Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Interview with Walter Chapin, Part I

I decided to follow some excellent advice and split my interview with Walter Chapin up into more manageable chunks. So I modified the original post to just include the introduction and audio, and I will post the transcript of the interview and Walter's notes over the next few days. Here is part one of five of my interview with Walter Chapin, director of the Oriana Consort.

Interview with Walter Chapin, 1/30/09, Café Algiers in Harvard Square, Cambridge, 2:00 pm

A: So, tell me about your childhood!
W: *laughs*
A: I feel like a Freudian psychologist.
W: And how it was musical?
A: Yes – did you take lessons, on what instrument?
W: The big news is I was no child prodigy.
A: Ok. I haven’t met any of those yet, so…
W: I had what I suppose you would call an ordinary childhood for someone who’s musical. Now, my parents weren’t musicians, but they liked music. So what I heard around home kind of rubbed off on me. I remember, since the earliest I can remember, Sunday broadcasts of the NBC symphony orchestra with Arturo Toscanini. Over radio, every Sunday, you would hear live performances. Those were the days. And my parents had a small collection of 78 rpm classical records. And I was interested in classical music, but not avidly, it didn’t grab me. You know, the way it would grab a very gifted young child. They had Broadway musicals. Those were fun. I remember listening to Oklahoma over and over and over again, that’s the original cast recording. There was an album of Burl Ives singing folk songs, and I thought the quality of his voice was very interesting, I would just listen to it over and over again, as a kid. And my mother used to take me to the Minneapolis Symphony orchestra.
A: So you grew up in Minneapolis?
W: We lived in Saint Paul, and I grew up in that city.
A: My parents are from Minneapolis.
W: Ah, right. So, as a kid, I did a fair amount of music, all of no great distinction. I mean, I started piano lessons at age nine, I was in piano competitions that would be for kids, I accompanied my junior high and high school choruses.
A: Oh, you accompanied the choruses?
W: Yes, I was one of – well, there were maybe two or three pianists in our high school who would accompany the choruses.
A: Well, that’s good experience.
W: Well, it was interesting. I don’t know how well I did it. But I was chosen to do it. In my junior high school, I started a six-piece dance band, because I’d become interested in big bands and jazz and that sort of thing.
A: Is this the fifties or sixties?
W: This is the fifties. Mid-fifties. And there were commercial arrangements for any number of horns, trumpets, saxes, trombones, etc. They were expensive, and they never sounded that good, so I wrote my own arrangements. And those were the days when we could sit down and write out a list of -- (pause for ordering drinks with the waitress) – and these were the days where there was great cache in learning tunes. We each know a hundred tunes that we can either play or sing or whatever, and you don’t, the other kids. So it puts you in your own niche at the high school.
A: And you were on the piano in the band?
W: Yes, yes. I wrote arrangements, played piano. It was trumpet, alto sax, trombone, piano, bass and drums. And we played for dances all over the Twin Cities. It was quite lucrative, as a matter of fact. We made all our skiing money that way. So in writing these arrangements, I didn’t know it, but I was teaching myself harmonic theory, and developing my ear. And I had, and still do have, a much greater respect for, let’s say, big band or jazz-derived music of that age and this, because in ordinary pop music, you were then -- this is before the days of rock and roll -- you were basically dealing with three chords, or four chords. And here you were dealing with very complex harmonic structures. You would harmonize a pop tune, you’d find different ways to harmonize it, you’d sort of invent chords, you would compare chords you knew with chords this kid from across town knew. It was quite an exchange of aficionados. Very, very different from the later pop music environment where, oh, 100% of the kids are into pop music, and if you’re not, something is strange, and the music can be sort of simple-minded. So this was complex music, and we prided ourselves on knowing it. And we followed the big bands a lot. We would listen to the old recordings of Benny Goodman, which were old, at that point, twenty or thirty years old, and we heard live bands, Les Brown. I didn’t hear Count Basie until I came to Boston, because he would come to the black dance hall over in Minneapolis. And nobody talked about it, but you just didn’t go there. So you didn’t hear Count Basie. You heard Les Brown, you heard –
A: Did you feel like you couldn’t go there, or you shouldn’t go there…?
W: It never came up.
A: It just wouldn’t have occurred to you?
W: Yes. I listened to Count Basie records. I didn’t think that far. Oh, here’s Count Basie on records, great. Oh yes, you heard he came to the whatever-ballroom-it-was in Minneapolis. It didn’t occur to you – we weren’t prejudiced or anything, quite the opposite. It just didn’t occur to you to go there. However, Jazz at the Philharmonic would come to halls in Minneapolis, and we would go there, and of course that was very integrated. That was way ahead of its time. Norman Granz was the producer, and the musicians and audiences were very integrated. So we would hear Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole when he was still a pianist. He was always a pianist and a singer, but he wasn’t known as being just a singer, singing behind a lush string orchestra. He was a pianist with his own trio, and he played for Jazz at the Phil, so we got to know him that way. So it was a passing but not an avid interest in classical music, and an avid interest in jazz at the time, this was in late high school and maybe first year of college. But what I do remember, which may have been the most important childhood experiences, is what I call musical moments or cathartic moments, moments of catharsis. For example, in second grade, I taught myself to play with one finger on the piano – I guess we had – no, we didn’t have a piano at home. I found a piano somewhere, and taught myself to play “My Coun-try, ‘Tis Of Thee” with one finger. (taps on table) I was in second grade, and I thought that was pretty good. Then there was a talent contest. “Well, I can play “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” with one finger on the piano!” I was very proud of myself. And I came home – and the principal wrote down “can play “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” with one finger on the piano.” I came home – “Mom, I’m going to be in the second-grade talent context, and I’m going to play…” and she said, “You’re going to do what? You’re not going to play anything with one finger on the piano!” So I did something else.
A: Now was she a musician?
W: No, no. She liked music, but she was not a musician. So I reluctantly did my magic tricks instead, for the talent show. Anyway. And it seems to me, in retrospect, she should have picked up on that. But it wasn’t until a year later that she started me on piano lessons. So I started piano lessons – I remember it was my ninth birthday – and I came right along in that. I learned fast, but I never became a distinguished pianist as a kid. There were two other kids in my high school who were known as the school pianists. So, musical moments. Teaching myself to do that in second grade was a musical moment. My aunt and uncle had an album of Fats Waller records, playing beautiful Chicago-style jazz on the piano. I remember being fascinated with those as a very young kid, having no idea it was called jazz or anything. Something in the music just grabbed me. Other musical moments: my parents brought home Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on 12-inch 78 rpm records. You had to play them one at a time – go through part of it, lift it up, put the other one on. And I remember listening to the beginning of that, not being prompted, not “Come, Walter, you should listen to this,” but just putting it on myself, and being totally grabbed by the at-the-fair music that starts the – not Rite of Spring, I’m sorry, Petrushka. The at-the-fair music that begins that. Now I saw the name Stravinsky, I didn’t know who he was, I had no idea he was one of the pioneers of 20th-century music. All I knew was that that beginning of Petrushka absolutely grabbed me, I listened to it over and over again, not knowing that I was hearing the combination of C Major and G-flat Major keys together all the time, but just being grabbed by the music. You sensed that it was very different from Toscanini playing Beethoven on Sunday afternoon, something like that.
A: So Toscanini didn’t do a lot of 20th-century music?
W: No, not a whole lot. However, one exception was, digressing here, it was he who heard Samuel Barber’s string quartet, where I believe it was second movement, he had written an Adagio, and Barber was having trouble writing the third movement. Toscanini said, “Wait a minute. Let me hear that Adagio again.” And he said, “That’s a beautiful piece of quartet writing. I’m going on tour in Europe, I’m taking the NBC Symphony on tour, and I want you to make a string arrangement of that that I can take on tour.” And Barber said, “Sure.”
A: “Whatever you want, Toscanini!”
W: And he did. Absolutely. And so that was the beginning of the famous Adagio for Strings. And that was one case in which Toscanini really did like an American piece, in much greater contrast to Koussevitzky, here in Boston, who just commissioned works from American composers all over the place. “You write, I play,” that was Koussevitzky’s big line. So, another musical moment. My junior high and high school was a boys’ school, and I had never heard a chorus of female voices. Then one time we had a collaboration concert with the girls’ school across town. And I remember walking in, and the girls, young women, were doing something that was going to be for just them, and they were practicing that. And I heard this beautiful sound of female voices. And I said, “That’s fantastic. That’s lovely. That’s wonderful.” So I would have, from time to time, just these moments where music would grab me. Not being prompted by any other party, or whatever. And there were cathartic moments throughout high school, whenever you would discover a new chord, or listen to something interesting by Les Brown playing live ten feet away, that sort of thing. So, coming to college –
A: Now, where did you go to college?
W: Here at Harvard.

(to be continued...)

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