In Conversation with Electra Slonimsky Yourke



Father and daughter, 1987
Photo by Betty Freeman

An interview with the editor of Nicolas Slonimsky: Writings on Music.

Molly Sheridan: You were only just beginning this project when last we spoke. How did it go? Did you do all this by yourself?

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: Yes, pretty much all by myself. The premise was that my father had been writing for upwards of sixty years—not just books, but for periodicals, journals, professional and general media—and I felt this material should be retrieved and made available. Most of his archive is in the Library of Congress and it has been splendidly catalogued, but in my closet were boxes of assorted materials from his house, including clippings, tear sheets, and manuscripts, not organized at all. So for me the work was finding and selecting and assembling. I worked my way through a lot of stuff and it took quite a while. I wrote introductions for each volume, selected illustrations, and read proofs. It kept me busy. I do have a day job.

MS: How did you decide to organize all this material?

ESY: Originally, I thought it would be one book—I was pretty sure there was an important collection of writings on Russian and Soviet music in there, and there was (Volume Two of the current series). But as the raw material accumulated, it became obvious that there was enough good stuff for more than one book. The problem was that the articles had originally been written for very different readerships—newspaper readers, concert-goers, professionals, academics—and they didn’t fit together very well in terms of tone, length, technical content. This would obviously be a problem for any publisher trying to judge the market for a proposed volume.

Eventually, Routledge decided to throw caution to the winds and commit to four volumes containing all the good stuff. So there I was, surrounded by all these clips and copies and manuscripts. It was not immediately obvious how, once the Russian materials were extracted, the rest should be organized. Eventually we decided that all the articles he wrote for the Boston Evening Transcript should be grouped because they were largely about contemporary music being performed in Boston between 1927 and 1936 and they were of similar length and style. That became Volume One. It’s quite interesting to read about composers like Tansman, Roussel, Honegger, Casella in the present tense, so to speak, and also about Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Ives prior to their beatification.

Music of the Modern Era (Volume Three) could then be a vehicle for individual articles on 20th century composers (other than Russians)—15 of them on such figures as Cowell, Ulysses Kay, Nancarrow, Varèse, Caturla—plus general articles on contemporary Cuban, Italian, and Greek music. There is also a quite lengthy study of Latin American music, a survey of the 20th century up to about 1980, and a 35,000-word monograph on Roy Harris, never before published, with a detailed, annotated works list.

So now there were three volumes that made sense. But remaining on the desk was a lot of really good stuff that didn’t fit under the other headings, ranging from a history of chamber music in America to the weather at Mozart’s funeral to a piece on Handel’s world to Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with Madame von Meck to the notorious “Sex and the Music Librarian.” What to do? What about these enjoyable little essays on chess in music, perfect pitch, conducting, musical prodigies? The answer was to wrap them up and call them Slonimskyana (Volume Four). In my introduction, I subtitled it “The Best of Everything Else.”

The final cut was 86 entries in three volumes plus the 48 articles from the Boston Evening Transcript that comprise Volume One. They had originally appeared in as many as 50 different publications and there were a few, including the Roy Harris biography and musical analysis, that apparently had never been published.

I made the decision up front that I would not edit, cut, or otherwise change any of the entries. So I did a lot of scanning and cleaning up the manuscripts and kept searching for anything I might have missed. There were rejects—articles that were repetitive or just not first rate. In fact, there were 59 separate articles eligible for the Russian volume; eventually, I selected 25 of them.

This was also a chance to re-issue some of his music in a CD inserted into the last volume. Most of the tracks are remastered from two albums produced by Orion in 1971-2. He plays many of his Minitudes, short pieces derived from certain musical ideas. Also, Gravestones in Hancock, New Hampshire, six songs styled to the identity or era of the decedent (Lydia in the Lydian mode, for instance). There is also a fine two-guitar rendition of his Modinha Russo-Brasileira, which really ought to be discovered and used as a theme song for something. Finally, at his 95th birthday celebration, he sings three of his advertising songs—I should say he renders them. Everyone who knew him became familiar with these numbers—”Children Cry for Castoria,” etc. They are published and often professionally performed, but they are only truly “incomparable” when he does them.

The CD alone is available at Slonimsky.net.

MS: What were some of your favorite moments/articles to relive/reread as you were editing?

ESY: My favorite is the narrative of his travels through eastern Europe and Russia in 1963 as a State Department-sponsored cultural emissary. Obviously it meant a great deal to him to be able to return to the Russian orbit and he was in his element meeting with members of the musical establishment in each country and, more importantly, the anti-establishment. He had been following the careers of Soviet composers for Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, corresponding with them, obtaining their scores. Now he had a chance to meet with them for discourse on music—and much else. And they seemed thrilled to meet this Russo-Western expert who gave lectures on Western modernism and met with them privately to communicate not only in their own language but with reference to their own culture. The narrative is also very funny, full of anecdotes of making his way through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Poland, as well as Moscow and Leningrad, his birthplace.

MS: So, five books later—the autobiography and these four volumes of collected writings—are you finally finished editing and publishing your father’s writing? Or are there a few more boxes in the attic somewhere?

ESY: Six books—don’t forget The Listener’s Companion, which is brief bios of 19 composers from Bach to Shostakovich, with program notes of their major works.

There’s no attic, but there is a closet, and there are some boxes. There is a collection of short essays on diverse subjects that he wrote for a medical journal, oddly enough. They comprise a graceful collection and are under consideration by a publisher. I’ve had an expression of interest in his interviews, so I have been listening to CDs and tapes of radio shows, especially with Charles Amirkhanian in San Francisco and Douglas Ordunio in Los Angeles. Also, he did a lengthy oral history interview at UCLA – 350 pages, much of it very solid stuff. I have just learned that the sound department at the Library of Congress has a bunch of audio tapes and even some reel-to-reel, but nobody knows what’s on them. Frankly I’m not sure whether this is going to come together—material that sounds good doesn’t necessarily read well and a one-hour show may well be 45 minutes of chitchat and twice-told tales. The value of each has a lot to do with whether the interviewer was able to keep him under control.

  • CONTINUE to an interview with Yourke on the publication of Nicolas Slonimsky: Perfect Pitch, An Autobiography—New Expanded Edition, published January 1, 2003.