Rediscovering John LaMontaine

Composers Today

FRANK J. OTERI: Something happened and composers stopped being in the public eye so much.

JOHN LaMONTAINE: It’s even worse now because serious music doesn’t even deserve a page in Time magazine. The popular music has drained the country of time. I hear a piece everyday that goes [sings a short repeated phrase], never anything else, and then the whole piece is over. I don’t feel that’s nourishment enough. I don’t know when the time will come when people need nourishment, but it must happen sometime. I think that people who need nourishment are going to listen to my pieces because there is something for them.

FJO: This leads us to the whole question of what is the future for this music? How do you get more people to listen to this music?

JL: The symphony orchestras are doing pretty well, and the opera houses are doing pretty well. The pieces that they are doing fills that bill of giving people what they need.

FJO: These are older pieces, pieces by European composers from other centuries.

JL: But look at it this way, there isn’t a time in the history of music when they didn’t play music of their own period. Music of our own period is played, but to our mind not enough. I have wonderful recordings of nearly all of my best pieces. A couple of the best ones haven’t been recorded, but they’ve had a hearing to start. But put it in a larger picture. When I was quite young, I didn’t know about Bartók‘s work, not until I was about 16. What I knew was from studying scores, not from hearing the works, and I knew there was a great composer there. No matter how much work he did the 10 years before he died, not one orchestra in the United States played one piece of his. Now he’s not any worse off than we are. When he died every big orchestra in the country did his pieces. Money began to flow to his family that he had never seen. He knew what he had written. I heard a performance once with him playing the piano, and he knew what was in those scores. There’s meat and drink for everybody.

FJO: You say you have recordings for most of your pieces. We have a situation today where composers will write a piece for orchestra, and they can’t even get a recording of that piece. The orchestra won’t give them a recording because of union contracts and.…

JL: That’s terrible.

FJO: So how can that piece ever have a life? How can you ever get it into someone else’s hands?

JL: You know, in my case the union has made it impossible for Leontyne Price to record my Rose of Sharon. The union price for recording the opera that I wrote for the bicentennial, Be Glad Then America, was $30,000 and nobody would pay it. Now what I’ve done is—I think you’re recording what we’re saying and I’ll probably go to jail—I’ve made 100 copies on CD of most of my major works. I’m not going to make anymore, and they can come and take me to jail for it, but I do not have a contract covering some of those recordings. I did get together enough money to pay the union to record Wilderness Journal, a big orchestral work with organ and singer. It’s all about nature.

FJO: That’s the Thoreau setting…

JL: Yes. I spent a year reading Thoreau’s journals. I wanted to get through them all, but I didn’t. I picked texts that I thought would be good to set to music. I worked on that piece for two years. It was just terrible that we couldn’t get a recording. It was 10 years later I got a letter from Kay Shouse who had paid me to write that work. She’s done a lot of good things, as you know. She said that she’d found in a closet the recording that was made of that performance. I wrote to say that I could pay half if she’d pay the other half of what the union wanted to put out the recording. We paid for it. It was around $20,000, but she and I did it. That’s how it happened. So that one is legal, you don’t have to throw me in jail for that one. [laughs]

(Richard Kessler joins the conversation)

RICHARD KESSLER: A lot of composers can’t get recordings from orchestras and think there is a sense that this is a problem of our time only. They think it’s something of the 21st century, 2003. You talked to me a bit about not being able to get a recording and writing to the orchestra to try and get a recording and all the work it took to do that and they finally sent you a recording after you wrote to them.

JL: Yes, it’s really true. Of course, I could be in jail for it… if I tell this will I be hurting them?

RK: Well, you don’t have to tell us the name of the orchestra.

JL: No, it’s essential to tell. I’m going to tell anyway because it’s something very important. Howard Hanson asked me if I would play my Piano Concerto on a program with the school orchestra. He wrote to me—I was in Italy at the time. I of course wanted to play it. We did play it but the piano in the hall, it was a good piano, but I couldn’t do on it the things that the piano requires for that concerto. So I went to the Steinway Company and played all their pianos and took the best one. They moved it to Orchestra Hall so I had the piano I wanted to play. They recorded the concert and it was broadcast all over the world by the Voice of America, but not in the United States. So I couldn’t copy it off the radio and they told me they couldn’t give me the tape of the performance. I had written it. I had copied the parts. I had paid for the printing of the score and the parts. I had rented the piano and had it moved to Carnegie Hall. I had practiced enough to be able to play it again, and they said I couldn’t have the recording.

RK: What year was this? Do you remember?

JL: Probably about ’64. How could they do that? How could anyone say that? It’s mine. That’s my piece, and you have it. You’re giving it to the world, and you won’t let me have it. I wrote a letter to that effect to the man in charge of Voice of America in Washington. About two weeks later here comes a tape with no mark of where it came from.

FJO: Of course, the question remains… How do composers get their works out there? You publish your own scores. They’re all in one place, which is important, but you don’t have time to do the publicity for them. You’re not interested in the publicity, so people don’t get to learn about them. You disseminate recordings of your own music, but you only have the efforts to make, say, 100 copies. There’s no way to distribute it. You can’t find Wilderness Journal at Tower Records. What’s a composer to do in this climate?

JL: There’s nothing I wish more than to be able to answer your question. I think it would just be wonderful. I can’t think of one thing to help. After Bartók died, his works were played everywhere. What you’re doing here at the American Music Center is our best hope!

FJO: Disseminating music through the Internet is one of the big programs we do here. Through NewMusicBox we have articles and interviews with people to get them aware of American music and American composers. We have another website, NewMusicJukeBox, where people can get excerpts of scores and recordings and the music gets disseminated that way.

JL: I didn’t know you had developed this far. I don’t have the Internet myself, but my nephew sent me the whole thing about you. I thought this is the big hope that we have. Everybody should start throwing money at you to do it because it’s the most hopeful thing we have as composers.

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  1. Pingback: John La Montaine in Memoriam | Secret Geometry - James Primosch's blog

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