. (1985)

Josef Marx (1913-1978). Oboist, publisher, musicologist.

Twentieth-century changes in oboe technique and therefore in oboe literature began with the pieces that Wolpe wrote for me. The first is the Suite im Hexachord for oboe and clarinet, which he began composing shortly after we met in Jerusalem in 1935. It was finished in early 1936. The second piece was the Oboe Sonata, which was begun in 1937 and finished in 1941. The third piece is the Quartet for Oboe, Cello, Percussion, and Piano, composed in the middle 1950s, which Quartet is to my mind the most beautiful piece for oboe that exists, and also the most difficult. I don’t know any other piece that is that fiendishly difficult. (1973)

Leonard B. Meyer (b. 1918). Musicologist, theorist, teacher.

I feel deeply indebted to Stefan, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, except that he taught me a lot about what made music work. He was always concerned with really important issues about motivic structure. He would talk less about harmony and somewhat about form, but more in a synthetic, dialectic sense, the relationship of things to one another. He was not at all doctrinaire in his teaching of composition. He knew what was going on in twelve-tone music, but we never talked about that really. He talked about Busoni a lot, much more than anyone else. He felt that Busoni somehow was the beginning of an alternative way of making music. Some of the neo-classical aspects of Busoni meant something to Stefan in terms of the structuring of music. I know that he spoke very fondly about Busoni. (1982)

Hilda Morley Wolpe (1919-1998). Poet.

In the 1920s he went through several stages. One was that he believed in the total anonymity of the artist, and that one should not credit oneself with what one does. For example, he signed himself “X” in many cases on modern music concerts. Lao Tse influenced him a lot, the hidden great man, the concealed one, which to a certain extent he remained to the end of his life. He felt that a piece of music performs its function when it’s performed once and need not be preserved after that. It’s flowered and had its one blooming, and after that he would destroy his work after the premiere.
He would say there is no inspiration unless one has the most intense concentration, unless one lives in terms of the most continuing and deepest concentration. Concentration was for him the source of all one’s creative ideas. He used to say to me sometimes, “Mine yourself, dig farther, dig deeper. Get as far as you can into the well.” Depth was a very concrete concept for him. “Opening one’s pores” was an expression that he used, too. Not so much for the immediate act of writing, but for kind of refreshment in between, that is, going to look at some painting to open your pores, or a certain kind of landscape that was very meaningful to him. (1978)

Raoul Pleskow (b. 1932). Composer, teacher.

There’s 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. (1985)

Howard Rovics (b. 1936). Composer, teacher.

I joined an analysis group of six to eight people during ’60-61. Wolpe had us get the Webern Piano Variations and he began talking about them. He talked about shapes, mirrors, trying to imagine time flowing forward and back, challenging us to imagine something other than time flowing only in one direction. He drew our attention to proportions, balance, and symmetry, the imaginary flow of time, and what he loved to call the thirdless unit, the hallmark sound of the twentieth century. Maybe a month or so into contemplating the piece he started to lay in the row and did the row analysis. Here’s the row and watch what happens. (1998)

George Russell (b. 1923).

The two things that impressed me, that caused me to think in a new way, were his theory of the rate of chromatic circulation as a means of destroying any tonical integrity, and the principle of the thirdless sound. I thought that was incredible. Gil Evans didn’t study with Wolpe in the way that students did who would like to write like Wolpe or write in the style of Wolpe. But I have a feeling that other people like myself just wanted to absorb as much not only of the music but of the man. Gil was one of those, and Wolpe loved him, I’m sure. If any one would influence Wolpe it would be Gil. I do remember Wolpe being at one of the initial concerts of that Gerry Mulligan-led group that’s been given the credit for founding the whole cool movement in jazz. Some of Wolpe’s influence is in there. Monk would have been open to Wolpe’s ideas and Charlie Parker. Towards the end of his life he [Parker] was desperate to find new ways to expand his own music. (1997)

Eddie Sauter (1914-1981). Composer, arranger.

I had begun studying with Stefan Wolpe about that same time, late ’45, and that opened up a whole world to me. But before that there was always a curiosity of how does this work. What Bartók and Stravinsky were doing in those days was not I might have been used to hearing. How that fit into the total thing fascinated me, and I did want to learn about it. I wanted to learn about Schoenberg. I never got quite to Schoenberg, it never turned me on the way the others did. It still doesn’t. Wolpe was a twelve-tone writer, but what a good teacher, what an inspirational human being he was. (1980)

Ralph Shapey (1921-2002). Composer, teacher.

Some of our big fights occurred over notation, lining up and things. There was one rehearsal I remember that I took the score and threw it on the floor. I said, "If you ever hand me a score like that again, I'll never conduct it." When he wrote the [Violin] Sonata for [Frances] Magnes, he borrowed a violin some place and got a sound that makes scratching in the throat, and said, "Ach, that's marvelous, I'm gonna use it." I said, "Stefan, what are you talking about? The violinist spends a lifetime to learn how to draw a beautiful tone and you're going to want them to break the violin? What's the matter with you?" (1975)

Fred Sherry (b. 1948). Cellist.

The man and his music seemed to be inseparable in that way that he had an aura about him. Whenever Wolpe was around, it was kind of like you never knew what was going to happen next. Not that I can relate any stories of weird occurrences, but there was always a feeling that he could turn his attention to any part of the score or any player in the group and give them some inspiration on how to play or how to react to his music that was very important and would make a big difference in playing. And again, it wasn’t the words he said, but it was the way he related to his own score. He had a fascination with the way musicians produce tone and how that tone would affect his music. Therefore it wasn’t that you lined up the right notes at the right time, [it was] if you were able to interpret his music and to say that each note had personality. (1990)

Harvey Sollberger (b. 1938). Composer, flutist, conductor, teacher.

In 1963 or 1964 Wolpe gave a lecture at the New School. Howard Lebow and I played parts of the Piece in Two Parts. Wolpe discussed it and put the row on the board, which, as I recall, astounded me, because it had fourteen notes in it. Aside from the technical ways in which he moved the notes around relative to each other, he spoke about some of the underlying aesthetic base, the ideas underlying the ways in which the notes were combined. He spoke very emphatically about treating collections of notes, what he would call constellations of pitches, as almost physical, concrete objects. He spoke about the opening of the Piece in Two Parts especially as being almost the equivalent of the space in a room, a sort of spatial metaphor, in which the particular groupings of notes--the flute’s opening four notes, piano chords that interrupt--each of these was akin to an object in the same way that a room might be filled with objects of different sorts--a spoon, a table, a dish, a toothbrush, a fingernail. They were just there, and you could observe them sharing the space. (1982)

David Tudor (1926-1996). Pianist, composer.

Let’s say on the outside he wasn’t full of what you call artifice. You could see everything on the surface. He wasn’t capable of saying anything untrue. Compromise was a word that he just didn’t work with. He didn’t know what it meant. Other than that, what was very important to me was the dynamism that was so much a part of him.
I think I learned the most about him when I was studying the Battle Piece. That’s a piece you can’t play without having his mind. That kind of challenge is, I think, most what I learned from. Something that was new to me, and something I couldn’t do to begin with. I recall the first three parts of it were finished. I began working on it as he was composing the fourth part. And then I remember enjoying his description of what was going to happen later on in the piece, in his amazing joy in finding the last movement, because that piece evolved so very slowly, and he realized that something radical had to happen, and he found it in the last part of the piece. (1982)

Joy Tudor Nemiroff (b. 1923). Secretary of the Contemporary Music School 1948-1952.

Even though we saw how formidable the opposition could be, what [Stefan] would do was to challenge the opposition. He would never not do that. It was the only way 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. 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. 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. (1999)

Estéban Vicente (1903-2000). Painter.

What comes from Cubism is that everything should be solid, everything should be related, and moving, and I think Stefan did that. He was so clear and so solid, in a way, that it relates to my ideal in painting too, which actually comes from Cubism. His music on the one side has the background of the part of Europe where he comes from, Germany, and on the other is what he is as a person. It’s a combination of things, the structure in his music and this kind of freedom is what I call Mediterranean. So he was really a very complex person. Wolpe was a very incredible person in many ways, and full of mystery. What remains in spite of everything as a memory is his passion, his emotion. (1984)

Jonathan Williams (b. 1929). Poet.

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. (1993)

Irma Wolpe Rademacher (1902-1984). Pianist, teacher.

Stefan had a genius for the piano, but no talent. In a strange house he would rush to a piano and was lost to the world. He couldn't learn fingering. He'd play five notes and then begin to improvise. His piano playing could have been extraordinary but for his intensity and joy in destroying. He wrecked every piano he played on. He had an infallible way of making strings snap. The strings were hanging out like guts. The same for conducting. He was too subjective. [Stefan] went to the Bauhaus in search of his ideal. They were searching there for the essence, for the pure form, and at the same time the perfectly functional. He was a great young friend of Klee, and he accompanied Klee when he played violin.
I called Stefan the unicorn, coming out of the depths of the woods and absolutely ignorant of everything. He has a truth of his own, and a knowledge of his own in everything. 1979.

Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938). Composer, pianist, conductor, teacher.

From Babbitt I absorbed the whole range of systematic possibilities of the twelve-tone system; from Carter, ideas about morphology, musical time, other kinds of macro-structural things; and from Wolpe, something not quite so specific in one respect, but more specific in another. In the specific case, certain gestures of mine (I always thought) come directly out of gestures of his, especially the confined, rapid, equal-note articulations of restricted pitch-class collections, so typical of him; on the other hand, his extraordinary spontaneity and intuitive rightness. An awful lot of what he did structurally, the connections he made, were really intuitively found rather than systematically generated. (1998)

Eli Yarden (b. 1933). Composer, teacher.

One of the most striking things about him, which influenced me strongly, was the idea of teaching as a compositional activity, that teaching provided the same kind of creative or expressive needs as composition. He didn’t seem to think that it was very important to compose if he were teaching. And I think that this influenced me also, the whole idea of composing in front of other people as a way of being in the world as a musician and as a creative process. His idea of teaching composition was to continue to inspire the student until he finds inspiration within his own being, within himself. So the idea of being an external source of inspiration was completely congenial to him. (1986)