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About Leo Ornstein

Ornstein's  Approach to Composing

Ornstein was driven by the music he heard continuously in his head. His life seems to have been an endless succession of such musical bombardment. The principal reason he committed music to paper was simply to stop it from "going around" in his head. It was only when it was finished and written down that he was somehow released from it.

    Also in this Section       
Personality and Attitudes about Music
Approach to Composing
Reminiscences and Observations
Pauline's Memoir

Ornstein is often thought of (at least in his early works) as a someone who experimented with new harmonic and rhythmic structures, but that suggests a far too deliberate act. He was an extremely subjective individual, with strong instincts and inclinations, and his radical compositions were largely without guile - strictly intuitive creations. If he was experimenting, it was not by deliberately pushing some limit but rather in simply allowing his imagination free rein. For the most part he was satisfied with the end product, an exception being the Op 31 Violin Sonata which he felt crossed over the boundary beyond harmonic richness into chaos. He felt that in that instance he had gone too far and sometimes even voiced regret that he'd written the piece.

Leo, composing at about 90

Although of course he had to work over his material and piece it together into a satisfactory finished product, it would nonetheless be wrong to suggest that he constructed music; rather, for the most part, he transcribed that which flowed into his head. Having spent so many years practicing, his hands reached automatically for whatever he heard; he could as easily play something as think it. Often he would halt in the middle of practicing some banal piece and suddenly start improvising. Sometimes lengthy segments of apparently finished music flowed out through his hands. Such bursts of improvisation might last for up to several minutes. Then, as abruptly as it had started, he would return to practicing. This drove Pauline mad and she would cry out to him "Stop and write it down." If it hadn't been for her constant pestering, many fewer of his compositions would have been preserved.

Writing music is an extremely slow, tedious process compared to the pace at which the music is actually heard. A major problem that Ornstein (and surely other composers) faced was remembering material long enough to write it down. When tape recorders first appeared it seemed that they might offer a means of capturing ideas which could be replayed and transcribed later on. However, the promise proved illusory. Inspiration didn't come in neat segments. With repeated starting, stopping, and rewinding, the tape soon filled with overwritten, overlapping sections and it soon became clear that finding the bits and pieces that were wanted was hopeless [but see the sidebar Improved Tools for Composing]. Nonetheless Ornstein continued trying to use the recorder for some time, and reels of some of his composing sessions are now held in the sound archives at Yale and have been made available to scholars since his death. The tapes give some insight into his method of composition and contain tantalizing snatches of unfinished material.

While composing Ornstein would repeatedly play through material, battering away at the leading edge of it until he finally broke through satisfactorily into a follow-on passage. This in turn might then flow on for some distance, until he ran into another stone-wall or realized that he needed to go back and write the material down before it was forgotten. Often his greatest difficulty was not lack of ideas but rather too great an abundance, too many choices. These choices bedeviled him and he frequently had great difficulty making up his mind which alternative to use. Large quantities of material were discarded as not worthy - far more than what was eventually preserved. Many works were begun but never completed.

    Improved Tools for Composing       
By the late 1970s it seemed that it might be possible to use a computer to provide a sort of combined tape recorder and musical typewriter which would enable a composer to see a score of improvisation simultaneous with its recorded sound. Accordingly John Maxwell, an MIT graduate student, and Ornstein's son Severo, developed the first screen-based computer score-handling program with input from a synthesizer keyboard. The program, known as Mockingbird , pointed the way for the numerous commercial products that have since been produced.

His writing technique varied, but most often he would scribble marks rapidly on some manuscript paper - marks that would mean absolutely nothing to anyone else but which constituted a shorthand that enabled him to remember a section of the music, perhaps as much as several pages. Using those scribbles he would then go back over the material, work out the details until he was satisfied that he had what he wanted. Sitting at the piano he would then slowly play and dictate the music, note by note to his wife Pauline who, being an accomplished musician herself, and having listened as he worked things out at the piano, was able to understand what was wanted. They developed a method of interaction that enabled them to move along steadily, and she would copy the music down in manuscript form. Often there were further revisions, but eventually the work would settle down and Pauline would make a final hand copy of the finished work.

Once that was accomplished, Ornstein quickly lost interest in the work. He had little patience for making clean copy, eliminating errors, and organizing his work. In fact he paid little attention to what became of a piece once he had finished it. Pauline attempted to fill in many of these gaps, and indeed most of the existing manuscripts are in her hand rather than his. Despite her efforts, however, his indifference to these "details" is evident in the overall state of his manuscripts. With such a mental state, and under the pressure of a constant stream of new ideas, it is hardly surprising that the details of spelling, correctness, and prettiness were matters of secondary concern to him. Often he neglected to indicate tempos and other aids to performance, his attitude being that these things were implied by the music itself and should be obvious to any competent performer. His preoccupation was always with the new music that continued to fill his head into his late nineties, and beyond.

A number of websites contain interviews with Ornstein in which he expresses many views about life and music. Outstanding among them is http://www.newmusicbox.org/page.nmbx?id=36fp00 This American Music Center (AMC) site contains audio/video and written accounts of several interviews of Ornstein by Vivian Perlis.

A site containing audio interviews by Max Schubel, head of Opus One Records, and pianist Jennifer Rhinehart is http://www.affordablearts.com/html/ornstein_archive.htm (Click the Interview button at the bottom of the page for the 2nd part of the


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