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

VIVIAN PERLIS: Now, composers can get sounds and rhythmic combinations—anything— on a computer; limitations are eliminated.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, oh, I realize it. And possibly it’s not totally impossible that if I were a younger person, that I might very well be thinking in other terms, what the aesthetic results will be, and no one can foretell. There is, of course, an element that is eliminated right then and there. You are not involved in the element of what we call experimentation. You’ve got to be able to separate—you see, aesthetics and experimentation do not necessarily have to go together at all because you can experiment very wittily and with a great deal of fertility and still produce really inferior art.

VIVIAN PERLIS: But it is…

LEO ORNSTEIN: But it’s a new field, by all means. It has all kinds of possibilities.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Almost as though it’s a new instrument, in a way, and a new means of using an instrument. There’s a great deal of composition now using an electronic tape combined with performers.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, a real legitimate thing to do.

VIVIAN PERLIS: You get some sound combinations.

LEO ORNSTEIN: And they find they can get them.

VIVIAN PERLIS: And that way, you don’t eliminate the visual aspect of having performers, the human element of it.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, I wouldn’t object to that at all. I wouldn’t object at all if the human being actually were excluded because ultimately you have very little effect. For instance, you can shut your eyes when you listen to a piece of music. You don’t necessarily have to look at the performer at all. As a matter of fact, very often I really get more pleasure out of listening to the music without the visual disturbance of the performer, who may have mannerisms and gestures and so on.

VIVIAN PERLIS: In terms of conducting.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, exactly.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Sometimes you’re much better…

LEO ORNSTEIN: That’s right. You feel that you would rather…

VIVIAN PERLIS: Take your eyes away from the—particularly the ones that are all over the place.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Yes, exactly. Sometimes I find it rather disturbing. The elimination of the individual wouldn’t be a factor at all because obviously in music we are dealing with an aural art. To the person that deals in visualizations, I suppose there is something rather exciting about a whole set of people—they all going symmetrically, up or down, in a military sort of precision.

VIVIAN PERLIS: There is something strange about entering a hall, a concert hall, because we’re conditioned a certain way. As you have pointed out, we are what we are, and conditioning can be very, very strong. People entering a concert hall where they expect to see performers come in and instruments.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Because the expectation has been something else altogether. But those things are easily adjusted to. There are some people, by the way, that associate a certain amount of visualization with the performance of music. Those are people that really are not centrally concerned only with music, the traditional things. It’s like people, for instance, use music to put themselves into some kind of a personal mood in which they hear the music only vaguely and in which they then go into some kind of personal trance, which is a frightful mistake because three-quarters of the music—instead of listening to it really realistically and hard boiled, as combinations of sounds, it’s stimulates them into some subjective mood. By that time, they’re only half aware of what they’re listening to.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Do you think that was some kind of reaction, in a way, to some of your early performing? According to the reviews, you had a very interesting visual appearance on stage, a dynamic one, that didn’t matter to you but seemed to be…

LEO ORNSTEIN: You see, as I said, one of the reasons—when I spoke to you about the intrusion of personality, apparently it affected some people—merely the personal appearance, the personal motions and movements of the individual. That may have a value of its own, theatrically speaking, but it has nothing whatever to do with music, nothing whatever. Actually, if you’re visually watching the performer, probably a good deal of your attention has now been diverted from the very thing that your attention should be on, and that is listening to the music, listening to the combinations that are being performed for you right there. So, you see, it’s a mixture, really, of almost two different arts.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Audiences are much closer to that elimination in terms of music recording.

LEO ORNSTEIN: I think recordings have been a terrific advance because now, when you have a piece of music, particularly something that appears to the listener very complicated, there’s really a push to the world to try to figure out what it was that he was hearing. Today, with a recording, he can hear the thing enough times until he really gets acquainted with the language, and then he can begin to make an estimate of the intrinsic, aesthetic value of that piece of music.

VIVIAN PERLIS: Particularly with people who are really studying works, with a score.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Exactly. Oh, it’s terrifically helpful.

VIVIAN PERLIS: It’s very difficult to get the recording companies to record new music. They want to do all of the old things.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Of course, they have a much larger audience for those than they do for the modern things. Actually, we’ve got to admit that the large proportion of the concert-going public has still not entirely reconciled itself to the modern idiom. When I drew sizable audiences, it was primarily on the basis of my pianistic endeavors. Quite frankly, when I played exclusively new things, they had to be more or less in smaller theaters because the larger audience simply wasn’t prepared to accept the modern vernacular.

PAULINE ORNSTEIN: You can’t imagine, because you weren’t born then, you can’t imagine the rigidity of the public at that time.

VIVIAN PERLIS: The changes are so enormous, although there are still very rigid audiences now, but it’s very different.

LEO ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes. And there is now at least, even if it’s rather a small audience, but there is an audience now that at least has an open mind towards the newer things.