Blog of the AMM

Michael Tencer: Double Concerto for Holzman & Wolpe (& against Miserabilist Aesthetics & Politics)

493 0
In addition to the Fela Kuti box set, T.H.F. Drenching’s Whole Head Spring Finch [review forthcoming] & the complete Darcus Howe BBC Sessions, the ‘Best Experience For Your Ears This Year’ category is currently brimming with Esemplasm over the latest CD from atonal piano virtuoso David Holzman: Music of Stefan Wolpe Volume Six, out on Bridge.

Covering works spanning Wolpe’s full career, from a 1926 ‘Blues’ and ‘Tango’ to the 1959 ‘Song Without Words’ titled ‘Lively. Why not?’, this CD is to the classical genre what Stefan Jaworzyn’s group Descension is to indie rock.1 From the opening notes of ‘Four Studies on Basic Rows’, a piece which provoked one of its first listeners in 1936 to tell its composer “Even a toothache would be a happy stroke of luck compared with this music”2 we are instantly driven into a furious, satisfying & intensely provocative experience. How provocative? As provocative as the fact that the royal wedding still cost more than the total damage from the riots?3 Do yourself a favour & listen to it.

Holzman has lived inside Wolpe’s singularly difficult music for decades, despite a near-total lack of fame and an absolutely total lack of fortune. I recall witnessing one of his recitals, played to a New York City audience of fewer than a dozen citizens, where he played Wolpe’s most famously difficult composition ‘Battle Piece’ from memory. If you can fathom the amount of concentration, stamina & sheer commitment required to accurately perform more than fifteen minutes of the most rigorously atonal music imaginable, you can revile that much more completely the systematic violence to our ears perpetrated everyday on radio & TV which relegates music THIS alive & real & necessary to obscurity.

(To calculate the facts for yourself, witness Holzman’s previous earthshattering Wolpe piano CD, Music of Stefan Wolpe Volume Two, which includes ‘Battle Piece’; as well as the Albany Records CD Visions, a collection of pieces by Jewish composers which includes an earlier performance of Wolpe’s ‘Palestinian Notebook’ alongside the single most compelling version of Schoenberg’s ‘Drei Klavierstücke’ I’ve ever heard – emotional without schmaltz, precise without freeze-dried mathematicism, gestural & perfectly paced like an intimate, experienced, suggestive storyteller.)

Holzman plays as if his life depends on it, & Wolpe certainly composed with death-defying engagement. With all the audible virtues of both performer & composer on display, this most recent CD presents the listener with two screaming quandaries from the start: why isn’t David Holzman widely acknowledged as THE premier classical pianist of our time? & why isn’t Stefan Wolpe better known?

I can only speculate on the reasons here, but I believe the perceptive reader could guess the answers just as well. Holzman, a first-rate performer since at least the 1970s, has devoted his life to some of the most complex music (I almost wrote ‘in the repertoire’, but the vast majority of the music he performs never enters anyone else’s repertoire!). From Elliott Carter’s ‘Sonata’ to Donald Martino’s ‘Preludes’, from the gnarled rigour of Ralph Shapey to the thorny long-lined melodic thrust of Roger Sessions, Holzman has consistently chosen to play intellectually & physically challenging works that receive next to no ‘push’ from any marketing departments. Rarely touring, & unskilled at the political art of schmooze, Holzman resembles Robert Crumb more than the fire-breathing sex pots promoted in the latest round of classical venue bumf (Have you SEEN how these kids have to pose with their fiddles these days? Well anything to nab that ‘avant’ dollar I suppose). Terminally un-sexy by the standards of The Wire, David Holzman, like most artists committed to musical excellence rather than visual showmanship, is a prime example of genuine neglected genius. It is downright shameful that in New York City, home of such proudly ‘cutting edge’ venues as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, & John Zorn’s The Stone, it is only in the soirée settings of the Goethe-Institut or the African Art Museum of Tenafly, New Jersey, that he’s regularly invited to perform.

Stefan Wolpe’s obscurity in America & England is a somewhat different matter. From his famous associations & the scope of his work, it seems rather odd that his name so rarely surfaces in discussions of modernist music. A pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, he also studied for a time at the Bauhaus, setting Kurt Schwitters’s poem Anna Blume first as piano songs, & then as a full opera. While he began to write atonally, following the systematic innovations of Arnold Schoenberg, he also composed pieces for workers’ unions & communist theatre groups, incorporating elements of jazz. At least according to Wikipedia, his “songs became popular, rivalling those of Hanns Eisler.”4

Following the rise of Nazism, he first fled to Austria, where he studied with Anton Webern; then to Palestine, where his preference for atonal composition was poorly received. From there he moved to New York, as so many of Europe’s great composers were forced to, & took up teaching positions. He was director of music at Black Mountain College from 1952 to 1956, a fact which in itself should guarantee him some sort of American following, yet in most writings on Black Mountain Wolpe is overshadowed by the presence of the fellow composer he hired, John Cage. (Poets & other psychotics might be interested to know that Ed Dorn took a tutorial with Wolpe & recommended ‘a crazy new long play out on Esoteric’5 to his patron/wife’s-ex-husband: currently re-released as Hat Art CD 6182, Passacaglia: First Recordings 1954, & featuring David Tudor & Al Cohn – yet probably still hard to find/semi-out-of-print, cause you know what Hat Art is like…)

From there Wolpe moved back to New York to join the faculty of C.W. Post College of Long Island University (where David Holzman currently teaches!). Despite tutoring such luminaries as Morton Feldman, Ralph Shapey, David Tudor & Charles Wuorinen, & lecturing at the famous Darmstadt summer courses, his work remained barely acknowledged in America beyond a circle of fellow composers. The insult of incapable performers – even Eduard Steuermann, dodecaphonic composer & favoured pianist of Schoenberg, handed back the score of the ‘Passacaglia’ to Wolpe saying he didn’t think it was playable6 – culminated in the monumental disappointment toward the end of his life at not getting to hear one of his last & greatest compositions performed. Sez Elliott Carter:

“When [Wolpe’s ‘Symphony’] was finally accepted for performance by the New York Philharmonic, six years after its completion, Wolpe, already ill [with Parkinson’s disease], had the parts copied hastily so that later, at the last moment, the Philharmonic librarian had to do many of them over, for which many of the composer’s friends contributed. The music itself proved beyond the level of difficulty that the Philharmonic could cope with, given its lack of experience with new music and its limited rehearsal schedule, despite the good will and valiant efforts of many of the performers and of Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, who had been called in to conduct. As all his friends remember bitterly, only two of the three movements were performed and these not well.”7

It’s worth mentioning that the ‘Symphony’ can currently be heard on two recordings, on CRI & on Arte Nova; tho of course, neither you8 nor I have ever heard it performed live.

So why isn’t Stefan Wolpe well-known in America or England? Why isn’t his work performed in the periodic rehash-tributes to John Cage & his circle? Why isn’t he represented in the currently-fashionable celebrations of Jewish culture in New York or Jerusalem, where he lived & composed? Because unlike silent pieces or slow chance operations where no one can tell if you make a mistake, & unlike Great Jewish Music by the likes of Burt Bacharach, Marc Bolan or Serge Gainsbourg,9 covers of his tunes require INTENSE WORK & CONCENTRATION, & will earn such dedicated performers neither recording contracts nor groupies.10

Now then, I’d like to close this ‘review’ with three quotes to illustrate the revolutionary fervour of Wolpe both as a committed, militant activist & an uncompromisingly modernist composer. Imagine what this world would be like if David Holzman’s explosive Wolpe performances were as in-demand as Philip Glass’s monochromonotony…!

“In 1951 David Tudor gave a recital at Town Hall that included the Toccatas of Busoni and Wolpe. Cage told a story of how after the concert he said to the composer, whom he did not name, that, contrary to the title “Too much suffering in the world”, he thought that there was “just the right amount of suffering”. Cage was at the time steeped in the Zen teachings of Daisetz Suzuki, who taught that pain and suffering were givens of the human tradition. Wolpe, however, had lived through the deprivations of post-World War I Germany, witnessed the violence of the Nazis against the Jews and Communists in Berlin, lost loved ones and colleagues in the Holocaust, and suffered exile first in Palestine and then in the U.S.A. Their exchange marked the difference between the two composers in their approach to creating new order – Cage through subversive quietism, Wolpe through vigorous, aggressive activism.”11

‘I recall Stefan’s Composer’s Forum those many years ago, at which his ‘Battle Piece’ for piano was performed. In the question period following the concert a member of the audience asked if the work had been intended for use in actual battle. Stefan didn’t answer; no answer was necessary, since the answer so obviously was “yes”. For battles are not only against, but for; some battles are engaged, and some are thrust upon one.’12

“Comet-like radiance, conviction, fervent intensity, penetrating thought on many levels of seriousness and humor, combined with breathtaking adventurousness and originality, marked the inner and outer life of Stefan Wolpe, as they do his compositions.”13

To which I would only add that those same characteristics equally mark the extraordinary performances of Wolpe’s greatest performer, David Holzman.

For more information on Holzman not written by me, go to his website, If you liked what I had to say here, please send me a copy of On the Music of Stefan Wolpe: Essays and Recollections, edited by Austin Clarkson, because I can’t afford it.

Nevermind the riots, bring on the Revolution!!!

1) Stefan Jaworzyn @ Prism-Escape.Com
2) Cellist Thelma Yellen of the Palestine Conservatoire, quoted in the liner notes of Music of Stefan Wolpe Volume Six, Bridge Records 9344, n.p. [p. 5]. Also: ‘Emil Hauser, leader of the Budapest String Quartet and principal of the Palestine Conservatoire, said after a performance of the Studies that they did not need atonal music in Palestine […]’. [ibid.] How disastrously wrong Mr. Hauser remains.
3) Financial Times: Looting Hit Economy Less Than Royal Wedding
5) cf. Tom Clark, Edward Dorn: A World of Difference. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2002, p. 237.
6) & Wolpe had dedicated the piece to Steuermann! cf. Holzman & Clarkson’s liner notes, Music of Stefan Wolpe Volume Six, Bridge Records 9344, n.p. [p. 11].
7) Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995 (Jonathan W. Bernard, ed.). Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 1997, p. 186.
8) Yes, you.
9) All celebrated composers of ‘Great Jewish Music’ in the Radical Jewish Culture series on Tzadik.
10) Or then again, maybe it has something to do with the fact that Wolpe was a socialist & America remains vehemently opposed to All Things Marx: recall that composer Conlon Nancarrow, tho born & raised in the U.S., was denied a passport in 1940 due to his participation with the Communist Party in fighting the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Following more than thirty years of exile in Mexico, he attempted to regain his U.S. citizenship, but was told he could not return unless he signed a statement swearing that he had been ‘young and foolish’ when he embraced Communism. In 1981! So he told them where to stick it & stayed in Mexico.
11) David Holzman with Austin Clarkson, liner notes to Music of Stefan Wolpe Volume Six, Bridge Records 9344, n.p. [p. 15].
12) Milton Babbitt, The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt (Stephen Peles, et al., ed.). Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 308.
13) Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995 (Jonathan W. Bernard, ed.). Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 1997, p. 185.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.