The Fortieth Anniversary of the Founding of Symphony Space, Broadway and 95th Street


                                 Date around 2000 - interviewer unknown.

This material was sent to me by Ethel Sheffer. Ethel read excerpts at the January 7th celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first WALL TO WALL BACH on January 7th, 1978—a free, twelve-hour event which gave birth to Symphony Space. I have made a few additions from exchanges with Isaiah that I have kept over the years.

Isaiah and I served as co-Artistic Directors of Symphony Space for 10 years, following which Isaiah became sole Artistic Director until shortly before his death in 2012.

                                                                                                       - Allan Miller


Interviewer: Symphony Space is a nationally recognized cultural institution, now almost a quarter of a century old, which is launching new program initiatives in spring 2001 and opening an expanded and improved facility in spring 2002. All this began as a one-shot, with a single, legendary event. How did it happen?

Isaiah Sheffer: One evening in late 1977, Allan Miller came across the hall in our apartment building on Riverside Drive and said he was doing some programs in venues away from Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra. At the time he was the orchestra’s conductor for special programs, and in that capacity he’d decided to do an event on the Upper West Side. The question was, where? My wife Ethel Sheffer, an urban planner who was active in Upper West Side politics, said, “Why not the old Symphony movie theater? We’ve just been picketing the liquor store next door, which has been selling to inebriates, and our line passed right in front of the marquee.”

So Allan and I went to peer through the doors, and there was a slip of paper with the name of a man who had been renting out this shabby, defunct movie theater. We took it for one day, January 7, 1978, for an event called Wall to Wall Bach: a day-long, free community concert, where you could bring your fiddle and play alongside the professionals, or bring your voice and sing along in the B Minor Mass. It was Allan’s idea. He’d done similar events with the Denver Symphony and other organizations.

Allan and I were old friends who had collaborated on various projects for television and live performance, with my responsibility being the words and his being the music. We had done Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat for WNET, as well as some events for the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. So I helped with his plan.

We got a lot of volunteer help. We borrowed light bulbs, we borrowed music stands, we called on all the people we knew in the neighborhood, which included stars such as Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman. And we had the American Symphony Orchestra with some thirty professional musicians.

Of course, the community is extraordinary. That very first Wall to Wall involved West Side residents such as the Zukermans, Jaime Laredo, and Claude Frank, who simply said, “Yes, I’ll come and play some Bach.”

It’s also remarkable to think about the community participants who weren’t famous. We have a videotape from the first Wall to Wall, where someone asked a little girl with a fiddle how she’d felt, playing with Pinchas Zukerman. She said she’d been a little nervous, but it had been OK. That little girl turned out to be Pamela Frank.

Throughout that day, from 11 A.M. to 11P.M., which was free to everyone, thousands of people came and went. Our children clicked the clicker to count the people coming in; they passed out the programs, which the neighborhood printer had run off for us cheap. The day turned into a legendary event. Thousands now claim to have been there who never could have attended—it’s like Ted Williams’s final home run. But five thousand were there.

Calvin Tomkins wrote about the event in the New Yorker, quoting Ethel at the end: “You should have seen a woman who just gave us five dollars. She had tears streaming down her cheeks, and she said it was the happiest day of her life. ‘I’ve never played with an orchestra before, and today I made my debut with Pinchas Zukerman.’”

We ended that glorious day with the B Minor Mass, conducted by Allan, with hundreds of people who came along, picked up a copy of the score, and sang as the chorus. I was in the chorus, too, and I’ve been told many times that in the middle of the “Gloria” I was weeping at what a great day it had been. But the part of me that wasn’t weeping was scheming: “We’ve got to take over this joint.”

Founding of Symphony Space

Interviewer:   Why would you want to take over a derelict movie theater?

Sheffer: Early that morning, while Pinchas Zukerman was warming up his ensemble, Allan and I were busy cleaning the bathrooms—the Ur-bathrooms, three generations of fixtures ago. And we looked up and said to ourselves, “Oh my gosh, this place has good sound.” It was pure, dumb luck, since the building had first been a fish market and then a skating rink—but it turned out to have good acoustics.

Just like that, we discovered the accidents of architecture that have contributed to the success of Symphony Space. The place, quite simply, is audience-friendly. Even at the start, when the stage was still some platforms that my colleague and mentor Joe Papp had lent us, poets and actors and musicians who performed here would say, “Hey, it’s a good room. You can hear and see.” That’s why we’ve always resisted having a conventional proscenium arch, curtain and orchestra pit—anything that would create a gulf between the performers and the audience. The actors onstage in Selected Shorts, or the musician performing a trio, feel the back row is not very far away.

Joanne Cossa: There’s an extraordinary intimacy between the performer and the audience. It has something to do with the odd shape of this interior, which is more of a square than a rectangle. When an actor is reading in Selected Shorts, you can literally hear a pin drop. I remember when William Hurt came off stage and said, “Where do you get these people? They listen.” Well, our audience is special, but so is the theater. It has an electric communication that’s very unusual in a place with this many seats.

Interviewer:   So you began scheming. What was the next step?

Sheffer: The next morning, as our children helped us sort the nickels, dimes, and dollars that had been thrown into the hat, I made up the name Symphony Space, meaning a space in the old Symphony movie theater, but a space where you could do much more than the building had ever contained before. We incorporated with a few friends. By May 1978, we had a temporary lease. In June, we organized another Wall to Wall, just to show the world we could do such a thing, and over the summer we held some other events—and all the while we were busy with our professional lives. I was directing a show in Philadelphia, at the Playhouse in the Park, when Allan called to say that Bevis Longstreth, our current board chairman, had gotten us our first grant, for $10,000, through his friends at the Ford Foundation.

Interviewer:   How did you program Symphony Space at the start?

Sheffer: Our temporary lease, which ran from May through December, allowed us to do whatever we wanted, except for five nights a month when the owners could present boxing and wrestling matches. We used to go out on the street and hustle people to help us dismantle the wrestling ring, mop the place, put up the platforms for the stage, and lift the piano we had borrowed on to the makeshift stage. When they lined up we gave them a few dollars­—most of them went around and got in the back of the line again. We didn’t mind; we paid them twice.

By September, Allan and I felt ready to rule out some squares on a piece of paper and make a calendar for October 1978. Allan said, “OK, on this night I’ll have some friends perform some Mozart trios,” and I said, “On this night, I’ll have some friends do a play reading. “The challenge was to fill in the blanks. Allan and I soon realized we could never dominate this place; there were simply too many days in the year. So we decided Symphony Space would serve two functions. A percentage of the calendar would be devoted to our in-house productions. For the other days, we would make this place as economically accessible as possible to other individuals and ensembles in many arts.

We let the word go out that this place was available—and after three months, we found ourselves having to institute systems to filter requests. There was no real stage and no lighting; we were cleaning and fixing when we could, with a group of volunteers; and yet we had a multitude of requests from recitalists, theater groups, dance ensembles, and many contemporary music groups who up to that time had been performing in university halls and churches. By January, 1979, we knew there was an expressed need from all quarters to use this place.

(The following is from a memo from Isaiah to Allan.) “We had lots of difficulties with the old theater. About a year into our tenure there was trouble with the boiler. The audience for METROPOLIS, a performing group, was wearing their coats, but no one left or complained about the cold. Haas, the manager of METROPOLIS, and I had a little scene as he asked couldn’t we take $100 off the rental price because it had been cold. I said no, we were sorry, we had done all we could, which was true, and that he hadn’t lost a penny or one customer, and I didn’t think we should be punished. He finally paid me the $500. (That Sheffer; he’s tough.)” 

Cossa: The early Wall to Walls had John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Morgan Freeman, Beverly Sills, Barbara Cook, Madeleine Kahn, and Dawn Upshaw. They immediately responded to the notion that events with unusual formats were happening at this place at 95th Street.

Sheffer: When we held play readings, Broadway stars would come to participate, which gave us our first glimmer of what we might later do in Selected Shorts. We received that same level of community support with Bloomsday on Broadway, our annual reading of James Joyce's Ulysses, which we began in 1982. The list of participants has included Bob and Ray, Fionnula Flanagan, Milo O’Shea, Claire Bloom, Frank McCourt, and Lili Taylor.

So you see, our mission was always community-based. We were just lucky enough to be in one of the most diverse and brilliant cultural communities in the world.

Opening the Doors to the Community

Interviewer:   But you also had community involvement from artists who were not famous.

Sheffer: Groups quickly responded. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players came along the very first year and remain with us till this day. Young Albert Bergeret, who was running the Barnard-Columbia Gilbert and Sullivan program, needed a place that wasn’t City Center but that wasn’t a college basement, either. He found it here, and Symphony Space has since become NYGASP’s unofficial home.

Cossa: That aspect of our programming has been tremendously important—because as time went on, Symphony Space drew people who had expertise in other fields, so that our programs were constantly broadened.

In the late 1980s, for example, we asked the World Music Institute to become part of our Performance Subsidy Program. Before I came here I didn’t know anything about ethnomusicology; I didn’t know about Moroccan Gnawi trance music. But I knew that Robert Browning did. And though we were too poor to say, “We’ll hire you and you’ll put on a lot of concerts,” we could give him a home, so he could present a great part of his season. That partnership is now twelve years old.

Sheffer: I take great pleasure when someone comes up to me at the onion counter at Fairway and says, “Loved your Nigerian dance troupe.” For all that I don’t know about Nigerian dance, I’m thrilled to have helped bring that person and that troupe together.

Interviewer:   On what terms did you rent Symphony Space to NYGASP and other groups?

Sheffer: That first year we set up a simple scheme, whereby you put down $250—”you” being a recitalist or a theater company—and you would have this place for an evening, if Allan and I judged you were meritorious and your work was of artistic interest. We made some judgments based on speculation and hope—such as the legendary Night of the Accordion Sextet, which will not be mentioned again. And you got back your $250 out of the contributions that came in at the door. So groups initially used this place for free—and that spread the awareness of Symphony Space. That was the beginning of our present Performance Subsidy Program.

Cossa: The Performance Subsidy Program creates partnerships with other institutions that are small but have something of artistic value to this community. They get a 35 to 40 percent discount on the rent, beyond the discount that we give to every 501(c)(3), on a rate that’s already below market to begin with. On top of that, we give these partners production and marketing services. In return, we have things on the stage that we don’t have the resources to produce ourselves.

Interviewer:   In terms of Symphony Space’s contribution to the larger culture of New York City and the nation, why is it important to throw open the doors to all these different artists and groups?

Cossa: There is always a need for performers to be able to show their work, whether well-established in their careers or not—to try out things in a non-threatening atmosphere where they don’t have to worry about the New York Times critics, in a place that is friendly and inviting. That was what Symphony Space offered at the beginning and continues to offer. This place became attractive to the cultural community, and earned great loyalty from them. That loyalty contributed enormously to our ability to survive.

Sheffer: Here we were, creating a gathering place for all these different arts and all these different communities, and doing it in unexpected circumstances. We were viewed at first as brightening a downtrodden block in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood. That gave a sense of adventure to Symphony Space—which is one of the many reasons why, when our epic real-estate struggle began, we were so determined to hold our ground.

We held on even when developers made tantalizing promises that after they’d demolished the building, they would put up something that would include “a state-of-the-art theater”—a phrase to be wary of, my friends. We were extremely skeptical that a plastered cubicle, located two escalator flights down in some real estate development with six movie theaters and an apartment house, would be nearly as good as the theater we had, or could have anything like the spirit of Symphony Space.

Many other arts organizations begin by setting themselves up in business and then say, after a while, “We’ve got to do some community outreach.” We were just the opposite. We started with community outreach. And while we’ve become professional and institutional, we continue to have these community support structures. Of course, our community is extraordinary.

The connecting threads, I think, are a sense of adventure, a sense of accessibility to the artists, a sense of innovation for the audience, and a sense of friendliness and warmth, all while top professional standards are being maintained. That’s the real trick. If you can make it really top-flight, and at the same time keep it warm and encouraging participation, then you’ve achieved something.

High Fidelity - The Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet

Excerpts from a Documentary Film, 1989
Directed and Produced by Allan Miller


The Guarneri String Quartet, the preeminent quartet of its time, was formed at the Marlboro Music Festival in 1964, and played until its retirement in 2009. David Soyer, the quartet's cellist, was older than the other three, who had met as students at the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1950's. Soyer retired in 2002 and died in 2010. (Peter Wiley took over the cello role during the Guarneri's last years.)

The following are verbatim remarks made by the members of the original quartet, drawn from the documentary film I made. They are transcribed from rehearsals, interviews, and conversations with each other. In some cases I have rearranged the order of the comments to give them a coherence they would otherwise lack without the context of the musical and other scenes to which they were attached.


Audience member: “What is it that keeps you together as a group? Why do you all stay together?

David - Well, we manage it somehow. It certainly...

John - Money.

Michael - Never hurts, eh? But we are the oldest in America, aren't we? twenty-three years.

John – There are thousands of reasons to stay together and thousands of reasons to break up.

Arnold - Well, I think there are two main reasons, aside from money. And those are, number one, that we love playing quartets still, we still love playing quartets, and the repertoire, and number two I think people are hiring us to play concerts and so I think the success and the activity just oils the machinery.

Michael – Yeah, but a lot of other quartets have had changes – equally successful quartets have had many changes along the way. Frankly I don’t know why it is that we haven’t changed members. 

Arnold – Are you about to announce your resignation?

Michael - This would be a perfect time and place – no that’s a tough one to answer. 


Michael - I don't think any non-quartet player has the least idea of what quartet playing is in terms of commitment and flexibility and compromise and all of the things personal and musical that make up a quartet.

Arnold - It's been said often that, my gosh, how can you play in a string quartet? You can't do what you want.

John - The minute you put yourself down in a quartet situation there are certain constraints that operate immediately on you as a player.

David - It's a difficult situation with the jealous guarding of one’s own personal opinions about music which are always up for defense.

John - You have to almost completely give up your own personality but you have to retain it at the same time.

David - I had the experience of playing in string quartets, and I know that as far as the personality problems are concerned, quartets break up usually because of personal problems, not musical problems. There's, you know, the quarreling and fighting among the four, and sometimes a perfectly good quartet in a musical sense - fine players - but they very often don't last because they don't get along.

Michael - We are mindful of the fact that we are today the oldest original quartet in the world and we're proud of it. I think we have tremendous pride in the fact that we've managed to overcome personal difficulties and occasional problems and make it work, because we see so many casualties along the way.



Michael – Arnold, you put a dot like an accent – that’s better but it still sounds like you have a dot over the note.

Arnold - David, you bolted at Letter D and I could hardly keep up with you.

David – If you don’t want to change the tempo at D - yes, but by this time it's already much slower – by now its not even the tempo of the opening any more. Now, if you want to keep the same tempo, what tempo do you want to play it in?

Michael – a little bit faster – we do that in every-

David - from Letter A to Letter D it gets very much slower, which is all right in itself - I don’t mind that.

Arnold – I don’t think it gets at all slower between A and D. I think it’s the identical tempo. (Arnold plays, then David plays.)

David – That’s the tempo we’ve been playing. If you want me to play faster I will. I'd prefer to. But I’ll play it the same tempo – that’s it.

Arnold – it could move a little bit, afterwards.

David – That’s what I was doing.

Arnold – It should move.

David - That's what I was doing, but now you're complaining it was going too fast.

John – Each entrance should have the impression of going ahead.

Michael – Let’s be reasonable.

David- I thought that was reasonable.

Michael – Its melody...

Arnold - I think that's a good tempo.

Arnold - You're either running or we're holding back.

David - You're getting ahead of us.

Arnold - No, no. It's always been that way.


Arnold – You’d think that after all these years we’d pretty much fall into a certain groove and agree on things, but no, that doesn’t happen.

David - One of the things you get in a quartet rehearsal is the fact that you're criticizing and getting criticized. Many players can't take that. It's one of the things that creates great sensitivity, raw spots. If someone is told, “That's out of tune,” the attitude has to be, “OK, that's out of tune and I'll fix it.”

Michael – We’re very, very lucky to be doing what we’re doing and we'd be damn fools if we let personal issues, no matter how serious, interfere with the whole. Frustrating, but wonderfully challenging.

Arnold – There has to be candor in a quartet for it to survive.  

David - Sometimes the problems are never resolved, and there are situations today, I mean, when one of us would say: “I’ve never agreed with that, I still don’t agree with it, I probably never will and I’ll go to my grave not agreeing with it."  But we do it that way. Ok, well, maybe that’s a compromise, I guess.


Arnold - It’s not our style to say, “Gee, Arnold, that was really beautiful.”

David - But I think if you saw some other quartet rehearsal you would find a great difference. Their manner is, “Uh – that was wonderful – it sounded so beautiful. Uh, I really hate to say anything about it at all – it was really beautiful; but do you suppose it could, oh, no, no, it was really too nice. No, never mind, but could you possibly play it a little faster, or louder, or softer, or slower, or whatever it might be - or more in tune?”

Michael - I think all of us have felt leaned on or possibly persecuted at times, but then that feeling passes from one to the other just as a melody would within a quartet.


David – It’s nitpicking, hair splitting and sounds like SHIT.

Michael - How can nitpicking be done over ten bars?

David - Easily: that's what you're doing...Literalism is not my bag.

Michael - Aw shit.

Arnold - Sometimes I think we should travel with a Talmudic scholar to figure out all the decisions we have to make.

Michael – Strength, individuality, and a feeling that each of our voices can be easily set in relief from the others. And yet, of course, at moments it’s important that we do play in a more concerted way, and that we blend our musical ideas, and that we compromise and make adjustments – all of that happening at the same time.

Me, off camera – That’s impossible.

Michael – It’s impossible.


Michael - We've always been a leaderless quartet or put it this way: we're a quartet of four leaders, four strong, assertive individuals and that implies a certain give and take, a certain democratic way of doing things.

David - What happens at rehearsals is not compromise, but you begin to see it in another way because you couldn’t, as I say, play with any conviction at all if it goes against the grain and against your desires and against your whole concept. It wouldn’t be possible.

Michael - We know that there's nothing in the world more bulky and time-wasting than a democracy, and in a quartet it makes for endless discussion and disagreement and sometimes dissension - but that's a democracy. 



Michael - No, Arnold, you're doing something - you're making a glissando that isn't very nice.

Arnold - Why do we make that accent?

David - What accent?

Arnold - 1-2-3-4- in the change. (plays).

David - Written. It's written - (plays).

Arnold - That's the one I don’t think should have an accent.

David - That's the one that should have it - definitely should have it - should be a big production on that note.

Arnold - That is the softest...

David - No, but it's the only change that occurs – (plays).

John - Yeah, but not there, Arnold.

Michael - David's right - a big change from minor to major. We've been playing - (plays).

Arnold - I feel like...

David - It's gotta be there.

Arnold - We should do it not with the bow, but with vibrato.

Michael - I agree. It shouldn’t be a “pow!” but there's something special happening on that note.

John - No, the accents are gone. (all play).

Michael - Well, let me tell you what I have before the end.

John - No, but let me tell you what I have, which is not an accent.

Michael - OK, but you don’t have also have anything of interest, John.

John - Sure I do - (plays).

Michael - Yeah, but before that G-sharp of yours, I have- (plays). I think that's four times.

John - Why would you make an accent on a note...

Michael – Obvious, if you're playing the viola part (plays).

Arnold - Can't you do it less?

Michael - Oh, one could, but he makes an accent on it. If that's the original marking, he obviously wanted that minor-to-major highlighted.

(They Play.)

David - That solves it because there is a huge diminuendo and that won’t make a big accent and it works out.



John - Our paths crossed at the Marlboro Music Festival in, I think, '62.

David - I met Arnold and Michael and John there. I hadn't known them before. It's a pool of musicians who get together in various chamber works and play in various combinations, and we got to know each other musically and personally as well. 

Arnold - Well, we'd get together at Marlboro Music Festival (run by pianist Rudolf Serkin) and say, “Wouldn't it be nice to play string quartets for a living?”

Michael - The string quartet literature is so— sublime. It's fabulous. It has inspired the greatest composers to write their greatest music.

Arnold - And so, I think we found ourselves as a quartet through some kind of lucky series of events.

John - To the best of my recollection, I do remember walking down the path in front of one of the buildings at Marlboro with Arnold. He mentioned to me that the idea of forming a quartet had been put to him by Alexander Schneider.

Arnold - And Schneider at Marlboro was not just another fine musician, but a great mover of people: a person with ideas, a doer, a person of great energy, a great force in music. 

Schneider - I thought that all four of them would make up a good string quartet, because they had good education, and the one thing they had to learn is to respect each other and accept each together. Bless them, they have been twenty-two years together (at the time of making the film). There must be something which holds them together - no doubt.

Arnold - Well, then came the moment when we decided, “Yes, we could play together,” and we were going to try and make a go of it. And we sat down and we played the d-minor Mozart.

John - We must have sounded like four wild horses or four broncos. But there was a certain excitement about the first time and I think we realized that we didn't feel there were any major drawbacks or any reasons we shouldn't form a quartet.

Arnold - It was an unforgettable moment for me, something so right - as if you'd come home. Maybe you didn't know what home was before, but now you've found it.


Arnold - I think there were a lot more arguments in the early years than there are now - on all fronts.

Arnold - I know we used to spend a lot more time arguing about music. We'd just tear our hair out over a note...If I'm pressed I'd have to say, there are certain things that don't get said, and nobody hangs around to talk about those things, so the opportunity simply doesn't exist. We run to our private lives.


Michael - Imagine if you were suddenly a member of a string quartet and the livelihood of three other families relied on you as much as you depended on them. It is a commitment that is all-embracing. Our commitment to each other carries over into everyday life in my house.


David - Well, I think perhaps to be a performer you have to be somewhat neurotic. The drive for improvement, perfection - the time, the hours - the drudgery, never being quite satisfied - if we were it would go downhill. You can't very well sit in your studio and play to yourself. You've got to go out on a platform and play for public approval. I think if one was perfectly healthy you wouldn't be a professional cellist or violinist. It's the only life I can imagine for myself - I must be very neurotic.



David - You get feedback from an audience and there's no getting around that, and that affects a performance.

Arnold - You can talk till you're blue in the face about doing a phrase a certain way, and then you walk out on the stage and it all has changed. I don't know why that should be. But with bodies breathing and listening in the audience, everything is different.


Michael - Today, there's been an explosion of chamber music - a willingness to acknowledge that quartets are popular - that they are enjoyed by young people, older people, and there's nothing so precious - it's not just for the rich and Viennese to enjoy.

David - That was something we never dreamed of - making a comfortable living playing string quartets. That in itself is fantastically amazing.

John - It's the music - it's absolutely the music: hundreds and hundreds of great masterworks. They have a great impact on you. They stay with you. It's a never-ending study. They never grow stale.

John - It's the feeling that you're playing great music and you will continue to play great music and try to find something in it the day after tomorrow that you didn't sense today. That's what really sustains me.

Arnold - But in addition to that, I think there is a social aspect that's not only different but ever fascinating, in the give and take of the quartet itself.

David - Chamber music playing is a reactive art. You have to relate to three other people - very complicated relationships. 

Arnold - No matter how well people know one another as friends or colleagues, there's a certain distance that is naturally a part of life - in any kind of relationship, whether it's a friendship or a marriage, or business. But the very process of bringing your music together artistically with your colleagues brings you incredibly close. For those moments you have a kind of magic intimacy. You are transformed, almost like alchemy, into not just a single unit, but some kind of artistic whole. And I find that a miracle when it happens, and something to really cherish.


Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned?

In a June 11 article in the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Mitchell asked the question, “Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned?” In the excerpts quoted below she explained:

“Relatively few people in history—even musical virtuosos—have been known to possess perfect pitch, the ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without having another note with which to compare it. Mozart was said to be one of those people. Ella Fitzgerald was another. The trait is so rare, it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people can tell an F-sharp from a B-flat in Western cultures, where the gift has been widely studied. But can perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch, be learned?” 

“Until recently, no evidence of an adult acquiring perfect pitch had been documented. But a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience showed adults could gain the trait with the help of valproic acid, a drug used to treat seizures and migraines.”

“Even with years of training, not everyone can learn to identify an A4 note from a G4, says Dr. Joseph P. Bradley, an otolaryngologist, ‘but almost anyone can learn to hear if a note is in or out of tune.’ Whether learning a tonal language as an adult can lead to acquiring absolute pitch has yet to be proven. ‘It’s a fascinating idea,’ he says, ‘but even if you don’t have perfect pitch, you can still enjoy music.’”


The definition of perfect pitch is tricky. 440 Hertz - beats per second - which we assign as universally accepted frequency of the note A is not so standard as we may think. Here is Fred T. Abdella writing in the New York Times of Aug 13, 1989:

The A used by most symphony and opera orchestras today for uniform tuning ranges between 440 hertz, or cycles per second, to 444 hertz. By comparison, in 1740, Handel favored an A pitched at 422 hertz. Mozart, in 1780, tuned to an A at 421.6 hertz. The French standardized their A at 435 hertz in 1858. A little more than 20 years later, Verdi succeeded in getting a bill passed by the Italian Parliament to tune at A 432 hertz. 

In 1938, an international standard for A was set at 440 hertz, but the pitch continued to rise. The New York Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta, tunes to an A at 442 hertz, as does the Chicago under Georg Solti and the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. In Berlin, orchestras tune to an A around 448 hertz. In Moscow, the symphony’s pitch is even higher, near 450 hertz.

So when we say someone has perfect pitch today we’re not sure what we mean.

Relative pitch is much more important that perfect pitch; it refers to hearing intervals accurately. A conductor must be able to tell if someone in the orchestra is flat or sharp in relation to other instruments, and chamber groups devote great attention to staying in tune with each other by adjusting intonation. 


The ability to name notes and tonalities does not bring us closer to the music. We can admire the music more, and being able to follow the keys the composer takes us through does give pleasure: we observe a display of harmonic skill, and enter into the structure of the music as it moves along. But this is purely an intellectual process and distracts from absorbed listening. We will have admired more and listened less. Perfect pitch permits analysis, but analysis kills enjoyment. Admiration interrupts involvement.

Fortunately, the emotional content of the music, the arc of the composer’s expressive statement in sound, can be experienced without the need for external information. We need not have studied color theory to be moved by a Van Gogh landscape or a Rembrandt face. Music speaks to all who listen attentively.


When I was 7 years old, growing up in a Long Island suburb of New York City, I used to bang out children’s songs on the piano with one finger, as well as melodies from show-tunes I heard on our 33 rpm recordings.

After a while I learned the names of the notes and as a game for my friends would ask them to play a note on the piano and I would identify it correctly. They thought this was magic.

Eventually I could name up to three notes played at a time—mashed together or spread out over the keyboard. I was successful only when piano notes were played. I could not identify sung pitches or notes played on any other instrument.

Nor could I produce a note if you asked me to sing it. Mine was a kind of passive gift: correctly identifying a note on the piano.

When I was twenty, I was accepted as a conducting student by Hermann Scherchen for two years in Switzerland. Scherchen made us memorize the music we were studying, and then sing it to him. Each of us—there were three at the time—had a tuning fork that sounded the A, to insure that we sang in the right key of the piece—mine was the first Brandenburg Concerto of Bach. I remember another had the Stravinsky “Pulcinella Suite.” We also used the tuning fork as a check after singing a few pages or a whole movement of a work to test whether we had stayed on key.

We all carried those tuning forks wherever we went, challenging each other out on the streets: sounding them against wooden fences, door posts, or our own heads, to prove that what we were singing was accurate.

I banged the fork and held it up to my ears so many times during the weeks and months, that eventually I could simply bang my second and third fingers on a table without the tuning fork, hold them up to my ear, and imagine the A. I no longer needed the tuning fork, except to confirm from time to time what I heard in my inner ear and to win bets with the others.

I had taught myself complete perfect pitch. I could also produce a pitch when asked, and was now able to identify sounds on other instruments, including symphony orchestras.

This joyful ability did not last forever. At the age of fifty, I discovered I was beginning to hear music a half-step higher. I don’t know where this disturbing change came from, but others—pianist and writer Charles Rosen, and composer Virgil Thomson, for example—reported similar shifts, eventually rising in old age to as much as a whole step or more.

However, it is not too bad an impediment. Well-schooled musicians that we are, when the Eroica symphony of Beethoven sounds like it is being played in E-Major instead of E-flat, we just transpose what we’re hearing down a half-step, and there is the Beethoven we love.


for Heidi Mitchell’s Wall Street Journal complete article go to
Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned? - WSJ

Attention, Music Lovers

Music has always played a double role for us. It rewards attentive listening with stirring accounts of our inner lives, but it also serves as accompaniment to daily activities— from chatting at a bar, to slicing vegetables, to struggling with writing a novel.

The use of music as background accompaniment has a long history. As early as the tenth century, groups of wandering students—the jongleurs and goliards—performed secular songs at weddings and other court celebrations while the jolly party-goers talked and laughed as they ate and drank.

By the seventeenth century, composers were often commissioned to provide music as background for social occasions. In 1617 the German composer Johann Schein, influenced by the new Italian style of Monteverdi, wrote his “Banchetto musicale,” a series of pieces to be played during banquets as the title suggests. Georg Philipp Telemann, in 1733, published his famous “Tafelmusik”—literally, music for the table—dozens of light-hearted suites, sonatas, and chamber works calculated to amuse the guests at gala dinners. Even Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven contributed “divertimenti”—music for assorted groups of winds, brass, and strings—to provide a pleasant atmosphere at social gatherings. As if to validate the secondary role of this music, Mozart rescored an aria from “The Marriage of Figaro” for instruments only, and put the players onstage to entertain Don Giovanni at his fatal last dinner.

In twentieth-century America, the use of music in the background became big business. By the 1930s, the Muzak corporation had installed recorded music in offices, and soon developed energetic fifteen-minute segments to stimulate worker productivity in factories. Muzak's website proclaimed:


The idea of background music so enchanted President Eisenhower, that in 1952 he ordered music to be piped into the entire West Wing of the White House.

Today we cannot escape background music in public places. It assaults us in stores and restaurants, wherever there is something to sell. Where would television commercials be without music to help hawk their cars and medications? (Try watching without the sound.)

We have also let background music into our homes and studios. If we want our kids to study without the distraction, they protest. They say it helps them concentrate! I've read that the American artist Charles Burchfield could not paint without a giant Mahler Symphony urging him on in the background. We don't know if he ever really listened.

I wonder how centuries of artists and writers created their works of genius without the benefit of music to accompany their work, though some may have hired a local lutenist or harpsichord player to ease them along. What would the Sistine Chapel look like today if a band of musicians had been soothing Michelangelo as he worked on the ceiling high above them?

It's difficult to break the habit of using music as an accompaniment to other activities, to remain attentive, but it is worth the try, and you don’t need special training to follow the story of the music as it unfolds. I tell my friends that listening to background music is not listening at all; it is simply hearing—the physical registration of sounds in the brain. Listening requires active participation. When we are distracted, the composer's narrative is broken. Think of a Shakespeare sonnet without its middle lines, or a Rembrandt self-portrait, his heart-rending smile of resignation torn away.

Worse yet: in films, the expressive power of the greatest music can be destroyed by the images the music is forced to accompany. You will suffer with the viewer of Robert Bresson's film “Au Hasard Balthazar,” for whom Schubert's profound piano sonata No. 20 was ruined by its use as accompaniment to the pathetic story of Balthazar, a badly mistreated donkey.

I am particularly troubled by a celebrated surgeon I know who specializes in pediatric spinal operations, each one requiring seven or eight hours of laser-like concentration on those tiny vertebrae and thread-like nerves. The head nurse in the operating room complains that the music he insists on playing during the operation—jazz and popular songs from the sixties—is the loudest she has ever experienced in any operating room. The rest of the team find it painfully disturbing—they strain to hear his commands—but the surgeon will not lower the level of the music. He claims he absolutely needs that atmosphere in order to concentrate for so many hours. It relaxes him, keeps him positive. All my arguments with him fail: I am stumped. I cannot see what he gains from so much noise. And yet he remains one of the most successful practitioners of this highly specialized—and dangerous—surgical procedure. So I hope he keeps his music as loud as he wants.


It wasn't too long ago that background music was only available from a fixed location—in restaurants and offices, or at home on the radio or a phonograph record. The influx of portable devices has brought the internet out into the world. Now, with the arrival of cell phones and other portable devices, our downloaded favorites can accompany us wherever we go—anywhere, any time.

In a New York Times article of July 6, 2015, Jane Brody quoted from a documentary film called “Web Junkie,” which says that for many listeners, earphone music is beginning to dominate their experience of daily life, relegating the outside real world to a role of accompaniment. For these people the music no longer functioned as background: “MANY COME TO SEE THE REAL WORLD AS FAKE.”

Most people do not use their earphones non-stop throughout the day. They take them off from time to time and put them back in again. This shift from one reality to another creates a confusing sense of an interrupted flow of time. As life adjusts to these disconnected fragments, our brains adapt in various ways. One results in the fracturing of language: we learn to speak and write in hurried shortcuts, half-sentences and coded abbreviations, discarding nuance in favor of speed and simplification. Text messages are compressed into the briefest communication possible; tweets are limited to 140 characters.

It should not be surprising then, that such disjointed communication begins to affect the nature of our relationships with others. Developing closeness requires more patience and attention than a constantly distracted consciousness can give. As we become more easily impatient with each other, the developing pathways to intimacy on which lasting bonds must be built are cut short. We give up, drifting from one attachment to another.

Sadly, the inability to sustain focus and to connect, can lead to more painful feelings of isolation from the larger life of a community. Might it not also contribute to other forces at work in a dangerous unraveling of our social and political bonds?

Behind the Baton

Until the age of television it was only possible to observe a conductor's gestures from the back, with occasional glimpses of his profile when he turned to one side or another. If there were more signals to the musicians, they were not visible to the audience. 

For many decades now, thanks to television and film cameras, we have been able to watch an orchestral conductor at work, in wide and medium shots with the musicians, and in remarkably revealing close-ups. 

I have observed conductors on many television programs and I have had the opportunity to film some of the most renowned, including Zubin Mehta, Eugene Ormandy, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, and Valery Gergiev. In rehearsals and concerts, I was able to observe their differences in style, technique, and approach to the orchestra. 

Some conductors rely on a commanding presence which says to the musicians, “You must give me what I ask for, to reveal how this piece must be played.” They project their strong personalities with forceful gestures that indicate phrase beginnings and endings, and changes in tempo and dynamics, but they offer no clue to their feelings about the music as it unfolds.

Others do not flaunt their authority. Rather, they invite collaboration. They conduct with intensity and even urgency, but the attitude they project is: “Come let us do this together.”

Then there are the conductors who appear neither authoritative nor collaborative.  For some reason, they remain remote and detached. They hear everything that is going on in the music, and their gestures convey clearly what they want, but they remain inside themselves, and seem only to ask the orchestra for accuracy and unity of expression. Orchestra players are sometimes bullied, sometimes coaxed, sometimes inspired: it must be difficult to be ignored.

The most interesting conductors for a filmmaker, and surely for orchestra musicians, are the ones, like Valery Gergiev, who embody the music in their facial expressions. 

How musicians understand what they see in Gergiev's face is inexplicable; it is part of the mystery of music-making itself. A composer creates a series of sounds in his inner ear and transfers them to notes on a page. A conductor, even centuries later, reads those notes, and is able to hear them as music in his inner ear. In some unfathomable way he communicates what he hears to the musicians. Naturally, Gergiev uses gestures to indicate the basic structure of the music. But it is in his dramatically expressive face that the orchestra finds the emotional content of the music. I have been at Gergiev's rehearsals and concerts often enough to see that these expressions are spontaneous and unselfconscious: they are the result of his total absorption in the music.

Somehow, the musicians understand what they see. And with only horse-hair bows and buzzing lips and banging wood and metal, they are able to embody Gergiev's deeply felt experience of the music in their playing. 

No musician can explain the mystery of this communication, but none will deny it.

* * *

It is eight P.M. Concert time. No more rehearsing, no more correcting or improving. On stage, the orchestra musicians warm up, practicing difficult passages in tonight's program. After three or four working sessions, they have been convinced that the conductor knows the scores, has strong ideas about the music, and conveys them clearly. He has insulted no one and has not lost his temper. He has maintained a business-like, cordial relationship with his players, though there may have been impatient moments when he stopped for corrections and the orchestra settled down too slowly. 

Now, whether or not they all agree with the conductor's interpretation, the musicians will give him what he asks for. They know the performance will go well. They may even hope for the magic communication between conductor and orchestra that inspires players to their most intense involvement.

The orchestra tunes, and waits quietly. The audience settles down and the conductor walks onstage. The musicians rise to share in the applause. When they are seated again they adjust their chairs and check the beginning of the music one last time. The conductor turns to them. He raises his baton. It is one of the most suspenseful moments in theater, a pinpoint of expectation as the musicians and the audience focus on the conductor. With the tension at its height – he begins.