Composer  Mario  Davidovsky

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie





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Mario Davidovsky was born on 4 March 1934 in Medanos, a town in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His main teacher was the composer Guillermo Graetzer. In 1958 he was invited to participate in the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, where he studied with Aaron Copland. Davidovsky’s interest in the fledgling field of Electronic Music was further encouraged by meeting Milton Babbitt, a faculty member that year. Learning of the imminent opening of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1959, he joined the early group of composers there and later became the Center’s director.

Widely recognized for his seminal contributions in the realm of electro-acoustic music, his Synchronisms No.6, for piano and electronic sounds, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971.  He received commissions in the US and abroad from various organizations including: the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Juilliard and Emerson String Quartets, Speculum Musicae, the Parnassus Ensemble, NYNME, Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, and many others. He also received numerous grants and awards including Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships, The Kaske Prize (Germany), Naumburg Award, Asociación Wagneriana, and Asociación Amigos de la Musica (Argentina), to name a few.

Davidovsky was the Fanny P. Mason Prof. Emeritus at Harvard University, former MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia University, and the director of the Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center at Wellesley College.  He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes (Argentina).  His music has been recorded by Columbia Records, CRI, New World Records, Wergo, Nonesuch, Finnadar, Turnabout, Bridge Records, DGG, Albany Records; and published by C.F.Peters Corp., E.B.Marks Corp., and McGinnes & Marx. He died in New York City on 23 August 2019.






 
One of my greatest pleasures while working at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago (1975-2001) was my series of programs devoted to Mostly living, mostly American composers.  Quite early on, I discovered an interesting sorting process for placing the material each month, and that was to use round birthdays.  When the composer (and for another series, performers) turned 60 or 65 or 70 or 75, etc., they would get a special program.  No muss, no fuss, no red tape (as some old advertisement used to proclaim).  Since everyone has a birthdate, this method was gender-blind and color-blind, and guaranteed that no one would be missed, and no one would get a lot of extra attention.  

That being said, late in 1993 I made contact with Mario Davidovsky, anticipating a program to be done the following March for his 60th birthday.  He was interested in having a program of his music done on Chicago radio, and at the beginning of February of 1994, he permitted me to call him for a conversation.  He was enthusiastic about the topics I raised, and seemed pleased to answer my questions.
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Here is that chat . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:   You are both a composer and a teacher.  How do you divide your times between those two very taxing demands?

Mario Davidovsky:   Basically, I found out through the years that teaching takes away about the same type of energy that you would use in composing music.  This is particularly because the way I like to teach is to get very much involved with basic materials that a student of mine will be using in order to write a piece.  I almost appropriate those materials as if they were mine.  Mentally I compose a piece, and use my experience to compare that with what the students are doing.  So, in a way, it’s almost like I compose without writing it down, but I am almost following a composing process in tandem with a student.

BD:   Do you ever find any of the ideas from those sessions working their way into your own real compositions?

Davidovsky:   I wouldn’t even know, but it is the best way that I can offer my own experience as a teacher to the student.  You really cannot teach composition.  You cannot teach imagination.  You cannot teach people to have an impulse, but you can learn, and basically what I do essentially is pave the material.  I imagine what I would do with it, and sometimes my student might have much better ideas than I have.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

Davidovsky:   I may suggest, for example, two or three alternative solutions to a problem, which a student will think about and come up with a fourth solution that is very, very good that he wouldn’t be able to attain without the footing that you gave him.  So, in a way, it’s a give-and-take, feed-and-feedback relationship which makes teaching very, very involved, and very, very consuming.

BD:   As the students progress, do you find that they need you and your suggestions less and less?

Davidovsky:   To a certain extent.  If you were with a student that is very compatible with you in terms of your teaching, and how they listen to you, it may work out very well.  Probably after a few years, or sometimes less, you get to a point that most of the valuable information probably was already given.  There’s always something you can say, but yes, sometimes I have worked with people for two or three years, and I told them just to go... but go to pick the brain of somebody else in order to develop other aspects of composition which are not exactly natural to my own music, for example.

BD:   But obviously they’re going to have to go off and work on their own.  Are you planning for this time when they will leave your nest?

Davidovsky:   No, but basically they do work very much on their own.  When I compose with them, I’m not composing for them.  What I am doing is like working with a bunch of children’s blocks.  I will take them myself, and mentally rearrange them.  With those blocks I would be able to do A, B and C, and then compare what I do with what a student did.  Then we talk about that, and somehow the student can have a bouncing ball for his ideas, to see what he did and what somebody else does.  So, from that point of view, and going back to the original question, it is very, very involved, and very, very taxing, and the older I get, the more taxing it gets.  I try to concentrate the teaching in two or three days.  Then I take the following day to empty myself.  I go to some museum or something, and then I have the rest of the week to concentrate.  I have two or three consistent days that I can work on my own stuff, so it’s actually very civilized.  To work in the university is still a very, very good place.

BD:   In the end, do you get enough time to compose your own works?

Davidovsky:   Yes.  We always will complain that we don’t have enough time.  There’s a lot of meetings, and for the last four or five years, universities have gone through hell in terms of the economic situation, and the re-evaluation of their own programs in order to conform to the constraints of the economy.  So, that has been difficult, and sometimes even demoralizing, and it does take a lot of your energy and your thoughts.  You come home and you think about that, and you worry about things.  But still, the university is a very, very good and wonderful deal.  Basically, it supports your work.

BD:   Should the composer of concert music be concerned with economic issues?

Davidovsky:   It’s up to each composer, and depends on what kind of connections he has with the music world.  There might be composers that are very, very ivory-towered, and extremely in the nice cloud where music needs money to be copied, and a lot of money needs to be necessary to produce the music.  Then, there are many other composers that are very, very involved with the process of producing music himself.  So, it depends on the personality very much.  When you are in the art of composing music, all you should be concerned about is composing music, and basically all other considerations shouldn’t have much weight.  However, sometimes you are composing, for example, for a restricted situation, where somebody asks you to write a piece for a certain number of instruments, but no more, because they don’t have any more money.  Or they might say to write an easy piece because they don’t have too much money for rehearsal.  If you are willing to accept that, then you are accepting the constraints of the reality.  So, there are a multiplicity of situations.

BD:   This leads to one of my favorite questions.  How do you decide if you’ll accept or turn aside commissions?

Davidovsky:   Almost a hundred per cent of what we do are commissions.

BD:   But if you get too many commissions to handle, how do you decide which ones you will actually act on?

Davidovsky:   Basically, you will think about what your commitments are, and if somebody wants you to write a piece tomorrow that you cannot write, you say you cannot write it.  If they want to wait two years, I will be interested in doing it.  So, it is basically for you to negotiate and organize your own time.  Sometimes, if I have an idea that I am very interested in pursuing, but I am not commissioned for that, I just do it anyway.  For example, right now I am writing a piece for a guitar quartet.  A year ago I wrote a piece for guitar and tape for David Starobin [recording shown below], and in the process I had to learn the guitar.  In spite of the fact that the guitar is the most popular instrument, composers don’t know the instrument very well.  I got very involved with the guitar, and I liked very much what I heard, so I decided to write a guitar quartet.  There was no commission for it, so I started to write a piece.  It happens that Speculum Musicae is a group in New York who wanted to play a concert of my music next year to celebrate my birthday.  I said to them that I was writing a piece, and I would like that piece to be part of the program.  So they were trying to get me a commission for that piece.  Basically, you combine accepting the commissions that you find attractive.  When you get commissioned for orchestras, they have not really pre-proposed it.  They ask you to write for their orchestra, and then you usually have several choices within that commission.  For example, for my last commission that I wrote for the San Francisco Symphony, they wanted me to write a concerto for percussion and orchestra.  I said, no, I don’t want to do that, but I would like to write a piece for voice and orchestra because I never did that.  They agreed to it, and I did it.  Some commissions really allow you some amount of leeway to do what you would like to do.


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See my interviews with Mel Powell, and Roger Reynolds


BD:   It
s nice that you could negotiate your way into that.

Davidovsky:   Yes, and for the previous work that I wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra, they asked me to write originally a piece for orchestra, and then there was a circumstance where the Guarneri String Quartet was celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary.  So, I talked to their manager, and said I would like to write a piece for string quartet and orchestra, which is an impossible, crazy combination, and very, very difficult to make it work.  There aren’t too many pieces like that in the literature, and for very good reasons.  But somehow I was challenged by the idea of making a string quartet work with an orchestra, and they agreed.  So, I wrote a piece for string quartet and orchestra.  So, there is quite a bit of leeway in most of the cases.  They will accommodate somehow, if the ideas are reasonably implementable.

BD:   Can it be assumed that when someone commissions you that they know your work, or at least a part of your work, so that they know what they’re getting into, and approximately what they’re going to get back?

Davidovsky:   [Thinks a moment]  I would assume yes, because the orchestras have advisers who are more or less knowledgeable of the music of many, many composers.  Also, publishing houses will send music to orchestras to be reviewed by advisers and be sent on to their music director.  They know who you are, but there’s no guarantee of what they’re going to pick.  [Both laugh]  They have to take a risk.

*     *     *     *     *
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BD:   You’ve spent a lot of time working with electronics.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with music made by machines.

Davidovsky:   I came to this country in 1960, and the second time I came, I got a Guggenheim Fellowship specifically to work in what was then the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.  That was the first really professionally organized studio to do research and work with electronic sounds in the United States.  It’s very difficult to encapsulate now the rather warm and very lovely experience I lived through doing those first ten years.  I was basically a composer of conventional music, and played the violin as a young boy.  Then I got very, very interested in electronic music because I heard in Argentina some recordings of European musicians’ compositions in early electronic music and Musique Concrète in France.  I was very attracted by the sheer surface of the music, by the sound of the music, and somehow it caught my imagination.  I was fortunate that in 1958 I came to Tanglewood, and worked with Copland as a composer.  In that year, Milton Babbitt was there on the faculty, and when I expressed my interest in the field, Babbitt told me that there was an imminent creation of the Center at Colombia.  They got a big Rockefeller grant to build a studio for electronic music.  So, he was very helpful, and Copland was also very helpful in helping me to come back and do work in the studio.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Otto Luening, and Vladimir Ussachevsky.]

BD:   Are you still working with electronics?

Davidovsky:   Not so much, actually.  I spent probably all of the
60s mostly quasi-exclusively doing electronic music.  But slowly I mainstreamed myself back to my original person.

BD:   Was the music that you wrote with electronics only for electronics, or was it electronics and live musicians?

Davidovsky:   They were both.  In the beginning they were purely electronic pieces because I was trying to make some sense of the medium.  There was no tradition.  There was nobody to learn from much.  You would have to go and suddenly confront a set of equipment that was capable of generating all those sounds.  Then you had to think,
“Can I make a phrase out of those sounds?  Can I make a paragraph?  Can I make a piece?  So, in a way, you were starting from real scratch, and you had to develop somehow a logical way, in a musical sense, to make something that resembles music with those sounds.  Those were very, very exciting years, and as soon as I gained some kind of confidence and understanding of the medium, I basically tried to mainstream it by bringing the electronic sounds and the conventional acoustical sounds together.  I got very involved writing pieces for instruments and tapes, and there were many more reasons why I did that.  The experience in itself with working with electronic music made me re-evaluate completely what sound was, and I learned a tremendous amount of things about sound that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  Then, when I returned to write chamber music or orchestral music, I was incredibly influenced by all these new ideas of how sound could behave that I learned in the electronic medium, and I tried to mimic that when I was using instruments.  So, my music got very much impacted by the electronic experience.  We can say that twentieth century music has been greatly influenced by electronic music, whether the composers were aware of electronic music or not.  That’s because the electronic music exists, and they are available on recordings, and available in concerts, so they are bound to influence.

BD:   [A bit concerned]  You don’t ever try to make one of your live people into an electronic image, do you?

Davidovsky:   No, no, no.  When I write for live instruments and tape, the live instruments play the same way that he or she would be playing in a string quartet.  The other voices that are generated electronically are part of the polyphonic texture of the piece.

BD:   Then the electronics become just more colors on your palette?

Davidovsky:   Exactly, more colors and more expressive resources.  It allows you to extend the palette to use all the advantages of electronic music on one side, and on the other side there are the advantages of the live performer, which are replaceable.  You have access to the best of both worlds.

BD:   Do you ever take into account the audience, which may or may not be receptive to the electronic sounds?

Davidovsky:   This is one of the reasons that in 1961, I immediately thought about the possibility of writing for instruments and tape.  Now, with hindsight, it was very naïve, but at the time I thought that introducing the electronic sound to an audience hand-in-hand with a living soul playing an instrument would actually diminish the impact of just a loudspeaker screaming at you.  I thought that having the electronic music mixed with instruments and sounds that were already known to people, would help to make the electronic music more acceptable.

BD:   To bridge the gap?

Davidovsky:   Right.  I was looking for a solution to bring the electronic sounds to the larger audience.

BD:   When you write for live people, do you expect any kind of interpretation on their part?

Davidovsky:   Oh, yes, of course.  Scores for orchestras and chamber music really, in a way, are still quite awkward for noting everything that you dream of.  When you dream a piece and you are imagining things, you always have to find the best way to translate that onto paper that is going to be read by somebody else.

BD:   The point of my question is that when you combine the electronics with the live performer, the electronics cannot have any interpretation.

Davidovsky:   Yes, the electronic part is really frozen.  But interesting things happen.  I have written a series of ten pieces called Synchronisms.  They are quite well-known pieces.  Maybe I’m mostly known for those pieces, actually.  They are for different instruments, solo instruments and small combination of instruments, and electronic tape.  What I found out was that when the performer memorized the tape, he or she feels totally comfortable with it by listening many, many times, and playing against it many, many times.  Then they can take liberties, and they can rubato.  They can go a little bit faster, a little bit slower, and immediately compensate because the tape is frozen.  That way they can deviate slowly slightly here and there, and then compensate for the deviation because the tape is going to be there for them.  So, there is a lot of leeway for interpreting a piece of instruments and tape.  I have heard those pieces literally hundreds of times, and every different instrumentalist plays it differently.  There is enough degree of variety between performers.


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See my interviews with John Harbison, and George Perle
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BD:   With the advances in the technology, would you ever want to have any kind of interpretative use made of the tape, if the performer could change the tape slightly, say, working in consort with the machinery to put some interpretation into that which is really frozen?

Davidovsky:   This is being done today, because there are people working with real time music processing that will be sensitive to whatever is happening with a live performer.  For example, let’s say they decided to slow down, the whole electronic part would follow the performer.  There’s all kinds of interactive technology today, and every day there’s new software and hardware appearing that really contemplates all kinds of combinations between machine and man.  I, myself personally am not very interested, because I’m really more interested right now in writing chamber music and orchestra music more than electronic music.  But that’s my own interest.

BD:   So, you are letting the next generation of electronics go on to the next generation of composers? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Stephen Albert, Lucy Shelton, Maurice Wright, David Gordon, Richard Wernick, and George Crumb.]

Davidovsky:   Yes.  For better or worse, the technology is always going to have a tremendous presence, because that’s the world we are going into.  We are in it already.

BD:   Then, are you optimistic about the whole future of concert music?

Davidovsky:   One day, yes, the next day, no!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Why yes and why no?

Davidovsky:   Sometimes I have the feeling that we are lost dinosaurs, and sometimes I feel that maybe we are not lost dinosaurs!  Right now, looking at what’s happening right around us at this moment, there is no reason to be optimistic about the future of art music because the traditions used to be finished.  But sometimes, on the other hand, it’s very difficult to predict how things will develop in the future.  The complexity of our world is such that it’s almost impossible to predict everything, or even something, and there is always the possibility that the context of our culture must change where music and other arts will be necessary again.  We should make sure that then the traditions are kept alive through this very, very difficult period.  It’s not only difficult for music and for the arts in general, it’s difficult from any professional point of view.  It’s a very, very rapid-changing world, and the demographics of the world are just explosive.  It
s very difficult to pinpoint how demographics are going to affect culture, but there is much speculation.  Often we feel we are now assisting the Final Demise of the Roman Empire, and China, this wonderful big monster, is waiting to lift off.  All the oriental Asiatic cultures are now much closer to us because of communications and because of business.  However, I would think that music performers will continue as long as there are human beings.

BD:   How does concert music, and especially the music that you write, fit into these changing demographics, and this ever-expanding society?

Davidovsky:   Throughout history in the western part of the world, it never was that art that was exactly populist.  It was always developed in smaller parts of the communities.  Right now, I am still basically a composer coming from a European tradition.  Though I was born in Argentina, I was influenced intellectually and socially by Latin American music, or Latin American ways of being.  I am sure that all those influences did affect my output, even if I recognize myself as coming from a European tradition, like art music in this country.  Basically, you eventually feel very isolated.  What you are doing is continuing a miracle of human creation, which is western music, in a situation where there is no infrastructure that demands from us that we produce that product.  Somehow that tradition is so rich, and such a miracle in our history, and still there’s so many possibilities of real creative work to be done that you just continue, whether it’s relevant to the society at large or not.  It’s relevant in the last analysis to humanity.

BD:   Let me pursue it just one step further.  What is the purpose of music?

Davidovsky:   What is the purpose of knowledge?  What is the purpose of culture?  You cannot put a gold-coin criterion to evaluate those things.  Art music is simply one of the most powerful inventions we humans have created.  It’s a language that edifies us, that redeems us, that makes us more sensitive and more intelligent.  It’s an incredible experience, a civilizing experience.  If we’re going to measure it in its commercial value, probably we would have problems coming up with very reasonable standards.  There are still enough people interested.  There’s still a market for music, though it is becoming smaller and smaller as we go along.  But music is one of the most powerful languages that we have created.  It really makes us so much better human beings.  Essentially, there is no reason to ask the question why should we have it.  We should have a lot of it, and we should make every possible effort to tell people, young people and old people, to educate them, to give them access to that magnificent experience.  It’s bound to make them better spiritually and intellectually.  It’s one of the great spiritual sports that we can practice.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re about hit your 60th birthday.  Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?

Davidovsky:   When I was a young boy, I had a dream of being famous.  We all have that.  We want to be famous, and rich, and be loved by everybody.  But realistically, I never expected much gratification by being a composer.  I was playing the violin well, and then I started to go to law school, and had my entrance examinations because I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to survive as a composer.  Then, while I was studying and composing at the same time, I started to have some very good early successes down in Argentina.  At a certain point, I decided to make a move.  I said,
I’m going to abandon my law studies, and I’m going full-time to write music.  I was fortunate to come to the States, and have the enormous support of wonderful people, particularly Copland and Babbitt, and other people who were very, very helpful in the beginning to make my life possible.  But I never really had great expectations of gratification, because I knew that the music I was interested in was not exactly popular.  To be absolutely frank with you, I never expected to be able to make much of a living out of music.  Then I found myself having much more success than I ever expected in my life.  So, I am very happy with what happened for my success, in the sense that I was able to be an okay teacher, and have the great opportunity to work with wonderful, wonderful young composers, and at the same time have a way of making a very decent living.

davidovsky BD:   It sounds like it’s all worked out very well for you!

Davidovsky:   Right.  Being surrounded with the university campuses, and having wonderful people around was a very challenging environment.  All in all, I think that I got more recognition than I deserved.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

Davidovsky:   Yes, it’s a mixture of emotions.  Once you make certain decisions of what you want to do, there is a tremendous amount of joy in building it.  It’s almost like once you know that you’re going build a table, there’s enormous joy and pleasure on getting the right wood and the right tools to start to cut the piece to fit into the realization of your project.  So yes, there is a tremendous amount of fun.  The challenge of coming always with ingenuity to solve problems that you constantly find every day while your work is great fun, and when you do find them, it’s very rewarding.  But it’s fun encapsulated within a feeling of rigor.  This means that you struggle, and that might be not so much fun.  But in the total process, after you go from inception to realization, there are moments of great elation and real happiness.  Of course, there are always the manic-depressive moments when you finish a piece, and you feel great, but the next day you think it’s a terrible piece!  [Both laugh]  No matter how sure you are of what you do, there are always deep doubts that what you do is not all that good... and that’s fine, because that somehow gives us human dimension, and gives us the opportunity to have some humor about who we are, and how limited we are.

BD:   Who is it that ultimately decides if a piece is great or if it is terrible?

Davidovsky:   It’s the piece!  The piece will decide itself.

BD:   Not the public, nor the critics, nor anybody else?

Davidovsky:   No!  No, no, no, because the critics tend to be very trendy.  Pieces right now that are a hailed as The Greatest American Composition, probably five years from now nobody will know.  It’s time that makes the ultimate sound perspective.  Time brings perspective into the music, and ultimately the entity of the piece will survive or just disappear.  It’s the intrinsic value of the music itself that will be the last judgment.

BD:   [Mildly astonished]  Are you saying that the pieces actually have lives of their own???

Davidovsky:   Absolutely.  Very often you will ask a composer which piece of his he likes, and he will say he likes A and B.  Then you will find that the piece A and B nobody else likes, and everybody else likes the pieces C and D.  There are very different reasons why people like what they do.  They’re like children, so you relate to every piece in many different ways.  There are many emotional elements by which you relate to a piece that have nothing to do with the piece itself in terms of intrinsic value.  So, in a way, time and the piece itself really will do it.  I find that basically critics are really very much trying to make a momentary connection between what’s happening on stage and the general public.  There are trends, and they follow the trends, but the trends sometimes are only very ephemeral.  There are trends that last two or three years, and these trends maybe contribute to music in general, but they just disappear, leaving very few pieces.  If you think about the sixties, there was an enormous amount of composers writing aleatoric music, for example.  Well, very, very few of those pieces are known today.  Somehow, they have outlived their own life, and certain other pieces survive.

BD:   Let me turn this around, then.  Do you ever find that something you have written today might be part of the trend that is coming a few years after the actual composition process?

Davidovsky:   No, you are part of a trend.  You are working with a very clear realization of history.  You are part of an ongoing tradition that is a thousand years old, and it’s very difficult to predict if any of your contributions are going to be of lasting value.  But I am very satisfied to find that many of the pieces that I wrote thirty years ago are played today.  They’re part of the repertoire.

BD:   They’ve held up?

Davidovsky:   Yes, and that I find enormously rewarding.  It makes me very, very happy.

BD:   Good!  I hope that a lot of your pieces continue to hold up.

Davidovsky:   [Laughs]  Well, thank you very much!  I appreciate that very, very much, Mr. Duffie!




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See my interviews with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Sergiu Luca, Samuel Baron, and Meyer Kupferman




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See my interviews with Harvey Sollberger, and Ralph Shapey




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See my interviews with Arthur Berger, Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Lukas Foss, Jacob Druckman, Gunther Schuller, and Karel Husa



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See my interview with Charles Wuorinen; also Recollections of Stefan Wolpe by his student M. Willaim Karlins



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See my interviews with Joseph Schwantner, and Donald Harris





© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on February 4, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month, and again in 1999.  A copy of the un-edited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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 interviews, 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, questions and suggestions.