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

3. The Independent Life of Musical Compositions

LEO ORNSTEIN: It’s always an interesting thing, by the way, for the composer suddenly to see—I remember that when I wrote this “Wild Man’s Dance,” I wrote it down, and I was so involved, and then I was traveling around and playing it. Then, finally, when the proofs came, I remember I simply said: “Oh, my goodness. So that’s what it looks like on paper.” See, and I had been playing it, and I wrote it down and then sent it off to Schott, but when the proofs came I had to really look at the thing to make the corrections.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That’s interesting…that you surprised yourself and that you didn’t visualize it.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Not necessarily, not necessarily. Every time I’m a bit surprised always, what the patterns look like and what the whole thing looks like because, of course, I primarily hear. I know that there are some people who apparently operate with their eyes on the paper. They are more guided almost by the pattern.

VIVIAN PERLIS: The visual pattern.

LEO ORNSTEIN: By the visual pattern, but mostly I’m guided entirely by my ear, what I hear. Now, there are sometimes making a connection between one section and another that sometimes you do want to see the pattern because it helps you to lead into the next thing—it’s a rhetorical thing, where you just see how the pattern has to go into the next thing. But in the end, music is ultimately an aural art, pure and simple. What it looks like on paper may be interesting enough, but what the listeners hears is ultimately what stays with him, that he is concerned with. But anyway, what relationship there is between what one hears and what one sees on paper is beyond—I’ve just never attempted to try to analyze, and I don’t know that much would be gained by it, unless some very concrete relationship might be able to be made between…

VIVIAN PERLIS: Except if it’s the kind of notation that some composers have used that is actually visual notation; that is, a performer is expected to read according to the relationships on the page. In other words, there are no bar lines and there are no staff lines. They are expected to make their own evaluations of the distances. It’s a kind of visual notation.

LEO ORNSTEIN: For me, that would be much too improvisational. No, I’m afraid that I would not be satisfied to leave it quite as loosely because the elements of error become so wide that one could just completely go off the track.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That’s another aesthetic idea, that each time the work is performed, then it’s different, only within some bounds, but each time it’s performed—of course, that’s true about all music. Each time it’s performed, it’s different.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. It seems to me that to some extent that that kind of writing is a form of abdication, really, on the part of the composer. I would be willing to say it’s something of an abdication. In other words, either there’s a mental laziness there or else the composer, himself, hasn’t really waited until the thing has crystallized and become shaped and formed absolutely and has a certain inevitability about it. In the long run, I wonder whether a work would be so subject to what we call immediate whims—not that immediate whims may not have some value of its own—but it’s much too haphazard.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Well, the composer loses a lot of control that way.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Of course. That’s what I meant when I said that he abdicates. That’s what I meant. He passes the thing onto the performer then. Now, you understand there are moments, there are times when you hear a thing in your head that is absolutely perfectly clear, and then of course it’s simple enough to write down what you hear. There are times when you hear things that are not really a finished product. In other words, it’s all quite vague. You haven’t yet established the shape of the thing, you haven’t really established a time that you want to have it in, and so on.

VIVIAN PERLIS: The instrumentation also?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, and sometimes even the instrumentation, although it’s much less in that field, as the actual concept of the statement that you’re making. Those are the times when you should not write at all—obviously not because you would be just writing something that you’re not in control of at all. You wouldn’t really know what to write. You have to wait until the thing crystallizes in your own mind, and very often some of the ideas you have to abandon because they are of such an improvisational nature that we have really no notation that is adequate enough to be able to explicitly put it down on paper. After all, the spots we put on paper are nothing but just directions to a player what note he blows…

VIVIAN PERLIS: A practical matter.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Exactly, exactly. Or the pianist has to know what key he has to push down, or the cellist or the violinist—at what point on the string that he has to put his finger on. Those are just directions. How can you give directions to someone when you, yourself, haven’t yet established what the direction should be?

VIVIAN PERLIS: Giving those directions, being able to do that is a crucial matter.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Of course it’s a crucial matter because that is the thing that ultimately is the work of art. You take, for instance, a Bach fugue and you go to work and a few of the notes get vague—and the whole line can be immediately altogether destroyed.

VIVIAN PERLIS: What about this matter we started to talk about that I’m not going to let you get out of, but I don’t think you want to, the paradox in your own situation, where you obviously are very caring about ideas and about—not emotional impact but that music must in some way have some kind of communication. And yet you have stayed away from—actual performance of your own works doesn’t mean terribly much to you. You’re ready to go on to the next work and leave that.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. You’re talking about two different things. If you’re talking about insisting on spending your time on having things performed, I was thinking in totally different terms. When I was speaking about communicating, I meant that the listener—we have to reach the listener; otherwise, of course, you’re writing the piece, as I say, only for the satisfaction of seeing it on the paper for yourself, and then it ends right there. Now, what we are not talking about, what you’re really coming to, is what compromises one makes so that the listener understands somewhat of what you’re doing, what you’re trying to express.

VIVIAN PERLIS: No, what I’m talking about is why you have been willing to care so much about that and yet not care so much about the work being performed, and letting it lie for a long time.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, well, I tell you, because once I have completed a work, I simply am interested only in what I may hear in the next work that’s coming. Once the work is finished and written down, then it enters into a totally different sphere. One can hope, of course, that somebody will be interested enough they’ll want to hear the music. If not, I am not prepared, certainly, to give up any of my time for the purpose of just exploiting a work—not at all.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Isn’t it of interest to you to actually hear it, or do you feel that you really hear it?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Most of it I really heard. There are very few surprises. Naturally, I’ve heard the thing, and I’ve accumulated enough skill so that I can really play the thing certainly not professionally but enough so that—as a matter of fact, the real satisfaction, of course, is the hearing of the thing. And then, finally, for the purposes of a record, you just put it down. Also, you might simply ask that pointed question: “Why do you write it down at all?” You write it down because finally, when it’s written down you do get it out of your system somewhat. And that is tremendously helpful; otherwise, these things just go on and on and on, around in your head. Sometimes you will get a theme that is really very pungent.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I wonder what would happen if you didn’t.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I think that you could really, literally almost go out of your mind.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I was going to say that, but I didn’t want to.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. I think that one could. But, you see, what happens is that there’s a tremendous release. Once you’ve put it down there, to some extent you’ve given birth to the idea and you really then concretely—the concreteness really lies mysteriously enough, in those little spots there on those lines. Afterwards, anybody that’s interested can simply take those symbols and translate them for themselves, whether it’s on the piano or on the orchestra or in a string quartet or quintet or whatever the combination is you’ve written the piece for.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I was interested when you were talking at the piano about the difference between those ideas that churn around and your playing them in order to work them out as composition, and how different that would be from improvising.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, heavens, yes. Improvisation is terribly haphazard. A person improvising is sometimes very fortunate that just at that second things coincide. Again, there can be for every one success probably any number of disasters where you have not had time to organize in your own mind what it is that you’re thinking. In writing music, the structure of each piece is a very important factor. I’ve been very much interested as to what it is that we really listen to in music. What is it that really happens when we crowd ourselves into a hall with our elbows against the next man, listening to something that lasts maybe twenty-five or thirty minutes? Besides merely some pleasure that we get out of the combinations of pitches together and lines, I think that there is some satisfaction that we get in the fact of having this diffuse thing organized very concretely and put onto a frame and have it actually decided. There’s just a pleasure in seeing this sense of organization, the sense of logic, this clarity. I believe eventually, in the last analysis, that that is really what holds our attention to a piece of music more than anything else.