Sunday, December 26, 2010

Musical Anecdotes from 100 VOICES: AN ORAL HISTORY OF AYN RAND

While others are looking to the recently-released 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand as a "vindication" of The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics (or not); I'm looking at it for something waaay more important...(why, the music, of course...)

A few re-occurring themes of importance to past musical topics at this blog (and at the strictly Objectivism/music-themed Orpheus Remembered) are discussed: the origin of the songs "Will-O-The-Wisp" and "The Song of Broken Glass" as they related to the unlikely friendship between "rebel rouser" Duane Eddy and Ayn Rand, and Rand's attitude towards pop, rock, and classical music. While there's nothing earth-shaking here, there is a discussion of the inspiration of Halley's Concerto of Deliverance [which I always thought was inspired by Rachmaninoff's third movement of his second piano concerto], it's interesting to see some themes elaborated, contradicted, or to hear some anecdotes that run counter to things we may have heard about Rand's attitudes in previous "hearsays" (not to mention her surprising appreciation of a certain Fab Four...)

First up: Duane Eddy. I discussed before the letter in Letters of Ayn Rand where she thanks Eddy for a recording of "Will-O-The-Wisp," a letter which had generated speculation on the song itself: Who wrote it? Was Ayn Rand a fan of a rock 'n roll song? It was actually one of Rand's "tiddlywink songs," the composer being Herbert Kuster, and the original title was "Irrlichter," and the song was the basis for "The Song of Broken Glass" from We The Living. The interview with Eddy from 100 Voices elaborates on the details of that letter, including his obtaining for her a cleaner copy from the BBC of the record that she mentions, and Rand's excitement of his identifying the piece as the inspiration for "Song of Broken Glass:
She played it and I listened carefully, then turned to her as it finished and asked, 'could that possibly be the "Song of Broken Glass" in We The Living?' She was startled for a moment and then she called out, 'Frank, Nathan! Come here! Come here! You won't believe this-Duane just guessed after hearing it once, what this music is.' She turned back to me, smiled warmly and said 'Of all the millions of people who read my books, I've always believed that I've got,; she paused, thought quickly, and then continued, 'approximately a hundred thousand readers out there who really understand what I'm saying.'...She was very exited and happy that I had been correct...
Harry Binswanger also asks Eddy if Rand had heard his own music and, if so, what her opinion was, to which he answered
Not that I knew of. After dinner, Nathan played her a couple of cuts from what I call my 'string albums'–recorded with a big orchestra. One album was Twangy Guitar, Silky Strings; the other was called Lonely Guitar. I don't remember which tracks he selected. She commented that she thought they were beautiful. Nathan wouldn't play her "Rebel Rouser" or any of the rock and roll songs. He said he didn't think she'd like those. She didn't like rock and roll particularly.

I've always regretted that I didn't just insist that Nathan play her a couple of my hits, even if she would have thrown me out. Well, I wouldn't have liked that, but she was too gracious to have done that anyway. I think she might have enjoyed the happy and carefree sounds of those recordings or simply said it wasn't her taste in music.

Eddy continues to discuss Rand and rock music in general:
We had a short conversation about that, and she said something to the effect that she supposed they were nice people and everything, but she didn't care for most of rock and roll music. She didn't say all of it. I know she's written things about Elvis [in "What is Capitalism?" from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal], and though she didn't care for his music, I don't recall her saying anything against him personally.
Binswanger commented that Rand "obviously didn't despise Elvis, but she meant what she said, that she doesn't get rock and roll herself", to which Eddy replied
She thought it was a bit on the mindless side, which in a way it was. Even though I was into doing rock and roll music, I've heard some of it that is mindless. At the same time there was attitude about most of it–though I never discussed this with her. I hadn't thought it through enough in those days to have successfully presented my side of it to her. But in rock and roll there was an attitude of happiness and fun. It wasn't necessarily mindless any more than dancing to the big bands would have been mindless.
An interview with Susan Ludel would seem to confirm the image of Rand as anti-rock and roller:
What did she think of rock and roll music?

She hated it. She thought it was loud and unmelodic.

Hmmm, maybe Eddy was too optimistic about Rand's potential interest in his rock songs. But Frederick Feingersh, an NBI student, had this to say:

[Rand] was asked about popular music and specifically The Beatles. She said that she did not particularly like popular music, but at least The Beatles were well-dressed.

Wow. First we hear that Rand hated rock music, then we hear she didn't like pop music, but was mild towards The Beatles. What's next, we'll hear that Rand preferred pop music to classical, and actually listened to The Beatles?

Hmmm...let's ask Harry Binswanger.
And “tiddlywink” music?

She shocked me by saying that she thought popular music that you loved gave you a bigger emotional response than the best classical music. I take it that tiddlywink music was a bigger emotional experience for her than she got even from Rachmaninoff or Chopin.

Rock and Roll?

She said to me in 1979 or 1980 that the last kind of rock that she could hear as music, as opposed to just noise, was The Beatles. I was surprised that she was that positive about The Beatles.

Well. Just when you thought you knew someone...

Binswanger has the most to say about Rand and music out of all the interviewees, including a bit about her theory on an objective standard of music, as proposed in The Romantic Manifesto:

"We had some discussions about music. One was about 'America the Beautiful,' which she liked. I noted that it has a phrase 'from sea to shining sea,' which sounds like the line in Atlas from about Taggart Transcontinental: "From ocean to ocean forever.' And she said that line was in fact based on "from sea to shining sea.' She also said 'America the Beautiful' has a good structural feature: it has stopping points but only one final stopping point. She said she thought that when the ultimate aesthetics of music was someday worked out, each song would be represented by an equation or a series of equations. The difficulty of the equation would be what made the complexity of the music.

Of course, there is still a lot of space given over to Rand and classical music. Binswanger describes their discussion of her favorite composers:
I had two conversations about who was her favorite composer, and she gave me different answers. In the late 1960's I asked her if Rachmaninoff was her favorite composer, and she said, 'No that's not exactly my sense of life. It's more Chopin.' Maybe she said Chopin's 'Butterfly Etude.' But the idea I came away with was that Rachmaninoff did not rank as high as Chopin for Ayn. I asked, 'Too much struggle in the Rachmaninoff?' And she said, 'Exactly.' But thirteen years later, Chopin came up in a discussion and she said, 'Oh, that's music for old ladies.'

Did she explain why?

No, but I think in the later comment, she was thinking of Chopin's dreamy nocturnes, but I just can't recall if she said that or I assumed it. I can’t believe her love of the “Butterfly Etude” ever changed. That was one of what she called her “top favorites.”

What about Mozart?

She was not a Mozart fan. I’m not either, but I happened once to play her the opening movement of his Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major (Andante grazioso], and she remarked that that was one of his few good melodies.

Other interviews touch on Rand and classical music as well. Howard Odzer had this to say:

Anything else that you shared with Miss Rand?

She had a record collection. I was into classical music, and I was thumbing through her records one night and came across ones like Countess Maritza and The Gypsy Prince by Kalman, which was my first introduction to that kind of music.

Do you know which piece of music was her inspiration for the Halley Concerto? It was an orchestral recording of love music from Boris Gudanov, performed by Hands Kindler and the National Symphony Orchestra. That’s the record she said she played over and over and over again when she finished writing Atlas Shrugged. I found the record at Barry Meltzer’s Music Store. They had a slew of old 78 recordings from the 1910s, ‘20s, ‘30s, and I told Ayn about it, and she became a regular at Meltzer’s. Her favorite song was “Get Out and Get Under.” [The song was written by Maurice Abrams, Grant Clark, and Edgar Leslie.] They were these very, very, “up” kinds of things, like the “Circus March” and the introduction in the “Circus.”

What else did you discuss with her about music?

Favorite composers. Tchaikovsky was number one, and it was a toss-up between Rachmaninoff and Chopin for number two. One of her favorite pieces was the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto, with Witold Malcuzynski performing. She played that again and again. She loved that particular piece of music.

Of course, no discussion of Rand and musical taste would be complete without a discussion of Beethoven. I've discussed this theme already (see here and here.) While the interviews here don't deny that Rand found his music malevolent, what they do deny is the perception of Rand as esthetic fascist. Iris Bell has this story that counters the image of Rand as psychological-bully:

When Nathan’s two nephews stayed with him for a few months and I went to a party at the Blumenthals’, we were standing in line at a buffet, and the older boy--Johnny, I think--was standing beside Miss Rand. She was talking to him about his interests and things he cared about. He said he had psychological problems and would have to go into therapy. She asked him why, and he said he loved the music of Beethoven, and he had heard her say that if you like Beethoven there was something wrong. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. We know so little--just enjoy it.” He was quite relieved.
Jan Schulman has a similar experience:

I remember that my favorite composer was Beethoven, and he was clearly not hers, and we talked about that. I certainly did not feel I was in a position to defend my appreciation of Beethoven to her.

You told her that?

Yes. That’s how I felt at the time, that I had to justify it.

What did she say?

I remember her talking about his malevolent sense of life.

How did she react to you personally when you told her about your appreciation for Beethoven? Did she get angry?

No, no, no, no—she was very kind.

John Ridpath's story follows the same pattern:

Tell me about Beethoven.

We talked about him because I’d been very moved by Beethoven, and she hadn’t; she observed that he had a malevolent-universe premise. I told her that I’d gone to a symphony to listen to Beethoven, and I found it very deeply involving, and we talked a bit, because she was interested in that.

Did she ask questions to find out specifically what it was that you liked?

In every case, the common thread—as I recall—was what images, moods, responses I had, in connection with works of art.

Of course, we don't have Rand to verify any of this herself, but an interesting snapshot, nonetheless...