Composer / Pianist John La Montaine
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Splendid pianist, notable composer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, John La Montaine is one of that small band of creative American musicians whose work is solid and listenable, but generally overlooked by the concert-going public. During my quarter-century at WNIB and now via this website, I have tried to help rectify that situation, and hope your interest will be piqued by what you read of this significant gentleman.
Though born on March 17, 1920, in Oak Park, Illinois, which is the first suburb west of Chicago, he has not been back here very often. So, in June of 1989, I made contact with him and arranged to do the interview on the telphone. We spoke for just over an hour, and what you are about to read is practically all of that chat. We talked about large musical ideas, and also about some of the individual recordings in his catalogue.
Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
I don't often include bits of chit-chat and banter in the finished
edition, but this time it seems to give a sense of the flavor of our exchange.....
[The sound of a telephone dial tone, then the sound of a telephone dialing. Telephone rings.]
John La Montaine: Hello?
Bruce Duffie: John LaMontaine!
JL: Oh, yes!
BD: Bruce Duffie.
JL: How are you?
BD: Fine, how are you?
JL: Is this the fateful day?
BD: I suppose so. [Both chuckle]
JL: Now what terrible things can I say? [Laughter]
BD: Let's talk about all kinds of things, especially your music!
JL: Fine, but just promise me you'll edit severely. [Laughs]
BD: Absolutely, absolutely. My job is to make sure you look good.
JL: [Laughs] That's a big job!
BD: Okay, let's just start right there. When someone plays your music, is it your job to sound good, or is it the performer's job to sound good?
JL: Wheeeeee... That's a big one! The performer has to sound good, or he won't play the piece again, or won't be hired again, so you have to say that's important. What's important to the composer, of course, is that his piece be played faithfully.
BD: Faithfully to the score, or faithfully to what you really intended?
JL: The better the composer, the more the two become the same. But it's true, you can't always put everything on the page that is meant. There just isn't any way around it, because the whole system evolved for writing music is very medieval, and there is no way you can include in a printed score all of the possible inflections of a given set of notes.
BD: Assuming that your transcription onto the page is pretty accurate as to what is in your mind, how much leeway do you expect or want as far as interpretation on the part of performers?
JL: I think it's important that he have the feeling that he can put himself into it fully. There's an old thing that critics used to say, or maybe they still do, that "yes, there were mistakes in notes in the performance, but the feeling was there, the understanding of the music was there." I think that's baloney. The music is in the notes, first of all. I think that's a basic sine qua non requirement, that the notes be correct, and that the time be correct. As to the dynamics, there's a little leeway. Paul Sifler (1911-2001) and I have our own company of recordings, Fredonia Discs, and the number one requirement in everything we've released is that there be no wrong notes. You have no idea how difficult that is, even when we are the performers in the works. But we don't let go of that principle.
BD: So even if you have a take that has got a couple of wrong notes, but is so overwhelmingly more musical, you would not let that pass?
JL: I don't agree with you that it can be more musical if it's wrong. We don't let them go.
BD: Then is there such a thing as a perfect performance?
JL: I don't think there's a perfect anything. I'm afraid of absolutes. But there are certainly many possible ways to do something correctly that will be quite different from each other. So any one way is not the ultimate and only possibility. Sometimes slight tempo changes and different inflections of phrasings are all very valuable and very wonderful things that are all right.
BD: Do believe you're the ideal interpreter of your music?
JL: You'll find me dodging absolutes. I don't believe in only one ideal.
BD: Are there ever times when other performers have played your music and have found things in the score that you didn't even know you'd hidden there?
JL: Yes, that's happened. There have been people who have performed my pieces I thought better than I do. I've been very fortunate. I've had very, very great performers of my pieces including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Jorge Bolet. You know, those are such great players that you don't need to talk about correct notes; you don't need to talk about correct rhythms. They're in the field of calculus, not of addition and subtraction.
BD: So all of the notes are correct, and then they've gone beyond that.
JL: Yes, yes, and gloriously so.
* * * * *
BD: You yourself are also a first-rate pianist, and have, over the years, performed with such greats as Toscanini. Does that help to make you a better composer?
[Photo at right: With conductor Arturo Toscanini]
JL: I never intended to be a pianist. My only interest since I was a little boy was to write music. But I began to play rather well in high school. I played the Emperor Concerto when I was in high school with the school orchestra, and I played well enough that, when I got to the Eastman School, my teachers would say to me, "You play very well. You should practice." And I did. And I became a good enough pianist to earn my living as a performer. But my main interest was always just to write.
BD: Is there enough money in the writing to support your living?
JL: That's hard to say. Some people need a lot more money than I do. I've managed. For the past 30 years I've never been without a commission. Although some of them have not been enough to keep me alive for the time it took to write them, I somehow have managed, and I am still doing it. Every once in a while I think, "This is the last commission, and then what'll I do?"
BD: When you're offered a commission, how do you decide if you'll accept it or set it aside?
JL: I'm not offered enough of them to set any aside. I can't say that I've done all the things I've been asked to write, though. I am interested in getting very high quality performances of what I write. The pieces I write tend to be the kind of pieces that use the full physical, mental, and spiritual possibilities of the performers. So that means that they're hard pieces.
BD: Do you ever tailor a piece to a specific performer?
JL: No, I've never done that, but I've written pieces that fill the bill for the person who paid me to write them.
BD: What if someone wanted a concerto for piccolo and ocarina?
JL: [Laughs] I was asked to write a work for accordion, and I really tried, because I think that anything that makes a sound has some potential for creative synthesis. But I didn't succeed in that case.
BD: Where does sound become music?
JL: [Long pause] You really know the hard questions. I've heard sounds that I thought were music that nobody had done anything about. I am a great lover of the sounds of nature, and I've found a lot of musical material in the sounds of nature, yet I don't think I ever wrote anything that was better than what I heard in nature, or even as good.
BD: So nature is the ultimate music?
JL: There is music that human beings haven't meddled with. So I don't know how to define music, really.
BD: When you're sitting at your desk, are you meddling?
JL: [Humbly] Oh, you could call it that. [Laughter]
BD: While the pencil is in you hand and the music is taking shape, are you controlling that pencil, or is that pencil really controlling your hand?
JL: I don't know. It's more complicated than that. Most of my music is written without a pencil in the hand. In fact, I have a terrible time getting started on a piece, but once I get started on it I begin dreaming it, and large, large hunks of my music are the product of things I was lucky enough to wake up and write down. People ask me if I write at my desk or at the piano, and I say, "No, in bed." [Laughter]
BD: Is that your best stuff?
JL: I trust it.
BD: When you do get it down on the paper, how do you know that it's right?
JL: [Pauses] You've really thought deeply about those things because that is one of the oddest questions of all. The fact is that you do know, and I can't tell you how you know. I can't tell you that.
BD: That must be the special genius of John La Montaine, the composer.
JL: I think there's something interior that's very, very deep inside of you. That you don't really have access to, and that's where that comes from.
* * * * *
BD: You've mentioned the recordings that your company has issued. Are you basically pleased with those recordings that have been put out of your music?
JL: [Without hesitation] Yes, otherwise we would withdraw them. That's the advantage of having our own company. Also now, for ten years, Fredonia Press, our own company has been publishing all of my works, and we've been lucky enough to get back some of the major works. Now, I understand, we even can get back my First Piano Concerto, Op. 9, which they resisted before giving back to us.
BD: That's the work that won for you the Pulitzer Prize?
JL: Yes. It's promised now that we will get that back into our own catalog, which is a good thing, because now I'm finishing my Fourth Piano Concerto, and it's good to have all the concertos in one place. We're beginning to be known. [Commissioned for the Waterbury (Connecticut) Symphony's fiftieth anniversary, the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op 59, received its world premiere in April of 1990 with that orchestra and the composer as soloist, under the direction of Frank Brieff. It was subsequently recorded (shown at left) along with a concerto by the legendary composer/conductor Rudolf Ganz (1877-1972), who spent twenty years as President of the Chicago Musical College.]
BD: Let's talk a little bit about the Pulitzer Prize. What effect did winning it have on you?
JL: It sort of stopped me in my tracks for quite a while. I couldn't believe it had happened, and then of course the next thing I thought, "I've written my best piece and probably my last piece, and I'll never write another one." I really had a terrible time putting myself all together after that. I think it did help somewhat to get my works more known, and I can't say that they're widely known even now, but the people that know a lot seem to know my works. I think that the Pulitzer Prize helped that, and also it did help me, on a few occasions, to get commissions.
BD: The recording of the First Piano Concerto is on CRI, so that's not under your control. Were you pleased with that? [The recording has been re-issued several times, and the image shown below combines it with a Concerto by another Chicago-area composer, John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), and another composer-pianist Lee Hoiby.]
JL: It's a very good recording. I wasn't there and I had nothing to do with it, and I was terribly disappointed that they made the recording when I wasn't there. But when I heard the result I thought probably they did better than if I had been there. [Chuckles] Karen Keys played the piano marvelously in the recording. It's an absolutely stupendous performance, and the orchestra played it exceedingly well. So I think it's really a very good representation of the concerto. You're lucky and sometimes you're not lucky in that way. I must say I have been very lucky in performers, and in the recordings that have been made of my works.
BD: Another disc is the Whittier Concerts, released in 1978. That's got the Six Sonnets of Shakespeare, Op. 12, for soprano and piano (1957), and the Conversations for Viola and Piano.
JL: Polly Jo Baker is a marvelous soprano in California. She's sung a number of times at the Bowl, and has had a good career, and has an absolutely gorgeous voice and musicianship. I'm very pleased with that recording of the Shakespeare Sonnets. They're difficult songs to sing and she did them beautifully, I think. On the other side is the Conversations for Viola and Piano. The Conversations is a set of pieces that can be played by any solo instrument with piano. In other words, there are other versions of the same piece... Conversations for Violin and Piano, Conversations for Trombone and Piano, Conversations for Marimba and Piano, Conversations for Flute and Piano. Doriot Anthony Dwyer of the Boston Symphony has recorded the flute version. It's the same piece reinterpreted in the kinesthetic sense of those various instruments.
BD: Same opus number or different opus number?
JL: It's the same opus number, Op. 42. It is essentially the same work, but it sounds completely different, as conversations between any two people are always different.
BD: So it's actually the same notes and phrasing.
JL: No, no, the phrasings vary, and the notes are the same, but in different octaves. Very often they are different arrangements of the notes. But the name notes are the same in all of those pieces.
BD: So you just had to change a little bit for the range of the instruments, and that's all?
JL: The pieces do come out very different from each other.
BD: But that's the playing, not the writing.
JL: No, the writing, too, because of those changes of octaves.
BD: So it's not just "Conversations for Something and Piano" for any instrument. You've actually made it for violin, or you've made it for flute.
JL: Oh, yes. The piece has to be reinterpreted in its layout in order to work, because the instruments vary even in the the size of their ranges. I would like to make a version of it for trumpet and piano, but I haven't succeeded yet because most of the trumpets have a range much smaller than the piece requires.
BD: Get a first-rate virtuoso trumpet player, that's all. [Chuckles]
JL: [Chuckles] It's just conceivable, but it's not only range but it's tessitura. The high notes in the trumpet are so much more intense than the high notes in the clarinet, for example, or in the violin. The violin can play non-intense notes very high, but the trumpet can't.
BD: Would it be possible to write it so that the performer could change instruments? Have two or three different trumpets?
JL: That's an interesting idea! Yeah, you could have the trumpeter use the B-flat instrument and the D trumpet, and just change. That's an interesting thought. Thank you. [Laughter]
BD: You're welcome! [Laughter] My pleasure! Let's see, you've got a record called Music for the Dance. It has the Incantation for Jazz Band, Op. 39, and then on the other side several smaller pieces. [The Eastman Jazz Ensemble, dirirected by Rayburn Wright, are the performers on the LP.]
JL: Yes, the Incantation for Jazz Band was commissioned by the Repertory Dance Theatre of Utah, Joanne Woodward, director, and she choreographed an absolutely stupendous dance performance of the work.
BD: That's not THE Joanne Woodward, is it?
JL: Not the actress, no. The work was performed a number of different times, but the Eastman Jazz Ensemble did this performance, which was just hair-raising in its quality, and so that we managed to get together the funds and arrange to put that out on record. I'm very pleased with that performance. I think if DAT ever comes into being we'll put that out on DAT, because it has a greater range of sound, which is really tremendous in the original tapes.
BD: You're not looking to do anything with compact discs?
JL: Both Paul Sifler and I have the feeling that DAT will take over eventually, the Digital Audio Tapes. They have the quality of compact discs and the convenience of being very small and transportable and playable on small machines. We have to maintain a very high quality. For various reasons that hasn't gotten into the big market yet, but I think eventually it probably will.
BD: So you think that the CDs are just simply a stopgap?
JL: No, I think CDs will be here to stay, I really do. I think they're wonderful. But being such a small company as we are, we don't want to get involved in too many different technologies.
* * * * *
BD: Now you bring up a point that I want to explore a little bit. You say the Digital Audio Tape would allow greater expression of sound, and greater sensitivity to all of the various sounds that are in your pieces. Is this moreso than you would find in the concert hall?
JL: [Long pause] I wouldn't say it could be moreso. It could be more close to that, but I don't think you can get anything that isn't there.
BD: Do you feel that some of the sounds that would be produced in the concert hall are lost because of the ambient sound of the hall, but would not be lost in a small speaker system in a living room?
JL: I think they keep getting closer to what is really there. I don't think you can make it really better, but [chuckles] maybe they can do that, too.
BD: Another record has the Conversations for Violin and Piano. So that's the same piece as before?
JL: That's the same work, and was performed by the Chicago Duo. Arnold Brostoff and Shelly Shkolnik, two marvelous players. Arnold Brostoff is with the Chicago Symphony and Sheldon Shkolnik is a well known and splendid pianist in Chicago. Their performance is just superb, of that piece.
BD: The other side has you playing the Twelve Relationships, Op 10, and also the Fuguing Set, Op. 12.
JL: Yes, those are two contrapuntal works. The Twelve Relationships is a rather unusual set of canons in two voices. It's a play on words. The titles represent feelings of personal relationships and the relationship between the two voices. There's one at each of the intervals: there's a canon at the unison, there's a canon at the major second, at the minor second, at the minor third and major third; that is, the second voice enters a third higher than the first voice. The work covers all of the twelve possible relationships, tonally. The canons are all strict, so that the one in unison is in one key, and all of the others are simultaneously in two different keys. So they're all bitonal pieces except the first one. They're all short, and the piece is written for a lot of fun. The Fuguing Set is a set of fugues... you could say preludes and fugues. There's a prelude, and there's a postlude, and there's an interlude, and so on, but which are less contrapuntal works. The fugues are quite strict and are each one in a different style. One is in the rather American style, based very much on superimposed fifths, another is in modal style, and in that fugue, which is a quiet, soft one, the entrances of the fugue enter on all the modes. There's even an entrance in the Locrian mode. Then the final one is a piece that comes pretty near to being a twelve-tone fugue. So the fugues are each one of a different little world unto itself.
BD: Are these things that you expect the audience to know before they listen to the piece, or do they just become self-apparent as the performance goes on?
JL: I don't think pieces should depend upon pre-knowledge of the technical aspects of a work. If there's not something enjoyable or "listen-to-able" in the pieces, they're really not really very much. [Chuckles] There has to be something that has its own value besides the technique that's employed.
BD: Is this what you try to write into all of your music - value?
JL: Yes. My aim, in my work, is to be a true reflection of my life in full. I don't know anything more to say about that. I'm not involved in the exploitation of any one technique. It's just that I have something to say, and I take whatever techniques are available or useful in making what I have to say clear and understandable, and absorbable.
BD: Is there a balance between your inspiration and these techniques that you use?
JL: [Thinks for a moment.] A balance... [Ironically, with mock seriousness] I'm very imbalanced. [Laughter] It starts from the feeling. As far as I know, I've never written a piece where it's just manipulation of materials.
* * * * *
BD: Have you done any teaching of music?
JL: I've been invited different times to be composer in residence. I was composer in residence, as you may know, at the American Academy in Rome. I taught two different times as composer in residence at Eastman School of Music, and then at the University of Utah, and also at Whittier College. I can't say that I was a very good teacher. I really don't know how to teach composition, so what I did was I studied very carefully all of the work that the students produced. I didn't just do it in class, I'd take it home with me and really learn it. Then I'd give them my reactions as to what was working and what didn't work, or what I didn't understand. But teaching composition is not possible in the sense that what you need to get is the unique thing that that person has to say. That's very hard to judge, even, at first. If you can encourage them to come out with it, that's about the most you can do, and I tried to do that.
BD: Is there any chance that we're getting, perhaps, too many young composers coming along?
JL: Oh, I don't know how you can have too many composers. The thing is, any composer who really is true to himself is by definition going to be unique, because genetically he's unique. His experience in life from which that work comes, or at least has to be involved, is unique. Almost anyone, if he wrote the true story of his life, would be a great writer! [Chuckles] But most people just can't tell the truth. They can't get to it. Maybe they don't even want to get to it. They want to do what's au courant, or whatever, and so on. It's a very tough job to get to the heart of the matter.
BD: Is the music of John La Montaine truthful?
JL: It's as truthful as I can make it. That's all I can say. It's the best I can to make it truthful.
BD: Do you ever go back and revise your scores?
JL: If I find something I don't think is true, yes. But that's been very little. I find that the hardest works for me to write have been the simplest ones. Now, for instance, the most complex large work that I've written is the Wilderness Journal, for bass-baritone, organ, and orchestra, which Dorati recorded with Donald Gramm. That's also on our label, with the National Symphony [shown at right]. That's an extremely involved, complicated work based on the texts of Thoreau about nature, and I think there were no revisions whatever. It's a 45-minute work with a very complex orchestra, and very many different moods, and so on. I don't think I made any changes in that, yet the Whittier Service, which is for a small orchestra of strings and brass, and a guitar, and chorus, which is very, very elemental, simple music, cost me no end of difficulty. I don't understand why that's so, but that's so.
BD: Most of these recordings, by the way, we've played on the station at one time or another; that's why I'm glad to find out even more about them.
JL: Oh, I'm very pleased to hear that. A composer writes his music to be heard. Some people forget that, so I appreciate it very much.
BD: Here's one we play every December, The Nine Lessons of Christmas, Op. 44. Is that a special piece for you?
JL: Yes. It was commissioned by a church in Minneapolis, and they did the first performance. I loved it very much. I had the opportunity of working with a really great harpist, Carol Baum. About the harp part, many people say, "You must play the harp to write a piece like that." The piece has been performed so widely. I is published by our company, Fredonia Press, so we know where the copies go, and they've gone all over the country. Every year there are more and more performances of it. There is an earlier one, Wonder Tidings, Op. 23. It's a large work, about a half-hour. It was commissioned by a very, very dear friend though I didn't know until much later that that was so. They're both choral works for harp with chorus and percussion instruments. I do like the pieces, and especially one of them called There is a Flower. That was a poem which was introduced to me by a very dear friend. I had never encountered it, though I read widely in the Medieval period because of the operas I've written on Medieval subjects. The text is an absolute miracle of a poem. It's a very, very great poem, and I think that piece touches me very much.
BD: As long as we're there, let's talk a little bit about your operas. Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing opera in the latter half of the 1900s.
JL: [Chuckles] The operas I've written have been very, very special cases. It started when I was a child. My first attempt at composing was a Christmas carol that I wrote for friends, and it got to be sort of a habit. Every year I would start hunting in the fall for a poem for my Christmas carol, and one time, by luck, I went to the Morgan Library in New York, and discovered a book about the Pageants of Coventry. In other words, what we now call the Miracle Plays were then called the Pageants. I just raced through the book, it was so interesting. I raced to get the idea of the whole while I was there at the library. I copied down some of the text on a laundry slip or something, and on the bus going home I started writing the theme. That wasn't a dream. It was on Fifth Avenue. I had no idea that was my Christmas carol for that year, and the poem still strikes me as being extremely wonderful. Then I went back and began to say, "What else is there? I might find others I could use." I was so entranced by the whole thing that I began to think that this was really material for an opera. It was the kind of thing that would take a long, extended effort to put together, because I would have to make my own libretto from the Medieval miracle plays since they couldn't be used intact. I applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, proposing this idea of an opera based on the Medieval miracle plays, and I was awarded the fellowship. By the time I had finished the first part, I realized that it could not be one opera. It was just too big a proposition, and should be what the miracle plays themselves were, and that is three intact small operas. It could be done as one long evening, because they are, of course, related, but the works were introduced one by one. The first work, Novellis, novellis, Op. 31, was performed by the Washington National Cathedral, produced by Richard Wayne Dirkson [Organist, Choirmaster and Canon Precentor of the Cathedral], and conducted by Paul Callaway. The preparation was absolutely incredible. Everything needed for the texts and the music was provided, and the performance was something extraordinary, which led to to an interest in going ahead with the project. The Washington Cathedral found an anonymous donor who commissioned me to write the next two operas of the trilogy. The second opera was The Shephardes Playe, Op. 38. That and the first play came mainly from Coventry. There are four, possibly five of the cycles of mystery plays that are still in existence. One of them, by the way, the only original copy is in The Huntington Library. So, several years later I completed that, and they did an equally wonderful job. Then the last one caused a great deal of trouble, because what was needed to make a libretto was not to be found in any one of the plays. So I had some correspondence and the help of some very great scholars of Medieval literature. They encouraged me to put together whatever I needed, even though the plays and language from the different sets of plays, didn't always match. They said, "Take what you need," and so I made the libretto, which took me just about a year to do, and then proceeded to write the music. Making a libretto, for me, is part of writing the music, because by the time I understand the libretto thoroughly - I always memorize it - it's so much in my system that the music almost comes of itself. About two-thirds of the last of the three operas of the trilogy, which is called Erode the Greate, Op. 40, and that's about Herod the Great, and the slaying of the innocents, was all draft material which came to me in dreams. That didn't mean it didn't take a lot of time. The Washington Cathedral did the premieres of all three of the operas. The second one, The Shephardes Playe, was televised by ABC. I think it ran a couple of times consecutively in succeeding years.
BD: Does opera work well on television - yours or other people's?
JL: People seem to have thought that it worked well. ABC was given an award for the best musical program of the year. I'm very much in favor of opera on television, and I think that the use of subtitles, or supertitles, or whatever, is a wonderful idea. I've enjoyed very much the operas that I've heard in foreign languages, and actually I think it's a good idea to use subtitles when the language is English. German pronunciation is more sharply edged than the pronunciation of English, so it's quite understandable what a text is in German. But even in a pretty well sung text, you miss things when it's sung in English, and that's unfortunate. Unfortunate but unfortunately true.
BD: This is not a condemnation of the performers?
JL: No, I don't think so. English can be much better sung than it is. If people would only study Madeleine Marshall's book, The Singer's Manual of English Diction (1953), I think we would all understand a great deal more than we do. But even so, I think there's going to be a margin of things not understood, and it might help. We all need reinforcement.
BD: Are you going to write any more operas?
La Montaine (right) and conductor Howard Mitchell
with President and Mrs. Kennedy, discussing
Overture, From Sea to Shining Sea, Op. 30,
which was written for the innaugural in 1961.
JL: I certainly would like to, but I don't know. I don't have one immediately planned. I did write one for the Bicentennial, you know. It was called Be Glad Then America: A Decent Entertainment from the Thirteen Colonies, Op. 43. For that I made the libretto completely from texts from the actual time of the American Revolution. That libretto took me a year to write because I was determined not to have anything that wasn't authentic from the period. The result is that every word of the libretto was taken from broadsides, or from speeches, or from acts of Congress, or acts of the English Parliament. One of the things that still delights me is the town crier singing the Tax Act! [Laughter] It makes a wonderful, wonderful patter song. It was a Penn State bicentennial project, commissioned by the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, and performed under the very lucky direction of Sarah Caldwell. She put on a really tremendous performance of it with the choir of Penn State College, and the Pittsburgh Symphony. It was really a very wonderful performance and they did it for a week during the Bicentennial year. Not the performance itself, but there was a telecast about the opera.
BD: Is composing fun?
JL: I don't know... The enjoyment of it is so deep that you don't really think of it as being fun. [chuckles] Even when the piece results in something that's fun, it's put together in a way that doesn't resemble fun at all.
BD: But you keep going at it.
JL: It seems to be the one continuity in my life. Everything else changes, but that drive to write music just does not leave. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't take some time off. For the first time in all these years I had a period for a month when I didn't have a commission, and I thought, "Oh, this is just wonderful. What shall I do when I finish this piece?" [Laughs] Then came two commissions. One of them might interest you. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, which houses some of the greatest paintings in the world, is also known for its very distinguished concert series. The conductor now is George Manos, and they have commissioned me to write a piece in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National Gallery of Art. That will be done next year. It'll be an orchestral work, and that'll be done on their concerts next year. But first I have to write it.
BD: I hope it comes off very well.
JL: I hope so too. It's always just a hope.
BD: [Chuckles] I assume that you've never been terribly disappointed by any performance of your pieces that you've heard.
JL: [Thinks for a moment] I could put it another way. There have been very few performances that didn't leave something I would like better... aside from the recordings, but you're speaking, I think, of live performances.
BD: Of performances, yes.
JL: It really is the best I can conceive of on our recordings. But in live performances the three people for whom I can say that are, first of all, Leontyne Price, who did the premiere of the cycle called The Songs of the Rose of Sharon, Op. 6. It's a biblical cycle based on the Song of Solomon. The second was a performance very, very different but of the same work by Jessye Norman, in a performance with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony which was just absolutely stupendous. I can't imagine getting anything more perfect in any direction than those. Then the performance that Jorge Bolet played my First Piano Concerto with most of the major orchestras in the United States. I didn't hear all of them, but the one that I heard him do with Munch and the Boston Symphony, I cannot imagine anything closer than that. I've been very lucky in that respect, and in fact I'm profoundly grateful to those incomparable artists that have performed my work.
BD: Do you have any specific advice for performers who want to do your music?
JL: First, get the notes. [Laughs] That's where it begins, and hang on to 'em! I'm telling myself that now, because I'm going to play the premiere of my Fourth Piano Concerto, which I'm finishing now. I'm saying every day to myself, "Can you do it? You'd better practice now; it's a year away but you better practice now."
* * * * *
BD: Tell me about another record, the Teaching Pieces for Budding Pianists, with you and Paul Sifler.
JL: We did have a lot of fun with those. There's a very intelligent pedagogue teaching piano, starting from the very beginning. Frances Clark (1905-1998) and her school have put out books that have things for each step of the way. At the very early stages, she asked me if I could compose some pieces which would elucidate and use a particular pianistic problem, and I thought that was a very interesting project. So I went to Princeton where they were, and spent many, many days writing little pieces. I think they were published in her books. I asked her if I could have one of the set of pieces that I worked on because I wanted to pursue it, and that was called Copycats, Op. 26. The one hand copies the other. That's what a canon is, a copycat, and so I wrote a whole set of pieces with that general title. They have been used very widely, and children seem to like playing them. So when we decided to put out a record of Teaching Pieces, we included those. Paul Sifler has some wonderful pieces. I think one of them is called Grandmother's Hat, and it's just delightful. It captures the feeling those words imply.
BD: One last piece, the Birds of Paradise, Op. 34. That's with Howard Hanson conducting? [Composed in 1964 and recorded at the Eastman School of Music in May 1965 with the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra and Howard Hanson, and released on Mercury Records.]
[Photo at right with Howard Hanson]
JL: Yes, and I did play the solo with that. I was very surprised that Hanson chose that work to do, because his feelings are pretty strong against 12-tone serial work, and that work is a very strict serial 12-tone piece, although everyone who hears it says, "It doesn't sound like it." But that technique is employed in the work is, and it's very, very strict. I first performed it when I was teaching for that period of time at Eastman School, with the Eastman Rochester Orchestra, and then Hanson decided he'd like to put it out on a record, so we did it again the next year, and performed it. The work is related to two other works, part of a sacred service. If you have the record you can read the poem on which it's based. But the purpose of this is to show the unfolding of nature, ever unfolding as a religious expression, together with the Mass of Nature, Op. 37, which was also performed for the first time at the Washington Cathedral under Paul Callaway, and the Te Deum, Op. 35, which I contributed to the Cathedral at the time of the completion of their south tower. The three works are all based on the same 12-tone series, and form together the Sacred Service, beginning with the Mass, then the Birds of Paradise as a sermon, and the Te Deum at the end. The three form a complete work in itself, but are usually performed separately. One more thing about the Birds of Paradise. It captured the imagination of the marvelous choreographer Gerald Arpino of the Joffrey Ballet, and he made into a ballet called Nightwings in 1966. I think they did it for four seasons in New York and they've talked about doing it again. I hope they will.
BD: Did you like the ideas that the choreographer came up with?
JL: Very much! It's so far from anything I had imagined. But I thought it was a wonderful conception, carried out with great integrity.
BD: Now I hate to bring up, but you're approaching your 70th birthday.
JL: [With good-natured humor] That's all right. You aren't bringing it up. Nature is!
BD: What is, perhaps, the most interesting or surprising thing that you've noted in that time, dealing with music all your life? Has there been a big change, or something you didn't expect, or something you had hoped for that finally came?
JL: [Long pause] Well, no. I think composers who listen to people who tell you which direction music is going to take are on a bad route. The history of music is littered with right turns. Look at the turn made between Bach and his children, and look at the turn toward romanticism. It's still happening! I mean, the whole 12-tone serial pedagogical domination of the scene for so long. They were absolutely sure that this was the way music was going to go. Look how it's turned away now, completely turned its back on it with the minimalists, for example. They wouldn't touch it with a telephone pole.
BD: Where do you think music is going?
JL: I think such prophecies are vain! I think it's maybe going to come from something deep inside the people that are going to be composers, and who knows what that's going to be? We do respond to our environment.
BD: Are you conscious of the public when you're writing your music?
JL: You try to make yourself understood if you have
something to say, but if you try to obfuscate, that probably means you don't
have anything to say. [Laughter] I heard a really fascinating
interview of the painter de Kooning, who's certainly attracted enormous
attention for his work, and originality. He was asked, did he like
Matisse? He said, "Yes, I like Matisse very much, because there is
no '-ism', no '-ism' at all." I thought that was the most wonderful
thing. Because people are constantly putting "-isms" on things:
there's Romanticism, and then neo-Romanticism; Classicism, neo-Classicism;
Impressionism; Pointillism; Dadaism, Futurism even--who knows what Futurism
is? Composers even make up their own "-isms"! Minimalism is...they're
putting themselves in a box. All those "-isms" are boxes. Little
boxes! Composers are putting themselves into their own little box.
Composers now will even tell you their own influences, putting themselves
into someone else's box! And the critics' favorite term is "electicism,"
which is nothing more than a collect of "-isms." It's bigger than
the others, but it's a box, no less. A composer who can stay out of
the box is really doing something extraordinary!
BD: I'm glad you've been able to stay out of the box.
JL: Since my own aim is to be a reflection of my own life, and my life, like everybody else's life, is increasingly complex, it's increasingly unboxable! You can't get it all into a box, so it makes composing harder all the time, to find all these various things, and to put them into some concept which will really embrace them all. That's hard!
BD: I'm glad you've been able to do it. This has been fascinating speaking with you, and getting some of your reflections on all of this. It's been wonderful to finally talk with you and to pick your brain a little bit, and find out about the workings of John La Montaine.
JL: Your questions are fascinating, and a lot of them may be unanswerable! [Laughs] I wish you luck with your programs. I wish they were broadcast here in California. I would certainly like to hear them.
BD: I do what I can for the American composer.
JL: I've known from other composers what wonderful things
you've done in that direction, and I certainly do admire you and congratulate
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© 1989 Bruce Duffie
This interview took place on the telephone on June 24, 1989.
Portions were aired (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1995 and 2000.
The transcription was made in November, 2006, and posted on this website
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information about
his work, including selected transcripts of other interivews, plus a full
list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the
photos and information about his grandfather, who
was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You
may also send him E-Mail with comments,
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