Unhappily, I can’t remember a single one of the thousand witty things I heard Charles say.
Actually, I can’t remember anything anyone said back then, verbatim. If I use quotation marks, it means I am confident I am conveying the gist and tenor of something that was said, not the exact words. I can’t rise to that criterion when it comes to Wuorinen’s repartee. I am not witty enough to convey the subtleties of the gist and the appropriateness of the tenor of one of Wuorinen’s wisecracks.
I met Charles Wuorinen in a “Health Education” course required of all Freshmen at Columbia College. It was a sex education course, actually. I already had mastered the basics, or thought I had, just as most of the fifty other Freshmen sitting around me had, or thought they had. While the professor – one of the assistant mathematics professors had drawn the short straw that semester – educated us about the actuarial data for venereal disease and such physiological details as the fact that vaginas and penises come in different sizes, while trying to keep a straight face, we pointedly fidgeted and rolled our eyes, like a bunch of Einsteins in a class on addition.
On the first day of Health Education, I heard someone sitting behind me sum up, in a few words, its absurdity. I turned around. There was Charles Wuorinen – dressed like a grown-up, in a dark suit and tie, with a grown-up supercilious smile swimming beneath his high, pale, grown-up forehead.
What was it he said? Let me try. “A refund, please. I bought tickets for Aeschylus, not Ionesco.” Sorry, that is the best I could do. Wuorinen would have scoffed at it, and improved on it. In fact, that kind of exchange became the basis of our relationship. I would say something I thought was clever, and Wuorinen would scoff at it and improve on it. I became Wuorinen’s straight man (pun sort of intended and sort of not) and, for a year or so, his sidekick.
Wuorinen lived with his parents on Morningside Heights, but spent most of his free time in Greenwich Village, in an apartment on Christopher St. where, besides a piano, there was a large drafting board on which he would compose his music.
Most of the time David Johnson was there too. Johnson, from California, was as rugged and handsome as a Hollywood cowboy, but forever petulant, not like a child, but petulant like a drunk throwing out nasty remarks from a table in a dark corner of a saloon. Johnson also used the drafting board to compose on, and I was never sure whose apartment it was, Wuorinen’s or Johnson’s.
Charles and David probably were more than close friends, but the possibility that they were a couple never entered my mind. My bravado in Health Education notwithstanding, I was still a naïf, who assumed that homosexuality was a discernable trait, one that marked its practitioners as denizens of Fairyland. I was aware, for example, that Benjamin Stein, who occupied the apartment below Wuorinen’s, was queer. (“Gay” had not yet been purloined from its neat place in English usage). Benjamin was a flamboyant Village queen. He was the first I had encountered, so he seemed to me as much of a witty original (less wit; more originality) as Wuorinen.
Sometimes Wuorinen, sitting at the piano, would play works in progress, singing the orchestral parts in a countertenor more raucous than sweet. Never having heard the term “countertenor,” I thought Wuorinen was singing in falsetto – until Alfred Deller broke into the classical radio stations’ playlists and his albums began to appear in the Early Music bins of record stores.
One day, on my way back from Sam Goody’s with my first Deller record – Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art – as I crossed the campus I bumped into Charles. After making his de rigueur snide remarks about Deller, Purcell, and early music and English music in general, with the exception of the towering John Dowland, whose songs no one knew how to sing, Charles came up with me to my room in Livingstone Hall. There, sitting cross-legged on the floor, he warbled along with the music – Come, come, ye sons of art, come, come away-ay-ay-ay – merrily integrating the innocence of Purcell’s birthday serenade for the Queen of England with the naughty decadence of New York in the ‘50’s. (How innocent that naughty decadence seems now.)
While the rest of us artistic types at Columbia College had just begun to sniff around the edges of the real world, Wuorinen was fully immersed in the New York music scene. He was its youthful prodigy.
The Columbia Music Department, due either to good judgment or the necessity it felt to distinguish itself from the herd, had rejected the influence of atonalism, which had most academic music in its cold, ugly grip. What form this rejection of serialism should take split the Columbia composers into two camps: a progressive one, led by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, which was experimenting with electronic music, and a conservative one, inspired by Bartok’s poetic pursuit of new tonalities (instead of non-tonality). Wuorinen was in the latter camp.
The unhappiness of Bartok’s New York years, responsibility for which rested in large part on the disregard paid to him by the Columbia Music Department in whose charge the distinguished refugee had been placed, swelled Bartok’s aura of neglected genius. There was never a hint of Wuorinen’s usual deprecatory irony when Bartok was mentioned.
However, very little of the music I heard, when I tagged along with Wuorinen to Carl Fischer Hall, to new music concerts put together by John Cage and the pianist, David Tudor, could be described as Bartokian. It was either what I thought of then in my ignorance and, because of a lacuna in my musical taste that persists today, I still think of as plinkity-plunk, or conceptual works which I then ascribed to a gleeful nihilistic Dadaism, but I now know drew on profound metaphysical paradoxes of the East. Whatever. While I found the concerts loads of fun, putting me plump in the middle of an avant garde New York scene at the side of a friend who was on first name terms with everyone in it, I cannot remember hearing a single piece of music there that I enjoyed just for itself.
One evening, Charles and I and David Johnson took seats in the first row of the balcony, where we could look down on the luminaries below, grinning at Wuorinen’s acerbic running commentary.
Suddenly, Johnson whispered, “There he is.”
“Ah,” is all that Wuorinen could find to say. My friends were clearly star-struck.
“Who?” I asked.
“Morton Feldman,” they whispered reverently.
I had never heard of Morton Feldman, but if you had asked me to come up with a name for the bulky, swarthy man in the crumpled dark suit shambling down the aisle, “Morton Feldman” is exactly the name I would have come up with and, if we had been anywhere else, I would have tagged him – based on my acquaintance with similar types back in Poughkeepsie – as a lawyer with a dingy office across the street from a courthouse and clients too poor to pay their attorney’s bills, or perhaps as the owner of a women’s underwear factory.
Soon Wuorinen’s music was being performed around the city and being reviewed in The New York Times. He sluffed off his bohemianism and, partly because I was finding his egotism less entertaining than before and partly because he was finding me too jejune and provincial for the company he now frequented, we stopped hanging out together.
When, in the early 1970’s, I came across an album with a Wuorinen piece on it, I purchased it, of course. What I had heard fifteen years earlier, as Wuorinen, at the piano on Christopher St., played and warbled, were Bartokian motifs, refined by Wuorinen’s own peculiar insouciance. What I heard on the record I’d bought was plinkity-plunk.
Unfortunately, Wuorinen had become an all-or-nothing serialist. That is exactly the same “unfortunately” I would use to describe the influence on Stravinsky of the serialist Svengali, Robert Craft.
Wuorinen’s wit also declined. It is not impossible to remain an enfant terrible as one ages – take Jean Cocteau, for example – but it is difficult. If, as he matures, the enfant terrible begins to take himself and his world more seriously, he becomes simply terrible.
[I spent 1971 in London, and missed the hullabaloo described below. I heard about it later, but only in vague terms. What follows is the result of current internet research.]
The same year that Wuorinen won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, he was refused tenure at Columbia. It was an academic scandal of the highest order that reached not only the Arts Section of The New York Times, but the pages of middle-brow magazines like The Atlantic.
The Times published an op-ed piece by Wuorinen, complaining about his treatment at Columbia. This prompted a lengthy rejoinder by a member of the music department (“Mr. Wuorinen's arrogance, ruthlessness, and contempt for anything outside his bailiwick increasingly irritated his colleagues”) and a raft of anti-Wuorinen letters. The Times printed a dozen of these, and Wuorinen’s response. Also lengthy, it begins, “Often when you overturn a stone, you cause the little creatures crawling beneath it to scurry around furiously in indignation and alarm.”