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

1. The Elusiveness of Inspiration

VIVIAN PERLIS: People in music don’t seem to retire or what you consider retiring, at least—have you ever considered retiring?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Giving up writing?

VIVIAN PERLIS: Yes.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t know. There have been periods, actually, yes. I think there have been some periods when the writing almost became a bit of a burden. I think I wrote to Severo once a letter. I said: “It would be a great comfort if I could exclude ideas from coming into my head and just absolutely have a completely empty head, just sit in a rocker and have absolutely no ideas crowding in. But what are you going to do when the ideas do crowd into your head and keep tormenting you until you finally get it down on paper?” It’s not, again, a voluntary act at all. How are you going to exclude things coming into your head? How are you going to exclude music wandering into your head and just churning around?

VIVIAN PERLIS: Have there been times in your lifetime where that has happened, where the material doesn’t come?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes, absolutely. Yes, indeed. Indeed, very often you sit before the paper and nothing but trivialities come into your head, and obviously you’re not prepared to put those down if you have any critical evaluation at all. So finally either you give up in despair or you put down whatever you hear and eventually tear it and throw it away in the wastebasket.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: This happened right in the middle of the Quintet. One morning he was bitten by what he was thinking of, and he wouldn’t use it, and the next day he wouldn’t use it, and the next day he wouldn’t use it. He was in a terrible state. And finally we picked up and went down to New York, right in the middle of the summer, to see whether something would change in the environment. And when we got there, the problem was solved. He sat down at the piano and went right straight ahead where he wanted to.

VIVIAN PERLIS: And you have no idea what makes that?

LEO ORNSTEIN: I haven’t the faintest idea. I don’t have an idea because there we were in the mountains, in an atmosphere and a landscape that would have been conducive to writing and everything else. But I got into a problem, and none of the solutions were possible, and in despair finally I said: “We’ve got to get out of here” because I was just absolutely almost on the verge of doing something, actually. We got to New York, and you can imagine what an apartment in the middle of the summer in New York, with the sheets over the furniture and so on, and the camphor balls all over the place. You know this sort of thing. And then we opened up the windows, and I think there was a hurdy-gurdy and whatnot.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Something subconscious, then.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t know. It’s almost as though it were staged almost, you see. Suddenly I went over and put it down.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So all of the beautiful scenery—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Didn’t do a thing for me, not a thing.

VIVIAN PERLIS: And nature didn’t do anything.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, just the very thing that we were talking about.

VIVIAN PERLIS: We were just saying earlier, before we started recording, that that has not really meant a great deal to you in your writing.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, apparently not.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: You’d be surprised how many mornings, when the news is on or something he’s listening—he goes over to the piano and just starts working. He must not hear what’s going on because he doesn’t even take the trouble to shut it off. He just begins to…

VIVIAN PERLIS: …Is it that you don’t hear other things that are going when music is…

LEO ORNSTEIN: I think sometime the absorption can become so great, yes. But you really lose track of almost any sounds, unless it were some aggressive sound right in your ear. But generally speaking, of course, it does not work that way at all. You have to have a certain amount of quiet.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That’s one of the reasons you were saying that this is a good place for you.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, exactly, and this is just absolutely perfect for that because we’ve discovered that actually we’re as quiet here as we had been in the mountains, right in the middle of our woods. This matter that we were talking about, about how subjective one can become is something also terribly puzzling because it seems to me that what has happened to the arts is something altogether different from what other composers have experienced. Most of them have been willing to stay within the limitations and within the language that they had been taught. While they did superimpose upon it their own thinking and their own hearing of what they heard, they still stayed somewhere within…shall we say their training.

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