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

4. On Serialism, Experimentalism and the Study of Composition

LEO ORNSTEIN: I distrust anything that you don’t hear. You might say—we’re getting into a very subtle situation—you might say that everything ultimately is accident. For instance, you might simply say why bother whether you hear the whole thing as a component part? Why not simply put one part down and write another part and another part and then see what it sounds like? Now, if you’re interested in gambling and blindly just putting down lines and having them put together and just simply see what may happen, that’s a totally different thing than what I’m interested in. I’m interested in producing a work of art, and unless I hear the thing thoroughly, I would have no reason to put it down at all. Sometimes, of course, it does happen that—for instance, you put it down as you heard it, immediately. Then, in contemplating and working on it, suddenly another version occurs to you or some change. Of course, then, by that time you begin to use whatever knowledge you’ve acquired, whatever skills you’ve acquired to make whatever modification. And the modification—it only has to be in order to enhance the thing. And what enhances a piece of music? Who knows! I haven’t the faintest idea, my dear child, why one series of notes going that-a-way makes something change in the motive that hounds us, and another chord that goes that-a-way simply leaves us absolutely, utterly unmoved. That is that gamble, that thing that bites into the artist all the time, this involuntary thing because he’d like to know exactly which ones of these endless notes, pictures that he could pick up and rearrange it. But you cannot do it that way. We enter there into a different category altogether. We enter into the category of mathematics. Strangely enough, you can musically hear the most incredible mathematical relationships with the greatest of ease, but if you sat down and tried to do it from the other end, from the mathematical end, you tried to write it, you never could see the intricacies of rhythms and voices that you hear against each other and so on, with the greatest ease.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Isn’t serial composition a little bit like that? Twelve-tone and intricate serial composition, where you must choose a combination in advance, a mathematical combination, a tone row, and you must stay with that.

LEO ORNSTEIN: It verges on the very thing that I’m talking about.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You begin with the mathematical.

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s it, and then try to create some aesthetic experience out of that.

VIVIAN PERLIS: The really great composer would never let it get in the way. I think of Schoenberg, where the system was something that he did develop and he did use, but would not let the system be the thing that would direct.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Because essentially Schoenberg was an extremely gifted man. And in spite of many of his theories and so on, when he really began to write music, he still was guided very much by his internal hearing, by what we call your internal ear. Absolutely.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That’s why he would never teach students this twelve-tone method. He didn’t like people discussing it as a method and so forth.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I don’t know. It just strikes me as something sterile, sterile to go about it—it would seem to me that it’s a reversal of the whole process of musical aesthetics, to begin with that end and sort of hoping to reach some musical concept, musical state that way. We all have to learn the trade, certain techniques, by all means, of course. We depend a great deal upon that, too. But not at its inception… We can use techniques in modifying things, in controlling things, but the first impulse has to be something that you simply cannot make just out of technique, or else it becomes perfectly evident that it is nothing but technique that you’re exercising.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Do you think somebody can just say in advance that they’re going to become a composer? Is there such a thing? Should there be composition students?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Well, you understand one can learn to write music out of technical equipment. The difference between the student and the born composer is he really hears the thing, and they have to stage it and manipulate it by technical equipment. But they might possibly hit on something really inspired. That may be because, I’ll tell you, the whole of life is just so full of unexpected things that surround us day and night, and our entire lifetime. But it’s possible. The likelihood is not very great… Experimentation might even lead to suicide, but the mind absolutely is not to be shut off, one’s imagination. Never, never… That is why to try to formulate a barrier and simply stay beyond that, is absurd.

VIVIAN PERLIS: But it reminds me: once you said to me that you felt—when you felt that you had gone as far as you could go—I think you used irrationality; otherwise, you’d get into—and yet it was almost a feeling that you reached the brink of sanity.

LEO ORNSTEIN: At least there is certainly a personal limit that you feel. By the way, the point between rationality and what we would call the irrational is a very difficult point to establish. There’s no specific line, as you know.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Where does the twentieth century begin and the nineteenth century end?

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s it, exactly. Look at the battle we’re constantly trying to establish between what we call reality and unreality. But, of course, over every reality there is always superimposed this utter unreality. You never can even separate the two things. The so-called reality melts into unreality. Those are the utterly undefined lines. But for each one there is a point of what he considers rational, beyond which he’s not willing to go. You might simply say that even your rationality has its own values and its own interests—no doubt about it, no doubt about it. We even become interested in watching mentally unbalanced people. We will watch them by the hour sometimes, watching to see human beings whose controls and everything else are of a different nature than ours. It may be interesting enough, and you may want to even be working within that field. I think many of the plays today by Beckett and Ionesco reach into that field. I don’t know whether you ever saw The End Game… You’ve seen that. You saw there were points at which you had to decide for yourself what you might consider the irrational or not. There again, in a play like that, the leeway that is left for you to fill in your own personal reactions, and your own personal conclusions become great.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It’s like giving a performer and the audience choices in music that you don’t feel willing to do as a composer.

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, I’m not prepared to abdicate at all, but I feel that my thoughts either are so positive that I’m not willing to—and, by the way, if my thoughts are not really concrete and positive, then I wouldn’t know how much leeway or how little leeway I should give shall we say the performer if it’s going to be that. How much leeway should I allow him because if I’m so uncertain myself as to what it is that I’m really thinking or what I want to put down, then it becomes an intellectual game that has nothing to do with aesthetics. Look here, child, I’m essentially really interested only in one thing. I’m really interested in writing a piece of music that will move you, that will really move you. That is really the only reason that I’m writing music. Otherwise, I wouldn’t write a note. I’m only interested in writing something that will give you what I call a musical experience.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That assumes that you can assess what will move me.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, of course, naturally. I may be wrong entirely.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I don’t mean me…

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, or move the listener. Oh, yes, that may be. That’s true. But at least I am motivated, and my impulse is primarily that, to express exactly what I want, and hopefully that I will be able to transfer to you what we call these musical things that I’m trying to project.

VIVIAN PERLIS: There are people that feel that pure color, both in visual arts and in poetry and in sound, can indeed, on its own, move.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, of course. It’s really a cheap rationalization.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I thought you would say that.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, it is. It’s really a cheap rationalization because you take the palette. Of course, it has all different colors, and of course you could get a response to that. But is that really formulated art? Is that really art for you? Yes, it’s a primitive kind of a thing, surely. Look, the man that goes into a haberdashery and carefully looks at this tie and that tie and chooses exactly the kind of pattern he wants and the kind of color, he’s also exercising a certain amount of shall we say aesthetic judgment. But essentially, you might simply say, what does that got to do with someone who is really able to appreciate shall we say the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue or the St. Matthew Passion?

VIVIAN PERLIS: How would you feel, then, about the kind of thing that Varèse was trying to do in placing, actually placing blocks of sound…

LEO ORNSTEIN: It’s an interesting experiment. It simply doesn’t satisfy me as a musical issue. I’m still primarily really interested in music as such—recognizably music. It doesn’t matter how far I may have carried some of the things, but I always pull back at the point where it ceases any longer to really be music. Then it becomes something totally different. There’s absolutely no reason at all—I cannot simply take this machine and get all kinds of sounds and noises and then put them together in some kind of a shape. But I’m not satisfied with that. Surely, I don’t feel that that is the province of the composer who presumably claims that he’s really involved in manipulating sound—pitches in other words.

VIVIAN PERLIS: I started to say that the barrier, the line—if there is ever one—as to how far, what might be considered innovative can go.

LEO ORNSTEIN: There are points beyond which each composer has to decide. Each composer has to decide for himself.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It seems to have continued to go further and further and further and further since the time when you were doing it.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, but I tell you, the question is to what extent really have we gained a real aesthetic experience.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Now, there’s a good point.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Of course, experimenting— Look, a young man came in to me, who was very much interested in the “Danse Sauvage” and everything else. He was obviously very intent upon how much further than everything else—and I suggested to him—I said: “Now, look, you can do one final thing. Lie down right on the keyboard. You’ll play all the notes right at once, and then you’ve eliminated what we call your material in one fell swoop. Now there’s nothing to be said anymore. You’ve done it all. You’ve played all the eighty-eight notes, right simultaneously at once. That’s it.” So you see, there is a point beyond which you cannot go. Yes, of course, that is that last act. That’s the last act of suicide (I mean speaking aesthetically). And you can give it a very elaborate title…

VIVIAN PERLIS: You might think of a very amusing one.