In Conversation with Electra Slonimsky Yourke

Father and daughter, 1987
Photo by Betty Freeman

An interview with the editor of Nicolas Slonimsky: Perfect Pitch, An Autobiography—New Expanded Edition

Molly Sheridan: Well, I started reading this book and I couldn’t stop. I mean, even all the reviews of the book mention how funny your father was, but seriously, parts of it had me laughing out loud.

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: Yes, it’s sort of wry and it really reads well. I must say even after having worked on it this much it’s still fun to read. The letters, all of them if you were to see them, are full of these stories. It’s sort of interesting because he was not an observer of life. He was not very observant of people unless they had some notable thing about them that interested him and yet these letters are very lively and give a really good picture of what he got out of his travels.

Molly Sheridan: So, since you’re his daughter obviously you had a special relationship with him already, and then you started working on this book…

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: Right, well, I’m the only child and he, as anybody reading this would realize, is not exactly your classic father-figure type and so my relationship with him even when I was small was not the usual father/daughter, “here let me pass on my wisdom to you,” or “why don’t you do this and do that,” because that was not his personality. It was much more of a peer relationship. We lived in Boston and I came to New York to go to college and I stayed here. He came down pretty regularly for one thing or another, and the places that he went and the people that he knew and the dinners and so forth that we had, I was always tagging along and I knew all of the people who were his friends and I was just sort of part of the crowd even though obviously I was a lot younger and not a musician and not in the business. But I was a college student and then I was a journalist. It was a peer relationship and his work and his world were open to me and continued that way. I met some of the notables myself and so that was part of my life, but I was not even aware that he was writing an autobiography. When my mother died he moved to Los Angeles from Boston. He was 70. Roy Harris was at UCLA and Roy—who was always getting him to come and do things at the places where he was domiciled at the moment—got him to come out and be an instructor at UCLA. That was really a good thing because he was completely broken up by my mother’s death. He really didn’t know what to do. So he moved out there and he started a completely new life in a completely new city, which was in a way not completely atypical. You can see from the book that wherever he went he adapted, learned the geography that he needed very quickly and because he was gregarious and knowledgeable, there were always some musical people, so he could create a life. And indeed he did that in Los Angeles where he was sort of a minor local, I wouldn’t say celebrity, but character and people would call him up for interviews and to give lectures and socialize. I had my own career here and I didn’t really know specifically what he was working on. Then it turned out that he had written this autobiography under contract. It sat at the publisher’s and had to be retrieved and edited. Ultimately it ended up with another publisher, but that’s neither here nor there…So I looked at the manuscript when it was being pared down for publication by Oxford University Press because there were problems with it. It was very ungainly at first and it had a lot of schtick in it frankly, and it had to be cooked down a bit. So his then-assistant and I spent what we still refer to as the week from hell with him getting some stuff taken out that just wasn’t of interest and shaking it down and then that was published. It did very well and they even sent him on a book tour. I went with him part of the time and he did a lot of television interviews and lectures. But it really wasn’t until this second time around with it when I worked much more intensively with the text and found some stuff that he had been cut earlier—I mean there were five versions of the manuscript and cartons of revisions and they were unpaginated, so a few pages would be rewritten and just put on top. It was really a puzzle. In doing all that and reassembling it, there were a couple of things that struck me – the sustained ease and humor and perspective of the writing which I don’t think I really appreciated before. You can go back and read the same thing over and over and it’s just as engaging the fifth time as it is the first time, so that I appreciated anew. Also, he never talked with me, understandably, about the technical aspects of music. That was something that I had not experienced through all of those years. He had all this in his grasp, he knew it all, and that’s why he was a notable conductor and could scan a score and know what was there—he knew all of the structures and all the musical content. But it didn’t interest him very much. So he put it to use when he was conducting, or you will see a few portions in the book where he does a true musical analysis of a piece of work, but I was not aware that all of that was available to him mentally when he was listening to a piece of music. I didn’t know how complicated it was. As a matter of fact, listening to music was not something that he did recreationally. He went to concerts, sometimes unwillingly if it was a program that he was familiar with. He wasn’t interested in repetition, he wasn’t interested in the standard repertoire because he knew it. His interest was stimulated by something that was new and something that was different. As a matter of fact when I was a kid my parents had a subscription to the Boston Symphony. It was sort of the occasion that they did, and they had seats right in the middle of Symphony Hall and almost every Saturday there was a fight because my father didn’t want to go. And I didn’t want to go in his place because that was my chance to have my friends over when nobody was home.

Molly Sheridan: And I take it then that you never got forced into the usual piano lessons if your father never wanted to hear anything more than once?

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: I was, actually, and I displayed an extraordinary lack of talent and interest and then ultimately resistance. I still remember saying to myself at one point, what could they do to me if I refused to have these lessons any more? I must have been big enough to have asked myself how bad could it be? And nothing happened. What were they going to do, beat me? So I simply have no musical ability or talent and it’s just as well. It would have been unhealthy if I had been musical at all. So this has all been a very long way of saying that he liked the new, he understood the new, like Ives, immediately. That was what interested him. He did not listen to music recreationally, though he had lots of records. He knew how to work a record player but not much else. He was not solemn about all of this; he acquired this deep knowledge at a very early age. All of this stuff was there and he never displayed it because it just didn’t interest him that much. It’s like somebody who speaks a lot of languages learned at an early age and people say, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful,’ and they say, ‘Who cares?’ So this tremendous technical knowledge that my father had was something that was new to me to understand.

Molly Sheridan: Well, now that you’ve worked so much on this biography, I’m curious where you see this book fitting in with his other writing.

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: All his other writings are extremely structured. He was at his best within a tight form and fitting what he knew and what he intuited into a form, like a dictionary entry. Music Since 1900—I don’t know if you’re familiar with that book—is done in chronological order and it’s not just the musical highlights of music since 1900, but it’s an attempt to find the earliest possible moment when a certain musical development manifested itself. It’s a little bit like people who want to find the first use of a word, and so there are obscure things in there, but it had a structure. It was chronological and he was looking for specific things. Plus all of the entries are in one sentence, including some very long entries, so that was the gimmick. Above all, he did show off a lot. It was unique in that it pulled up things that were not previously identified. Not that he was a scholarly researcher, he really wasn’t. Yes, he spent a lot of time in the library looking for first performances of things, but that was what he was interested in. It was a matter of having a formula, of getting all the information. Lexicon of Musical Invective, which is a perennial, consists of bad reviews of composers since Beethoven, and people just love that, including non-musicians. It’s a great balm to think that Beethoven didn’t fare too well either, and he dug those reviews out of the old archives—he just loved that. It perfectly suited his personality because, of course, he had been the conductor of many of these early works of Ives, and Cowell and Ruggles and Varèse, and they had all been roasted in the newspapers by the music critics, whereupon his career as a conductor was brought to an end. He could just say, ‘Well, you see, this is what happens to all the greats.’ He liked pointing out philistinism. In the ’40s, he wrote a book on Latin American music—it was the first one apparently that had been written because nobody paid attention to Latin America. There, he had all the countries and the composers and it was all structured that way. He did the same thing with his composing—he did a little bit of rather fair composing. They’re all very small pieces. He’s got a collection called “Minitudes,” some of which are no more than a minute or two long—it’s published by Schirmer Music—and they’re all around an idea, a musical motif or idea and that constitutes a structure. Even the Thesaurus—it was first published in the late ’40s and it sold three copies a year or something but it came to be understood to be a source book for composers and arrangers—scales developed mathematically. He had a very strong mathematical bent and he figured out how to lay out a series of scales in melodic patterns. It’s used as practice material or for improvisation and as a compositional aide. Coltrane, in particular, was said to have used it. I pulled out a biography of Coltrane to find out if this was true or if it was just some kind of family story, but sure enough I looked up Slonimsky in the index and there’s a whole thing about the Thesaurus and his use of it and how he talked it up to a lot of the people around him. It now sells 700 or 800 copies a year, which for a book like that is unusual, so it continues to be useful apparently to musicians from all schools, classical and jazz and theoreticians. But I think I’ve gone far afield. I’m working on editing his other writings. I have a contract for four volumes of his uncollected works, writings that have not been in books. One volume is on Russian and Soviet composers and it’s just … you have to say it’s just brilliant because it’s not only clear, it’s marvelously written with a wonderful use of words. It’s expressive and also analytic, so it’s informative and also very rich to read. And funny of course, as well. Am I going on too long?

Molly Sheridan: No, no, not at all. I know you mentioned it briefly at the beginning of the interview but I’m really fascinated by how you grew up in this household. I’m guessing what we consider to be some of the musical giants were in and out of your life and over for family dinners and things. What was your perception of that then and now looking back with a little perspective and knowing who they were at the time?

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: I have a very bad memory for childhood, but at the time these were the people who were around and they were kind of interesting and my recollection always is that musicians or composers are a pretty lively group and so I have a very positive impression of musicians. Now that may have been selective. It may be that my father liked the lively ones and the lively ones liked him. But these were not people who were at the house all the time. I don’t want to pretend that the greats were around every night. Ives, as you know, was a very remote person. I think I met him a couple of times but he was very remote and not well, although my father visited him in Connecticut regularly. Henry Cowell was a wonderful man and I remember going to concerts with my father and him in New York, climbing up into lofts and down into cellars to hear various kinds of music. He was a lovely man. Also, Varèse. He lived right over here on Sullivan Street and we used to have dinner with Varèse and Louise at Monte’s on Macdougal St. So Varèse is sort of a presence and I remember him well. He was very imposing. But back in Boston the person who was around a lot was Lukas Foss, who was the pianist of the Boston Symphony when I was growing up. He was sort of a regular and Harold Shapero, and Irving Fine. What they liked to do first of all was tell Koussevitzky stories and they liked to test each other’s perfect pitch. They would sit down and play some incredibly complex combination of notes that would give all kinds of misleading overtones and things—it was like musicological arm wrestling. And there was a lot of laughing. Oh, and Roy Harris was around a lot, although my mother didn’t like him at all. I didn’t know who they all were and indeed they have gone into legend but they weren’t necessarily legendary at that time. My father had associated with all of the truly legendary people, particularly in his Paris days— Stravinsky and so forth. He was proud of his re-barring of The Right of Spring in order to help Koussevitzky conduct it, because that acquired a status of its own. Leonard Bernstein was a great admirer of my father, wrote wonderful things to him and for him, including things about this book. It’s on the back cover. Bernstein studied with my father’s Aunt Isabelle [Vengerova] so there was a tie there. My father was also an exceptional pianist but he never played professionally or seriously because again that wasn’t intellectually interesting. When he had to prepare something on the piano he would put Time magazine on the music stand and practice, and that was the extent of it. He was a person of great intellectual curiosity about certain things and he just couldn’t do the same thing over and over again.

Molly Sheridan: I guess to finish up then, you were saying that there’s lot of work you’re still doing with this stuff and you have a full time job on top of that, so what is motivating you. I mean, this man is your father, but still…

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: Once I left for college I really didn’t know what he was doing most of the time but we had a quite good relationship. I was very much a part of his circle in Los Angeles, and when he came here to New York, he was part of my circle. I met many people through him of all ages, regardless of his age, who continue to be among my closest friends. Toward the last part of his life, I managed his business affairs, so to speak. I mean, I negotiated all his contracts and that sort of thing, so I became involved in the business side of it and got to know all the publishers. He gave his materials to the Library of Congress, really a way of cleaning your closets. I had no idea how much there was. Once I went through it … well this is all good stuff. So compiling these volumes seems to extend his life—which he did pretty well himself (laughs). But he continues to be, I hope, a presence in the world of music. These writings are ephemeral. They appeared one week and then they were gone, never seen again. I know they have value and so I thought, well, I’ll do a collection. Then, in the course of that, I saw there was more and more and more. Publishers are interested in it—I have not had a problem getting publishers and I have the publishing contacts because his reputation continues. If I say Nicolas Slonimsky to a publisher, they know who he is. But I think that when this four-volume thing is done—well, actually, there’s one other collection that’s possible—and I think that maybe then we will have distilled everything. His letters are absolutely marvelous. That’s only a selection that is included in the new edition of Perfect Pitch. They should be published independently but they have to be annotated. So, if out there in your readership there’s somebody interested in doing that, I think it’s a real source archive. When he was traveling, he wrote them every day, long letters. It’s a resource for people who are writing on other subjects—cultural history, regional history, musical history, biographies of people. It’s a great PhD thesis for somebody. So perhaps the Slonimsky Preservation Project will be almost done when these four volumes are out. And two of them need to be completed by Monday.

Molly Sheridan: So you’ve got a weekend ahead of you then!