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

LEO ORNSTEIN: Hopefully, I have a certain amount of what you call musical talent. If I haven’t got that, I don’t think that I have anything. That is something I don’t really know enough about myself, but I certainly know that my personal life has almost never been associated with the writing because—we are coming back to the thing that we talked about, where the music that you hear is so involuntary that you can’t really tell to what extent your own personal life may reflect that, but in any concrete way that you could actually point to, obviously not.

VIVIAN PERLIS: That’s why you are less interested in talking about biographical facts.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes. Remember, the very first time we met, I said: “Do you want gossip, or do you want to talk about ideas?” I consider that my own personal life and anecdotes may be amusing enough and interesting enough, but they’re in a different realm.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Well, yes. They set the scene in terms of where other people see as certainly a very interesting life. It might be an interesting life if your ideas had not made it so.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I’m essentially interested in ideas, really, and not too much in events. There are some events, of course, which obviously are fraught with ideas. I think that to some extent that I rather resent—it may be too strong a word, but—I rather disapprove of the expectation of personality. That’s the long and short of it. That’s really the crux of the whole matter. That is why, for instance, sometimes I get so irritated at a concert by the antics of the conductor, for instance, that I find it may enlighten and do something for the listener who has to make some visual connection (which, of course, I don’t require at all) between the sound that he hears and what he’s looking at. But the general expectation of personality, I find rather distasteful, generally speaking.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You would prefer one conductor very much over another one in terms of the way they handle their…

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, to the point—I’m only talking about where the person imposes himself so definitely that actually, to some extent, you’re really forced to shut your eyes to evade perhaps what you would call an intrusion or a disturbance.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Which is a kind of vanity.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Well, artists are notoriously vain. As a matter of fact, I don’t object to that, if they’re able to—if that is the crux, the point at which they get tribute to produce a work of art, it doesn’t matter to me at all what the motivation is, not at all, because in the last analysis, the thing that is going to remain with me will be the music.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Do you think about whom you’re writing for?

LEO ORNSTEIN: No, no. Hardly, because you would be introducing an element there that would be a very disturbing element. First of all, for whom are you writing it? Are you writing it for one set of people or another set of people? Are you writing merely in order to just merely build your own reputation? I don’t believe it’s quite as sordid as that. I doubt it. No, I think that a person writes a poem because they have an inner urge of something that they want to express, and I think it’s that inner urge that you want to express when you write a piece of music. It’s something that just, as I said, is from behind you, just pushing you.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Was this true earlier, with the music that caused such a furor—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes. The style of the thing has nothing to do with it. The urge is the same thing, whether stylistically it’s one thing or another. The urge behind it is still the same, absolutely.

VIVIAN PERLIS: The fact that you played your own music in the early years, the piano, and part of the early composition was piano music, did that make a difference later in performance of your music? When you stopped playing it, there weren’t people who could do the same kind of performance of your own music. Has that made a difference in terms of performance?

LEO ORNSTEIN: Well, no. I believe that it’s not at all impossible that some of the performances that I’ve heard so far by some pianists may be superior to my own playing because those are two totally different acts altogether. It doesn’t necessarily mean at all that the composer plays his own works best. By no means can you say that. First of all, there are many composers that do not have any athletic skills for any instrument they have written music—

VIVIAN PERLIS: Young performers are coming to you now—and I know that that they are—asking you about interpretation, asking you about some things that perhaps are not in the music. I wanted to ask you about that. Dan Stepner the violinist, for example, would point out that the bowings—

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, I left it entirely to them to put in some of the bowings. Some I made, that I definitely wanted in a certain way, and some I simply decided to leave to the discretion, to the impact of the performer, himself. I wrote a letter on the subject to this young man saying: “These markings, particularly the metronomic markings, are merely points of stability from which you then can take off, to some extent, yourself.” They are just a guide. They are not absolutely a mark of—in other words, I didn’t insist that it had to be exactly. Of course, they have to approximate somewhere the metronomic marks because actually the piece was thought at that speed and should be played at that speed, which it was. But then there are little leeways. For instance, there are hundreds of inflections that each individual person puts in, which the composer really cannot give the directions to. Besides, the interesting thing is this: that it’s not at all impossible that a person taking a piece of your own music may play it in some fashion that hadn’t even occurred to you and which you would be perfectly accepting—you will simply say Yes, I think it enhances the piece, played that way. It’s perfectly possible.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: I’ve been amazed how closely they have all come to the original tempi, with no help or contact with Mr. Ornstein, and very few directions. But they almost universally struck the thing very close.

LEO ORNSTEIN: In other words, you see, they apparently sense the music enough, closely enough, so that they really play approximately at the speed at which I thought—and some of them, I think, did it even without consulting necessarily the metronome marks. They apparently just sensed it. Of course, that’s what we really do. For instance, when we play a Bach fugue, it’s very rare that we take the metronome at all. We just presumably sense that—now, there are some pieces that are very ambiguous as to the speed at which they might move, but generally speaking, if you have any sensibility at all towards the art, you will sense about the approximately speed at which the music was really intended to go, to move.

VIVIAN PERLIS: So you feel that the performer should be given some leeway of interpretation—a great deal, as a matter of fact.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, by all means—unless, of course, as I said, unless they intrude so far into the music that they then destroy the continuity or the context.