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My memory of Stefan Wolpe by Yoko Ono

I met Stefan Wolpe in the late 50’s when he lived in his upper Westside apartment with Hilda, his beautiful partner. Stefan and Hilda often invited me to their home for tea. (I was also invited for dinners, too, but there, I must say, Hilda was not a very professional cook!) I loved the intellectual, warm, and definitely European atmosphere the two of them had created. Stefan immediately showed me his musical scores. I was surprised how complex, precise, yet emotional his works were. I don’t know of any other composer of the time who represented atonal music so brilliantly.

It was a time of the great shift in the music world. On one hand, “modern” composers such as Stravinsky, Copeland and Bartok were hailed and played over and over again till they came out of your ears. On the other hand, composers such as Edgar Varese, Stockhausen and Maurice Kagel were receiving respect for being the forerunners of electronic music.  Henry Cowell, John Cage & Morton Feldman were applauded for their avant-garde pioneer efforts. Stefan’s work fell in between those two contemporary schools, as he still used the musical vocabulary which was considered less fashionable at the time. He himself was very aware of this situation. He complained how the composers were no more dealing with music, but noise. Where is the human spirit? Where is the soul? I loved him for his belief in his work….and for not joining the crowd.

In those days, it was even difficult to have your scores printed if you were writing music using the traditional notations of Western classical music. You had to first pay an expensive copyist who copied your score by hand on a special chemically treated paper, and then have it printed. It took ages to copy scores as complicated as Stefan’s, and most copyists, who were usually unknown composers themselves, bowed out of such a complex job, or rushed and made mistakes. Stefan was very patient with them, but copying each of his scores was always going at a snail’s pace, so to speak. I thought it was interesting to speak about this, since I presume for contemporary composers, this is probably like talking about the time we all traveled in carriages! You will, also, have an inkling of composer Stefan’s daily frustration even on the level of having his scores copied because of their complexity.

I remember one concert in Carnegie Recital Hall in which Stefan’s “Composition for Three Pianos” was performed together with pieces by Edgar Varese and John Cage: three composers representing contemporary music. After the concert, Stefan introduced me to Cage at the old Russian Tea Room frequented by N.Y. composers and musicians in those days. It wasn’t as though I asked for it. But, later, Stefan made quite a thing about having introduced me to the “noise player.” “I introduced you to Cage.” Stefan would say, in his heavy European voice. Oh, well, you have, Stefan.

It’s nice to know that Stefan will get his music played by the musicians of this generation…though I’m sure I would have heard some complaints from Stefan regarding the performances if he was around. As a human being, he was a romantic, but as an Artist, he was the epitome of a perfectionist. And Hilda, where are you?

© YOKO ONO 2002


from On the Music of Stefan Wolpe: Essays and Recollections
by former students and friends
edited by Austin Clarkson

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2009-11-04T18:14:09+00:00 November 4th, 2009|Written work|