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

LEO ORNSTEIN: It always astonishes me that each human being that we see, even in the most casual way, is really one individual

VIVIAN PERLIS: Did you realize that there is not another person in billions and billions in the entire world that is exactly the same? It’s extraordinary.

LEO ORNSTEIN: When you stop to think, you realize—for instance, our inability to be able to distinguish things until we become thoroughly familiar. Familiarity is one of the most important factors in making a judgment about almost anything. Even in music, your understand of a piece of music on one hearing is one thing; on the tenth hearing, it’s an entirely different thing. You take the eight hundred and fifty million Chinese that to most of us, casually, seem to resemble each other hopelessly, and yet we know perfectly well that each one is an individual and that it’s unthinkable that someone would mistake his friend for someone else.

VIVIAN PERLIS: There are people that I know well—they’re not superstitious or uneducated people—who feel very strongly that they have existed in another life, that they will again, and they feel they have known certain people in another life. That’s why there are feelings between them.

LEO ORNSTEIN: And some rationalize about it extremely well, with a great deal of verbal facility and so on, but the convictions have to come from within you.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: A conviction of every human being is that you’re going to go on living. You can’t conceive that you’re not.

VIVIAN PERLIS: But it must be very comforting to really believe in reincarnation.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I imagine it does. It gives you a certain amount of comfort because—in my case, I see the end of a life with complete and inexorable, as I said a moment ago, finality, that that is really the last—

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: I think it’s impossible to be so final about anything.

LEO ORNSTEIN: But, of course, that realm is so lost and so murky to us right now that we have really no right to commit ourselves with any finality, however difficult it may be for some of us, to be able to surmount that wall, what we call common sense, reality, whatever analogy you want to use.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Isn’t part of the reason for composing to achieve some kind of immortality?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t believe, quite frankly—I should rather doubt really whether any composer, as vain as he might be, really starts off with a premise of merely leaving his name to immortality. I don’t believe so. I realize that we’re all vain and, of course, would like to leave our name for posterity everlastingly. But actually I don’t believe that is the primarily motivation. There is some kind of an urge—look here, when the things come into your head from somewhere that you can’t explain that just keeps crowding and banging away in your brain, you finally put them down on paper, as I said, in self-defense because once it gets organized on the music paper, some pressure has been relieved from within you. There’s no doubt about it.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It’s not so much the name as the music itself, if you consider that a century later or two hundred years later or whatever, that you will communicate something of yourself.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, I don’t believe that I sit down writing a piece of music with this august, huge consciousness of leaving that to posterity. No, I don’t believe so. I think it’s just an immediate thing that is churning in your head that you yourself get a certain amount of pleasure seeing it finally defined on the music paper, where the final definition really lies and is symbolized there.

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