“I turned the tuneful art
From sounds to things…”
—An Essay on Man
NYR: We read that you had cancelled your European tour, Mr. Stravinsky: I hope not because of illness?
I.S.: Not illness, thank you, though if I sneeze nowadays you may count on the newspapers reporting it. In fact I have just returned from a concert tour, a Via Dolorosa further darkened by some unscheduled glimpses of the Culture Explosion (the violent arts), in so far as this phenomenon may be said to have reached Miami, Beverly Hills, Seattle, and Honolulu.
NYR: What were the local detonations like?
I.S.: Pfft. Miami, as the winter quarters of Brooklyn and the Bronx, might at least be expected to possess a first-rate orchestra. But not much in the city seems to be propitious to the arts (though the hotel I stayed in had a Venus de Milo with the arms restored), certainly not the sun-worshipping life (the entire population looks as if it had been fried in butter), nor even the musicians themselves, a description that in some cases seemed to mean anyone with the knowledge that a violin is more or less held under the chin.
Nor did a sampling of the condition of culture in Beverly Hills force the imagination as far as Florence or Athens in search of adequate comparisons. But it did make me change one of my tunes. Heretofore I have criticized the policy of building more and bigger halls for bad and worse performances, but now I say at least halls. The boudoir-pink ballroom of the Beverly Hilton was an absurd environment for The Rite of Spring, and the switching off of the lights while I conducted—it did not help that the music we fizzled through during the blackout was the Fireworks—made a concentrated performance even more impossible. The management must have thought that the long overdue air raid had finally begun.
In Seattle, my Histoire du Soldat was embellished with panel backdrops by Saul Steinberg, but they were indecipherable, without telescopes, beyond the first row. Even on stage I had to squint to make out the pagoda-like first scene (Vietnam?), while the Soldier—who may have had weak eyes, for he was surprisingly ready to weep (a degree of fortitude being expected in his profession)—seemed baffled by the “Royal Palace” at a distance of only a few feet (a penthouse? condominium? spaceneedle?).
NYR: And Honolulu?
I.S.: I enjoyed it more than my last trip there, which was in 1959, shortly before the islands became a state. There were annoying airport formalities then—a health inspection for which we tried to look sober and refrain from blowing our noses, but the standards must have been extremely low; the inspector strode by so quickly that he could have noticed no more than whether anyone was actually dead or unusually green. The new state is easier to enter, in spite of the strangulation and asphyxiation threats from the leis of the hula welcoming committees. And, once it is entered, the only perils that I was aware of at least were those of the deep; I watched a “native” fisherman haul in a net of crustaceans at the very place where I had been dipping my toes an hour before, though in Hilton’s Honolulu even the crabs could be smarmy; and besides, the scene was too picturesque; the catch was probably planted. But there is a pineapple problem, too. It is practically impossible to obtain any form of food unmixed with ananas (the French word makes it sound like a biblical sin), a slice or chunk quickly betraying its disguises when bitten firmly enough. Nine days passed before I found an unpatriotic waiter to whom I could risk saying: “Now take this ten dollars and please try, just this once, to smuggle the spaghetti in without any pineapple.” The day I visited Pearl Harbor, incidentally, the tourists were mostly Japanese, which made me wonder about the monuments our descendants will be visiting in Hanoi in another twenty-five years. “Ah, so, Peraber, Peraber,” they were saying, wistfully as it seemed to me, though I doubt we can expect a film Pearl Harbor, Mon Amour.
N.Y.R.: What did you think of Boston’s “mod” Rake’s Progress last month?
I.S.: I didn’t see it, but I gather that the opera was able to sustain the “mod” apparatus, and I have even heard that the staging and the music managed to turn each other a few compliments. I also noted a change in the press, with only The New York Times continuing to distinguish nothing in the music, while rallying behind the idiotic prejudice that the conventional is the feelingless (and the experimental the expressive). It should be obvious that leather jackets and motorcycles, psychedelic and strobe lighting, pin-ups of Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary (in the Rake’s pad; is he queer?), Stravinsky sweatshirts and discotheque dancing, have no connection with the opera (though mutability is one of its themes). But I would have objected to them only if they destroyed the intimacy of the music. (I suppose the argument for them was that as the music parodies and time-travels, why not the surroundings?) The staging was said to be strongest in its solution of the opera’s main problem, Baba the Turk, and for that I regret not having seen it. The motivation for the Rake’s marriage to this “freak of nature”—freedom from “the twin tyrants of appetite and conscience”—is a little makeshift and unconvincing, and the absence, at this point, of any thought of his betrothed is unlikely. (“Do you desire her [Baba]?” asks Shadow. “Like the falling sickness,” answers the Rake. “Then marry her,” Shadow says, and the words once provoked a woman to scream, an effect that I think could be written into the score.) In Boston, Baba reappeared, after being sold as an object in an auction, only as a mysterious presence on closed-circuit TV, a solution which could, I see, help to close one of the opera’s largest credibility gaps. And her revelation in Act Two was staged in rain, a clever idea because it justifies the brevity of the scene.
NYR: Would you explain more generally why your basso profundo has been so noticeably absent from the cheering section of the culture boom, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: Because the culture prosperity, like the missile-rattling economic prosperity, is absurdly inflated, antiquatedly isolationist, naively quantitative, and wholly misdirected in emphasis. Consider only the latter, and the inescapable illustration of the reopening, in flashier quarters, of the very old Met. Here, one would suppose, was yet another platinum opportunity to overrate the growth of the arts in America. And this time the cover stories could be devoted to a real live local artist, instead of, as regularly, the virtues of tax-deducting millionaire patrons and their budget figures for the gross national product. Mr. Samuel Barber had been entrusted with the baptismal score, after all, and he was the maker in the musical community, which includes the operatic community even though opera’s musical standards are low. Mr. Bing and the anonymous middle-opinion glossies knew, however, but were not saying, that Mr. Barber (who had been much pampered by all of them in the days when his brand of music had not yet become bad news) was chosen for a sacrificial role. He almost alone, the Great Society being short of great composers, satisfied the indispensable requirements of being at the same time home-grown, well known, and unnoticeable in musical tendency; in short, he could be counted on not to detract from the occasion, or divert publicity from the house, the staff, and the social event.
WHAT I FIND more difficult to explain is the installation of Mr. Bing as a culture hero; not how it came about, of course—he is in the enviable position of having virtually no competition—but why. Why mythologize a manager who ignores new opera, as his commissions for the new house show; who continues to support the now generally discredited star system, which in effect contradicts the idea, at last gaining circulation, that opera is drama; and who has kept the tiniest inventory of operas of any company of its class in the world? Repertory cannot be justified as box-office taste, which is Mr. Bing’s disingenuous line, because taste must be created; and, anyway, a good salesman should be able to sell good merchandise as well as bad. With the advent of new interest in Wagner (Boulez in Bayreuth), wouldn’t a new Tristan or Valkyrie better have befitted the celebrations of the new house than the revival of a moth-eaten comedy like La Gioconda? Or a progressive novelty, for example a double bill of Curlew River and Suor Angelica sponsored by a society for birth control? But in spite of Gioconda and Cleopatra Mr. Bing remains a top swinger, and he will no doubt be made into a musical, which is a cultural achievement of a sort.
NYR: You were recently courted by the Musical Establishment yourself, Mr. Stravinsky. What, may we ask, were your morning-after reactions to the New York Philharmonic Stravinsky Festival?
I.S.: No hangover. Nor did I feel scathed, whatever I looked like. No doubt I was spared by the circumstance that all of the concerts except my own were group shows. Would-be assassins were not lacking, of course, but they seemed to have lost heart. One of them, dispatched by that society of failed newspapers, the Trib Sun Telegram Post News Mirror Dispatch, backfired, and a collection is now going around to put up a small public lavatory to his memory in a plumbing-poor neighborhood of his native slum.
NYR: Some of us wondered at your very active support of the Festival, Mr. Stravinsky, in view of certain performers.
I.S.: Naturally I had opposing impulses to resolve, but the deciding factor was the absence of a subscription audience; the music would be accessible, at least, to people who really wanted to hear it. I confess that I wanted the Philharmonic to play it. Until then it had not performed any of my music of the last twenty years—not Orpheus, let alone Agon. (It has still not played either.)
NYR: Do you think that audiences are attracted more by what is being played, or by who is playing?
I.S.: Who is playing. But the ad-men are surely able to give you factual answers, and to the metrics-of-taste question (Bentham’s idea) as well. Lincoln Center audiences would be exceptional, probably, in that some percentage of the people might still come as much to see the buildings as to watch Mr. Bernstein, as was once the case with the Music Hall and the Rockettes. It seemed to me, at any rate, that of the 2,000 customers who endured the Festival’s chamber-music concert, not more than a tenth could have come with foreknowledge in kind expressly to hear what they heard. This was apparent from the initial giggles of the captive majority, though when the dynamics were conducive they tried to settle down and make the best of it. (I have never seen so many eyelids at half-mast.) As for the program, Boulez’s Eclat should not have been conducted with a baton when one of the all too obvious aims of the piece is to display the conductor’s hands. It was another, graver error to broadcast Milton Babbitt’s electronic composition in the lobby during intermission. At a time when silence pollution is reaching saturation point, a time of pocket transistors, processed classics, and round-the-clock mood music (music for mealtimes, music for meditation, music for screwing, music for everything, in fact, except undivided listening), resistance to intermission concerts, at least on my indifference curve, is very strong.
NYR: And what did you think of the Festival programs, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: Some g., some n.g., but my lips are sealed. Besides, I am no judge of programs; I go to concerts myself to hear only one work. My early music was favored, but at least that old audience lollipop The Firebird did not turn up. And my so-called neo-classicism—in which, by the way, the slump seems to be lifting—was well represented. Apollo, the U-turn itself, was missing, but Oedipus and Persephone were there, as well as the first of those purported raids on the past, Pulcinella. As for my later music—which, superstition nothwithstanding, is no less neo-classical—the only considerable example was The Flood. The trouble it gave the orchestra partly explains why. The title episode itself was so unweatherable to them (what did they expect, sea chanties?) that I was tempted to cut it to only a few measures—a flash-flood, in fact. Music sociologists might note that for whatever reasons of rehearsal time and morale, it was the orchestra, not the audience, which required larger diets of familiar music.
NYR: And the other performances?
I.S.: Well, frugging is apparently de rigueur for Philharmonic conductors. Even Kondrashin did it. (Where did he learn that in the USSR? Do conductors study films, like secret agents?) But Mr. Bernstein is unflappable in competition, and so glittering a performer still that he could get a dozen curtain calls out of the National Anthem. (Not, however, out of my version, which needed a more tightly cranked-up performance.) The character of articulation in my music eluded most of the conductors, even in so simple a point as that the metrical lines are constituent to the rhythm, not mute, inglorious markers which the conductor is invited to ignore for the sake of something he calls the phrase. But the performance standards, both bad—Oedipus Rex—and good—Histoire du Soldat, the high point of the summer’s revels thanks to John Cage’s opéra-bouffe Devil—were determined by extra-musical antics. As for the standards of the music itself, July was too hot even for a short soft look. I did notice, however, that whereas the Ragtime in the Histoire is as smoothly integrated as a minuet in Mozart, the one for eleven instruments is as dated as coonskin coats.
THE CURTAIN-RAISER concert of Le Sacre and its American beneficiaries was a fine gesture of homage to Mr. Bernstein’s youth. Even the peculiarities of tempi and rubati in the Sacre—a more handwringing reading than I am accustomed to—were derived, as he told me, from Stokowski’s performances in the Thirties. Of the other pieces, Copland’s Dance Symphony, a precocious opus for a composer of twenty-three, would have been equally serviceable in a festival of Ravel, while Revueltas’s Sensemaya offers several composers for the price of one and would do as an influenced piece in any number of surveys of the sort.
NYR: But do you think Revueltas would have developed if like yourself he had been given another thirty-five years of working life?
I.S.: I have no opinion. I can answer only. in the other direction, telling you about people who might better have disappeared thirty-five years sooner (and others who wouldn’t have been missed at all).
NYR: Have you any late-hour prescriptions for a young composer, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: If he can turn an honest million outside music he might seriously consider neglecting his talents for a time and turn it. Otherwise and untempted by all lesser sums he should go directly underground and do nothing but compose; that is, not strive for Foundation awards, academic prizes, college presidencies, foreign fellowships; not attend culture congresses, not give interviews, not prattle on the radio about music appreciation, not review new scores (except his own, pseudonymously); and not, either insidiously or directly, push, promote, maneuver, advertise, finagle, operate.
NYR: Some composers have begun to borrow structural patterns from the sciences; Xenakis, for instance, uses Bernouilli’s Limit Theorem, and his Metastasis was derived from the same blue-print as the architecture for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Fair.
I.S.: I admire the economy, and look forward to the days when Mr. Xenakis’s successors are writing music that can at the same time compute taxes and regulate urban renewal. Meanwhile, I confess that I would be frightened to enter some of the compositions I have heard of late, in their forms as buildings. But does it matter, apart from the publicity and the prestige of scientific and mathematical associations, where one finds one’s materials?
NYR: Now that computer programming is our fastest-growing profession, do you foresee a larger role for computers in the service of the creative arts?
I.S.: It seems obvious that when the computer has become the electronic culture’s universal knowledge distillery, artistic creation, if there is any, will have been technically, theoretically, and teleologically overhauled. But I am suffering a Luddite reaction myself and foresee very little. Like everyone else, I welcome the benefits of, say, the computerizing of medical information (which no physician could keep up with anyway), but unlike most others, I am frightened by the prospects of, say, the IBM project for the direct conversion of information to speech; the very thought of millions of electronic voices indistinguishable from live ones (to say nothing of the noise) almost makes me jump the tracks. “Till human voices wake us and we drown.”
NYR: Nowadays, Mr. Stravinsky, how is an upper-average (middle to high) Play-brow to know “what is art”? I mean, when is a crushed car sculpture, when are “ditties of no tone” music—that sort of thing?
I.S.: It is still generally thought of as art if it is shown in a gallery, and as music if it takes place in premises traditionally associated with concerts; which is hardly an answer, but in the absence of identifying rules and conventions, and at a time when an aesthetic object may be anything at all, the “limits of art” are not only not airtight but indefinable. As for those who are obliged to keep the racket going, dealers and other middlemen, the formula, “Buy now on the likelihood that it may later turn out to be Art” seems to be working very well. Speaking for myself, I could not begin to distinguish music and non-music in some of the concert-hall activity I have observed of late, nor would I be confident of recognizing a new musical genius. In fact, if I were asked to fill Schumann’s role today, and hail a new Brahms, I would probably have to modify his dictum to: “Keep your hats on, gentlemen, for all I know he may be a charlatan.”
NYR: As the term avant-garde implies direction, in what direction do you think today’s avant-garde is going?
I.S.: Not knowing what kind of music is looking ahead, or even what ahead means, I have no idea. If, for example, the Diabelli Variations seem to forecast so much, it is looking back, retrospective prophecy, that enables us to say so. Compared with science, many of whose future conquests are known goals, the areas in which musical developments might be expected to take place are not generally predictable. And whereas progress in science is measurable and even absolute, in music agreement rarely exists even as to what progress is. The musical language seems to develop by new infusions of emotion, or new emphases and combinations of emotion, in correspondence with shifts and changes (losses as well as additions) in vocabulary. But a new linguistic mode can be more crude than the one it supercedes.
AS TO THE ACTUAL AVANT-GARDE, I have not had much contact with it in the last few seasons, this in a field where six weeks can count as an “era” and intellectual ownership lasts about six minutes (at the present rate of “dynamic obsolescence”). It seems, however, that the trend is still to mixed media, corporate expression, the instant Gesamt-kunstwerk; and therefore away from music by and in itself, which is understandable, if only for the reason “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” It is also, therefore, a trend away from composition, for effects plotlessly stumbled on are very different from those that occur in the course and frame of an unfolding order (fuddy-duddy view). What I found of some, but not inexhaustible, interest in the avant-garde of a few years ago was the exploitation of minutiae of sensibility in a man alone and immobile. This was not entirely new, of course (think of Gulliver, swarming with a “Fourmillante cité…”), but it did not become an all-out movement, I think, before Beckett. And for a parallel in—well—music, we have to thank some of the new composers for making us newly aware, by amplification, of our breathing and swallowing (this sounds like a Niagara), and of the crinkle of a single hair.
NYR: Those changes of vocabulary and new infusions of emotion you referred to, Mr. Stravinsky, are they strictly interior musical developments or is there a relationship of a metaphorical kind with the “real” world?
I.S.: As I see it, the metaphorical alignments, symbolizations, reflected thoughts and feelings are purely the listener’s, without any “real” basis in the music; or, in other words, the investing of the musical object with the listener’s subjective responses is actually nothing more than a form of the pathetic fallacy. I doubt, furthermore, that the subjective regions of most metaphorically inclined listeners are as rich and varied as they think, most “free” association really being a comparatively narrow and patterned habit association, after all. But this begs further questions which would eventually lead us back to the postulate (it appears in Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, I think, but I am not an answering service) that reality is not determined by our consciousness but the other way around.
NYR: But surely pieces of music can have valid meanings beyond themselves?
I.S.: Certainly: your own. And you may look to them for whatever you like: comments on the times, for example, as embodied in formal, substantive, and structural characteristics (the method of the “contextual interpretation” industry); or exercises in analogy—I could get up a Platonic dialogue myself on the proposition that good music expresses high truths and bad music platitudes and lies. It is all up to—since it also begins and ends in—you.
NYR: But in your own mind, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: My “mind” does not count. I am not mirror-struck by my own mental functions. For me all interest passes to the object, the thing made; and it follows that I am more concerned with the concrete than the abstract, in which, as you see, I am easily muddled. Nor do I regard musical composition as more of a mental function than a sensual pleasure. “Lascivious pleasing” is a famous description of the performance of a—very chaste, as it would seem to us—lute song, and performances are but pale memories of creative acts. In music as in love, pleasure is the waste product of creation.
NYR: Would you comment on Leopardi’s claim that old age deprives us of every pleasure while leaving every appetite, but that men fear death and desire old age?
I.S.: Prefer, not desire, and the logical symmetry is also untrue: there are pleasures still and in parity with appetites. But if old age is hardly more appealing now than it was in the time of Leopardi (who died too young to know anything about it), we treat it cosmetically now and it may at least look better. Under the name of senior citizenry, in any case, it is being sold as a vocation, its salesmen likening senility to a late (more effulgent) phase of the moon, and explaining a loss of momentum, when too evident to be denied, as the price of larger wisdom. They even find substitute love affairs for us, but with our own illnesses, whose progresses they teach us to follow as if “we” were hardly concerned. Reality is different, of course, and rather like a mental deep-freeze. A doctor recently recommended a new tranquilizer for me, on the grounds that it had worked wonders for his grandmother (probably keeping her in a semi-coma). But did the venerable lady also compose music, I asked, and the shocked reply implied that if I did, I should stop immediately for the sake of my own tranquility, which, I now know, is no longer a place where emotion is recollected but a near-vegetable state.
NYR: May we inquire about age in your own thoughts, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: If you mean the knowledge that in a decade at the most, but probably sooner, I will be dead, that has little effect on me: the possibility of death was always present (has always been in the cards) after all, and it is only the likelihood that has increased. If, on the other hand, you are inquiring about changes of mind and character, then I will have to confess that I am aware of some of them only from other people. They tell me such things as when I am being too suspicious and refractory, but surely faults of this kind—life being what it is—are independent of questions of age. One change that is apparent to me with no outside help is my tendency to magnify the smallest bruises. No doubt a simple biochemical explanation exists, but I cannot control my bile count, nor stop my adrenalin gland from pouring, just because my mind is aware that so-and-so’s journalism is really his problem, not mine. In the past I constrained myself (against the complacency of all judgments) with, I think, exemplary charity (“They have ears but hear not”), and, more especially, the thought that while death is, there is hope. But now I know that while there is death there is succession.
LIKE CHILDHOOD—my childhood—old age is a time of humiliations, the most disagreeable of which, for me, is that I cannot work long at sustained high pressure and with no leaks in concentration. But there are others. My slips in writing are frequent now, and my manuscripts must be vetted. This is “understandable in a man of his age,” people say, but it is disturbing to me, understandable or not. So is my hide-and-seek memory, now in hiding more often than not. I have orchestrated the same page twice, greeted perfect strangers in Russian, and performed a variety of other equally scatterbrained acts. Coué would have said that Nature is protecting me, in reducing my power to retain the nugatory. But I prefer not to need the shelter.
NYR: Have eighty-five years strengthened your belief in the continuity of life and art, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: It seems to me, on the contrary, that discontinuity must be only a short way ahead. Certainly in another four-score-and-five the “clones” bred by genetic engineers to the specifications of Bureaus of Human Uses will differ from me far more than I do from, say, the astronomers of Fowlis Wester and Stonehenge (who, it now appears, must have known a lunar movement “discovered” by Tycho Brahe). I lack confidence in genetic (and other) Utopias, as you see, and am tired of analogies based on successful demonstrations in frogs. But, then, the present has already begun to make me giddy—that discovery at Cambridge, for instance, showing that in certain insects the sense of time itself is encoded in two or three cells. (So, then, time is ontological?) But do not misunderstand me. Though I would refuse any Faustian bargain, I am far from content with myself. I simply want to go from here on out trying to do better what I have always done, and in spite of statistical tallies telling me that it must be getting worse. And I want to do it in this same battered but long-lived-in Identikit. “Myself I must remake,” Yeats’s poem says. And so must we all.
June 1, 1967