OHAM Composers' Voices CD 1
Music: Aaron Copland, Music for the Theatre; Yale Philharmonia
Perlis: Welcome to Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington. I am Vivian Perlis, founding Director of Oral History American Music, an archive of hundreds of recorded interviews with the creative figures of our times. Composers' Voices is a series of books and CDs derived from materials in the Oral History archive. You are about to hear a sample from the wide range of voices that are preserved in this unique collection. We begin with Aaron Copland.
Copland: Music needn't be so high-falutin' that it becomes abstract and just pure notes, you know. I was very anxious in some way to express the kind of life I knew in Brooklyn, or American life, you might say, in our serious music. You see, we had done it in the jazz field and ragtime; that was absolutely American. But we hadn't had any American composers who had reflected the kind of serious music I was interested in, in terms of our American experience.
Music: Copland, Appalachian Spring; New Music New Haven, Yale School of Music
Perlis: Duke Ellington.
Ellington: "Jazz"? We don't use the word jazz. As a matter of fact, we haven't used it since 1943. Everything is so highly personalized that you just can't find a category big enough, and jazz certainly isn't big enough a category to combine so many wonderful people in it. Everybody's got his own individual style. Like the Diz [Dizzy Gillespie] has got his "ding," and Hawk's [Coleman Hawkins] got his "hing," and Bird [Charlie Parker] had his "bing," and Rabbit [Billy Strayhorn] has his "ring."
Music: Duke Ellington, Jubilee Stomp
Perlis: Mel Powell.
Powell: I've come to think of Europe now as a great museum that has all the Rembrandts you'll ever want to see, but it's no longer my home. You see, Europe was my home musically. At that time I think I was immature enough to devalue my own jazz experience. It, however, has come back and said, "Now Melvin, wouldn't it be nice if you could just play 'Honeysuckle Rose'?" Europe doesn't need me. I don't need to write for the Leipzig Archive, more fugues, more passacaglias. They've got all they need.
Music: Mel Powell, Etude; Robert Helps, piano
Perlis: David Lang.
Lang: What's really great for me is that there is no place in the world you can go and say, "Here's an easy living." There's no place you can go and say, "This will make my future." There's no composer working in the world where you can look at him or her and say, "That composer has the idea I have to steal because it's the best idea in the world." To me these are incredibly liberating things. Everybody who makes it is going to be self-made. Everybody.
Music: David Lang, Anvil Chorus; Steve Schick, percussion
Perlis: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
Zwilich: There's a certain self-conscious modernity that's a peculiar product of our age, where we kind of think that because we have space travel and computers and all of these things that we're very different. Now, I think our world is very different. Absolutely. There are ways in which music has been irrevocably changed because of the electronic revolution, but we're not different. We're still people. We're still faced with what amount to the mysteries of life. And, I think it's about time for us realize that our precious twentieth century, which is almost over, has had advances but that the basic issues still have to be addressed. And, I would like to be a part of the—not just the musical community, but the human community as a composer.
Music: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Chamber Symphony; Boston Musica Viva; Richard Pittman, conductor
Van Cleve: These are some of the voices of America's musical century. I am Libby Van Cleve, Associate Director of Oral History American Music. The aim of this project is to collect and preserve materials directly in the voices of the composers. We'll begin with excerpts from an interview with Vivian Perlis about her first oral history project—on Charles Ives.
Music: Charles Ives, Piano Trio, Movement III; The Monticello Trio
Perlis: There was not a grand plan for the Ives oral history project. It just very naturally came about that Julian Myrick, Ives' insurance partner, called and said that he had some materials to give to the Library. I had some sense that I was going to see somebody who had been very close to Ives, and that if I was going to see him, it would be a good idea to try to capture some material in his voice. I had not done interviewing. I did not know that the act that I was about to commit was even called "oral history," or how it was spelled!
Van Cleve: Julian Myrick died soon after these interviews, and it was then that Vivian Perlis sensed the urgent need to search for other people who had known or worked with Charles Ives. John Kirkpatrick, the great Ives scholar, editor and performer knew both Charles Ives and his wife Harmony.
John Kirkpatrick: I asked Mrs. Ives whether he had consciously modeled his life on [Ralph Waldo] Emerson's and she thought a moment and said, something like that she didn't think he would ever have thought of it that way because he would have thought that he was a little unworthy to set out to model his life on Emerson's. He had such an exalted idea of Emerson, but that of course he was very intimately and deeply influenced by him.
Music: Ives, "Emerson" from Sonata No. 2 for Piano: Concord, Mass. ; Charles Ives, piano
John Kirkpatrick: In one way Ives even went beyond Emerson, because Ives always invited his performers to take some part in the actual formulation of the music as it went along. He would imagine a performer actually improvising certain aspects of the texture, just as he would have himself. He was just naive enough in that department of his being to presume that other people had the same talents as he had. Of course, for ordinary mortals it's a little beyond them, and I explained to him various times that for me the only kind of freedom that I could imagine in connection with a work like the Concord Sonata was a freedom in choosing the various ways that had occurred to him at various times. I told him that I was the kind of pianist that had to play what he'd practiced.
Music: Ives, "Emerson" from Sonata No. 2 for Piano: Concord, Mass.; Charles Ives, piano
Perlis: The important thing a biographer can do is to make an earlier period of time come alive, and with the oral history interviews there were at least people who knew Ives not only during the later years—he had been ill for many, many, many years. So to be able to collect material that would bring a Charles Ives at the time he wrote his music during the mature and productive years was a real challenge.
Van Cleve: Here's a nephew, Chester Ives.
Chester Ives: My first recollection is when the family would get together, and Uncle Charlie would come up to Danbury. We had a piano—upright—and I can remember—I was at I don't know what age—but he started playing so expressively! You can't help it; any child would respond to it.
Music: Ives, "Alcotts" from Sonata No. 2 for Piano: Concord, Mass.; Charles Ives, piano
Chester Ives: I can remember going up on top of hill alongside of the barn, and he'd show us how to pitch. So, he'd wind up. He really had a classic way of wind-up just as any professional player does it. Well, he'd talk you out of being—I remember I said I played second base, "Oh no, no! You want to go to shortstop. Everybody goes to sleep on second."
Music: Ives, "Some South-Paw Pitching" (Study No. 21); Donald Berman, piano
Van Cleve: Few people survived who knew Charlie Ives when he was growing up in Danbury. Vivian Perlis searched for and found the 98-year-old Philip Sunderland.
Perlis: That interview with Philip Sunderland was an incredible eye opener because he said to me, "Well, you know, I was three years older than Charles Ives, and I knew not only Charlie Ives, but I knew his father George." I never thought that there would be the opportunity to talk to anyone who would have known or remembered George Ives.
Philip Sunderland: Well, I think that he wasn't taken very seriously. He was the bandleader, and he led the band with his coronet. He was a great coronet player. He used to march up by here going one way with the band and another band going the other way around the park here, and the two would clash, you know. I don't think anybody thought it was very interesting to see the two bands blending and playing different tunes.
Music: Ives, Washington's Birthday; Imperial Philharmonic of Tokyo, William Strickland, conductor
Van Cleve: John Kirkpatrick also described the relationship between father and son.
Kirkpatrick: He talked of his father as if he were still living, with great reverence and with great intellectual interest in his father's curiosity about everything, and of course, with great fondness for his father's character, as if he was still a member of the household. It was that immediate. That side of him lived almost in a state of Chinese ancestor worship. Like what he says in the Memos, that "[Horatio] Parker was a famous musician and a composer and father wasn't a famous musician nor a composer, but I would say, of the two, father was by far the greatest man."
Music: Ives, "The Greatest Man;" Helen Boatwright, soprano; John Kirkpatrick, piano
My teacher said us boys should write about some great man,
so I thought last night 'n thought about heroes and men
that had done great things, 'n then
I got to thinkin' 'bout my pa;
he ain't a hero 'r anything but pshaw!
Say! He can ride the wildest hoss 'n find minners near the moss by the creek; 'n he can swim and fish. . .
–poem by Anne Collins
Perlis: One of things I always felt was so touching about Harmony and Charles Ives' relationship was that she read to him. His eyes became very bad, and she read to him after dinner every night, particularly Dickens and sometimes for hours at a time. The housekeeper who worked for them [was] Carrie Blackwell. When I talked to her she said she'll never forget Mrs. Ives calling her into the parlor to read from the Bible every Sunday afternoon. I have felt that the quality, the sound of a voice is so different and so meaningful, and touching sometimes, more so than when it is in writing.
Music: Ives, Washington's Birthday (violin and piano version)
Van Cleve: Charles Ives divided his life between composing and a demanding and successful career in the insurance business. One of the young clerks in the Ives & Myrick Agency was Charles J. Buesing.
Buesing: I believe that ninety percent of the success of the agency was due to Mr. Ives. Not only his genius, his planning, his teaching, but also the kind, gentle soul that he was. Mr. Ives would be around there on a Saturday afternoon, and put his arm around someone's shoulder and talk with them.
Charles Ives walked up to this man's desk. He thought he looked rather dejected. He said, "Do me a personal favor. Would you take out your wallet? No one can ever make a sale of anything with an empty wallet." "Now," he said, "I want you to take this as a business loan. I know you'll pay me back, and I know you'll have so much confidence with what I'm going to put in that wallet, and I don't want any IOU or anything else.'" He put fifty dollars in there. And it just made such a difference. He hadn't seen that much income in the past couple months. This is the kind of a man that Ives was.
Music: Ives, Thanksgiving; Iceland Symphony Orchestra; William Strickland, conductor
Van Cleve: Ives had a wide range of contacts, all the way from colleagues in the insurance business to celebrated composers to someone like his barber, Babe LaPine, in Bethel, Connecticut.
Babe LaPine: Never saw him with a business suit, just great big farmer shoes—whatever you want to call them—and the old overalls with a bib. You don't see any of those around no more. And a great big brim hat. One time I was trimming his beard. He was looking in the mirror, and he says, "You know, Babe, your work reminds me of mine." Well I says, "Gee whiz, Charlie"—I called him Charlie—"How does my work remind you of yours?" I didn't want to go into it. "Well," he says, "The way you're trimming my beard, you're shading it. That goes into my work." When he said the shading, naturally I took him for a painter, you know, an artist. I never, never took him for a musician.
But, one day I'll never forget. I had the apron over him, you know, and the radio was playing, and I'd pay no attention to the radio. I'm cutting his hair. And all of a sudden, gee, like a shot out of a gun, he lifted up the apron like that, and he says, "Will you shut that damn thing off?!!" I'll never forget that. Well, has that got anything to do with him being a musician? Of course not. He didn't like what was being played! Well, I shut it off, I wasn't paying no attention to it at all, period.
Van Cleve: Of course composers were included in the Ives oral history project. Elliott Carter's recollections were particularly interesting.
Elliott Carter: He was obviously a very talented and kind of a genius of a composer, and yet at other times he wrote music that was of a coarseness, and of almost an unimaginative quality which is hard to believe. And it's hard to understand how all of this fits together. In a way, Americans have to invent their own aesthetics, their own relationships with the public.
I can remember very, very vividly a day on 74th Street going up to the attic where Ives had a little upright piano. He was working at a score for publication, and there was an old score and a new score. He was adding more parts and confusing the whole thing, and particularly changing consonances into dissonances. I've often wondered exactly when a lot of the music that is purported to be very early got its last dose of dissonance. I think that he constantly was jacking up the level of dissonance in all of his works as time went on, right to the very end, and I wonder whether he was as early a precursor of dissonant music as people make out.
Music: Ives, Central Park in the Dark; Yale Philharmonia; Lawrence Leighton Smith, conductor
Van Cleve: These comments caused a few scholars and journalists to question Ives' intentions. Others reacted by emphatically supporting his integrity. Elliott Carter was interviewed again in 1999, thirty years later.
Perlis: Did you follow what happened after the interview was published in Charles Ives Remembered? Are you aware of what you caused?
Carter: Yes, I certainly was, and I felt that I will never talk about Ives again because I didn't like to be treated as if I was always either not telling the truth or misunderstanding what Mr. Ives said. It made me rather unhappy because I thought I was telling exactly what I had heard and in the tone that he said it. All these people who didn't know him, who didn't know anything about him or were not interested in him during the time when he was alive, as I was, were suddenly proving that I was wrong about almost everything. And I found that hurt me, and I decided maybe I better just shut up about the whole thing.
Music: Ives, String Quartet No. 1, First Movement; Armadillo String Quartet
Carter: I claim that the First String Quartet has that movement, which he later used in the Fourth Symphony with considerable changes and considerable modernization, and that proved my point.
Music: Ives, Fourth Symphony; Yale Philharmonia
Van Cleve: Nicolas Slonimsky, conductor, composer, and lexicographer, was very much on the scene during the early years when modern music was new and exciting.
Slonimsky: Ives was completely uninterested in projecting himself in any kind of a selfish way. People were still saying that Ives was an amateur who really didn't know what he was writing, that he was writing just any kind of music. Now, nothing could be more wrong. As a matter of fact, Ives was a professional musician.
All of his trailblazing music was written early in the century, and there are all kinds of prophetic vistas: polytonality, polyharmony, atonality, even the use of twelve different notes in one of his works.
Music: Ives, Study No. 22; Donald Berman, piano
Slonimsky: Varèse wrote Amériques, and Carl Ruggles wrote his ultra-romantic basically American scores, but all of the works of Ives belong to America. He felt free to interpolate any kind of musical material that he felt related to the subject. The Fifth Symphony of Beethoven was a favorite composition in nineteenth century America, and of course his music really was the portrait of nineteenth century America, not new America at all.
Music: Ives, "Alcotts" from Sonata No. 2 for Piano: Concord, Mass.; Charles Ives, piano
Van Cleve: One of the first to discover and appreciate Ives' music was composer Henry Cowell.
Henry Cowell: I'm reminded of a true story of a Beethoven sonata. He took this sonata into the publisher and the publisher said, "Look here, Mr. Beethoven, don't you know the piano doesn't go to this note at all? It can't be played." Beethoven said, "The piano will soon go there; they'll have to play this sonata."
Henry Cowell: Some composers write for instruments as they find them. Other composers write music, and if they don't have the instrument at hand they insist that one be built in order to play the music that they have in mind. Mr. Ives, for instance, at one time said that he didn't propose to have a thorax stand in the way of writing the songs that he heard in his own mind. Since this time singers sing all of his songs without any great trouble. Again, when Ives at one point with full brass, full steam ahead fortissimo, wrote a very charming little passage for celesta, which of course couldn't be heard in the least, he had a footnote to the effect that he heard this as a great choiring of beaten, chime-like tones which would go over and above the brass. Now of course all you have to do is amplify this, and you have it.
Music: Ives, Fourth Symphony; Yale Philharmonia
Van Cleve: It was Henry Cowell who introduced his colleague Lou Harrison to Ives.
Harrison: Over the years I did, off and on, a fair amount of work with Mr. Ives' scores, and for him at his request or at Henry [Cowell's] request. Sometimes Henry would be asked to do something and he didn't have time, and then he would ask me to do it and I, of course, was delighted to do this. I think you must remember that my relation to him was profoundly reverent. It's an old-fashioned word, but it is that. When I went to meet him, the only images I could think of was that he looks like the images of God the Father as done by William Blake. And there's just no getting round it. One could see through an alabaster skin, and the pulse of life in the very blood was literally there visible to you, and the beautiful, bright sharp eyes. And yes, he was old, of course, and there was a translucency in his very skin, but he did look like Blake, irradiated and suffused. And again, it was like a meeting with Divine Presence.
Music: Ives, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge"; Yale Philharmonia
Perlis: There were recordings at the library of Ives playing his own music. They were in very bad condition and could not be played. It was terribly tantalizing that here were the only recordings of Ives playing his own music and that they were in such bad condition. There was a label saying "Mary Howard Recordings." So, of course, one of the people I was looking for over a long period of time was Mary Howard. I searched for Mary Howard for several years and couldn't find her, and when I did find her she was close by in up in Connecticut and by the next day I was there.
Mary Howard: Well, Mrs. Ives called and made an appointment for him the first time. The reason he came was he got letters from orchestras or conductors who were going to perform something, saying, how should they interpret this? And they'd call him and he'd say, "Oh, I'll send you a recording. I can't bother to sing to you on the telephone." He would come storming into the studio: "Interpret, interpret!" He was very dynamic. He'd say he had an awful lot of stupid questions today, so it would take a long time. So, he'd sit down at the piano and play it very loudly, and sing and make running commentary while he was doing it, saying, "This is how you do it. Now, you're stupid. Don't you know? This is how you do it. I'll play it again in case you didn't get it this time." It wasn't bad temper, it was just excitement. And I'd just be in hysterics and Mrs. Ives would be in hysterics. Of course, her whole interest was on the recording and on the music, and once in a while she would correct him. Then, if she'd say too loudly, "That's not what you said this morning," I'd have to dig through all the tapes and find out what he said that morning.
I remember, he sang one phrase over and over: "Da, dada, da, da, da, dee, deeeee, dee!" which I should know the words of, but I don't. And he'd scream that out. "Now, do you get that?!" And he'd pound and pound. Mrs. Ives would come out and say, "Now, please take a rest." And he drank quantities of iced tea. He'd calm down, then he'd go back at it again. He'd say, "I've got to make them understand!"
Music: Ives, "They Are There!"; Charles Ives, voice and piano
Let's build a people's world nation. Hooray!
Every honest country free to live its own native life.
They will struggle for the right, but when it comes to might,
They'll be there.
They'll be there.
They'll be there.
(You goddam thief!)
Then the people, not just politicians
Will rule their own lands and lives
And you'll hear the whole universe
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom!
Tenting on a new campground.
Tenting on a new campground.
For let's rally 'round the flag of the people's new free world,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom!
Perlis: Following the success of the Ives project, we realized the need to preserve material that would soon disappear. One of the people interviewed next was Eubie Blake, the only survivor of the original ragtime craze. At first he hesitated about doing the interviews because here I was, a white lady from the great elite Yale University. Once he got to know me he was very open, but no matter how friendly we became Eubie still would not say certain things—the word "jazz," for example. It wasn't proper, and it had certain sexual connotations. He would never say that word in front of a lady. He was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word, but he was also so much fun.
Music: Eubie Blake, "Classical Rag"; Eubie Blake, piano
Blake: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, 1883. So, I'm eighty-eight years old now. And I was born of parent slaves. My mother and father were slaves until slavery was over. When my father used to tell me about slavery I was four or five years old, and he'd take off his shirt in the wintertime and show me the stripes on his back. My mother says, "Don't tell that boy about slavery." He says, "Yes, I want him to know about slavery." Then he'd turn to me and he'd say to me, "Don't you hate white people," because he could see the scowl on my face. Now, I couldn't understand. He'd been telling me about—see, they picked cotton, you know. From sunup to sundown they weren't supposed to talk. See, I want people to know this, so I'm going to say it like it is. I said, "Poppa, I don't like white people. I don't care what you tell me, Poppa. I don't like them." And he looked at me for about five seconds without saying anything, just looked at me. He says, "Don't you never let me hear you say that again." He says, "The people in the South, the majority of people were almost as ignorant as we were because they were told that we weren't nothing. A man can only go by his convictions. All the people aren't bad." Once he said, "When you hate anybody, you suffer more than the person that you hate."
This is the first tune I played: [sings] Da, daa, da, daa. "Marching Through Georgia." But, as a kid, I could always hear something else. I'd play a song and when I played them I'd play them different, but I never changed the man's harmony. But all the tricks and things, I would put my own and people used to say, "Gee, when that guy plays it sounds different from other people." That's because they're playing according to what Beethoven and Mozart told them. I didn't like it anyhow, so I'd play it my way. See? So, I stood out. Now, people ask me, "Where did the word ragtime come from?" Well, I'll be eighty-nine years old next month and I don't know who—I don't know where it come from.
The first time I ever heard the word: I'm there playing my music: [sings] ya pa da, pa dee da dee... Bass and all, see. And my mother is standing there with my back to her. I don't know she's in the house. "Take that ragtime out of my house! Take it out of my house!"
Ragtime was supposed to be nothing. It wasn't art. Do you know why it wasn't art? Because the powers-that-be couldn't do it, so they cried it down. They cried down Columbus. They cried down Lindbergh, they said he was nuts. Now ragtime is fine now. Now they know how to play it, now.
I'm going to play "The Charleston Rag." I wrote this in 1899. The same year that Scott Joplin wrote "The Maple Leaf Rag."
Music: Blake, "Charleston Rag"; Eubie Blake, piano
Blake: A big time Negro died and they'd go to the funeral. [Sings Chopin's "Marche funèbre."] Slow like that. Now they come back. [Sings ragtime version of "Marche funèbre."] The same thing what they played going out to bury this guy, they'd play the same thing coming back in ragtime. See!?
Music: Blake, "Baltimore Buzz"; Eubie Blake, piano
Blake: This is called "Baltimore Buzz". This is where I was raised.
My actually first job was with a medicine man, but I only stayed one week. But when I went to play for Aggie Shelton—that's a house of ill repute. So, one of the sisters came through of my mother's church saying, "I heard somebody playing in Aggie Shelton's that sounded just like Little Hubie." I always used to meet my father when he come in from work, but this time I don't meet him. I'm in trouble. So, he goes, "Hi, Bully." "How 'do, sir." "What's the matter with him?" "Well, I'll tell you about Mr. Blake. Do you know where Mr. Blake is playing the piano? In a place called Aggie Shelton's." He says, "What?!" "Yes, that's what Sister Rae told me." He says, "How much do you get a week there?" I said, "I make sometimes ten, twelve dollars a night." He says, "What?!" I says, "yeah." "Where's the money?" So, I take him up and show him the money. So my father said, "Now, listen. That boy's got to work." He saw all that money now. "That boy's got to work somewhere. Let him stay up there." And I told him, I said, "If you'll let me work I can stop you from working. I'm making good money now." So, he never worked any more after that. And I bought a house. This sounds ridiculous—I did, I bought a house, a six room house—eight hundred dollars—for my mother and father.
Music: Blake and Andy Razaf, "Lucky To Me"; Eubie Blake, piano and voice
No harm can happen to me anymore.
I'm writing thirteens all over my door.
My mom and my dad, do you know what they say?
They say, "Eubie, that gal ain't the gal for you."
But they don't know that gal like I do!
That gal is lucky to me, and she's a brown skinned baby.
That gal is lucky to me.
Blake: When I come to New York and played for James Reese Europe, they had a white band at the Astor Hotel. They had twenty-one pieces, and we had not over ten or eleven—colored. And they'd play "Millicent," a beautiful waltz [plays "Millicent"]. And we'd play it—[plays ragtime version of "Millicent"].
Paul Whiteman first put jazz in the Carnegie Hall? No, it wasn't him. James Reese Europe was the first one. See how they fixed the history? Maybe we would do the same thing if we had the chance.
Jim Europe was one of the greatest men I ever met personally. Jim Europe had an academic education and a musical education. He was a conductor, an arranger, and everything, in the class with Dr. Martin Luther King and Booker T. Washington. He was the savior of Negro musicians in that day, because the musicians at that day—they would go in a bar room, play guitars, and sing, and take their hats around. That's how they made a living before James Reese Europe.
When Jim went to war he was talking to Sissle and I: "When we get out of the war we're going to do a Broadway show." But he was killed when he came back in 1919. His drummer killed him. But Sissle and Blake carried out the idea.
Music: Blake and Noble Sissle, "I'm Just Wild About Harry"; Eubie Blake, piano
Blake: The only songs that I wrote and Sissle wrote for Shuffle Along that hadn't been written before and hadn't been taken to the publishers were: "Love Will Find a Way," "Bandana Days," and "I'm Just Wild About Harry." When we got to "Love Will Find a Way" we were trembling because Negroes in this country wasn't supposed to have any romance. So, you don't put it in a show. We had romance the same as anybody else, but the powers that be didn't want to think that way.
Love will find a way,
Though the skies are gray.
Love like ours can never be ruled.
Cupid's not schooled that way.
Dry each tear-dimmed eye.
Clouds will soon roll by.
(And I can't remember the rest.)
Da, da, da, da, da, dum.
Love will find a way.
I want this picture to be laid out to your audience. I want them to know what not only Sissle and Blake, but every Negro act went through. We're dressed in grotesque clothes, ragged clothes. We've got big shoes and everything on, and cork on our faces. So, now we play the music for them to come on. (Sings) "Dixie," see. Bring them on with "Dixie." "Well, what?! Hey 'der! What 'dat?! What is 'dat thing over 'der?" I said, "I-I-I don't know what 'tis." I would go over. I'd touch the piano. "Bing!" Not a chord just one finger. I said, "That's a pie-anna." He says, "It sho' is. Sho' is a pie-anna." And then I sit down and play it. I never saw a piano before. I didn't even know what it was. See how ridiculous it is? Then it's—[nonsense sounds] All that stuff, see.
Pat Casey was our Sissle and Blake agent. He says, "Gentlemen, are you all finished? They're not going to wear any grotesque clothes. They're going to wear tux. And they're not going to say they don't know what it is. They're going to walk right out to the piano and play it. These men played with James Reese Europe in the millionaire's homes of the whole United States. You either take them as they is or you won't get Sissle and Blake." And that's how we went on as gentlemen, not as Southern ignoramus Negroes.
Music: Blake and Razaf, "Memories of You;" Eubie Blake, piano
Music: Leo Ornstein, String Quartet No 3, Movement I; Lydian Quartet
Van Cleve: At the same period that ragtime was the most popular American music, a few composers were so experimental and outside the traditional musical establishment that they were hardly performed or known by the public at all. This was the first sign in America of modernism, a movement which would affect the entire twentieth century. The futurist composer Leo Ornstein was one of the next to be interviewed. Vivian Perlis described her search for Ornstein.
Perlis: "What ever happened to Leo Ornstein?" That's a question I heard over and over again in the early days of the Oral History project. At one time Ornstein was as famous as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He disappeared from the world of music at the height of a career as a celebrated concert pianist and composer. I was determined to find him. My long search finally revealed that he was traveling around the country with his wife Pauline in a trailer. He was very difficult to pin down, but an interview was eventually arranged in Boston at the home of his son. I arrived and a young lady answered the door holding a note. Sure enough, the note read, "Snow coming. Must get back home. I've left a few things for you in the dining room." As I entered, I saw that the room was filled with brown paper bags and boxes containing sixty years of music manuscripts. It was a moment I will never forget. With the snow coming, the air was very still; it was as though time itself was standing still.
Two weeks later I was back—I had not yet set eyes on Leo Ornstein. This time he opened the door bowed low, and began to talk excitedly. Ornstein had not spoken to anyone in the music world for over forty years. Once he began, he didn't stop for hours.
Ornstein: I was brought up, of course, in the most orthodox way you can imagine. I had heard almost nothing at all of new music. I think I knew one or two pieces of Debussy and a piece of Max Reger, and that was really, actually, literally among the so-called current music that I knew. Otherwise I had been brought up on the classics, pure and simple.
I went to Paris and there I really suddenly began to write things that obviously had very little connection between the earlier few pieces that I had written. Also, you must understand, I did not have any theory about the way music ought to be written. I simply heard those things, and I put down what I heard. Really, as a matter of fact, I simply said to myself, "Well, obviously, if you're thinking in terms of a Wild Men's Dance, these harmonies and these percussion sort of effects obviously would be appropriate to express what it is that the title itself would indicate." Get it?
Music: Ornstein, Wild Mens' Dance
Ornstein: As far as my family was concerned, they, of course, didn't understand it at all because I was this wonder child, and they saw visions of my bringing in huge sums of money and so on, playing these Liszt rhapsodies and the Chopin ballades and scherzi and all the standard works. Then suddenly, I veered off and went into a channel that they did not understand and that obviously was not going to lead to fabulous sums of money at all. When I actually gave up playing, they couldn't figure it out.
Essentially, really, performing was never anything like the center of my life in any way. No. I must admit that, of course, it was very remunerative at a certain period, when I happened to be quite a good deal in the limelight.
Even as young as I was, even at fourteen and fifteen I already understood the grave danger of bogging yourself down in your own style. It's very easy to do that. I almost made an effort to see that I avoided stylizing myself. I don't need the sort of exotic stimulus of some kind or another. I never ever have. Either a musical idea came into your head, or it didn't. And why it came into my head, I do not know, and why it did not come into my head, I do not know. I simply do not pretend to understand it. All I can say is that I can only be grateful that some things have come into my head that at least I thought were worthwhile putting down.
Music: Ornstein, Piano Quintette; Janice Weber, piano; Lydian Quartet
Ornstein: I must say that I must have had quite a fairly good, decent memory because I was able to remember a piece of music that would last twenty minutes, or twenty-five. With The Three Moods, for a long time I played them again and again and again, and for a long time I never put them down until finally I was cornered.
Music: Ornstein, "Joy" from The Three Moods; William Westney, piano
Ornstein: There was a tremendous amount of adverse reaction. Some were terribly stimulated by the things, you see. And some were stimulated by the general sound of the thing, and some were outraged altogether, where they would throw things at me and so on, where they got completely sort of beside themselves. They had been accustomed to music, what they considered music ought to be, that is, to soothe them and everything else, and here were these things that did just the very opposite. The Three Moods just got some people so stirred up.
Music: Ornstein, "Anger" from The Three Moods; William Westney, piano
Ornstein: You see, there is the limitation—while theoretically there may be no limitation, there is actually the limitation of what our ear will take in. Even assuming you have the most developed ears, there is a point at which you can only take in so much. I came to the point where I had to finally make a decision as to how far I could carry it or how far it would be sufficiently audible to the listener, because there was obviously no sense in writing something where he could not differentiate things any longer. So, you see, it has its natural limit. I hate terribly to set any limit and simply say you cannot go beyond that, but a certain amount of, just, common sense dictated.
Music: Ornstein, "Tarantelle"; Leo Ornstein, piano. From a private recording
Perlis: Leo Ornstein and I corresponded for many years. At age one-hundred he wrote, "I am beginning to feel my age." But, he was still composing.
Music: Edgard Varèse, Density 21.5; Thomas Nyfenger, flute
Van Cleve: Another European-born composer, the Frenchman Edgard Varèse, was among the century's most innovative and influential musical figures. He was known for his pioneering use of percussion and electronics and his unique forms.
Varèse: For years, professional musicians looked upon me as a freak, and critics frankly called me a charlatan, and had a wonderful time laughing at me. As a matter of fact, I have been called much worse than experimental, and my works at one time were treated not even as experiments, but as excrement.
Music: Varèse, Offrandes; Yale Contemporary Ensemble; Arthur Weisberg, conductor
Varèse: Very early musical ideas came to me, which I realized would be difficult or impossible to express with the means available, and my thinking even then began turning around the idea of liberating music from the tempered system, from the limitations of musical instruments, and from years of bad habit erroneously called tradition. Later, I made some modest experiments of my own and found that I could obtain beautiful parabolic and hyperbolic curves of sound. Much later I used sirens as musical instruments in two of my scores: in 1924 in Aériques for large orchestra, and again in 1932 in Ionisation for percussion ensemble. In Poéme électronique in 1958, I got the same effect, but produced it this time entirely by electronic means.
Music: Varèse, Poéme électronique
Varèse: My fight for the liberation of sound and for my right to make music with any sound and all sounds, has sometime been construed as a desire to disparage and even to discard the great music of the past. But, that is where my roots are. No matter how original, how different a composer may seem, he has only grafted a little bit of himself on the old plant. This he should be allowed to do without being accused of wanting to kill the plant. He only wants to produce a new flower. It doesn't matter if at first it seems to some people more like a cactus than a rose. Many of the old masters are my intimate friends. All are respected colleagues. None of them are dead saints. In fact, none of them are dead. Music written in the manner of another century is the result of culture, and as desirable and comfortable as culture may be, an artist should not lie down in it.
Music: Varèse, Octandre; Yale Contemporary Ensemble; Arthur Weisberg, conductor
Varèse: I became a sort of diabolic Parsifal: looking, not for a holy grail, but for a bomb that could blow wide open the musical world and let in sound, all sounds.
Music: Varèse, Integrales; Yale Contemporary Ensemble; Arthur Weisberg, conductor
Van Cleve: Among the inventive minds of the early century was a true original, Dane Rudhyar. He came to America from France before World War I, and embraced American ways. Eventually he linked musical concepts and astrological ideas. As interest in astrology has increased, Rudhyar has become something of a guru.
Perlis: Yes, and Rudhyar played the part of a guru naturally with his long beard and white robe. At least it seemed that way when I interviewed him in San Jacinto, California in 1970. He did not disappoint those who made the pilgrimage to see him. Rudhyar was a genuine bohemian, what later came to be called a "downtown" composer long before that term was invented.
Music: Dane Rudhyar, Paeans; William Masselos, piano
Rudhyar: I stayed in California a great deal of the time, coming very often during the winter in New York. I met Henry Cowell in 1921 in that little group called Halcyon, which was the Temple of the People, to which his mother had belonged. And he was very much interested in it at the time.
I was one of the first members of the International Composers Guild. The ones who did the most [work] was Varèse and Salzedo. I was in California at the time and so Varèse wrote me a letter that they were starting the thing and [asked] if I wanted to be a member of it. And I said, "Of course." And a year after, I think, I came to New York and I played some of my piano pieces there.
It was a very interesting time. I mean, it was a time when America became conscious that there was something else beside German Classical music, which was practically all there was when I came to America.
Music: Rudhyar, Five Stanzas; Colonial Symphony; Paul Zukofsky, conductor
Rudhyar: So, I got very much interested in India and all that more and more, which of course to some extent broke my life away in two because I got more involved in that and trying to understand what music was from a world point of view. I tried to start a World Music Society and all sorts of things, but it was much too soon.
I began to read avidly anything on the Oriental music and Oriental philosophy. I have written a lot about it, but it's amazing how you can write things and nobody pay attention to it if they are not ready to get it.
I had studied a little about astrology in 1922, but I never used it very much. Mostly I was interested in the symbolism of it and the planets and all that. And then at the time I got very interested in psychology, Jung psychology, 1933. And during the summer I was in New Mexico and I suddenly realized that it would be very interesting to correlate the two because they seemed to compliment each other. One gave an objective picture and the other one was a purely subjective thing.
Music: Rudhyar, "Tumult of the Soul" from Advent; Kronos Quartet
Rudhyar: You have to find something if you do not agree with your culture. That's why I came to America. The idea that European civilization was breaking down and that as a kind of seed of the past I could plant myself, as it were, into a virgin soil. All my life work has been to try to build up a foundation for a new civilization. My feeling is that there are people, of course, who are the destroyer and they have to do it. It's good to destroy if you have something that you are going towards. I mean, the leaves die and they fall into the ground and rot and all that, but the seeds are there, and it is those seeds, which will become the foundation of the future. So, one of the main ideas that I have had is the idea of what I call the seed-man, the man who refused to be caught into the decay of the days. So, that's why I was very much interested in music and trying to go back to the study of intervals and the symbolism of sound, and the vibration—to try to have a new kind of music which would be kind of magical music in a certain sense, magical in the sense that it would release power. It would do something to people.
Music: Rudhyar, "Stars" from Pentagram No. 3, "Release"; William Masselos, piano
Rudhyar: Varèse used to say that music is sound. I say music is tone. And, I think there is a great difference between tone and sound. Now sound is—anything makes sound, but tone is something which is quite a different thing. Tone: you speak of the tone of the life, the tone of the body, the tone of the morale of things like that. It is something, which is related to a whole, to a living whole, to a living organism. It has tone. And a sound is a tone when it is a living thing.
Music: Rudhyar, Granites; William Masselos, piano
Perlis: Henry Cowell was a prolific and imaginative composer, and was responsible for the publication and performance of many other composers' works through the New Music Society, which he founded. Cowell was one of the first to study and teach world music.
Henry Cowell: When I was between seven and ten, I hummed Japanese and Chinese and Tahitian tunes, just as normally as I hummed the British tunes carried through the Tennessee mountains from my mother, and more directly, Irish tunes from my father, and also fairly directly, Classical melodies of Haydn and Mozart from my old Royal College teacher, who was about seventy-five in San Francisco when I was seven. Between all of them I think that we got an idea of music in which the Orient and the Occident were not separated, but all fused into one and the same thing. It just seemed like normal music. Obviously, what happened to me at this time, happened to a certain extent also with Lou Harrison and John Cage. They don't self-consciously go out and say, "I will now use a Chinese-type scale." What happens is that they hear Chinese music all the time, and this is part of their environment, and so it happens to be a part of their music. In this country, it seems to me that our best composers have succeeded quite naturally, and without conscious strain of any sort, in putting together the cultures of different peoples as they come together in this country.
Music: Henry Cowell, Ostinato Pianissimo; New Jersey Percussion Ensemble; Raymond DesRoches, conductor
Henry Cowell: You've just been hearing a percussion orchestra piece called Ostinato Pianissimo. It's by Henry Cowell, and I'm Henry Cowell.
Perlis: Sidney Cowell, Henry's wife, spoke further about Ostinato Pianissimo.
Sidney Cowell: I don't know whether or not Ostinato Pianissimo was composed for a dancer, but in any case it has been played many times alone in concert. I think it was composed about 1934. It demonstrates the appeal that the music of Indonesia had for Mr. Cowell. The long phrase structures and the apparent repetitiveness prevented Western musicians from noting the exquisite tiny variations of detail that you hear if you listen enough. This piece created great indignation among Cowell's colleagues when it was first played. Well, he was surprised because that he thought that the indignation over tone clusters was rather worn down, and that from now on he'd be let alone, but it wasn't the case.
Music: Cowell, "The Tides of Manaunaun"; Henry Cowell, piano
Henry Cowell: You've just heard Deep Tides. When I was fifteen years old I was invited to write music for an Irish play, which would introduce the home of Manaunaun, the god of the sea. I had to write some music that would put you in the mood of the deep tides, as well as the waves of the sea. This was rather a big job for a fifteen-year-old boy. I tried a couple of low octaves in a certain rhythm. They sounded just a little too definite, so then I tried a couple of chords, which were better than the bare octaves, with the same low tidal rhythm, but this wasn't quite enough. So then I got the idea of having all thirteen of the lowest tones of the piano played together at the same time, but since I didn't have thirteen fingers in the left hand, I played this with the flat of the hand, being very careful to get all of the notes exactly equal and to have what I considered a reasonable tone quality there. In other words, I was inventing a new musical sound later to be called "tone clusters."
Music: Cowell, "Tiger"; Anthony De Mare, piano
Henry Cowell: I find myself being a friend of music, and this means that I am a friend of all music, and it means that I like every direction I have ever heard that music has taken at the present time. You have the vast world of the people who don't belong in the small Western cultivated musical countries. Formerly and erroneously it was thought that this was primitive music, and people felt, in what seemed to me to be the height of egotism, that all such music was headed in the direction of our own music. I think that if we head in the direction of their music in some respects, we'll be doing ourselves an awful lot of good.
Music: Cowell, Persian Set; Leopold Stokowsi, conductor; with members of his orchestra
Perlis: It seems Henry Cowell knew everyone in the world of new music. His wide ranging interests and enthusiasm made him an ideal teacher for Lou Harrison.
Harrison: Henry Cowell arranged, as part of the New Music Society, a concert of the works of Schoenberg to be done in the chamber hall of the complex of the opera house. I was attending the New Music Society concerts. These were pretty far out concerts for the period. They were attended by small but very knowing groups. In those days it was always called "ultra-modern" music.
Harrison: I remember one point in New York, when I was writing a twelve tone piece, Henry Cowell was very upset about that. He looked at me with scorn. He said, "Oh, make up your own system. Make it an eleven tone piece or a seven tone piece, or make up a whole new system." Don't do that!
Music: Cowell, Variation for Orchestra; Polish National Radio Orchestra, William Strickland, conductor
Harrison: He was altogether extraordinary. He was the general information booth for all of American music for so long. His approach to music, both as composition and as talk was that there were lots of humanistic ways of viewing it and of doing it. It was wonderfully American in the sense that it was the backyard putterer, you know, at the same time carrying with it a weight of knowledge that was quite enormous. Almost anything could be backed up, but in good cheer.
Music: Cowell, "Aeolian Harp"; Henry Cowell, piano
Perlis: Another young California composer influenced by the music and ideas of Henry Cowell was John Cage.
Cage: I'm indebted to him for his work primarily, but besides that, his unbiased enthusiasm about music in general. Not only all modern music was to his liking, but all folk music was to his liking. Music of all cultures was to his liking. In fact, I don't recall every hearing anything with him that he didn't like.
Cage: He clearly made connections where connections hadn't been made, so that he gave us the example again of fructifying information by means of not obviously connected information. I think Wittgenstein in Philosophy did this too when he said the meaning of something is not fixed, but is in the use that we give it. If, for instance, spaghetti is used not to eat, but to decorate a room, then its meaning changes. Henry had that kind of straightforward seeing of things and the straightforward faith that things could be other than what we conventionally felt they were. Certainly my own prepared piano is unthinkable without the example of his string piano.
Music: Cowell, "Sinister Resonance"; Henry Cowell, piano
Cage: I think that when one thought of Henry there was a tendency to smile rather than to look sad. His openness of mind was cheering, and yet it was inherent in him, and from a very early age. I don't know how old he was when he began playing the piano with his arms and with his fists, but it needed a very open-minded person to do that. And nobody taught him to do it, so he was, so to speak, born with this lively, adventurous, cheerful mind.
Music: Cowell, "Exultation"; Anthony de Mare, piano
We are grateful to the following record labels, institutions, and individuals for granting permission to reproduce recorded excerpts of music:
Armadillo String Quartet
Composers' Recordings, Inc.
Eubie Blake Music
New World Records
Yale Music Library, Historical Sound Recordings
Yale School of Music
Additional label and catalogue information can be found in the credits portion of the book that accompanies this CD.
Composers' Recordings, Inc.
Eubie Blake Music
New World Records
Yale Music Library, Historical Sound Recordings
Yale School of Music