Rediscovering John La Montaine
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to ask you about your definition of opera, because I find it very, very liberating.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: [laughs] Why should you put that on me?
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Definitions are limitations. I don’t think there is a limitation.
FRANK J. OTERI: So an opera then is…
JOHN LA MONTAINE: An opera is a sung work with orchestra.
FRANK J. OTERI: It has to have orchestra?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Maybe not. It can be a small orchestra. It can just be piano and drums.
FRANK J. OTERI: Does it need to be staged?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Oh, yeah! You left that out. That’s the acceptable part of the limitation. I’m hiring you, come out to California. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: I know that you dabbled a little bit into writing for jazz band and you worked a bit with electronic instruments. You’ve performed Bach on a Roland digital piano. I wanted to ask you about these other media: the jazz band, amplified instruments, and electronics. Are these all part of your classical concert music in your view?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Part of my creed is that you should be interested in everything. I listen to jazz all the time. I think there are so many marvelous aspects to it. In California, I related myself with a group of black fellows who are extremely gifted musically and they know nothing about how to write it down. I have on a number of occasions written down what they can do. I write down [sings a complex melody] and they say: “No, that’s not the way to write it; [sings a single note] that’s how you do.” So we’re fighting all the time, but I’m learning. It’s like at Eastman. I learned more from my pupils than they learned from me. And that’s really true, not just a way of saying. They got me interested in writing things they couldn’t hear. It happened very often. I would play what they had written with a wrong note and I’d ask them what the wrong note was. They couldn’t tell me. I said, you are a liar. I said, you shouldn’t be writing things that you can’t hear. I had 6 brilliant students and they started fighting me on that. They said, how are you going to know that works if you don’t start using it? You start using it, and you learn from it. If it doesn’t work, fine. If it does work, fine. They beat me down. They absolutely won. I said you go on and write whatever you want. You can be as dumb as you want—I mean you can be as smart as you want! [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: Electronic instruments?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Yes, I’ve used them. I’ve used them a lot. You know the thing that I gave you that has music boxes from all ages. I would love to write for music box. I would love to write for the merry-go-round in Central Park. I asked them how I could do it. It was so complicated that they couldn’t let me do it. I’d like to do all those things. I don’t think there is any limit on what I would do. I’ve written very childish children’s pieces. I’ve written canons that a child can play. It’s a big hit all over the country. That’s my most sold piece! [laughs]