• Email
  • Print

Stravinsky on the Musical Scene and Other Matters

Where is any certain tune or measured music in notes such as these?

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

N.Y.R.: Did you fly in from California, Mr. Stravinsky? How was it?

I.S.: If you mean Los Angeles, as sunless as a mushroom farm; if the flight, well, at least the muzak is no longer compulsory (speaking as one who prefers the aching void). But I will not complain about airplanes. I am unable to walk around the block any more, yet I can zoom around the world. There was some “turbulence,” though, which interfered with the inflight movie (a comedy that was no laughing matter) and the pilot made an announcement that has stuck in my mind ever since. He said that the IBM flight plan for the day had chosen 33,000 feet as the favored altitude, but in his opinion we should be higher. This unexpected and touchingly obsolete criticism of computer authority shocked me, I confess, and I sincerely hope that the relationships of men and their computerology (and, conversely, the computerology of men and their relationships) become more trusting in time. Part of my shock may also have come from the contrast inherent in the fact of a computerized flight control and my memories of the Homeric air age of Saint-Exupéry, who was guided at times by little more than his own apprehensions. But the principal part was due to the circumstance that in my own work I regard my feelings as more reliable than my calculations.

N.Y.R.: Would you explain the distinction, Mr. Stravinsky?

I.S.: It was an empty one, I suppose; and in any case it is as impossible to draw sharp lines between verbal concepts of this sort as it is to draw them between analytical and empirical truths, or between learned and innate behavior. Our calculations and our feelings overlap and they may even be congruent. I will persist, nevertheless, and say that I trust my musical glands above the foolproofing of my musical flight charts, though I realize that the flight charts are formed in part by these same glands; and add that I think the tendency which seeks to attribute every factor in a musical composition to a punch-card master plan could constrict the “free” options of the ear. If, however, I assert that the present supreme authority of mathematics in the arts is the result of a deep-rooted modern superstition, that is mere ipse dixit talk: It says something only about myself. And, please forgive me, now, at my age that is the kind of talk I prefer. For one thing, I do not have to use so many escape words, and for another, the subject—myself—is closer to home.

N.Y.R.: You have criticized option-of-the-moment arguments in the past, Mr. Stravinsky. Are you hinting at a reopening of the doors?

I.S.: I have criticized them not in composition but in performance—though that will be an unacceptable distinction to the happening school—and on performance my views have hardened rather than changed. Let me say that to me a happening is a composition, at least in retrospect. Soon someone will discover that it can be more interesting by being one before and during its performance as well, with which the cycle can begin all over again with Bach or Tubal Cain. Already the German orchestras refuse to participate in happenings or perform unwritten or incompletely notated music, which, however, I take not as a portent of the next step but as the simple reaction of good soldiers in need of explicit orders. Then what, we may ask, does “next” mean? Even while I have been talking the “next” will have become the “former.” Conformism is so hot on the heels of the mass-produced avant gardes that the “ins” and the “outs” change places with the speed of Mach III. Gone are the days when an art movement seemed to exist together with a political one (then falling with it as, for example, total serialization disappeared with deStalinization, and musique concrète with the unpersoning of Khrushchev). Who can say, any more, at any exact moment, whether it is Nono who is holding up sinking Venice or the other way around?

N.Y.R.: What is your view of the present state of traditional performance, Mr. Stravinsky, and how do you think the increased quantity of our music and the greater competition affect qualitative standards?

I.S.: Before I attempt to say anything about that let me offer a comment fresh from my own experience. We all know, or should know, that America produces the finest instrumentalists in the world, though the reasons are mysterious, orchestra players being as ill paid on the whole as poets or school teachers. This knowledge did not prepare me for the abundance of performing talent of the highest quality that I have discovered of late on visits to colleges and music schools such as Oberlin, Eastman, the University of Texas. And that said, I must add that I found not only talent but a sensible new generation of human beings. Last spring at an agricultural college in Indiana I saw my Oedipus Rex in an excellent production by students whose other time, for all I know, was occupied with lectures on fertilizer. Then, only a few weeks ago I heard the Eastman School orchestra play to perfection, on a minimum of rehearsal, some of my most difficult later music, including parts of The Flood, which at least one renowned professional orchestra could not manage after a week of rechearsals and a dozen performances. The flexibility of the young versus the rigidity of the routiniers is an old theme, of course, but you can hardly imagine the pleasure this student orchestra gave me.

TO YOUR QUESTION about quantity, quality, the effects of competition, I suggest that the classic criticisms of these capitalist concepts by Veblen and others may also be applied to music. The prior questions are the same, at any rate. Competition to what end? What standards, and in what ways are they improved? I have just heard a conductor improve a work of mine with beauty treatments, i.e., daubing the music with lipstick and smothering it with face powder. Such things are both a form and result of competition, but of conductors’ competition about conducting, or call it the performance of performance: They are in no wise a musical matter. The performance of performance has developed to such an extent in recent years that it challenges the music itself and will soon threaten it with relegation. I have seen performances (of performance) as fully worked-out as a sonata, as neatly contrived as a fugue. The new conductor, X., for example, controls every stage of the operation as thoroughly as a cradle-to-grave social welfare plan, from a first entrance that exudes just the right amount of artistic mystique, to a final few dozen exhausted bows. I will not attempt to describe the performance that X. employs with the actual music except to say that its most winning features are a crucifixion, the extended arms motionless and the hands limp in frozen passion; a pelvic thrust co-ordinated with a throwing back of the head, used at climaxes; and a turning of the profile not just toward the first violins but beyond them and out to the audience. Most of the other repertory is composed of stock mirror-the-music “expression movements” (Lorenz’s term for the same thing in geese ethology), but another innovation has been promised before the show reaches Broadway and according to rumor it will be handstands during inverted counterpoint. Still, the high point is none of these but the after-performance performance. It begins with a tableau of moribundity modeled on the Descent from the Cross. The arms are lifeless, the knees are bent, the head (hair artfully disarrayed) is low, and the whole corpse is bathed in perspiration (warm water, one suspects, squirted from hidden atomizers). The first step down from the podium just fails to conceal a totter, but in spite of that the miracle-worker somehow manages to reappear forty-six times. It is a great performance, though, and could be topped as an advertisement only by skywriting. Even a musician could be swept away by it.

N.Y.R.: What new music have you heard recently, Mr. Stravinsky?

I.S.: New to me was the Fanciulla del West, a remarkably up-to-date TV horse opera with a Marshall Dillon and professional Indians like the lobby Indians in the hotels at Santa Fe. These aborigines are characterized, if you could call it that, by some ineffectual reminiscences of Debussy, but most of the score is back in the land of Butterfly; the opera is really an Eastern western. No matter what the geography, the music—self-parodying arias, a Roxy Theater overture—is bad. Why? Is it the absence of people with whom the composer could identify (they could not identify themselves, for sure)? Or the unsuitability of the subject to that genius of sentimentality which in La Bohème is so perfectly matched to the dramatic substance and so superbly deployed that even I leave the theater, when I can get a ticket, humming my lost innocence? But there is one conspicuous success in Fanciulla, the attempt to make it American—i.e., simple-minded—by having the gold miners sing in unison and by repeating a Grofé-type trot rhythm to the point of incandescence.

No doubt you mean newer music than that, but I am so out of touch I can hardly tell a musical mobile from a musical stabile, let alone distinguish their splinter groups. What I hear, moreover, is what comes my way, and that is rarely of my own choosing. Chronochromie, by M. Malraux’s favorite composer, came my way recently; its force de frappe is so great I wonder the marimbas, xylophones, and gongs did not collapse from metal fatigue. At about the same time I heard the same composer’s La Rousserolle Effarvatte, which proposes to do for the Reed Warbler (24 hours in the life of) something of what J. Joyce did for L. Bloom. (Well, I heard some of it.) I attended a program of electronic music, too, but only one composition seemed to exist in and because of the medium, the others being translations, of which the best I can say is that they probably would have sounded still worse in their native tongues. The very thought of the paper work involved in producing these noises depresses me, for though I can sympathize with a Van Eyck laboring for months with a magnifying glass to paint a perfect beetle (and not for the reason that he didn’t just blot or drip) I cannot understand musical composition that takes place outside of music. Better, now and then, one of those exhibitions of Anti-Music, though I have also failed to keep touch with developments in that department if, indeed, there are any: The only sounds (at least) that reach me are the breast-beating and axe-grinding of the Anti-Musician claqueurs themselves. I have lately been exposed to an amount of the window-dressing kind of new music by Polish composers, also, and can report that the surface qualities of it are generally attractive—Tadeusz Baird’s unprovoking (in the sense of the title) Erotica, for example—and that, well, feelings often seemed to have entered into calculations. More recently I have heard some striking scores by new French composers: Guézec’s Architectures Colorées, Eloy’s Equivalences, Gilbert Amy’s double-orchestra piece Antiphonies. There is a new French school, and a good one, judging by levels of skill. Boulez is its father figure, naturally, though he steers clear of the question of Dada.

ONE OF THE TWO most impressive recent musical experiences—the other was Jacob’s Ladder—I owe to the late Noah Greenberg and the tapes of polyphonic singing recorded by him in mountain villages near Tiflis. Greenberg’s discovery of an active performing tradition of music ranging from tenth-century conductus and organum to High Renaissance was a major find, I think, contributions to performance knowledge being even more valuable than acquisitions of more music—and this time the line can be drawn. The yodeling, called Krimanchuli in Georgian, used in the performance of trecento hockets, is the most virile vocal performance I have ever heard. Needless to say, this exhumed treasure, being both foreign and religious in origin and therefore embarrassing to progressive historicism, and polyphonic and therefore subversive, is unwelcome in the Soviet Union and unlikely to be preserved. No doubt it will be plowed under again for good, and replaced by Moscow-manufactured party-slogan songs. The decline of culture in musical terms—if you will excuse a bit of my own historicism—is the devolution from polyphony to monophony.

Jacob’s Ladder is described as a “sketch” and a “torso,” and both descriptions are correct but misleading. The notes are Schoenberg’s but not the color, though enough of that, too, is the composer’s own to direct and imprint the mixtures by another hand. Admittedly, where the instrumentation was completed by Schoenberg, as in the latter part of the music of One Dying, the difference is devastating to the rest of the score; and where the composer’s instrumental indications are sparce, as in the music of One Wrestling, the realization is hopelessly conventional and the rate of change in orchestral combinations obviously too slow. there are also, I think, some wrong interpretations, as in the accompaniment to the word “Rhythums” at the end of the music of One of the Called, where the voice-leading indicates that the same timbre could not have been intended for both the top line at the beginning of the measure and the third line at the end of it. Still, in spite of the orchestration and the incompleteness, the existing segment is one of the highest achievements of our music.

The use of multiple orchestras and speaking choruses is responsible for much special-pleading Schoenberg-Crusade talk about the prophetic nature of the score, but the reincorporation of tonality which the composer himself had excommunicated eight years earlier, is as remarkable. The use of it with the words of The Indifferent and The Resigned is pointed, of course, but it is integrated in other places as well and throughout the score, while octave doublings occur regularly, and in parallel form as in the introduction to Gabriel’s speech “This Either of this Or.” Whether in consequence of these “levities” or not, the harmony is the richest Schoenberg ever wrote. The Glückliche Hand, together with the Four Orchestral Songs, supplies a rudimentary context for the opening, but Schoenberg does not tarry at past points of connection and the music unfolds in continuous upward progression until, on the threshold of a new world of sound, the manuscript comes to an end. Here Franz Joseph gained a conscript.

N.Y.R.: You said it was easier for you to talk about yourself, Mr. Stravinsky. May I ask what it is like to be eighty-four?

I.S.: There is no triumph in it, I can tell you, and hardly any exhilaration. I am forgetful, repetitive, and deaf, for which reason I tend to avoid all but Russian language conversations and in consequence to read more than ever before. Therefore when I talk, I talk too much, as you see, which is an irony, because I do not believe in words, not, at least, as I believe in music, and would erase all of my own if I had the power. A still more serious complaint than these, to me, is the diminishing of my working day, for though my composing speed is unslackened, the time allotted to it, due to the slower tempo of my other activities and to the greater demands on my time from lawyers, merchants, and especially doctors, evaporates more quickly. As a sufferer from polycythemia I am obliged to have a blood test every seventh day of my life and bleedings every two months—shades of the eighteenth-century barbershop—the containment of the disease by radioactive phosphorus no longer being safe in my case. (I used to swallow capsules of this alarming substance in a glass of fizz fed to me with lead-tipped calipers by a technician in an asbestos suit and a mask like a bee-keeper.) The cycle of the thickening and thinning of my blood has imposed a rhythm not only on my temperament (I go from concessive to obdurate), but on my whole creative life.

I SUFFER, TOO, as rarely before and as I have never admitted, from my musical isolation, as well as from a feeling of loneliness—this for the first time in my life—for my generation: All of my contemporaries are dead. It is not so much old friends or individuals that I regret, and certainly not the mentality of my generation, but the background as a whole, the habits of the home, the social intercourse, or call it the body. I am obliged to live now at a detached and strictly mind-level of exchange with younger people who represent, as they say, wholly different belief systems and who see me as an elderly crackpot always in a snit. This homesickness is very recent, though, and until a decade ago I forbade all-mention of Russia and fled every reminder of my past.

N.Y.R.: What do you mean by your musical isolation, Mr. Stravinsky? No serious composer has exercised greater influence, received wider recognition, been more frequently performed in his lifetime than you have been. Is there no triumph in that? And have you never felt the sense not of isolation but of the very opposite, namely that you as much as anyone in the world are in powerful communication?

I.S.: Thank you, but I could hardly afford to see myself in that light; and the catalogue of my past works does not interest me as much as my actual work, which the catalogue tends to overshadow and for which, in any case, it has never earned me any credit cards. It may be satisfying to see loudly condemned new scores such as Agon and the Movements quietly taking their place among earlier regularly performed ones, but I do not think of it as a victory. And what I meant by isolation was at the professional level. While I hardly regret not belonging to a movement, and that the music I now produce answers no commercial and little other demand, I would like to exchange more than a few rapidly crossing glimpses with my colleagues. As it is now, I see eye to eye with no one.

N.Y.R.: Surely this is only the result of your own eminence, Mr. Stravinsky.

I.S.: A plague on eminence! I hardly dare cross the street any more without a convoy, and I am stared at wherever I go like an idiot member of a royal family or an animal in a zoo; and zoo animals have been known to die from stares. “This is probably the last time we will see him,” the eyes all seem to say, though I daresay a few of those onlookers may still go on a bit ahead. No doubt there is a limbo of uncertainty concerning anyone who has been around as long as I have, and if middle-aged people are unsure, hearing my name, whether it belongs to a living person, young people automatically assume that a man of my fin de siècle connections must be dead.

N.Y.R.: What did you mean, a moment ago, when you declared your disbelief in words? Is it a question of their inexactness?

I.S.: They are not so much inexact as metaphorical; not so much another form of notation as an irrelevant and unedifying form. Sometimes I feel like those old men Gulliver encounters on the way to Laputa, who have renounced language and who try to converse by means of objects themselves. A composer is always in that position: He has no verbal control over his music. Nowadays he tries to talk about it in graphs, statistical charts, symbolic codings, and other devices which may be more efficient—they are certainly more trenchant—than his statements in ordinary verbal syntax, but which bring him no nearer to the music. The one true comment on a piece of music is another piece of music.

N.Y.R.: May we ask what you are composing at present, Mr. Stravinsky?

I.S.: I can give you no more than labels; as I just said, I am unable to enter my work with words; the music says what it is, and the music is self-contained. Until now—I have just completed the Rex tremendas—I call it my pocket Requiem, both because I use only fragments of the text and interlard them with instrumental music (though there is precious little lard in it) and because most of it was composed in notebooks which I carry on my person. But I am superstitious and do not like to talk about any work in progress, let alone a monument ordered, like Mozart’s, by a “mysterious stranger.” I will be mightily relieved to be done with it and to get on to something else. At times during the composition I have derived comfort from the knowledge that my great-grandfather lived to the age of 111; and I have often wondered what he was like at 84. He did not compose music, to be sure, but—or so the family tradition goes—he was doing something very like it, which is making love. In fact, the old gentleman, bless his hormones, died as the result of a fall while trying to scale the garden fence on his way to a rendezvous. What a way to go, as the Americans say; and, better yet, what a time of life to go that way.

  • Email
  • Print