Fragments: An Autobiography
page 2 -- Click on any thumbnail to see a larger photo.
We moved to Montclair, New Jersey, in 1953 to live in and superintend a house with tenants inherited by my grandmother, Edith, from her deceased sister, Florence Stevenson. This geographical/social change brought problems for Glenn and me. Fortunately, music provided the necessary identification tag I needed with my new peer group, most of whom were the sons and daughters of professional people. There was much of the usual (and pointless) taunting, testing, and teasing. The ensuing struggle to settle into this alien environment drew Glenn and me even closer.
In 1957, at fifteen, I saw the movie The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. The use of Rachmaninovs Second Piano Concerto (music which I knew well) in this romantic comedy mysteriously prompted my decision to become a musician. (The thumbnail, right, is of Rachmaninov and his daughter.) It was a commitment seriously made. Buddy and Mom approved heartily and we looked for a suitable piano teacher. I auditioned for Mr. Robert Riotte. I could not read music very quickly anymore, since I had forsaken piano lessons when we moved to Montclair, but I had continued improvising and providing accompaniments for home quartet-singing made up of myself, my father, Uncle Jim, and Willy (Shine on Harvest Moon ... .etc.) Mr. Riotte was not impressed by my by-ear impromptu renderings of themes from the works of the romantic masters. He judged that I had no talent for music and no chance for success. Anger and discouragement fueled my determination.
We found another teacher living in Montclair, Marthe Morhange-Motchane, a pupil of Alfred Cortot, a friend of Ravels, a classmate of Darius Milhauds, and the grand-niece of 19th century composer-pianist, Alkan. Mrs. Motchane believed I had talent and she set to work training me as a concert artist. This work was disappointing for her because it eventually became apparent that my talent for the preparation and performance of piano literature was not really impressive, yet I continued working very hard for her.
One day in 1957 or 1958 a pianist on the faculty of what was then Montclair State Teachers College gave an all-Debussy recital. Mrs. Motchane obtained a ticket for me and encouraged me to go. (Thumbnail, right, Ron and father at the piano). My family preferred Russian and American music to French and German music, and so I knew none of Debussys music. Its effect upon me was shattering. As the first half of the program proceeded, the sounds coming from the piano frightened me and I became so agitated that I planned to flee the building at the earliest opportunity.
Somehow I managed to stay for the second half, during which I was completely captivated by Debussys revolutionary sound world. Returning to my lessons, I insisted on studying a piece of his in spite of their difficulty. I hand-copied his Poissons Dors because I could not afford to buy it. (His music was not yet in the public domain.) I took a try at writing some music myself. When I entered the Manhattan School of Music as a Piano Major studying with Mildred Dassett, I think I missed Mrs. Motchane more than I knew, and my own early efforts at composition gave me much solace and comfort in view of my increasing disillusionment with my practicing. It was clear to me I had no future as a concert pianist. But what was I to do? I submitted copies of my compositions to Ludmila Ulehla (the thumbnail, upper left, is a recent photo of Ludmila and Ron). I was speedily admitted to the composition program, studying for the next four years with her, Nicolas Flagello, (thumbnail, above right) and Vittorio Giannini, (thumbnail, left) then head of the composition department.
The memories of my days at the Manhattan School sweeten with the passing years. At the time, I fancied myself quite the superior sophisticate to my teachers and peers. Once I had discovered Debussy back in high school, I promptly explored all the 20th century music I could find. Giannini and Flagello exalted Strauss and Puccini; Ulehla pressed forward the example of Brahms and Bartok. I preferred Mahler and Bruckner over Brahms, and Schoenberg and Stravinsky over Bartok. I was already attracted passionately to the works of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Varese. Adolescent posturing notwithstanding, I submitted myself wholly to my studies, even augmenting them with private study with Bill Karlins (thumbnail, right) with whom I studied both Hindemiths Traditional Harmony, and twelve-tone serial music techniques. Bill was also attending the Manhattan School working towards a Masters in Composition. I traveled to his home in Brooklyn frequently between 1961 and 1963. We analyzed the Symphony of Psalms, pieces by Varese, Schoenberg, Webern, and Stockhausens Kontrapunkte. With Bills direction and counsel, I began to write the first works to appear in my catalog, Five Miniatures for Flute; Clarinet and Percussion; Sextet; and String Trio.
Michael Steinberg taught Music History courses at Manhattan. He introduced me to Elliot Carters music whose String Quartet No. 2 had an enormous impact on my writing. During a period of illness, Michael sent pianist Paul Jacobs in to teach his classes for him. I knew that Paul had worked with Boulez in Europe and he agreed to meet privately with me to play through and analyze piano works of both Boulez and Stockhausen. His classes were marvelous. Michael also brought in Milton Babbitt. We attended rehearsals and performances at the Philadelphia Art Alliance of Babbitts Vision and Prayer and Philomel for voice (Susan Belinck) and computer generated electronic-tape, and had many dinner sessions and discussions with him.
Dr. James Shenton came once a week from Columbia University to teach a course in Western Civilization. He is a brilliant and colorful lecturer and I enjoyed his course tremendously. (After one lecture, I too became a philosopher!) A professor from New York University (whose name I cannot recall) came to teach American Literature. His exegesis of, among other things, Faulkners Sound and the Fury, resulted in a permanent addiction to literature, literary criticism, and the history of Ideas. His course required some creative writing and I had my first try at poems and short stories. My life-long passion for Literature and History began in my classes with these two professors.
By the time I graduated in 1963 I was the designated avant-gardist at the Manhattan School, identified with the work of Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez, Wolpe, Carter, as well as all Electronic and Serial Music and, of course, the dreaded aleatoric music.
During my last year at Manhattan, my brother Glenn (thumbnail, left) began his first and only year of art study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He came often with me to school in New York, my mother frequently writing excuses for him from high school in order for him to do this; I too visited his classes while he studied at the Academy and became acquainted with his teachers and colleagues, Morris Blackburn, Hobbson Pittman (thumbnail, left), Murray Desner and Steve Heimel (thumbnail, right). I was a member of the little circle of searching young painters at the Academy that had formed around the personality and the teaching of Hobbson Pittman, the only instructor there who understood and approved of historic 19th and 20th century avant-garde work. A very strong and warm bond formed between Glenn, Steve Heimel, Hobbson, and myself. While I was in Philadelphia to study with Stockhausen the following year I regularly attended Hobbsons now-legendary Open Criticism class on Thursdays.