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Alexander Tcherepnin discusses his career ; part 2

BROADCAST: May. 21, 1962 | DURATION: 00:20:15


Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin discusses his travels to China & Japan and their influence on his music, composing for non-traditional instruments, electronic music, teaching young composers, and his "Concerto No. 2".


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Studs Terkel The Georgian "Ceremonial" as though a picture on a, as though a tapestry, a human tapestry, a medieval scene that we see. There was Saint Petersburg, Georgia, earlier influences; you spoke of the city, the place where you are and the music. Paris. Did Paris, when you moved to Paris you were what? 23? 20?

Alexander Tcherepnin 22.

Studs Terkel 22. Did Paris influence you musically?

Alexander Tcherepnin I would say that, no, in that sense. Because, absolutely in [the isolation?] of Leningrad, or of Tbilisi, I already came to the same conclusion about the future of the art that my colleagues in France or in Germany came. So, what, when I came to Paris I was [unintelligible] astonished to find that all the idea that I build myself [for?] the artist, an anti-impressionistic movement, let's put this--movement towards a clarity, movement towards a new polyphony, [towards--?], was already the mood for all my generation; whether it be Hindemith in Germany, whether it be Poulenc or Auric in France. It was abso--we were absolutely similar, only I came from the East. So my approach to this had an Eastern approach, and there, French were very at home returning to their modes, to their clarity of all the time, and the Germans were at home with polyphony because they never left it.

Studs Terkel But each of you, each of you composers reached this, came to this conclusion independent of one another?

Alexander Tcherepnin Independently. That's very interesting. I think that all the movements always come independently. It's not the product of one person. It's just that a certain moment comes, say, mood where a natural reaction, how do you say, a natural reaction against what was before and building next. And this next building, with all kind of a congregation of people, it comes automatically. Just like now--the post-[Webern?] style it's, people don't consult themselves, let's say. They do not say, let's compose in post-[Webern?] style. No, they'll compose this way but wherever they are. It's a normal reaction, normal consecutiveness of art that comes and we think that, perhaps we have invented something. We have only approached this from our angle. But the general mood, approximately, is always same.

Studs Terkel Before I ask about today, Tcherepnin and his music as of now, and the trends you sense, particularly since your last European trip. Trends. Other city--China. The China effect. You were in Shanghai. And when was the period that you visited and lived in China? Shanghai and Peking.

Alexander Tcherepnin It was in, first time I went to China in 1934. Second time I went in '36. And each time I stayed there, between China and Japan, for one year. Now I must say that when we speak of influences, that was certainly an influence but it was kind of an influence that was prepared already ideologically by what I [thought?] in between time. Because in between time I started to think of the origin of Russians. And there is a so-called movement that is called Eurasian movement in Russian thinking, where they believe that Russians, if they scratched them, you will find a Tatar. And there is kind of a mixture of Slavic race with the Mongolian race because the Mongols never had been chased out of Russia but they were assimilated. So I do not know if I have Mongolian blood or not, but at any rate, evidently some of Mongolian influence is persistent in Russian approach to art. When we think of many Russian compositions like "Scheherazade" of Rimsky-Korsakov, or "Steppes of [Russian] by Borodin, we find the Oriental element in them is not an exotic element. It's a natural element for them to express themselves. So in that sense, I felt that Russia, and being a Russian composer, I would like, just rather look East than West. And when I came to the East, most surprisingly China, and Japan, that I did not expect would influence me. Influenced me by the fact of presence of a long, long culture, of their own musical culture, of their own. That was not ours. It was built on entirely different principles, and entirely different skills, and entirely different pitches. And now this, really, was a new influence that I received. I would say, after having received Russian education, Georgian influence, then being absolutely at home in Paris where I was often called, so-called [a Parisian?]--I am still called [a Parisian?]. Now, in China, I received a new push towards a new conception of art that I never would probably have found unless I had been in China and Japan.

Studs Terkel And, yet, though it was a new push you received, as I listen to you talk, Alexander Tcherepnin, there was a new push you received; at the same time, it was quite natural in your case, because of the Russian heritage that you have, that the links, as though links were suddenly being connected. The links in your mind. You say

Alexander Tcherepnin

Studs Terkel Yes. You say that there was a thought process going on, too? The

Alexander Tcherepnin

Studs Terkel That's exactly-- The shifts, the changes, you said. But this--how did China, how did the Orient, the Far East, then, affect your music? Any specific way in which it did?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. First of all, I would not like to elaborate too much on technicalities but somehow my music escaped both, and twelve-tone and the diatonic, by adoption of a certain kind of a scales that I deduced from hexachords. Let's not speak about it, it will be too technical.

Studs Terkel I'm lost [unintelligible].

Alexander Tcherepnin But, somehow, those technical proceedings that I [elaborated? liberated?] found myself, and worked on them, and they became kind of my specific, personal musical language. At a certain moment I felt they are artificial, that I had to have some kind of a raw material that would influence me and to let me out from too much technicalities of [the art?]. Now, in China I found this kind of a new approach, this kind of a new conception of music, and also new scales. Those pentatonic scales that are away from our pitch and our modes, that are slightly differently pitched in China. They sound like our major modes. In Japan like our minor modes but they are pentatonic with only five notes [and the other?] passing notes. So this give me, kind of a different material already to work and also their popular, traditional instrumental music, traditional theatrical music or popular music. They were so rich and so different that they help me [out? all?]. But, as I told you, I never expected to find that in China and, ever so much, I was impressed to find exactly what I have looked for but not there where I expected to look for.

Studs Terkel This happens so often, does it not? When something is burgeoning, something is growing in your mind, in the most unexpected place you will find the solution.

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right.

Studs Terkel Or the partial answer. So we come to today. [I'm?] living in America, in Chicago, Alexander Tcherepnin. There's one of your recent compositions, I notice this, it says, "Partita for Accordion," and there's a piece about you that speaks of "under-privileged instruments." You're thinking, I know you're thinking, also, beyond the traditional instruments of piano, violin, cello, and the instruments that make up the string quartet or the symphony orchestra. You mentioned the accordion, you mentioned the marimba, you mentioned the saxophone. Do you mind telling us your feelings about these "under-privileged instruments"?

Alexander Tcherepnin You see, I think that there is a very interesting new development actually, where so many instruments of orchestra like tuba, or trombone, or trumpet, or--via jazz or by other, general progress developed a tremendous technical skill. And, of course, other instruments that came to work also developed a great technical skill. So it makes a great number of instruments were lacking repertoire. Who have no pieces to play. And they have to, mostly, to arrange some known pieces and to make them suitable for their instrument. Because when we look through history of music we find that the first lions were the singers. Of course, a singer was a, he stays a great lion today, you know? The lionization of Madame Callas, or of such, of great singers, or of Chaliapin in the olden times, or, I don't know, of so many others. That people really go to listen to their voice and they feel that they are great lions. Now, in 19th century pianists became great lions. Really, they were just as difficult to [meet? beat?] as today's baseball players, [I know what you mean?]. They had as many fans and they were just as popular all around. Now, violinists also, with the help of Paganini and you would think, really, a violin is just sent there by God and that God arranged his hands so that he plays this fiddle and he impresses us and people would adore him, etcetera. Now, the cello is a minor lion, I would say, but he's still on the lion side. And then came absolutely un-lionised instruments. Now they, they were "who will go to hear [a recital?] of clarinet, or of a, of a [bore?]. And, yet, they became now so technically skilled that they need repertoire. And that's where I always advise my students to look on those instruments. They would write symphonies, which symphony will play a composition of a unknown, young composer? They will have to make their way by some other way to penetrate. Now, to compose for those instruments, they need it. They need. And who, for instance, the instrument that I was very fascinated one time is the harmonica. You know, I wrote a concerto for John Sebastian for harmonica, a regular concerto. I treated this as if it would be [by?] piano or anything other. And it was meant for harmonica, it was played for harmonica, and now he plays this all around the world. Now, lately I have been approached to compose a piece for accordion. Now, it was quite more difficult because it's quite a [virtuoso?] instrument, you know. You write one thing, it's [unintelligible] another thing. So I have to learn how to handle this, and this little piece that lasts approximately six minutes took me about four or five months to compose because it took me so long time to learn all the possibilities of the instrument because they are fantastic. And to use them I hope I did, comparatively, a satisfactory job. I will do better next time.

Studs Terkel Did you write the accordion composition for a specific accordion virtuoso?

Alexander Tcherepnin No, it was commis--

Studs Terkel With a specific artist in mind? No.

Alexander Tcherepnin No, it was commissioned by the American Accordion Association. They have now the plan where they commissioned composers to compose especially for accordion. And I think, in June, Carmen Carrozoa, you know, the accordionist?

Studs Terkel He was up here once. He was a guest, yes. Carrozoa.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. He was here [unintelligible]. And he played this piece, by the way, for me when I just produced this. And then he intends to give a concert at Carnegie Hall in June, I think, with 16 compositions written by modern composers commissioned by the American Accordion Association.

Studs Terkel So, this is quite natural, is it not, for you, Alexander Tcherepnin? To find the, what you call the "under-privileged instruments" and write serious compositions for them?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel Because I think of your interest in electronic music, too. I mean, this has been--

Alexander Tcherepnin We spoke about this last time.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Alexander Tcherepnin And I promised you bring an electronic composition. I must admit that, up till now, I am beaten. Because, you know to, it took me four months to learn how to write for accordion. It will take another incarnation for me to learn how to evaluate musical sounds in mathematical units instead of--how to put the pitches that I hear in myself in mathematical units. That's the difficulty. But I am going after this so, perhaps, I will survive until I [furnish? finish?] [this? it?].

Studs Terkel In your recent trip, as a result of your recent trip through Europe recently, have you sensed any trend? I mean, away from or emphasizing more, say, musique concrète, you know?

Alexander Tcherepnin No.

Studs Terkel Have your sensed, which way? Which way?

Alexander Tcherepnin I saw a most fantastic achievement in Berlin and it was called a ballet that they called the ["Tart?."] And, incidentally, a year before the choreographer of Berlin Opera, Tatjana Gsovsky, approached me to compose a ballet on a Dostoevsky libretto, "Crime and Punishment." I read this and I could not see my way how to compose that music so I wrote her, perhaps we will do another ballet with you, but with this one I cannot find my way how to see this as a ballet. Now, to my great astonishment and great delight, when I was now playing at the Berlin Festival of last September, I saw advertisement for precisely that ballet that they called the ["Tart"?] and it was based on "Crime and Punishment." She commissioned the music for an electronic composer by the name of [Henze?], who is one of the chief electronic composer of the [Darmstadt?] School. I was so impressed that I thank God that I never did this ballet because it was perfect. He did such a fantastic score and it fit so good with the libretto of Dostoevsky that it smelled Russia. It smelled, you know this, we spoke about the Saint Petersburg smell; it smelled, it was absolutely fitting. I felt every movement, it was right. And the choreography was, of course, was [unintelligible]--

Studs Terkel And this was all done via electronic music?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. Electronic music. Only with no instrument, only tape, and, by the way, there was quite a funny thing. The first part of this evening was taken by other pieces for electr-also, other things for dancers composed in an electronic way. But, the electricity did not work and they could not put this [damn?] thing. And so, but when the time when the ["Tart"?] came the [crew?], they adjusted so the music was perfect. But all the first part they had to play on the little gramophones with no loudspeakers, nothing more. [unintelligible]

Studs Terkel Isn't there a moral here, somewhere?

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right.

Studs Terkel That depending more and more upon the machine--

Alexander Tcherepnin Ah, yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel What will happen if the machine, the machine will become king, won't it? I want to ask you this question--

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, you have to listen to the "Dialogues of the Man and Machine" [sic] by Badings. You never heard that?

Studs Terkel It's the Dutchman?

Alexander Tcherepnin Dutchman. It's a fantastic thing. I have a tape of this I have to show. That's the most fantastic thing.

Studs Terkel Does it have humor to it?

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, yes. It's humor because it use this kind of, little song, "There was a lady who swallowed a fly"--

Studs Terkel Fly?

Alexander Tcherepnin "And don't know what why," [and all this?]--

Studs Terkel Oh, he used that song?

Alexander Tcherepnin He used this and it is done all by one single narrator, but he narrates this by different voice. Because of, through electronic means he becomes a soprano, he becomes a basso, he becomes the chorus; I don't know. It is the most--but it's not--only part of this because all the other [unintelligible]. First, the machine, then the man of the--then this kind of humorous--like a scherzo in a symphony, then it comes kind of a adagio there, [unintelligible], [sings] "Oh, poor machine, please let me alone, let me be myself be." And then the machine comes and triumph. It's really, it's just like a symphony for electronics. For me it is the masterpiece of today.

Studs Terkel As I listen to you speak enthusiastically, Alexander Tcherepnin, a thought comes to mind: here are you, so involved with the time in which you live. You have been trained, and ever since 11, you've been a composer. You've been trained in the tradition and traditional music. Yet, for all the years, influences make themselves, influences of the times, as well as place, make themselves felt in your work. So, continuously, then, you are aware of now, too, as of the past?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. We are all living in our time and I do not believe to sit and to represent the time of my birth. I rather be, always with the people, with the people that are today because I am speaking to people of today.

Studs Terkel And have you sensed among the students--you are teaching at, music at DePaul.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. That's right.

Studs Terkel Is there a, the young people studying today composition, the various instruments--what do you feel?

Alexander Tcherepnin I feel there is, there are just as always have been, kind of a different personalities, and for each, each composer that I have the privilege to teach I have to find a special approach. Actually, for instance, I have a composer by the name of Phil Ramey, who is tremendously talented. For him I have a different approach than I have for the other one that is now quite successful, Robert Muczynski, who is now [at?] the Ford Foundation. As you know, he, this Ford Foundation sends composer to compose for communities, all his composition are now taken by [unintelligible], his many recordings. So, you know, I would say that each composer that I have the privilege to have under my [hand?], my principal job is to coach rather than to teach. To coach him to be themselves, himself.

Studs Terkel I notice this comment about you, by you, "In teaching young composers I'm trying to help them to discover themselves."

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right

Studs Terkel "To find their own individualistic approach to composition."

Alexander Tcherepnin That's exactly, yes.

Studs Terkel So, again it must, it comes back to the individual's own spirit.

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right. That's right.

Studs Terkel Magic.

Alexander Tcherepnin Of course, let's don't exclude the teaching of usual, conventional techniques because that's like a, you know, like a gymnastic, like a--what you are doing in the morning, in order to have your body alert. But [God prepare?] you to use this. I mean, let's say rather, people should use this as a training of their mind to take music not amateurishly, but to know all what it was done about, so that they do not discover America for second time, you know. So they have to know already what was happened before so that they can go ahead.

Studs Terkel Always a tradition, seeped in tradition. Knowledge of the past--

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right.

Studs Terkel So that the present is better understood and interpreted, too.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. That's exactly.

Studs Terkel The "Concerto No. 2." This is one of your more recent compositions, isn't it?

Alexander Tcherepnin Ah, no. It is not a recent--

Studs Terkel Isn't this a recent one?

Alexander Tcherepnin It was composed in '22 or '23.

Studs Terkel Oh, that far back?

Alexander Tcherepnin It was just recently recorded. And this composition starts by a drill of a, how do you say, of a snare drum. Now, when I first performed this it was in Brest, in France. And it was a comparatively small hall, and very, very honorable. The mayor of the town of Brest, with his wife, who was nicely dressed, were seated in the first row. And they were seated just as near to me as you are seated now. So I could see them, etcetera. And when, you know, they are usually, they had a good dinner before, and the Mayor looked red in face, and all was like traditional small French town. And so he was already prepared to have a good nap while I will be playing. And then suddenly, with this kind of a drill, he [just wake up?], and was present, practically all during concerto. Very often that concerto, that's probably the most played of my concertos, is this "No. 2nd". Very often it was called "Military Concerto." I must admit I had not the slightest idea of military. What the percussion was, for me, always a way of escaping the pitch. And I feel that we are somehow prisoner of what we call music, and prisoner of pitch. Now this kind of drill is the way for me to escape the pitch and to say, now you will hear sound. And sound is not necessarily a pitched sound. And they--non-pitched sound can be just as musical as pitched sound.

Studs Terkel So, if we may hear, perhaps, the beginning.

Alexander Tcherepnin Good. Yes.

Studs Terkel As much as time will allow.

Alexander Tcherepnin Wonderful.

Studs Terkel The beginning--this is played by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. You, yourself, composer, Alexander Tcherepnin, is at the piano. "Piano Concerto No. 2." Perhaps, this is our way of saying, for one more time, goodbye to a distinguished American, [I was about to say?], international composer, [unintelligible], Alexander Tcherepnin.

Alexander Tcherepnin I am always happy to be with you. It's wonderful. You are stimulating. When I see your face I am already [chatty?], you know.

Studs Terkel And we hear, then, the beginning of the "Concerto No. 2" of Tcherepnin.