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

LEO ORNSTEIN: Are there no limits at all to what you can do on an instrument or how many instruments you can combine or how you can combine them? For instance, in a painting, if you get overstimulated—you draw something, you put something on your canvas—then you add something more, then you’re still not satisfied. You add something more, and you add, and you keep on adding. And finally what you have done is you’ve destroyed the very thing that you wanted to paint, and all you have is a blotch of black because in your anxiety to put more colors on, you simply just muddied each one. While theoretically there may be no limitation, there is actually the limitation of what our ear will take in. Even assuming you have the most developed ears, there is a point at which you can only take in so much. Look, two people can converse with each other. Even a third one can converse with you. But then comes in the fourth and the fifth and the sixth, and you know perfectly well if six people talk simultaneously, you hear absolutely nothing unless you make a dreadful effort to exclude them, get it? Then they might just as well stop talking. If you can exclude them, you will hear what you and I are talking about. But otherwise, you have a room full of people talking at the same time. And there absolutely the classic example as to how far you—now, theoretically why we cannot get in fifty people into the room, all talking at the same time. But what aesthetic value does it have or meaning, when we no longer can hear anything? I came to the point where I had to finally make a decision as to how far I could carry it or how far it would be sufficiently audible to the listener, because there was obviously no sense writing something where you could not differentiate things any longer. So, you see, it has its natural limit. I hate terribly to set any limit and simply say you cannot go beyond that, but a certain amount of—if nothing else—a certain amount of common sense dictated. We are talking, you understand, about something really very important, and that is—what actually we’re talking about, child, is the over-utilizing of material. That is a very serious thing that every artist has to be concerned with because that is part of his shall we say equipment because if he has no sense and over-utilizes material, why, then he can destroy even the best idea.

VIVIAN PERLIS: They’re universal problems.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. And, by the way, the limits are not only merely in aesthetics. The limits are our entire lives, our entire makeup, our whole metabolism and everything else that we react to. There are certain specific—after all, my dear child, we can reach so far and no more. And I grant that within that prescribed area one may have longer arms, one may have a little shorter—but there is a specific limit beyond which we can’t reach. I’ve always felt that mentally it doesn’t matter how adroit or gifted, there is a specific element within us that has the same kind of a limit—we can only hear so much and no more. And if I walk away a certain distance, you can see that I finally disappear on the horizon. And that’s all there is to it. That is why also, unless you consider music some internal expression of yourself and utterly void of communicating—but I’m not. I’m very much interested in giving this series of sounds that I produce for you to hear—whether approvingly or disapprovingly has nothing to do with it. But I am interested for you to hear the thing. To some extent, that’s a human question we’re talking about. Communicate with human beings. We all—exactly—have that urge.