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LOWELL Institute cooperative broadcasting for Walter Piston. A composer as creative as a number and then the National Association of educational broadcasters series that created mind used by WGBH FM in Boston under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center. These conversations explore the creative process. For teams to the American artist and scientist in the 20th century. And here is our host and commentator for the creative mind. Lyman Bryson. Mr. Walter Preston is eminent not only as a composer but also as a teacher of young composers and of young musicians. This is a very important point in Mr. Piston's talk because as we have heard from other guests on this series there's a very grave question as to what university or college teaching does to the man who wants to do creative work is the creative mind a little bit cribbed and confined in college
teaching by the massive routines by the pressure of regular work. Are is this a good way for the university to exercise its function as the main patron of the arts in our time. But Mr. Preston has opinions about this based upon very extensive experience he does not find teaching a restraint upon his creative powers but his imagination. On the contrary he says he is stimulated by teaching and that he learns from his students. This may be partly because Mr. Preston is one of those composers and he's careful to point out that there are many other kinds who composes wherever he happens to be. If a musical idea comes into his head on the train driving he doesn't have to sit down at the piano and get an audible impression of the music that's going through his mind. It goes through his mind anyhow and he simply makes notes about it. He points this out because it's important when one
thinks about the conditions that make the creative work more likely to realize that all creative minds do not work in the same way. Mr. Preston says there is no rule for the condition in which the creative mind can work as far as he has seen. Mr. Preston also has opinions about a subject much debated nowadays. Is there such a thing as American music. Well of course there's American music as long as there are American composers but he does not think that American composers should sit down and say now go to I'm going to write a piece of American music and it's going to be American because it has something in it that sounds like the Grand Canyon. Or something of that sort. It's got to be American because I am an American and anything I write is going to be American music. I suppose one ought to care most about whether or not it's good music rather than whether or not it's American music and on this Mr. Preston has very definite ideas.
Here is my conversation with water president Mr. Preston what we'd really like to find out is how the creative process the creative mind works in producing music I think is very common ideals there's something mysterious about this. I suppose I'm a survivor saying that composers are just as curious as you about the process. Does the composer differ from other people aside from the greater sensitivity to musical values and musical forms. Sounds do you think it differs. I don't think so. Composer same to me to be like ordinary human beings except for this higher sense is that's sensory. There's a there's a composer here better than other people. He doesn't hear better than a great many performers who don't compose a tone
well than other musicians many years later than a nonmusical person. He has music. And of course that would sort of indicate that the brain steps in and is able to explain to him. You see the brain steps in Mr. Quest and I don't I what I meant was that it's not a purely physical thing with hearing. I know some of my students here just as well as us and yet they seem unable for example to write what. I believe. That's a purely mental process nothing to do with their physical ability. What about hearing in your mind from what somebody else has written down. Isn't that one of the characteristics of a musically gifted person. Yes it's a very curious thing about that. When I was very young I was
very much surprised to find that everybody couldn't do that. Because to me if I looked at the printed page of music I heard the news when you were young not just three let's say seven or eight. You didn't have to be taught this. As I look back on it I must have been taught it somehow. We had elementary schools we read music. And that musta been the place where this came in. Well on this question of the psychology of the creative my music Mr. President if there is this capacity. Beyond the ordinary persons to hear music when it is presented to you graphic. Again you will thank music without writing it down without hearing. And that's part of the technique of a composer is to be able to write down what he
thought what he has thought how to get himself into the proper condition to think. Sometimes I wonder how one gets by simply taking some notes and working on them in various ways. One gets it by. Not by writing sometimes but by just thinking imagination thinking and tones. Form and success and. And with me in particular I find a great stimulation and hearing instruments play. I often have the impression of thinking about a piece and getting quite advanced how it could be. And I have to say to myself it's all down except the note. In other words I haven't been able to find the sounds that are going to fit
this conception. This baffles the layman just a little bit me. Just what you mean by saying you have a musical idea. Except for the No. And I don't mind. Well to begin with it's a design and time. And it's a design which is going to present some atmospheric coloristic idea. You don't need to tell a story. You know my program and I think I said I know and trust me I don't mind if other people hear a story when they hear the music because I believe everybody interprets music according to his. Experience. But the idea of a pure musical form and design of sounds and in time. Which has a balance. Which has
emotional intensity. And rhythmic pattern movement has a lot to it. Outside of the actual notes that you finally select to make it. This is not. Not merely oh you feel you'd like to find some kind of expression. It's much more much much deeper that well I would say that's more sensitive than that. I mean that is that is a generic term get that I suppose might be applied to a certain thing. I probably would probably would suggest certain amount of movement. And one can think of a design of movement without know it. I have sometimes the students talk over. A complete piece of music in which he has indicated
Freddie's length movement stems and so forth of notes but no note heads pinning it down to the actual pitch. And then also dynamic scheme for the little piece and. Maybe indicating at some point that it's going to be with her because and I'm not a player so it's gonna be with twining lime so if I live there and one can do it that way with a good deal of benefit as far as a student is concerned and I believe a composer himself. The other process would be to have the notes and try to make a piece of music out of those and that's very interesting. That happens too. Oh yes notes come to you as a rush of sound mind out of you. Yes seminars and meticulous sound and you say wow that suggests something in your stat working and you like to
write ten times as much music as you keep a look at the things that go into music as we've talked about the actual tones that you use. Why do we want to call them that want to come and when do you get that or is that part of your if you can say yes and no I mean one sometimes feels that there's a certain. And if you try to make that more concrete and you tried different patterns of notes and I tried another. And that's one way the other way is to stop with the pattern of notes and evolve the melody from it by extending it and varying it and all those technical methods of composers you used to hand my notes into different shapes.
Yes exactly what what about the part that could be played in this but the actual sound and actual sound of instruments do you hear. Ever hear an instrument. But I have you know I've spent my life being interested in that kind of thing and I like to be around instruments. And when I got this commission for the Sixth Symphony for the Boston Symphony and started to write it a very curious thing happened because I knew the actual sound of every player in that office. And when I started to write the melody of the oboe I actually had in my mind the mind playing and sometimes he got ahead of me and so I just copied down what he played in my mind and what really happened. Taking this out of the mystery what really happened when the imaginary oboe player got ahead
of me. But I must say I didn't accept everything he did. But at the same time I had a kind of uncanny feeling that he was playing with my mother before I could drive. I suppose it's the same thing as a novelist means when he says that his characters run away when. They do things he hadn't intended. You mean to say that your melodies run away. I don't accept everything that runs away. I have to control it because there's a lot of music. What is it you bring it back to. What makes you see that something is wrong. I think we would call it a sense of form probably. It's mileage you formed your minds and it's violated the prelate of their importance of that particular note in relation to the whole over all of us and which must never be allowed to happen. Really. Sometimes one becomes a little free
and lets it happen. Usually one regrets that I believe because to say well if I had only control that it would make a much better design. In a sense I suppose this is a gross and dangerous simplification in the sense you have these melodies which come to you. More or less spontaneously. And you fit them into your disciplinary sense of form. So form is a discipline upon the flow of melody. Yesterday promises of this plan everything. You know where you get your butt you get your form you get your start. I think you said you started sometimes before. And I only like two ways to look at Fromm and both must be present. One is as much as I sot of preconceived and which you thinks.
The other is the idea of control growth I think stats growing and you don't head it off. You control it as it grows. I find it more interesting as it was the source of energy that makes it going to be used. I suppose it can but I don't know how you don't have any methods by which you do see themselves you know I saw it at my Beethoven's way of hammering things out as it demonstrated in his notebooks famous books at the same time as Mozart. You know it's just pours out and the force that you mention seems to be working all the time. And that one never has the impression person that is not controlled about it. No certainly not. But one also never has the impression that it could fail and it has a kind of
miraculous power and I have what you're asking and I ask it too. Well is it any different from other forms of what we call intellectual or spiritual energy just a form of which I don't know anything about of course. I think the same thing as I can talk about things go from one idea to another and about you know I've known artists working you know their you know their media. Mr. Preston I've known painters who said they couldn't paint until they got in front of a canvas and got some paint on their fingers. And I know writers who went this kinesthetic idea even further said I have to sit down at my typewriter before I can begin to thank. Some composers have to play the piano and they may play music which has nothing to do with what they're writing. But it gets them in the side of the state
of mind you know possible there's a state of nerves which is conducive to the flow of energy we're talking about that could be not induced but more or less prepared for possible. I DOn't YOU DOn't DO IT YOU DOn't YOU DOn't ALWAYS compose in one chair or sitting in one corner. I compose and therefore I can't because if I had to get time to compose and so you must do it. But I also think a composer is always composing no matter what he's doing. Maybe driving a car or teaching a class I was talking about and goes in and it was him. I like to think I am because many times I've had the experience of leaving a difficult problem and finding a song not from sleeping on it but from doing something out. That's a fairly common mental phenomena such as it doesn't seem exactly a
problem in the icebox and when you open it it's let you know that one's mind must be working on it. Is there any way of saying which comes first in your own working Mr piston or is this accidental. I mean the rhythm the melody the form. Sometimes I wonder yes sometimes I have impression that one of those comes first. But no I think there's always that. There's a give and take between well how do you when you have an idea. Now you've got these three elements if they are sufficient to work with. You've got these three elements in some kind of partial shock. Can you deliberately then go at it that way. Well painter takes his brush and goes out a picture that's half finished. And I think more young composers would benefit from doing more of that kind of work guys for example
you could take one of these ideas and say well I'm going to write this in 10 different ways and then choose the best. And very often you choose the first one you did but. Any idea is capable of endless presentations and as a matter of a composer's technique he should be able to do that 10 different ways but it takes quite a lot of patience. But suppose the young composer says to you Mr. Preston That's all very well but that's hard work. Well I always say who said it was easy I suppose. Oh it just isn't. Is there any sense in the idea that some young people seem to have an O E R S. I suppose just as much in music as elsewhere. Not all discipline all forum is restrictive on their native genius. Yes they do often have it and
these days I find it very difficult to convince them that it isn't necessarily so. I usually say that if your creative gifts are going to be ruined that easily you better get ruined and then become a plumber or something but I know it's not so great many young people who have worked hard at that technique realize that it is not so no danger of destroying that little spark of genius. Hard Work gives the spark so much more to work with. Throw the notes around make them do what you want them to do. That can only be done with practice. Your only way really to tell whether a person has genuine talent early in his career. I'm afraid not. I think I believe of other people that every child is musical at the age of three
that's And after that it depends on his education or whether he becomes less musical No more it was bought well always by what I would say teaching him how to compose instead of letting him grow in contact with music and become really musical. I think that talking about music is much less useful developing a young person than they are becoming familiar with all the great works. I would my I would much rather have a person hear a performance of a Beethoven symphony than to hear a section of it. So many bones and muscles. What about this matter of American music anyway is there. Should
we we consumers look to the production of music by Americans and quote American music. Are you trying to write American music. We just try to go have a bit of American music I believe every note I write is as American as anything because I'm an American. That's what I have to say. And it must come from my background as a American. I think to an American as an superposed on the music side of implies that Bush II could become an American composer writing a symphony. You say you are an American therefore your music is American. This is rejecting. I take it. All I did is that you got to look around you for typical American themes and see what there is an industrial civilization and our version to be expressed as a need to
know. I think if one expresses run should look for what one has and one's own for that's to say in music. And be perfectly confident that it comes out it's going to be you. Well I don't see how it could be German music could be French coming from an American. What about the individuality that comes from the difference between one man and another not between one culture and another between one man and you know I wake nights wondering if you're being individual. I don't I think that this is a movement in America that's rather bad for composers. We must all get together and be American composers learned there that are hardly different from us. I
think it all comes from a real honest searching of one's own my own. I want to I want to write in music and I was the best way for me to do it. General questions like this Mr. Preston. Comes out of the concern that we all have a future of American lives. We not only want the best that we can get out of contemporary composers like you but we want to get the best quantity and quality of composers in future out of the population as we do. The first thing of course is you know what we've done to give them the experience of hearing their music played and that it's an economic or other consideration because without that experience they can develop. As for worrying about American composers the mammas
quality of music is being written all over the country and this is a big country. Good music. Well I believe that if one could get it all together one would find as many good pieces that you might mention farm combos. I heard a very distinguished musicians say a couple years ago Mr. Preston that just what you said about the woods being full of young composers. He said most of them hadn't yet found out what it was they wanted to say. Well that's probably true but he should also have said that. How are they going to find that out if they don't have a music player. Is this a great handicap to the composer. I think that we have enormous numbers of how many hundred you know a civil artist as it were or are over do that. Don't they play native works well. They're beginning to.
Let's get right down to concrete cases Mr. President should local orchestras stop playing Tchaikovsky and Beethoven so much and play a little more of those seems to me that we have a natural thing for them to do to look around and see if they have a nickel poses in the community and I should think that out of interest them more than anything to try to play that music. Would you say that this sums up something like this that if we want a richer musical culture a more creative musical culture if we want more of the possible creative brains put to work in music we've just got to have more good music and more chances for everybody who can make it to make it. That's right. But I think that we are here. We are having more and more good music. When I go back to one basic question and see if I'm quite sure I understand you Mr. President. Endy in this matter of the composer as creator
of the creative mind in music even if you can't analyze it quite exactly locate just what goes on in the mind you still don't understand this process well enough. As a working composer to say confidently that if people could be encouraged and freed to work at this there's a great deal of musical. A great deal of composing talent that we could or I'm sure of it there's no doubt about it. I find them our time and my job as a teacher. It's a great pleasure to work with them. Oh I'm sure this country needn't think it doesn't have as much creative talent as any other country. Well just to be careful we don't waste one. Piston the composer has created our. Conversation number 10 in a series exploring the creative process as it pertains to the American artist and scientist
Creative mind
The composer as creator
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WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program features Walter Piston speaking on music composition and creativity.
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This series, hosted by Lyman Bryson, presents radio essays about the creative process for the American artist and scientist in the 20th century.
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Guest: Piston, Walter, 1894-1976
Host: Bryson, Lyman, 1888-1959
Producer: Summerfield, Jack D.
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 58-44-10 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:28:57
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Chicago: “Creative mind; The composer as creator,” 1964-05-14, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 2, 2021,
MLA: “Creative mind; The composer as creator.” 1964-05-14. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 2, 2021. <>.
APA: Creative mind; The composer as creator. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from