Leo Ornstein: The Last of the Original 20th Century Mavericks

11. Performing vs. Composing

LEO ORNSTEIN: I took it very much more for granted and accepted it more casually that I would be paid well for playing the piano because I remember the months and months of unbelievable practicing and laboring away at the piano to perfect passages and to prepare the work, so that I could accept that I was being paid for a certain amount of work. But when I began to write music, and I remember getting paid for a piece of music, I was tremendously excited because that came very casually. There was no athletics concerned with it. All I needed was a pencil and some music paper. That some intrinsic idea that I had in my mind, someone was willing to pay for I found extremely exciting. I remember that time—I’m talking about the Russian Suite that I had been playing in Norway. I was on my way to Paris. I remember I stopped there, and I played this suite and some other pieces. They all sat around, and I was just this youngster, this utterly—unaware of anything—and just simply said: “why would they be interested in something that came out of my head?” And then they told me that they wanted to consult, and so I went out and went over to the marketplace and wandered around. When I came back, they had a contract, with a certain amount of money that they gave me. That was the very first time that I had actually been paid. I remember on the train being terribly elated that an idea that apparently came out of my head was sufficiently intriguing to them to want to publish it and to pay me for it, whereas I never had that feeling there about piano playing.

VIVIAN PERLIS: When you started to write some of what we’ll call the experimental, futurist works—really during the period of time you were studying with Bertha Fiering Tapper…

LEO ORNSTEIN: When I was in Paris, yes. I went to Paris and there I really suddenly began to write things that had very little connection between the earlier few pieces that I had written. Also, you must understand, I did not have any theory about the way music ought to be written. I had no theory at all about the composition of music. I simply heard those things, and I put down what I heard. Really, as a matter of fact, I simply said to myself: Well, obviously, if you’re thinking in terms of the “Wild Man’s Dance,” these harmonies and these percussion sort of effects obviously would be appropriate to express what it is that the title itself would indicate. It was not really a theoretical interest in trying to evolve a new system or anything. I wasn’t particularly interested in that at all. I was interested in making it as graphic as possible. Then I realized that all the knowledge that I had acquired was only limiting me and inhibiting me. I had to finally dig through that and simply use whatever was at hand to produce the effect that I wanted to, simply to produce the piece and make it into a living thing. And so then I simply didn’t hesitate at all. I just used whatever harmonies came into my head, irrespective of all at how unorthodox they might be. But it wasn’t out of the theory that I believed, well, that such combinations we ought to use. I’ve never been particularly interested in that angle of writing music. Even today I am not. Sometimes I fluctuate, as you saw, stylistically, tremendously. Well, that is because once in a while I will hear something of that sort. Sometime[s] I will hear something entirely different. In between, I’m entertaining myself while I’m working on the symphony, which probably will take me a number of years. It’s not a piece you could write within a few weeks. I’m entertaining myself with a series of short pieces for the piano called Vignettes. Well, you’d be perfectly surprised the range there is there, from the most horrific combinations, I suppose to the standard listener would be just hair-raising, and then some, on the contrary, rather vaguely within certain limitations that you might accept. And don’t ask me why because since I have no theory—

VIVIAN PERLIS: Could you show us that?

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, I can’t remember any. I don’t remember the pieces anymore at all.

I cannot play my own things at all anymore, not at all, because I tell you what has happened: I can’t remember them at all anymore. Just as soon as I write them—that’s why today—that’s why I write on these scraps, anything that lies at hand, so as not to forget. I used to be able to depend upon my memory so it didn’t matter at all, but now I can’t. I would frankly have to start reading, and I’m not a very good reader, either. …I would only give a misrepresentation of the piece because I don’t play the piano at all. I haven’t touched the instrument—haven’t for years. I wouldn’t be able to play it. At least if I had known, I might have given some hours of preparation, but I wouldn’t be able to give the slightest impression.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Mostly I try to work out—mostly I would sit at that table over there, on the kitchen table, and have the music there. Every so often, I would go over to the piano and try out what I’ve written down, just to make sure.