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

VIVIAN PERLIS: When you have been composing all through the years, and looking at many of your compositions, which I have done, I’m amazed at the variation in styles, even in the same period of time.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I know. That has puzzled me, too. I can only say to you, child, that I refuse to bog myself down because if I did I would simply discard those things and simply say they don’t fit in within the theory that I’ve established or developed. I refuse to theorize about it. Therefore if I happen to hear something stylistically entirely different, I don’t hesitate at all to put it down. My only criterion is really this: Is it really good music? Does it say something? It’s the intrinsic value of the music that I’m concerned with—in other words, the substance of the thing. Some exteriors simply do not fit what you’re hearing at all. And so everything thought really commands its own environment that you’re surrounded by. Some of the melodic lines obviously do not fit, shall we say, into the kind of harmonies that I used in the “Notre Dame” or in The Three Moods.

VIVIAN PERLIS: In the early days, was that a problem? Did you feel that you were expected to write in a particular way?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t know, possibly. But it’s rather difficult for me to be railroaded because those are inner conditions that are inside of you…

VIVIAN PERLIS: I asked that because it seemed to me an amusing incident of a composer by the name of Vannin.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes. I wanted to see—that was a totally different thing.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Can you explain that?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes, I remember that. I had written three pieces, which were really quite typical of the kind of work I was doing at that period. Well, I just wanted to see the reaction of my name being removed from it altogether. But I will say that the audience was astute enough to realize soon enough—

VIVIAN PERLIS: Oh, did they?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, on the whole. Oh, there were, of course, some, but I will say that at least a good many were astute enough to at once doubt whether I wasn’t behind dictating the thing to Mr. Vannin.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So on the same program of music, there was music by Leo Ornstein?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes. I played some of my own things, and then I played under the pseudonym of Vannin.

VIVIAN PERLIS: And it was a little bit of a game you were playing?

LEO ORNSTEIN: You might really say that. I was just curious to see—I wanted to be removed entirely from my own personal association with things that I had been writing at that period. I just wanted to see what the reaction would be, peculiar to the music of someone that wasn’t right there at the moment, sitting at the piano and playing it, get it?

VIVIAN PERLIS: And the so-called Vannin pieces were the conservative ones.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, on the contrary. No, they were extremely advanced. Oh, no.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I see.

LEO ORNSTEIN: They were extremely advanced. That’s why a number of people simply said: “It sounds too much like Ornstein.” Or it was just one of those things that a young person will try out. It was just a bit of fun to some extent, too.

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