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

VIVIAN PERLIS: When these musical ideas come to you, how does that work for you?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I try to write it down as fast as I possibly can. Since I’ve gotten older and my memory, of course, is nothing like what it was—now I have to depend—as a matter of fact, now I just rush for the pencil and the paper as fast as I can to get it down because very often—five minutes afterwards—I say to Mrs. Ornstein: “My goodness, it’s gone, dearie.” Maybe often I would write the thing on that table there, and I would hear the thing, and I would put it down. As a matter of fact, most of the things I really write away from the instrument, and then I come over to verify some things once in a while. They say that Wagner had a little upright in his room always, and when he wrote things, he would sometimes go over just to try the thing out.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: And he says the feeling in his hands helps him to remember, too, sometimes.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Your association with each other went over a very long period of time, before you were married, so you were familiar with Leo’s way of writing.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Yes, we were twelve years old—eleven or twelve, I think.

LEO ORNSTEIN: We knew each other practically—

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: We were fellow students, you see.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It made it easier when you were working together for you to—having known the music for such a long time, Pauline—to work together with Leo. I wondered when I first saw the manuscripts, there were very few of them in your own hand. Only the very early—I think there’s one called “Suicide in an Airplane” of 1913, and there’s The Three Moods, and a few others, perhaps, that are in your hand. From that time on, from very early, from about the time you were married—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, she entirely took a role—because then I tell you what: then I just had the pencil copy, whatever I wrote down in pencil, and then we began to develop quite a system, where I dictated a great deal to her.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That’s a very unusual system. I’ve never heard of anything like that.

LEO ORNSTEIN: She has been copying and writing this manuscript for me for fifty years now, over fifty years. I’ve asked her quite frankly why she has done it, to have given up so much of her life, and she had the best answer that I could have expected.

VIVIAN PERLIS: What was the answer, Pauline?

LEO ORNSTEIN: What better could she have done with her life?

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: I enjoy doing it because I can go over it and hear it again and again as I’m writing.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So it’s partly your own pleasure that you’re doing it.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Yes, surely.

VIVIAN PERLIS: How does the system work? You had said that it’s fairly simple.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Supposing, say, I want to dictate this.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Give me a pencil. I can’t do it without my pencil.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Here they are, dearie. Here is one of the Vignettes.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: No, it has no lead.

VIVIAN PERLIS: There’s some at the end here. This is a short piano work that you’re writing—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, they’re a relief because the organic part of a short piece is very much easier to be able to control and to manipulate. When you get into a larger work, the architecture itself gets to be very much larger and so the whole scope becomes much more difficult. It’s obviously much more difficult material to manipulate around than a short, concentrated piece. Now, it doesn’t mean necessarily that the short piece—like a short poem—may not actually have sometimes more intrinsic meaning than a large work, but obviously, taking a larger work, the mechanism is a much more unwieldy thing to work with than a short piece.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: I must interrupt and tell you one thing. My hearing is not quite as keen as it used to be, and it’s hard for me to distinguish between E, D, and B. So he says: “Second letter or fourth letter” and so on, to help—

LEO ORNSTEIN: According to scale, so she knows—I simply say: “Second,” and she now knows it’s a D.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Do you mean to say, although you say this is a simple procedure, that every note and everything you literally dictate, not that you play it and then you take—

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, no.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: Oh, I couldn’t. He does hear it, so I have a guide.

LEO ORNSTEIN: For instance, what I thought now, if we were quiet and I were by myself and composed, I would probably remember just about maybe what I played, and I would put down just enough of the harmonization and the outline, and then the actual detail I would then dictate to her.

VIVIAN PERLIS: And you put that much down, in order that you don’t—as a reminder.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Well, naturally. The section might be slightly longer or slightly shorter. Then, of course, once I have that, very often I’ll say: “Let me have the music,” so she gives it to me, and then I play, and then, of course, the connection is made in my mind.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I know you have said that it’s really a very simple procedure, the dictation.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes,

VIVIAN PERLIS: But it is really unique, and it may seem simple to you. If you could describe that a little bit in terms of how Pauline takes this down. You mean to say that you actually tell her every single note to put down?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, of course.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Including instrumentation and orchestration?

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, no, no. First we have those notes that she makes. Then I do the orchestration myself. Then afterwards I orchestrate it.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So you would say to Pauline—

LEO ORNSTEIN: For instance, I’ll dictate something to her now.

VIVIAN PERLIS: All right.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Pauline, this is going to be in two-four time. Now, the upper line—Treble and bass, that’s right, and it’s two-four time. Now you’ll see it’s very simple. You go to the A-flat, Pauline, the top line, A-flat, the extra line, A-flat, for an eighth. And now you go to two sixteenths, the B-flat and the A-flat again. Go down to E for a quarter, and close your measure up. Now, she should do that there with the stems up, and then I’ll tell her the harmonization underneath it, and that’s all there is to it.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Having done this for such a long period of time, there are certain things that you can do very quickly.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes. But, of course, some of the very complicated things I write down enough, as you saw in this Vignette. I wrote down—because some of the harmonies I had to put down so that I would be sure to have them because my memory, as I said, I can’t quite rely upon the way I used to, so I’ll write it down very quickly. And I dictate to her—this business I dictated this from here, and she has it down. We’ve taken one copy here. We’re so afraid of fire. We keep the copy in the car, in the trunk, and eventually I will put those in. As you will see, I simply didn’t need to put in the time because in this case the time values were so self-evident that I didn’t spend the time. It’s very curious: very often I will have the outline first and then the harmonization afterward, and very often the harmonization is the motivating factor, and I will get that down, and the outline will suggest itself as the result of the manipulation of the harmonic system. So there is no one specified rule by which I guide myself at all. It depends entirely upon what it is that you’re hearing. Let me tell you an interesting experience. I played a piece once into one of these cassettes. I was in a hurry, and I decided to play it in quickly. Then we came back afterwards, and we wanted to translate it. I wanted to write it down. The thing moved so fast that I could not take each individual thing, unless we could—yes, of course, I’ll take any dictation down, but you have to slow it down; but moving rapidly, even I got the general impression, but the actual detail moved much too fast to be able to—now, I suppose if I heard it one hundred times and got it memorized, then, of course, I’d be able to play it. Or else if it could be slowed down enough so that then I could actually hear each detail. But the thing moving through at that rate, I could not take it—and so finally I realized that if I just played it over enough times and then something clicked in the memory, thank goodness… You make a large contribution, because you make the contribution of judgment, which you have to have all the time because there are some things that you simply say, well, that is not right, that isn’t what I want to put down—and then you simply eliminate—oh, no, your judgment must be constantly operating. And that is where the composer really comes in. But what he hears, he obviously cannot make; he just hears what comes into his head. And then, by process of elimination, he can simply say to himself: “That isn’t worth anything. I’m not going to put it down.” My dear child, if you would see the hundreds and hundreds of pages that I simply consider inferior and I just simply threw it away. And Mrs. Ornstein tells me some of the best material I’ve thrown away. And she has been frantic again and again, and it has led to tears and whatnot, that I would throw away something, something she thought—and, as a matter of fact, she sometimes says that actually I throw out things that she would consider slightly less good than what I really decided to choose. But again, you see…

VIVIAN PERLIS: But you’re the one in the choosing seat.

LEO ORNSTEIN: But unfortunately, I had to abide by my own judgment, and my judgment may be very bad, may be very poor, as a matter of fact. But, of course, you only have your own judgment to live by. Nothing comes whole, as you know. Of course, it cannot, naturally. But you mean sequences that come right, yes.

VIVIAN PERLIS: This probably sounds naïve, but in order to get some idea of the way this works, suppose a piece of music takes twenty minutes or even something shorter, a Vignette is seven minutes.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, yes. Five to seven minutes, approximately.

VIVIAN PERLIS: In your mind’s ear, when this first comes to you, is it playing to you at the speed…

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s interesting, too. That’s interesting, my dear. When I think of a piece of music, I don’t have to debate: “Let’s see, shall the piece go faster, go slower?” No, no. You hear the piece exactly at the speed at which it’s meant to be.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So a seven-minute piece would take…

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, no. I didn’t mean only seven minutes. That is, of course, the organism finally. It’s the structure of the thing. In other words, it’s the architecture that is just that much and no more, get it? And whether it may last five minutes or maybe seven, that depends, of course, on the material. But I’m interested also that the speed at which a piece moves is absolutely simultaneous with what you hear. You hear it at the speed. You don’t toss up a coin and simply say: “Maybe this should go a little slower.” No, nothing of the sort.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Not even tossing up a coin, but you don’t even have to think too carefully in terms of metronome markings you want.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No. Then I tell you what I do: Finally, when I get it finished, then I simply fool around with the metronome until it comes to the speed at which I heard the piece. Oh, yes, apparently it’s a hundred to the quarter. Then the metronome gets adjusted. “Oh, no,” I say, “push it up; it’s too slow.” I play it over for her. So she moves it up and then finally the metronome comes in and beats just the speed at which the piece…

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: The thing that gets me is he is able—I don’t know where all this connection comes from—to get his hands on those notes at full speeds, where he’s never practiced them, he’s never thought of them before.

LEO ORNSTEIN: As a matter of fact, after I write it down now, it would be a terrific labor to reproduce it again, because then I’d have to go through the process of actually almost learning the piece. But when I hear the thing first…

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: I feel as though I’ve been married to a spook all my life! It’s absolutely—it’s terrifying.

VIVIAN PERLIS: How do you like that? You didn’t realize she felt that way about you.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I feel entirely assured.