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

LEO ORNSTEIN: Today each composer is not only involved in aesthetics, but he’s actually trying to create his own language. We have the paradox of each one making up his own language. The danger of that—and there’s a grave danger that I, myself, have to be very aware of—is that you become so involved and intrigued in the language that sometimes you lose track that that is only a means to an aesthetic experience that the listener has to get. No wonder it is very difficult for the listener to make any evaluations because, before anything else, he has to first of all learn the language. And since each one invents his own language today, the poor listener is really in quite a stew because how can he make any evaluation? How can he even understand what the aesthetic value of the piece is, when he still is floundering around trying to understand and learn the language first of all? So that one can’t blame many listeners who rebel because…

VIVIAN PERLIS: They simply don’t understand…

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s it. They don’t understand.

VIVIAN PERLIS: And when they say they don’t understand, it’s like somebody saying: “I don’t understand a man speaking Chinese.”

LEO ORNSTEIN: Exactly. And the analogy is that you could have a great Chinese poet and a very inferior one. Since I do not know Chinese, each one recites his poem.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Yes, that’s a good point.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I can make absolutely no evaluation at all because I do not understand the inspired poet or the fifth-rate poet, so then I have the problem, if I persist in trying to understand what it is they’re saying, that I first of all have to learn the language and then I can, of course, begin to make at least my personal evaluation as to which of the poems I find gives me the most—or which I find the most original, the most subtle, or whatever other qualities I may see in the poem.

VIVIAN PERLIS: There is a distinction—and you pointed it out earlier—because of the fact of music being an abstract art.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, it is. Of all the arts, music is really the most abstract. It never has any—shall we say any formal anything before it that can deal with—you see, the painter obviously has some object that he looks at. A writer has all the aspects of life before him. But the musician deals with something that is so…

VIVIAN PERLIS: It’s not based on any natural prototypes.

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s it. Nothing that he has before him that can at least give him a start… He has nothing at all, but just lines.

VIVIAN PERLIS: For that reason, it is not quite the same as learning a language because the specifics of meaning are not as necessary.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, because you’ve learned to make certain distinctions, and then suddenly you’re confronted with a new element in which you really have no criterion and no basic values that you can guide yourself by, and you have to establish—then, of course, very few people have the time to be able to repeat enough of their work to get thoroughly acquainted, and until you do, no one’s evaluation can really be taken seriously. That is why, of course, the critic is very often at a terrible disadvantage because he has to make some kind of an estimate on one or two hearings. He might hear possibly one rehearsal and then the performance. As astute as some may be, there is a specific limit beyond which it’s very difficult to really make any assertion that would really have ultimate validity.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Can a composer be concerned about what the audience understands, or can he just go ahead and do what he feels he needs to do? Obviously, in your own work it’s a paradox in a way because you’re very concerned about emotional impact and communication and that that should not be lost. On the other hand, you’re very unconcerned about performance. So there’s a paradox there.

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s right. There is a paradox. There is a paradox because I think you’ve struck a chord there that we ought to simply pursue—it is true that music is a form of communication. If you sever that line, then the whole point of the composer even writing the thing down becomes futile except as an exercise merely to see what his thoughts look like.

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