Articles

The Clarinet Compositions of Meyer Kupferman

Meyer Kupferman playing clarinet (image from milkenarchive.org)

…the modern clarinetist may well be represented as our new hero or musical superman – our true 20th century ‘challenger’! He is not only our new soloist, our new chamber music leader but in many ways our new entertainer or magician…By now all of us realize the clarinet is capable of an impressive spectrum of sonorities. Composers who understand its dramatic arsenal of dynamics, attacks, its huge range and its exquisite legato – can create a plethora of design suitable for any musical gesture. To well disciplined fingers the clarinet’s fluent Boehm system keyboard lends itself to the most remarkable feats of virtuosity.


I’ve spent the last two years ensconced in the musical world of Meyer Kupferman for my doctoral research at the Université de Montréal, and I am so incredibly excited to finally be able to share my research with the world.

Despite having written dozens of compositions for clarinet, most of you have probably never heard of Meyer Kupferman, and that’s exactly why I chose to research this American multi-hyphenate. New York born and raised, Kupferman was a composer, virtuoso clarinetist, painter, poet, international traveler, educator, impresario, and all-around musical icon of the 20th century.

My doctoral research is the collection, examination, and performance of the clarinet compositions of Meyer Kupferman, which includes the first annotated catalogue of his solo clarinet compositions. In addition to academic and historic research, I also used manuscripts to perform many of his previously unpublished compositions. Until my project, there has been no existing research on this body of work, and I hope my research will serve as a valuable resource to clarinetists around the world.

Kupferman passed away just as I was falling in love with the clarinet. Even though we never met, I feel like I know him through his music, artwork, and writing. I’ve spent countless hours ensconced in the world of Meyer Kupferman, beginning with a trip to New York City in 2018 to examine the contents of 74 boxes of his personal documents and manuscripts at the New York Public Library Manuscripts & Archives Collection at Lincoln Center.

Meyer Kupferman was simultaneously introverted yet larger-than-life (both in personality and stature). He was a quiet genius and unfortunately didn’t gain the international recognition he so deserved. For Kupferman, music and life were closely intermingled, and performing and studying his music feels like having a glimpse into his secret diary and innermost thoughts.

I’m happy to share an abbreviated version of Meyer Kupferman’s history, clarinet compositions, and quotes below. My doctoral research goes much more in-depth, so if you would like to know more about this subject, please feel free to contact me.


The Life of Meyer Kupferman

Meyer Kupferman was born on July 3, 1926 in New York City and died on November 26, 2003 in Rhinebeck, New York. Throughout his life, he wrote over 600 compositions, although he was superstitious about counting them lest he put an end to this output. Kupferman’s music is greatly influenced by his parents’ lives. His father, Elias Staff-Coopermann, was born in Romania and was a traveling musician. Elias secured the money to move from Romania to America when he defeated a circus strongman in a wrestling match. Despite encouragement from his friends to pursue a career as a professional wrestler, Elias became a baker once he settled in America. Kupferman’s mother, Fanny Hoffman, was a Russian émigrée who witnessed the murder of her entire family (except for one sister) during the Cossack raids when she was a young child. She later became a fortune teller, which inspired several of Kupferman’s later compositions. The songs and music both parents shared with Meyer greatly inspired him, which is why many of Kupferman’s compositions are a unique blend of classical, jazz, and international influences.

Kupferman began clarinet at the insistence of his friend:

The assistant principal of my school used to conduct the school band and one day he asked the children if anybody wanted to study one of the instruments. I had no interest whatsoever, but my friend stood up, and when he saw no response from me, he literally pulled me up by the ears – I was a reluctant volunteer. Then the teacher asked me what I wanted to play, and I didn’t know one instrument from another. All I knew was that the instrument with the slider that went back and forth looked impressive, so I said I wanted to play that. He looked at me and said that my embouchure would be wrong for the trombone, as I had a crooked tooth at the front, and suggested the clarinet. I replied, ‘Fine, what’s a clarinet?’ At that time my parents couldn’t afford an instrument, so I took a broomstick and made little holes in it where the fingers go, and I practiced on a mouthpiece and a broomstick, rather like a witch! In a very short time I became very good at it, and was given the job of concertmaster of the band.[1]

Kupferman attended the High School of Music & Art (now called Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & the Arts), where classmates included clarinetist Stanley Drucker and composers Ezra Laderman, Morton Feldman, Seymour Shifrin, and Allan Blank. Here, Kupferman studied clarinet with Abram Klotzman. His first composition Sextet for Winds was premiered here in 1941, where it received a rave review from Virgil Thomson.

Kupferman began seriously composing during this time, and he also gigged around New York. One notable gig was at the Pink Elephant on Coney Island with his combo group, Buddy Meyer’s Band. A patron came onstage, and the musicians thought it was to request a song, but he slit the pianist’s throat! Kupferman was shaken, but he found another pianist the next day and continued performing and gigging despite this traumatic event.

After his high school graduation, Kupferman attended Queens College to study philosophy, but he spent more and more time composing and performing to help his parents with money, and he never finished this degree. He was hired to teach at Sarah Lawrence College in 1951 at the age of 25, and he taught here until his retirement in 1993.

[1] David Denton. “A 75th Birthday Present: An Interview with Meyer Kupferman.” Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors. May/June 2001. Volume 24, Number 5.


Music By My Friends

Throughout Kupferman’s life, music and friendship were never far apart. He wrote music for his dearest friends. His music introduced him to many more friends, and he orchestrated (pun very much intended) a society centered around that love of music. His friend convinced him to learn the clarinet so they could be in band together. As a teenager, he arranged popular jazz tunes to play with his friends in a jazz combo. Most of his compositions were written with specific friends in mind – “That’s the way I like to work, writing music for my friends.”

Kupferman felt that composers must operate strongly within their communities, and music was a binding force. He developed a role as a fatherly figure throughout various social circles in New York, saying, “I love to encourage young players to relate to a community, to play at schools and museums. It will be a kind of a party, and I’ll be acting as host, trying to get a good-cross-section of the community to come and hear their music.”

He created a concert series called Music By My Friends (which was also the name of the ensemble that played at these concerts), and invited his composer and musician friends to premiere their new works. At these concerts, he broke the barriers between audience and performers, and he invited listeners to think and hear from different perspectives. These concerts often lasted well into the evening, but there was an overall conviviality to the atmosphere. One listener describes: “The ambiance of the concert was that of a cocktail party at which small clusters of people seemed at home with each other and Kupferman was the overly generous host.”


Cycle of Infinities

Musicians are probably familiar with the Second Viennese School and introduction of atonality via 12-tone rows. Using this compositional style employed a different row of all chromatic pitches to be arranged systematically throughout a piece of music.

Meyer Kupferman eschewed the idea of creating a new row for each new composition. Instead, he developed his Cycle of Infinities, a personal tone row which he named for the infinite possibilities available within these notes. Kupferman felt that using the same tone row would make his music more recognizable, and it would also serve as a kind of musical moniker. Although there are only 36 numbered Infinities, Kupferman estimates that he used this tone row in over 100 of his compositions. Even though there are many different pieces using this technique, he felt as if these are “a single work suspended in time, as if having no fixed beginning and no conclusion.”


Clarinet Compositions

As a virtuoso clarinetist himself, Meyer Kupferman knew the instrument’s capabilities intimately. Kupferman’s clarinet compositions are intended for advanced or professional musicians, and they include a wide variety of extended techniques such as pitch bending, glissandi, extreme altissimo and dynamics, vibrato, flutter tonguing, quarter tones, and even choreography, lighting, and other theatrical effects.

While one should never judge a book (or piece of music) by its cover (or title), Kupferman uses whimsical and intriguing titles for all of his compositions. He felt this was important to capture the imagination of both the performer and audience. Additionally, Kupferman created the cover art for most of his compositions and CDs.

Because Kupferman published many of these compositions using his own company, Soundspells Productions, many of these pieces are currently out of print or difficult to find.

Note: I have only included the solo clarinet compositions of Meyer Kupferman. He also wrote dozens of chamber pieces which prominently feature the clarinet, and I would be happy to send you a complete list if you contact me.

Unaccompanied clarinet                                                                                             

  • Five Singles                                                                                                     
  • Five Little Infinities                                                                                           
  • Four Flicks                                                                                                      
  • A Heroic Infinities                                                                                            
  • Infinities #33                                                                                                    
  • Moonflowers, Baby!                                                                                         
  • Cadenza for Beethoven Bb Duo                                                                         
  • Dreamer’s Playground                                                                                     
  • Four Jazz Etudes                                                                                              
  • Soundspells Fantasy                                                                                         
  • Silhouettes                                                                                                       
  • Motherwell Fantasy                                                                                          
  • Poor Little Buddha’s Gate                                                                              
  • Ebony Fingers                                                                                                  

Clarinet and tape/electronics                                                                                      

  • Morpheus                                                                                                        
  • Superclarinet, Who?                                                                                         
  • Soundspells #6                                                                                                 

Clarinet etudes                                                                                                            

  • Modern Jazz Etudes                                                                                          
  • Perpetual Licorice                                                                                            
  • Atonal Jazz                                                                                                      
  • Ten Last Etudes                                                                                                

Clarinet and piano                                                                                                      

  • 4 on a Row                                                                                                       
  • Sound Objects #4, #5, #6                                                                                  
  • Five Flings                                                                                                       
  • The Magician                                                                                                   
  • I Remember Morton Feldman                                                                       

 Clarinet concerti                                                                                                         

  • Clarinet Concerto                                                                                             
  • A Little Licorice Concerto                                                                                 
  • Double Concerto                                                                                              
  • Fly By Night

Quotes

In addition to getting to know Meyer Kupferman through his music, I was also fortunate to get to know him through his writing. He was deeply introspective and profound in his writing, and I’d like to share a few of my favorite quotes I found in his personal documents.

A few handwritten notes I found includes these adages:

  • All artists must be rebels first.
  • Music is the suspension of time in sound.
  • Thinkers never tinker.
  • Leap before you look

To think as an artist…To grapple with the endless rituals of discipline…To create something…To understand something that is created…To heighten one’s sensibilities…To delight in the secret pleasure of pretending to be an artist – and to enjoy the confused surprise which follows – when the pretender forgets that she is pretending…


Can a music be read from a chart of colors, triangles, circles, and squares – designed and composed by a painter who has absolutely no knowledge of music? Do compositions of complete silence sound different in Stockholm than they do in Vienna? If a machine can compose and perform its own music – would you applaud the machine (that is if it were lit in amber hues and bowed gently to the audience)? Is dissonance so basic to contemporary music that the sound of a consonant triad can be felt as the sharpest kind of dissonance.


It is difficult to compare the satisfaction that comes with inventing a new musical score to that of any other artistic adventure. It is through his music, or the sheer power of sound, that the composer is the potential source of an enormous energy. It can make armies march, celebrate every life ritual, help people work, dance, play, pray, sleep, concentrate. It can sell soda-pop, automobiles or cigarettes. It can provide a discipline for the fingers and the mind, and a unique crucible for mathematics. In some cultures it can heal the sick. It can kill. It can make one forget pain and can awaken feelings of sensuality and love. It can tell stories, make on aware of historical epochs, distant cultures, and touch the depths of tragic emotion, fear, joy, honor, anger—even violence.


For years now, I’ve been bringing into close, even conflicting proximity, musical styles that normally are polarized by time, culture, common practice, philosophy, and geographical distance. In short, I like to mix things that normally don’t mix. It’s a bit like walking down Broadway, or riding the subways of New York. There’s a sort of a mix of love and hate, fears, joys, and tragic components, all mingled in the sights and sounds around you.


The abyss is the freedom from all habits of musical thought, social and personal – a theoretical freedom to choose anything form the infinite realms of possible tonal and rhythmic relations among sounds.


We are here to stretch each others minds, to create things, to explore disciplines, to shake up each other, and to feel the warmth and encouragement of new friendships. In a sense, the combination of all these things is our own experiment.


All this is part of the musical now – It has all happened. It is for you to deal with it, dismiss it, applaud it or discover something in it that has a meaning for a new generation of artists.


I want to be remembered as a total artist who has contributed a literature, a literature of many things…


Listen

My doctoral research was from both a research and interpretative perspective. During the last two years, I have had the opportunity to perform and record several of these compositions, which you can hear on my YouTube playlist here. I am also planning to record several other compositions of Kupferman’s, and I will announce these recordings on my social media channels when they are available.

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