An Interview With Rosalyn Tureck and Alan Ampolsk

by Alan G. Ampolsk

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Rosalyn Tureck speaks with Alan G. Ampolsk about physics, electronic instruments, the audience, Bach interpretation, ego, and life.

Alan G. Ampolsk [A.G.A.]: You've had a great deal to say recently about your involvement with science. In fact, you lectured not long ago at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D. C. about the connections between theories in physics and your interpretations of Bach. Tell me about that.

Rosalyn Tureck [R.T.]: You know, all my life I've had friends among scientists. And very luckily, the greatest — mostly Nobel Award winners, the others prize winners of other kinds.

A.G.A.: Who put you in touch with them? Did you seek them out, did they seek you out, or were these accidental meetings?

R.T.: It started in my early twenties. I was playing a concert at McMillan Theater at Columbia University. Afterward a woman who I did not know came backstage. She was very enthusiastic and invited me to her home and explained that her husband was a scientist. This sparked off my interest immediately. Her husband was Selig Hecht, who was responsible for discovering the purple of the eye — this was important in terms of studying night vision, and during the war it enabled the English to light their airfields in such a way that they couldn't be seen by the enemy. We became lifelong friends. It turned out that Mrs. Hecht gave a dinner party every Saturday night. Well, there were fantastic people who gathered there on those Saturday night like Isidor Rabi, the great physicist and Nobel prize winner, who was a close friend. By the way, he taught me how to play the musical comb. Then there was Otto Loewi, who was a Nobel prize winner in what was then called pharmacology. Loewi initiated the study of what is now known as bio-genetics. There was Florenz Michaelis, who had won a Nobel prize in chemistry. There was Herbert Gasser, the president of Rockefeller University, [Theodosius] Dobzhansky, the famous geneticist and Ernest Nagel, the philosopher.

Celia Hecht would prepare marvelous dinners and discussions would begin the minute we all met. After dinner, I would sit down to play, and then we'd talk into the middle of the night. I found that we shared some very deep experiences. These meetings became an important part of my life — my social and intellectual life was with this group, much more than with performers.

It was during this period, when I was about twenty-two, that I gave my first all-Bach series of 6 weekly recitals in New York, in which I played the entire 48 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations and other works. This series made me internationally known. It's immediate result was an invitation from CalTech to give three concerts.

After the first concert, I was invited to what they called the Stammtisch. It's a German term; it means a table around which you just gab, just talk. They would serve a lovely dinner for about twelve of the professors and their wives and there would be one (unsuspecting) invited guest. That is how they invited me to have dinner with them. When the coffee was served, Tolman, the astrophysicist, asked me a question. The question was, did I believe it was possible to obtain quality in piano tone, or was it just a matter of quantity? Now, Sir James Jeans thought he had settled the question in about 1899, he wrote a paper that set forth the theory that the handle of an umbrella could produce the same sound as the weight equivalent by a human hand, even that of a professional pianist.

A.G.A.: The weight of the hammer striking the string?

R.T.: No, the weight of anything — a human finger, an umbrella tip — putting weight on the key. He said it's solely the quantity of weight that's used that produces sounds on the piano, but that it's impossible to create quality of sound — different qualities, different textures. I had given a lot of thought to this question and I'd come to the conclusion that it was possible to produce quality of tone on the piano.

A.G.A.: What had led you to think that?

R.T.: Well, I knew what I was doing on the instrument and I knew I was controlling the hammer. When Tolman asked me the question I told him what I thought. I just spoke a sentence or two, and when I finished everybody was still sitting there absolutely quiet, waiting for more. So I just carried on and gave a sort of short lecture — which is actually what the Stammtisch was all about. I learned later, when I became a regular member, that this is the way it worked. Every Wednesday night we had a guest, and every Wednesday night at coffee time somebody would ask a leading question, and that guest would deliver a lecture. I'll never forget when Bertrand Russell was one of the unsuspecting guests. So I delivered my lecture, and when I finished, Lauritsen who was an atom-smashing man, said, "I agree with her," but Tolman said, "I'll have to be shown." We all left the table and went into the other room where there was a piano, and I demonstrated what I did. What it came down to was that I was controlling the speed of the hammer. And all the scientists there said immediately, "Well, of course..." Even Tolman, who had been against the idea, agreed that if I could control the speed of the hammer I could produce quality on the piano. Later on, Lauritsen told me that he had conducted an experiment that proved that I was right.

Well, these people also became my life-long friends. Hugo Benioff was among this group. He was one of the world experts on earthquakes and he had invented the Benioff seismograph. His second love was developing electronic musical instruments. That sparked off an immediate rapport between us.

When I was ten, my Russian teacher had taken me to a concert in Chicago given by Leon Theremin, who worked only with electronic instruments — he invented them and developed them. The sound was very far out — much more abstract than what you hear on most keyboard electronic instruments. I never forgot it. Then, when I was sixteen, and studying at Juilliard, I won a fellowship to study electronic instruments with Theremin. In the spring of that year, he gave a concert at Carnegie Hall with all his electronic instruments and I was one of the soloists. So I made my debut, my New York debut, at Carnegie Hall at seventeen not playing the piano but playing an electronic instrument and it happened to be Bach.

So when I met Benioff in my early 20's it was the most natural thing for me to be interested and immediately involved in his electronic instruments. He was working on an electronic cello and an electronic piano at the time, and he had only one note on the piano — middle C, that's as far as he had got. Well, soon after I was there all the time, and every summer I would spend weeks with Hugo working on that electronic piano. He would record what I played. We worked on it for twenty years. Baldwin later subsidized his work. At the end Hugo had it almost ready. I knew that piano better than anybody else except Hugo. Unfortunately he died shortly before he felt it was ready for the public. I agreed with him — it was definitely not quite ready, but was very close. A year or two more and he would have had something absolutely extraordinary, because he was aiming at a pure piano tone, not an electronic tone. The challenge was extraordinary.

A.G.A.: Why?

R.T.: Because, you see, on an acoustic piano, the hammer comes up and mutes the string immediately. To mute a sound on an electronic instrument is almost an impossibility, unless it's terribly crude. There's always a hang-over of sound and that makes it something other than a piano tone. Soon after Hugo's death, Baldwin brought out the piano. I was very distressed. Lorin Hollander played it for the first time in public. I was also very sorry to see that Baldwin publicized it as something that could produce such a big tone that it would drown out an orchestra and that you could play it in Hollywood Bowl and still play ten times louder than an orchestra. This was true but it was not Hugo's goal or interest, nor was it mine. The aim was to develop a really first-class piano and a piano that would never need to be tuned. I talked to the Baldwin engineers heart-to-heart about the real situation of the piano. They absolutely agreed with me. They said, "It's very close to completion, but it hasn't quite made it." And they didn't think they could finish it the way Hugo had intended. So that was the end of Hugo's piano. Nothing's ever come of it.

A.G.A.: You said earlier that you preferred the company of scientists to the company of performers. Why?

R.T.: Well, the rapport was so immediate and spontaneous and somehow so enduring. I mean, these are people who think very deeply. Now I know a great many of the performers in the world, and I have known many of them all my life. I'm very friendly with them and I feel very affectionately towards a good many of them. I love to talk about our craft, and pianos, and music, and styles, and careers, and the whole bit, but such talk does not engage my deeper faculties — my intellect — as I view it. One can argue that of course the intellect is involved in studying music and developing your art. But when it comes to talking I prefer to talk about the sciences, philosophy, mathematics. It is something that I can get my teeth into. I have found that the concepts with which scientists are engaged and the concepts that emerge from the evolution of experimentation, are concepts I have also been thinking about.

I can't talk about these things with performers, even when it comes to music, because they don't think in the same way. I start by working on form. Whip you're thinking about form, I feel you're at the core of the matter, whatever your discipline may be. That's where the center of my being always is. It is at the center of my playing. I've always been expressing conceptions all my life, but of course audiences haven't the slightest clue about that approach because nobody goes to a concert to learn about concepts.

A.G.A.: The fact that you're attracted to concepts — is that why you were drawn to Bach more so than to other composers?

R.T.: There is a sort of a natural corollary. I remember dreaming about Bach when I was ten years old. I loved all music, and I still do. But by the time I was fourteen, I had already become a Bach specialist even though I was also studying a wide range of all piano music. When I entered Juilliard, I continued these dual directions. I made my debut playing the Brahms B-flat concerto with the Philadelphia orchestra and Ormandy conducting. Soon I had a manager and a career; when I toured I played everything. Three years later I gave my first all-Bach series which was a great success as a result of which I then had really two careers. This duality continued for about fifteen years.

My repertoire included great music such as the late Beethoven sonatas, but even those, as challenging as they are, and as difficult and demanding as they are, did not engage all my faculties as did Bach. So, without consulting anybody and without thinking what it could do to my carer, I began to drop non-Bach works from my repertoire, first the Rachmaninoff C-minor concerto; the next year I dropped the Tchaikovsky. I kept the Brahms B-flat, two Beethoven concertos, and a Mozart concerto. I began to focus more and more on the music of Bach.

Now and then I play music of other composers. In fact, I am now engaged in a project to bring out some of my live performances recorded in those years when I was playing the six Paganini-Liszt etudes, Stravinsky, Chopin, and so forth.

A.G.A.: Your friendships with scientists and your work on Bach have led you to some unusual theories about performance. Am I right?

R.T.: I can trace the beginnings of my concepts to my teens. When I was eleven years old I remember thinking about why I was performing and about performance concepts.

A.G.A.: You thought about reaching the audience?

R.T.: Yes. I felt very strongly then, and still feel that if I can just reach one or two people and open some window or be responsible for one ray of light, then I have accomplished my mission.

A.G.A.: But you've also said that revealing something to an audience isn't the same thing as pleasing an audience.

R.T.: I've never even thought of pleasing or not pleasing. It simply didn't enter my caring about performance, my way of thinking and my way of creating anything. It never had anything to do with thinking about pleasing an audience or not pleasing an audience, or working with them or working against them. In my very early years, when my colleagues said to me, "Oh, you know, we must play the programs that our managers approve," I never thought of doing that. And I remember saying to them "What would the managers do without us? We have a perfect right to play what we believe in."

A.G.A.: Because you were concerned with other issues?

R.T.: Yes, I was concerned with the art. I mean, what does that have to do with pleasing the conventional public taste? What would a scientist do, if his whole goal was to please the public taste? What would any creative mind do?

A.G.A.: When you say you were concerned with the art — what does that mean?

R.T.: I am concerned with exploring the structure of the music and communicating that structure. I am concerned with, first of all, discovering the form, the structure of a piece. I've never never stopped thinking about structures. This was my main focus, starting in the early days, when I was discovering a whole new way to play Bach, and to play Bach on the piano. To do that, I created a technique for playing the piano that hadn't existed before. And out of that grew a style.

A.G.A.: What is the basis of that technique?

R.T.: I look into the structure in a way that is not necessarily associated with music, that is, it is not limited by the music. It's something I've discussed with a number of physicists and mathematicians — Douglas Hofstader, Vernon Hughes. the physicist at Yale, Scott Kim, the computer scientist, and I'm making it the subject of a new book. Now, speaking of pleasing audiences, or pleasing publishers or managers, I don't know that any performer will ever read this book. And yet, it is a book which deals with and is entirely focused on performance. I don't know for whom I'm writing — I'm not writing the book for anybody. It's exactly the same approach as when I walk onstage to play. I think mathematicians will be more interested in what I have to say about structure. I wouldn't be surprised if more mathematicians read the book than performers, but I may be wrong. I don't know ... perhaps some composers will be interested.

It's a book on concepts. But the medium — my medium is music, and I work out of it, just as the medium of the physicist is matter and energy. I feel very involved with many of the contemporary theories that are coming out of science today.

A.G.A.: Would it be accurate to say that music has stopped being the principal issue for you, that music is the way toward an understanding of something more fundamental?

R.T.: Yes. Underneath my playing, the real fire, I always knew, were the concepts. Also, my playing, I've always known, was the tip of the iceberg. What it means, in this sense, is that I'm not spending a lot of my life any more with the tip of the iceberg. I'm spending my life with the base of the iceberg and with the concept: What makes an iceberg and what makes the tip and the base of the iceberg be what it is. And so you see, my passion has always been much deeper than solely performing. There's been a great passion about music. I mean, an ecstasy in experiencing music. And I have loved to play because I was making music. I think many performers feel that way. But there was also something deeper for me, than performing. It had to do with form. Form and concept to me are the essence. I think that is why I feel rapport with people in other disciplines. The deepest level of passion for me lies really at that level — of concepts. And that is where I am spending a lot of my life now.

A.G.A.: Tell me about the concepts themselves.

R.T.: Let me begin to explain it by means of a story about an experience I had, a kind of experience I have discovered that has been shared by a number of scientists. It happened when I was sixteen years old. By that time, as I have already said, I had experience in the playing of Bach. And I already had an extended repertoire, including almost half the the Well-Tempered Clavier. In my first lesson at Juilliard, I came into the studio of my teacher and said, "I'd like to finish all the forty-eight preludes and fugues." She said, "All right, if you think you can." So I went ahead. Between each Monday and Friday I memorized three new preludes and fugues a week.

It was just before my seventeenth birthday and I started on another fugue, I remember, a very complicated one. It's not only one of the longest, but it's one of the most complex. Quite suddenly, while playing, I lost consciousness. I don'tknew for how long. At the time I thought it was for about twenty minutes, but it could have been anywhere from one minute to an hour.

When I came to, I suddenly had this insight into the structure of Bach's music in a way that Id never heard of, or read about. I immediately realized that I had to create a whole new technique in order to bring about this new concept of structure.

Now when I start talking about structure and concepts of structure and creating a technique for realizing it, I am using the language of scientists. This sudden perception was so new to me, both mentally and physically, that it took two days to learn four lines.

When I came for my lesson, I said, "I have only four lines to play for you because I've put everything else aside." My teacher was shocked, and she said "Well, have you been ill?" I told her what had happened and I told her what I had perceived and what I felt had to be done — that now I had to train my fingers in a way as though I'd never played the piano before. And then I played the four lines and she said, "It's wonderful, it's marvelous, but it can't be done." Well, do you think I accepted my teacher's response? I remember walking out the door of the studio and thinking, "I feel as though I've gone through a door, a small door." It's always a small door in my image, a small door into an immense unlimited universe — a fresh, green universe. I could never walk back through that door. Even though my teacher said that what I was doing was impossible, I went on. And from then on I had to chop down every little tree by myself.

A.G.A.: Would it be accurate to say that you were approaching and preparing the piece based on what you found in its structure, rather than preparing it in terms of what you brought to it from the outside?

R.T.: Absolutely.

A.G.A.: That was the difference from what you had done before?

R.T.: That was the difference. When I began to think about structure it opened an enormous universe. As time went on I went deeper and deeper into that universe, finding the form and the formulations, and creating, step by step, a new technique as I went along.

A.G.A.: What changed in your technique?

R.T.: Everything. Absolutely everything for Bach playing. I use different techniques for playing Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, and Stravinsky. But for Bach playing in particular, I evolved a new technique in order to realize his structure and to show the form and the underlying concept.

I'm not talking about the concepts underlying the pieces or the characterization. That's performer's language. When performers say concept, they often mean, what mood is the scherzo in, you know, or how fast do you play it.

A scientist gets an idea, and he feels as though he's got hold of something but at first the idea is still somewhat abstract. He has to create a technique for bringing it about. That's what I was up to then and that is how I go about my work. When you think this way you eliminate concerns about specifics, for example, sonority. That is why I think the argument about playing Bach on historical or contemporary instruments is rather sophomoric. It's secondary to the structure of the music and the forms that this creates. Sonorities, different instruments, are the cosmetics of music — they have relevancy — I have given them a great deal of thought — but sonorities are not the primary concern.

A.G.A.: The primary matter is ... ?

R.T.: The primary matter is, as I have tried to stress, the structure of the music.

A.G.A.: The harmonic structure?

R.T.: Harmonic, contrapuntal, every kind of structure. Rhythmic, fugal — the meaning of fugal behavior, which is a much bigger concept than the question of what is a fugue. I am saying that it's the behavior of the structure that contains the integrity of the music and orders the relationships within the structure.

A.G.A.: These aren't easy concepts. Can you give me an example in a particular piece?

R.T.: There are too many steps, I can't. I'd love to, but I can't. It takes a book to explain. That is what my new book is about.

In general, what I am saying is that it's the responsibility of a musician to perceive the behavior of the structure of the music he or she is involved with. It is the only way to begin to see the relationships between the elements of a piece. Having perceived the structure, it's up to the performer to realize it. It is not to play what tradition tells you to play, or to play the way your teacher plays, or the way somebody plays on records.

It has nothing to do with approval. The perception has to come first and the realization is a matter of finding techniques to bring out that perception. That means that you have to search for ways of doing things that nobody has ever told you, and that you've never heard from anyone else. And that is a totally different thing than saying, "I'm going to do things differently, I'm going to call attention to myself because I'm going to do things differently, and if I'm clever enough, I'm going to succeed."

There's nothing wrong with it except that there may be nothing very creative about it, or very deeply perceptive about it. It even may be marvelous. I mean, we've been hearing performances day after day, night after night from brilliant performers. There may be sparks here and some profundity there and they may even speak of a deep experience. But if they are performances based on the conventional, traditional way of performing music, they speak of the performer, they speak of style, but they do not speak to the heart of the composer's message.

The conventional approach has its roots in tradition. Once in a while along comes a performer with a special spark, a special thought, a special perception and then the music becomes more meaningful in one way or another and that's all wonderful. I'm not seeking to erase tradition. Tradition in a way, is our whole background. But on the other hand it has nothing to do with finding things.

All of us are trained in tradition — all of us in every field. This is how we begin our learning years. The more we know about our past, the greater the chance we will create something new in the future. What I was saying earlier might sound as though I'm one of those rootless idiots who say, "Forget about history." No. Composers learn according to tradition, they learn how to write a rondo, and what sonata-allegro form is. They practice writing fugues and they learn all about the rules of counterpoint and harmony. As they grow older they begin to look around to see what's happening around them. And then they begin to develop their own language. Composers think a great deal about structure and about structural relationships.

Making music has nothing to do with how you think about your own self. When you're completely involved with something profound, something fundamental, you have made a connection with life.

A.G.A.: The way to live is to be involved in solving problems?

R.T.: Yes, and to be involved in something which is not focused on yourself, but rather in the deeper behavior of life, whether you call it nature in terms of physical matter, or some other fundamental concept. I think that is where the real inner field of creativity lies.