The Rock Need Not Return to Earth

The Stefan Wolpe Society has just sent out its 2007 newsletter (PDF), which is worth reading if you like Wolpe’s music. I do, immensely. Of all the modernist-atonalists of the mid-century, he was my favorite, yet of all the composers whose music I’m nuts about, his is the most difficult to justify to people who don’t get it. I think of his as the music I wanted Elliott Carter’s to be, but Wolpe’s seems tremendously more focused, more taut, more playful, and easier to follow intuitively – if still, at times, mystifying. I’ve always liked the story that Wolpe used to compose while watching fish in his fish tank, making his notes dart, freeze, and scatter as the fish would do. Sometimes he could use abstract hexachords in a way that jumped out and made you notice. Studying piano with a Wolpe student at Oberlin my freshman year (Tom Simon, anyone know his whereabouts?), I was assigned the piano piece Form, and fell in love. That opening little six-note motif – Ab F Bb A G E – returns so playfully as theme, chord, pitch set, riff, tone row, that you really hear it come back in a dozen unexpected guises. Form IV: Broken Sequences is even better, and I love the Trio, the Quartet with saxophone, the Chamber Piece No. 1, the elegant String Quartet, the enchanting Ten Songs from the Hebrew. Such brash, brainy, acerbic music, yet not afraid to be completely obvious at times. I like Enactments for three pianos, too, though without understanding it; I feel like an ant crawling across a late Jackson Pollock mural. I am told that the Mario Davidovsky crowd did not like to hear Wolpe’s name mentioned – he wasn’t systematic enough – and if true, I’m not surprised. He was out of their league.

The Wolpe newsletter’s major offering is a detailed account of the origins of his one Symphony – not one of my favorite Wolpe works, and a little stiff, but the article (without admitting that) explains why: Leonard Bernstein insisted that he greatly simplify the notation, which, originally, was presumably in his usual metrically fluid style. It’s difficult to orchestrate goldfish.

My fondness for Wolpe brings up a point about Bernard Holland’s bittersweet review yesterday of George Perle’s music, whose atonality-bashing will probably earn him another broadside from Counter-Critic (a website that, no longer being a critic, I thoroughly enjoy). I’ve always sympathized with Holland on this issue, yet I disagree with his terminology. Much of Holland’s take is thoroughly common-sensical:

It sounds reasonable to say that Anton Webern’s Piano Variations take up where Brahms left off. I admire the Webern; I even like it for its strangely satisfying space-age spirituality. I don’t think it has anything remotely to do with Brahms.

Touché! On the other hand:

Until the 20th century musicians obeyed natural laws of physics. Pick up a rock, drop it, and it falls to the ground. Music was the same. Send a piece of music up in the air, doctor and twist it, make it major, minor or modal; in the end it wants to come down to where it started. You can call the process tonality or music’s law of gravity.

Of course, almost no composer is going to accede to this. (In fact, psychological studies have shown that musicians couldn’t care less whether a piece comes back to the same key it started in.) Atonality is not the problem. Taking my students as a pristine and unncorrupted audience, there’s loads of wonderful atonal music that they glom onto at first listen, and beg for copies of (Ruggles’s Sun-Treader, most of Varèse, second movement of Berio’s Sinfonia, Stockhausen’s Gruppen, much of Nancarrow, Babbitt’s Philomel, Xenakis’s Pithoprakta, Dallapiccola’s Piccola Musica Notturna, Branca’s Tenth Symphony), and a lot of atonal music that instantly turns them off (Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet, Webern’s Symphony, Babbitt’s Post-Partitions). Hell, there’s a lot of atonal rock music. 

As Philomel, Sinfonia, Gruppen, and Piccola Musica Notturna show, even 12-tone organization is not the issue. It strikes me that the deciding factor is whether or not the listener senses that there is some organizational factor that you’re supposed to be hearing that can’t be located by ear, whether the meaning of the piece is buried somewhere underneath the surface. That quality seems to be more what Holland objects to about Perle than the mere lack of tonality. I was dumbfounded by the quotation Alex Ross in his book unearthed from Boulez; asked why the serial pieces of the ’50s never became standard repertoire, the meister admitted, “Perhaps we didn’t pay enough attention to how people listen.” In general, and as evinced by a thousand film scores, atonality tends to express anxiety, and much of the music, like Sun-Treader, that freely acquiesces to that is extremely effective. But Wolpe’s output is Exhibit A that music can be relentlessly atonal and also whimsical, jaunty, and attractive. 

Our critics need to find a rhetoric in which to discuss the issue that does not make atonality the fall guy. For a splendid counter-example, I highly recommend Justin Davidson’s recent review of Elliott Carter, which elegantly captures, in words I couldn’t better myself, my own disappointed feelings about that composer’s post-1954 music.


  1. says

    I was perhaps the last of Wolpe’s students and was later a student of Mario Davidovsky. You must have been misinformed about the Mario “crowd.” I never found any hostility to Wolpe or his work -quite the contrary. As a matter of fact, it was at a performance of Mario’s Second Synchronism that Wolpe suggested that I study with Mario in graduate school; and Mario has always spoken very highly of Stefan.
    That said, I thank you for your comments about Stefan; if nothing else, he was a bona fide composer; and he was much more than that. All the human values are there, including humor and courage. As Nietzsche said about himself: “he was a good fisherman, but perhaps there were no fish …”
    KG replies: Thanks for setting me straight about Davidovsky. Maybe it was Sessions….