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NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO
Weekend Edition, Sunday, April 14, 1996


(Transcript of) MICHAEL HABERMANN PERFORMS AND DISCUSSES THE MUSIC OF SORABJI

with Host Liane Hansen


LIANE HANSEN, Host: This is Weekend Edition; I'm Liane Hansen.

EXCERPT OF MUSIC COMPOSED BY KAIKHOSRU SHAPURJI SORABJI

LIANE HANSEN: His music is among the most difficult to play. He was born Leon Dudley Sorabji, but the late composer took the name Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. A prolific writer of extreme complexity, Sorabji wrote a symphony of nearly 1,000 pages. His `Opus Clavicembalisticum' is described as the longest, non-repetitious piano piece published. The performance of it lasts almost three hours. However, performances of Sorabji's music are rare. Not because it's too daunting for most pianists, but because the composer banned all public performances of it for more than 30 years. He lifted that ban in 1976 and allowed Baltimore-based pianist Michael Habermann to play and record his works.

EXCERPT OF MUSIC COMPOSED BY KAIKHOSRU SHAPURJI SORABJI

LIANE HANSEN: Michael Habermann joins us now in Studio 4A. Welcome, Michael. When did you discover Sorabji's music?

MICHAEL HABERMANN, Pianist: Well, I was in a bookstore. I was 17 years old, and lo and behold if I don't see this odd-shaped score with a very strange name on it. And the piece was `Fantaisie espagnole,' and I had never seen anything like this. It was so complicated.

LIANE HANSEN: Why? What did it look like?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, first of all, it was written on three staves. So I thought, `Well, this must be a duet,' you know. But it turns out it was piano solo and just studded with notes, all over the place.

LIANE HANSEN: He died in 1988.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Eighty-eight, exactly.

LIANE HANSEN: And you actually met him once.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I met him once, yes. Exactly.

LIANE HANSEN: Late in his life.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, curiosity and a little bit of push from my friends. They said, `You know, you're really going to be sorry if you don't meet him at least once,' and I'm really glad I did.

LIANE HANSEN: I've heard that he was quite an eccentric man. In this castle where he lived in Dorset, England, there was a sign posted that said `Visitors unwelcome. Roman Catholic nuns in full habit may enter without appointment.'

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Exactly.

LIANE HANSEN: Is that true?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: It's true. He lived in a town called Corfe Castle and there was an old castle there. But actually, he lived in a little house, a bungalow or a cottage, if you want. But that sign was there on the door, absolutely.

LIANE HANSEN: Now, he knew that you were a pianist from your correspondence.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Yes- yes.

LIANE HANSEN: And he knew that you were trying to play his work, right?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Exactly.

LIANE HANSEN: How did he feel about that?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I don't know, but it seemed like everything went very well.

LIANE HANSEN: During your visit, did you play for him?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I did, but I postponed that for as long as I could. You know, we had tea and cookies and a lot of small talk, and you know, `How do I pronounce your name?' And incidentally, he says `Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, but call me K.' And here's this 90-year-old man. You know, I'm not about to call him by his nickname. But I did move into the piano room eventually. And before I played, he offered me one of his manuscripts. He actually forced it on me because I said `No. Are you really sure you want to part with this?' But - and then, I sat down at the piano and I played some music that he had written in 1928. It's a nocturne entitled `Djami.'

LIANE HANSEN: It that also the name of that symphony that lasts-

MICHAEL HABERMANN: The Djami Symphony, exactly.

LIANE HANSEN: -1,000 pages?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I think it's something like that and 1,000 performers. It's another Mahler symphony of 1,000- yes.

LIANE HANSEN: Let's talk a little bit about why he wrote music that is so difficult to play, so difficult, in fact, that only a few people do it.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: You know, it's really difficult to pinpoint why it's difficult. There are several factors. One is it's very lengthy. So whatever is difficult is going to go on for a long time. The texture is rather full, so you have every register of the piano being made use of and sometimes at the same time. So there's a lot of jumping around.

He comes from a tradition of virtuoso pianists, if you will. You know, he admired the music of Liszt- Liszt, for his experimental qualities. And he was very much in admiration of another composer, Ferruccio Busoni. Both Liszt and Busoni were pushing the limits of what a piano could do in terms of- well, many, many factors - texture and duration and harmony.

So, the difficulty is multi-dimensional. So it's not just an emphasis on virtuosity for its own sake. As a matter of fact, I was very surprised when one of my friends once told me- he says `You know, you play all this virtuoso music.' And I had never thought of Sorabji's music as virtuoso music. I thought of it as difficult music, but I always thought that the music was the most important thing, and all the virtuosity that might be entailed in performing it was for the purpose of coloration and mood, rather than, you know, `See how difficult this is.'

EXCERPT OF MUSIC COMPOSED BY KAIKHOSRU SHAPURJI SORABJI

LIANE HANSEN: Is it true that you once spent six weeks on one measure of his music?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, I try to make things sound good to my ear, so, yeah, I fine tune and fine tune, and sometimes it takes a long time. Of course, there are a lot of interruptions, you know. You have to go to the supermarket and-

LIANE HANSEN: -have a life.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: -do some teaching- have a life. Exactly.

LIANE HANSEN: Teaching at Peabody.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Right.

LIANE HANSEN: You've brought some music with you, an excerpt prepared from `Gulistan' which is recorded for the first time on your new CD, Sorabji. Now, looking at the sheet music that we have propped up on the piano - one page of music, and it- well, to my untrained eye, it looks as though a tornado has hit that page of music and flung all of the notes all over the page. That is very- that is remarkable.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, you know, your description is very accurate. There are four staves here - three treble clefs and one bass clef. But what intrigued me, for instance, in this particular piece, was although it looked like a tornado of notes, he writes at the beginning of this `Languid and very gently. Everything in an atmosphere of tropical heat and a perfumed atmosphere.' It's like a dream - it's dream music. But as you say, the tornado of notes, but it's very quiet.

LIANE HANSEN: Tell us what Gulistan, first of all, is.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, essentially Gulistan is a rose garden. In his later correspondence with me, he always talks about these wonderful gardens that he used to walk in when he was young, and he talks about how he's just composed another nocturne that tries to evoke the atmosphere.

LIANE HANSEN: And you play it from memory.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, I had to because all of that jumping around, really, is very distracting. As a matter of fact, all of the pieces that I've recorded and played of his, I've played from memory. Not to show off, but it's just a practical consideration. When you've got so many things to think about. So, I can give you an example of how-

LIANE HANSEN: Please.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: -how, for instance, the phrase at the bottom of the first page is constructed. Sorabji is really not a modern composer. He's actually, I would say, a romantic composer with strong impressionistic tendencies. Think of Ravel, think of Debussy, add Liszt to it and then add a little bit of counterpoint and you have some idea of what Sorabji's music is like. So, being that he was concerned with melody, melody is what's on top. And here's his melody.

MICHAEL HABERMANN PLAYS THE MELODY LINE OF SORABJI'S `GULISTAN'

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Now, you'll notice that that melody centers around F-sharp. He's a tonal composer. Tonal composers are those who believe that certain notes in the scale are more important that other- than other notes. So, that being the case, the F-sharp is supported by a B-major chord.

MICHAEL HABERMANN PLAYS THE MELODY LINE OF SORABJI'S `GULISTAN', WITH CHORDS ADDED IN THE BASS

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And the chord is fading, so we have another B-major chord. But this time, with an added note.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And another B-major - warped B-major, if you will.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Sorabji then adds some filigree below the melody.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Something like that. So now we have-

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: You'll notice the dependence on the pedal. In one of his books - he wrote two books, `Around Music' and `Mi Contra Fa, The Immoralizings of a Machiavellian Musician'. And in one of the chapters, he describes what he would consider an ideal piano. Instead of strings, we would have tuning forks and the instrument would probably be so heavy that it would come crashing down this floor. But he liked the resonance of, you know, the strings. So he asks for lots of pedal in his music. Now, to this is added a countermelody.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And yet another countermelody in different register, in a different rhythm.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: So now we have.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And that's one phrase.

LIANE HANSEN: On the first page.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: On the first page. And it is really in B-major, but it's got a lot of chromatic notes and a lot of weaving of melodies.

EXCERPT OF `GULISTAN' COMPOSED BY KAIKHOSRU SHAPURJI SORABJI

LIANE HANSEN: Where are we now in the composition?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, we're now on page six. Here, we're in D-major.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And he relies on repetition to create a mood. But that's a little too simplistic for him. He adds two notes to the D-major chord to make it clash a little bit, to give it a little flavor.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And the left hand has, likewise, an oscillating figure.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Again, A is very prominent, but he's got a B and B-flat in there. So just the accompaniment is-

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And then he changes to this-

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: This is F-major, but again, with added notes. So he uses added-note harmony. And in the middle, we have the tune.

MICHAEL HABERMANN DEMONSTRATES

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Et cetera.

LIANE HANSEN: Wow. It's so hypnotic.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Yes, it is. I would tend to agree. There is a lot of dissonance, but he's - he does it in such a way that it's actually very soothing.

LIANE HANSEN: There's a story about `Gulistan,' the piece you've been excerpting for us, that Sorabji actually recorded this piece that he wrote, but he deviated from the score himself.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Yes. He basically gave us a bird's-eye-view of these pieces. And I wrote to him because I was very upset. I said `Mr. Sorabji, your performances- it's not the right notes. It's not the right beat.'

LIANE HANSEN: Ooh, talk about taking your life in your hands.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I mean, something's going on here. And subsequent to that,every letter of his contained a paragraph - sort of a disclaimer of sorts - `I am not a pianist. Repeat, not a pianist.' And he went on to say that, you know, he played the music the way he wanted and who has the better right to play the music in any old way he wants than the composer himself.

LIANE HANSEN: Yeah. But what's on the page is what he intends for other people to play.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: But at the conclusion of this statement, and this is a tenet that I would live by, he says `The score, the written music, embodies my intentions.'

LIANE HANSEN: You actually have one of your own compositions which is in homage to the master. Now, this is called - I want to pronounce- my French is-

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Yes. This is `A la Maniere de Sorabji: Au Clair de la Lune.' `Au Clair de la Lune' is a French folk song and it goes-

MICHAEL HABERMANN SINGS ALONG AS HE PLAYS THE MELODY LINE OF `AU CLAIR DE LA LUNE

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Now you understand why I haven't made any recordings of Sorabji's songs. And I used his chords and the general texture, and if you want, I can play a little bit of it.

LIANE HANSEN: And we will actually hear that folk song melody somewhere in this, right?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I hope so.

MICHAEL HABERMANN PERFORMS A BIT OF HIS COMPOSITION `A LA MANIERE DE SORABJI: AU CLAIR DE LA LUNE'

LIANE HANSEN: Michael Habermann with `A la Maniere du Sorabji: Au Claire de la Lune,' a piece he wrote for his new CD called Sorabji, Works for Piano. It's on ╔lan Records. And Michael Habermann joined us in Studio 4A. Thanks a lot, Michael.

LIANE HANSEN: Thanks a lot, Michael.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Thank you very much.

EXCERPT OF MUSIC COMPOSED BY KAIKHOSRU SHAPURJI SORABJI

LIANE HANSEN: This is NPR Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen.


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