Stories » TWELVE TONES AND OPPRESSION by Michael Shapiro

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by Michael Shapiro

I just read about composer and pianist Charles Wuorinen's passing.

I was an undergrad at Columbia from 1969–1973 when Wuorinen taught undergrads. I saw him in the hallways at Dodge in those days. Wuorinen never smiled and was always taciturn. He made it clear he knew better.

I stayed away and spent happier times with Joel Newman, Denis Stevens, and Paul Henry Lang learning about Josquin, Monteverdi, and Haydn.

Wuorinen ran then an ensemble with Harvey Sollberger which Elliott Carter and his wife financially supported. Harvey was a delightful man with an easy smile and talent for the flute but unfortunately with little talent for teaching in his composition class. The contrast with the rigorous Boulanger style learning I had had from Elie Siegmeister or my later studies with Vincent Persichetti was striking and revealing. I remember Harvey with happiness however as he was kind but I was perplexed how he worked with Wuorinen who seemed angry all the time.

For I found the academic imposition of 12-tone note spinning in those days (from Wuorinen and others) revolting especially when we were fighting against governmental suppression (similar to today). I found (and still find) such pieces deadening and gray with no life in them. Certainly no melodic line I could find solace in. No harmony or rhythm I cared to follow or could even hear. No happiness. Where was it going except into darkness? Consumed with only a rage and black sorrow with which I never empathized. Rage and sorrow are fine but not as a constant, perpetual and demanded diet. Nothing I could enjoy. And please don't tell me what to like and care for. I am not talking about the First World War period of Arnold, Anton, and Alban which reflected its time and was organically felt. The cerebral nature of the predominantly college style when I attended Columbia felt just plain wrong to me then, a denial of the self, and of creative freedom.

I found the tenor when I was at Columbia to be arrogant and despotic however and anti-learning. I just didn't get it, still don't, and still seek being what the jazz musicians call "sent" when I listen to music.

After college I heard Boulez conduct one of Wuorinen's pieces at a Perspective Encounter concert downtown. in which my friend the bass Harris Poor sang. The piece was active but ultimately dead on arrival. It seemed a culmination of everything I found impossible to listen to. I just didn't care for it and was bored by its needless complexities.

Today I remain someone who is not solely interested in style or how one puts notes together. I respond to expression, love, and caring. Use whatever style or way you choose. But have taste, technique, and desire. Know from whence you came (study all the literature) and where you are going.

Being told what is right, evolutionary sound, is just plain wrong, Orwellian style mass direction is lifeless, and not where I care to or will ever go.

Especially now.