OHAM Excerpt: Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson with Vivian Perlis
28 September 1977, The Chelsea Hotel, New York, NY

V. Do you visualize an entire work or sketch a work in advance?
T. Practically never.
P. Never? It flows from beginning or from some--
T. I like to make it flow from the beginning, because it hangs together much better that way then if you think of a fine finale and how you are gonna to get there, oh? Because it's much easier in a continuous flow to cut passages where your inspiration is a little weak or where you repeated yourself unnecessarily. It's much easier to cut than to add. Anyway I like to begin at the beginning and go straight on.
P. And I suppose it depends on the work as to whether you have a length.
T. Sometimes you have a length given. In writing for films, you practically always have a series of lengths because the film has been cut finally before you make the music. In that case the length is given. There tends to be something like that very often in working for the ballet because the choreographer may say with regard to the pas de deux for instance--which is likely to be the center of any ballet--"I can make this last five minutes, but much beyond that I might have to repeat myself." So you want to make a nice one to come out in the time that he thinks he can keep it going in an original manner. But if you are writing music out of you own imagination then you have no such limits and you can make it any length that it feels like coming out. I usually let them alone to see what they are going to do, and I can tell several pages ahead when an end is coming--the end of a movement or the end of a whole piece. You can feel it summing up or doing whatever it is that things do before they end.
P. You speak of it as though it had its own motivation rather than yours.
T. You can't manipulate. The best you can do is to take dictation. Now you have to manipulate in certain passages for the kind of music that requires calculation for formal or conventional reasons. You can't write a fugue without previously constructing subjects and counter subjects in such a manner that can be put together upside down and in any position you wish. That you have to figure out, and the 12-tone composers all have to figure out a visible row. You just don't hit on a row by accident. It has to be a row of which the order, as expressed by numbers, is capable of interesting manipulation. There are plenty of occasions in music when you have to calculate, and of course orchestration is practically all calculating. But the ideal situation that you try for--or hope for rather--is one in which you write it down as it comes to you very rapidly, and those are likely to be--well, the most inspired passages, yes.
P. It's very interesting that you say as it comes to you and it's being dictated to you.
T. True.
P. Who is doing the dictating and where is it coming from?
T. I am not a theologian. It might be the Holy Ghost! [laughter] It might be unconscious memory of all the music you ever heard in your life. In any case it's something a little deeper than the surface of your mind, and if you can put the surface of your mind at rest and let the deeper parts come up spontaneously then you get a deeper and more vivid result. Any poet knows that, and any composer knows it. If it all could be figured out how to make art interesting and successful, that would have been discovered centuries ago, and anybody could write a hit tune.
P. Hmmm. But are there particular conditions that make it easier or more conducive for you to--
T. Everybody, I think has to learn his own best working methods. I think it's likely to be between the ages of twenty-five and thirty that one learns those things, and you learn from finding out what you have done well, and also by--you talk to your friends. People don't have the same working methods, and they don't have the same kind of lives, and the reason I think why artist of all kinds are most at home in great art centers is because there they see other artist all the time and find out what the various methods of work are, what kind of food life, exercise life, sex life, reading life, boozing or not boozing, drugs or not drugs--you have to find out for yourself what is a good creative hygiene, and sometimes people find that certain times of day are congenial. Many people, especially when they are young, like to work at night. The night working rarely survives forty, but a great deal of it does go on before that.
P. What about yourself? What is the best mental hygiene for you in terms of productivity--in composition I am talking about.
T. I have to feel good and to be at rest. When I was younger, I found that I worked awfully well in bed. As they say in French, the nervous system is only in repose in bed. But nowadays I don't work so much in bed, although sometimes I do. I can work either in bed or sitting at a table. But I wait for the moment when I sort of automatically reach for a pencil.
P. But some people can wait for that moment and of course it never comes, whereas with you it does.

T. If it doesn't come you're out of luck. But you have to keep on waiting, and if it keeps not coming then you give up the profession.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015 - 4:35pm