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

16. The Shortcomings of Music Notation

LEO ORNSTEIN: The limitations of our notation are perfectly evident. We can only think certain things at specified speeds. Beyond those, we really cannot think it. For instance, we had to abandon again and again, if the thing moves rapidly, a quarter that really is the duration of five sixteenths. Now, if it moves slowly enough, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a quarter that will incorporate the length of five sixteenths instead of the classical four sixteenths. You take a syncopation. We can make a syncopation horribly fast, but not because we can think it but because we can physically make it—here, for instance: [plays piano, hitting notes with increasing rapidity]. But I couldn’t possibly think that each, the left and the right, the sequence as fast as I can simply just make it—in other words, make my arms move that rapidly. And that’s why there have been so many disasters sometimes when the syncopation gets closer and closer, and finally—particularly in the orchestra, you’ve got to be very, very careful because obviously there’s a point at which they simply cannot come in in such a small area. Have you ever tried that? It’s very funny. You can do it yourself. Just take a pencil. Take a pencil and [hits table] do this with it, and then say [hits table rhythmically as he says, in syncopation, with increasing rapidity]: “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.” What will happen is that your “ahs” will run right together with your—in other words, you cannot think in between your beats when they move at such a rapid pace. And yet, as you know, one can of course do this sort of thing: [plays piano for five seconds], almost running together.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Is it one of the reasons, when you were performing your own music, you could physically do virtuoso things that were difficult to write down, that the writing down, then, was almost more difficult than playing?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. I suppose that I developed, in trying some of the things out, I developed some mechanical skills, what you would call athletic skills. That may be so. Usually, there is really no problem if you hear the thing clearly and definitely, if it’s really defined—in other words, if you can really define it so that your harmonies and your rhythms and all the ingredients are perfectly clear to you, then there’s no problem in writing them down. The problem remains when you get something in your head that is rather vague. Unfortunately, you’re then forced to make some compromises. For instance, there’s no use trying to think a quarter, five sixteenths, at a very rapid pace because the human mind simply is incapable of really encompassing, and so finally we begin to make various little minor adjustments on notation and with our capacity to be able to divide time—fast only up to a certain point, and beyond that we’re incapable to make these separations. That’s why, as I said, a very fast syncopation is a very dangerous thing because eventually everybody lands on the beat.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Particularly for polyrhythmic things.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, indeed.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Is this work you were showing me—is that one of the Vignettes or part of the symphony?

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, no, these are all the Vignettes. I keep that in a separate envelope.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Are there polyrhythmic combinations in these?

LEO ORNSTEIN: There are some. Oh, yes, there are some. And the moods are also—a very wide range. Some are of a very varied nature, and some are rather suave.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Is this the current work that you would have been working on before we arrived, what you have right on the piano?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. This really is the one we’re now working with. Mrs. Ornstein has some of that already written down, and some of it, of course, I’m still in the middle of. I’ve reached—now I need a middle section that I’m now debating, and I’ve had two or three suggestions that have come to me, but none of them quite satisfies me. The writer of music has so many problems, so many problems. They depend upon something that hasn’t anything particularly to do with aesthetics maybe. There are some days where it doesn’t matter what I think. I simply just find it utterly unpalatable and I simply refuse to use it. I just don’t feel that it’s good enough. It doesn’t satisfy—my good evaluation just refuses to accept it. And sometimes—the danger, of course, you understand, with the composer being over-critical: he can annihilate himself completely because it’s very easy to simply assume—everything that you hear is not worth putting down.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Well, there are some composers like that. Carl Ruggles eliminated a great deal…

LEO ORNSTEIN: And finally you just simply rub yourself out. It almost verges on the psychotic, if you take some people who are so hopelessly critical of themselves, some of them finally even do away with themselves. There are these extreme points. And yet, of course, if you write music without any critical evaluation at all, why, then you’ll put down anything indiscriminately. Some composers—very gifted ones lack a certain amount of judgment as to know what to put down or not, and they will put down some things of which obviously you’re very critical.

VIVIAN PERLIS: This work, this Vignette, would you be playing it first before you write it down? Would you play that at the piano?

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, this one I wrote down and dictated to her almost at once. Now, as I said, some of the things I will want to try at the instrument, particularly some very new combinations.

Now, look, you cannot use it because—no, I cannot let you use it because—look, it’s too haphazard. This is not a moment, for instance, in which I can really write a piece of music that I would want to have represented, nor can I play it efficiently enough, no. I’m afraid that that’s not in the cards because I don’t play the piano anymore. I don’t like to play the piano. Therefore, I wouldn’t even want to distort my own piece. To improvise something at the moment is just—the chances are that under the circumstances, with all these lights, this is hardly the condition under which you can sit down and think music that would satisfy you, so it would be haphazard, and I wouldn’t want it to go out there to be used publicly, obviously, no.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You say you have the materials for the symphony in a separate envelop.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t want it confused with all this mass of manuscripts.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Does the manuscript material look the same?

LEO ORNSTEIN: As far as you will be able to tell, it looks just about the same. Then, of course, I’ve already begun to orchestrate the first movement. Those are these huge sheets that I use. And I’m beginning to have a little problem there with my eyesight. My eyes get a little tired. As a matter of fact, I was operated on my left eye a few months ago. I cannot see marvelously through it, but at one time I would see nothing through it. And I do eliminate all these personal things. I don’t think they belong in—

VIVIAN PERLIS: You use large music-writing paper for the orchestrating?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I make my notes on sheets with the lines further apart.

VIVIAN PERLIS: When you hear music that’s not piano solo—chamber music or the orchestral works—do you hear it orchestrated?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, oh, yes.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You do. There’s never any question about things.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No. Oh once in a while you will come across some debatable spot that you can’t quite make up your mind what the combination might be, but generally speaking, when you’re thinking for orchestra, you’re really thinking orchestrally, obviously. When you’re writing chamber music, I’ve had a number of people that play the Cello Sonata, particularly the first one. Actually, you wouldn’t believe that I couldn’t play the cello. They said: “Look here, you must have been born with a cello right between your legs.”

VIVIAN PERLIS: The cello has been of particular interest to you.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. It’s an instrument that has particularly fascinated me because it has a certain richness and a certain depth that appeals to my ear enormously. Some day, if you get a chance, you really ought to study those Six Preludes for Cello and Piano. I believe, frankly, that it’s probably one of the best pieces of music that I’ve written, one of the soundest. I think if any music is going to last, I have a feeling that that may be it.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It’s wonderful that they have been recorded.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Only three. As a matter of fact, the three that I consider by far the [best]—were not recorded. They were, of course, very difficult. They were much more the difficult ones and harmonically much more advanced and experimental. I was surprised. Apparently even among the classicists they were able to penetrate through the rhetoric that apparently seemed very gauche to them. After I played it for the League of Composers and a few other places, I had an invitation from the Beethoven Association to play, to have that done. I was quite surprised they would have had anything as radical as that in their programs.