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Vol. 19, No. 3, February 1996

Music from the Borderland of Chaos: An Interview with Michael Habermann

By Marc Medwin

He is enigmatic and brilliant, well-studied and somewhat reclusive; the stories he tells might exude a frayed idealism while somehow still brimming with vitality and a generous helping of humor. His literary voracity and its breadth border on the Herculean, an antidote to the whims and fraudulences of a world in whose externalities and superficialities he finds less and less of interest. He turned away from university teaching toward a life of observance, an endearingly disillusioned but, ironically, vital optimism imbuing every utterance. His criticisms of the world and of its often staggering apathy, and the way he expresses them, link pianist and teacher Michael Habermann with the composer he is most famous for championing, the British-Parsee Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892–1988.) As with James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner, Sorabji’s ubiquitously complex music is tempered by moments of startling directness, a melody of infinite beauty or an exquisite sonority emerging from layers of the densest counterpoint or most complex superimposition of allusion. Habermann’s narrative style follows suit.

As far as this writer is aware, Habermann was the first to record Sorabji’s music, apart from some 1960s readings by the composer himself. Sorabji famously banned performance of his works in the 1930s, only lifting the sanction some 40 years later and only in special cases. The majority of Habermann’s Sorabji recordings, originally for the Musical Heritage Society and Elan, have just been reissued by Naxos in an excellent and thoroughly annotated three-disc set. The only omission is his 2003 disc for BIS, which remains available. Habermann does not tackle the gargantuan Sorabji, save for two sections of the infamous Opus Clavicembalisticum, which lasts four to five hours. He has chosen to focus on the composer’s more compact works, no longer than half an hour. “I find these the most satisfying,” admits Habermann. His voice often exudes certainty tinged with something approaching an apology.

Our interview, nearly canceled before it began, is a hodge-podge of email exchanges and phone calls, following no single thread for long but still, miraculously, managing to weave many threads all together. Habermann’s energy is immense; those familiar with the lectures of Nicolas Slonimsky, or who have heard the Mozart specialist Robert Levin speak at any length, will be prepared to understand the inter-subject jumps, the sudden associations that bespeak a freedom unique to their genesis, which pepper his conversation. “I find interviews so painful,” the pianist muses ironically. “I just imagine that I have anything worthwhile to say!” Once in a while, a laugh is squeezed out, often at a much lower dynamic level than the preceding and following discussion, something between apology and mischief informing the gesture. His emails range from one-liners to virtual parables, a non-linear journey through a life whose international beginnings, with multifarious music listening and study to match, would stand him in good stead for the dichotomy of Sorabji’s atmospheric, improvisatory, but structured sound worlds.

In response to a question about Habermann’s early listening and musical experiences, I received the following indicative message:

“During childhood: Schnabel playing Beethoven Sonatas; Alfred Kitchen playing Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor; Alexander Jenner in Chopin’s op. 25, op. 66, op. 53, etc. Beethoven – Toscanini Symphonies; Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione; Berlioz Overtures; some orchestral Wagner; Prokofiev; Caruso and other singers from that period. Those were my father’s favorites.

“I was interested in the piano at an early age. Apparently, the upright was to be moved from the living room to the basement and got stuck going around a corner to the basement; it was taken apart piece by piece and used for firewood (that’s what I was told). No instrument until years and two countries later.

“I still haven’t figured out why the blood seemed to stop flowing to my hands at lessons. The weather in Mexico is temperate. Piano music was extremely interesting to me, and I responded to recordings and performances strictly emotionally. I was in love with music. Pieces I first learned on my own were the Brahms op. 116, Nos. 1 and 3 and the Berg Sonata. I remember one of my teachers announcing to those gathered at his house to hear me play the sonata: ‘Michael is very talented, but he will play a piece that I am not sure is even music.’ That’s an incredible thing to say!”

Memories of a rarified nature emerge from him piecemeal, molten fragments of a questing life captured and frozen, uniquely ordered and then summarized, pitting the mundane against aphoristic insights that sweep the board of false generalization, leaving room for honest reflection.

“Dad was in the military, mom was attractive,” quips Habermann of his Paris birth. A brief sojourn in New Jersey, where the piano was chopped up, would be followed by time in Canada, where B. Bumble and the Stingers’ Nut Rocker would prove a formative influence. Unlike much of the guitar- and saxophone-driven rhythm and blues of the middle and late 1950s, the Tchaikovsky adaptation boasts a prominent and exciting piano foreground, an understandable influence on an eight-year-old with an as yet nascent musical future. “Oh, yes, I remember exactly where I was when I heard it—the room I was in, the radio, and my father telling me to turn it off. ‘You’re not going to listen to this type of music,’ was all he said, but that got me really excited about the piano!”

The Habermann’s 1962 move to Mexico brought a reduction in pop music in tandem with an explosion of musical diversity. “There was a station called Radio Universidad, which would play everything from Perotin to early 1960s minimalism; it was fabulous!” Twenty-four hours a day, Habermann could immerse himself not only in the canonic repertoire but in Stockhausen, Messiaen, Dutilleux, and other pillars of more recent music. His father, sensing a burgeoning interest, decided that Habermann could have piano lessons, and it was during this time that the Berg Sonata incident occurred, leaving a formative impression of new music’s reception. In tandem, Habermann began to frequent Mexico City’s many bookstores and to explore the store associated with the music publisher Ricordi, during which time he began to gain visual familiarity with an equally wide variety of music. It was during one of these bookstore visits that a seed was planted. The encounter is detailed in Habermann’s liner notes, written in 2003 and included in this new Naxos reissue, but I probed for further insight. “I found this very odd-looking score in an English bookstore, obviously misplaced; somebody had put it in the photography section. I think it must have cost around a dollar, but I didn’t buy it. My sight-reading wasn’t what it is today, so I couldn’t make a whole lot of sense out of it, but something intrigued me. I went back a few days later, and as it was still there, I decided to take the plunge.” The piece was Sorabji’s Fantaisie Espagnole.

Over the next several years, Habermann became increasingly serious about studying the piano from an academic perspective. Some education in Mexico had proved less than satisfactory, and by 1974 he made the decision to go back to school, which he did at Nassau Community College. Sorabji was becoming a staple of Habermann’s repertoire. A slight setback ensued. “I set up an audition for Peabody, but I never showed up! Maybe it was a self-confidence issue, nerves, some combination of both, I don’t know, but I missed it.” He was to get a second chance in 1977, when he played an all-Sorabji concert in Michigan at a meeting of the Liszt Society, which was also nationally broadcast. The audience reaction was instantaneous and decisive. “I’m still surprised that there was such a turnout for Sorabji’s music, really an unknown composer at that time,” Habermann remembers with what I understand to be characteristic humility. “Yes, the audience did react in a very positive way.” There followed immediate offers from record labels and an inquiry from Fernando Laires, then the Liszt Society president and member of the Peabody faculty. “He asked me if I was still interested in attending Peabody. Of course I was, and that’s where I completed my piano performance doctorate in 1985.”

An idea of what the audience heard that 1977 evening, and much more, can be gleaned from listening to the Naxos reissue, whose recordings span the years between 1979 and 1993. Habermann’s notes contextualize Sorabji’s work along these lines:

“His Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) was listed for years in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest non-repetitive piano work. Many of his compositions are intended to be the sole work on a program. Such a work is the Djami Symphony (1942–51), which spans nearly a thousand pages and employs performing forces of hundreds. His longtime and unique ban imposed upon public performance of his works, too, will not be forgotten. Despite enthusiastic praise from well-known musicians such as Ferruccio Busoni, Alfred Cortot, Frederick Delius, Karol Szymanowski, and Sir Donald Francis Tovey, his creative work remained largely unknown until the late 1970s, also due to the fact that only his earliest compositions were published. But these are only external characteristics, secondary to the music. Most important is the fact that his compositions stand out in the world of music for their unique and satisfying beauty.”

In an introduction to the notes, the late Donald Garvelmann, long-time Sorabji enthusiast and, at one time, Habermann’s agent, outlines the almost ineluctable relationship shared by Habermann and Sorabji, stating that the composer had found his ideal interpreter. Basically reclusive by the time he heard Habermann play and long annoyed by mediocre performances of his more-than-challenging music, the opinionated and often recalcitrant composer was obviously impressed by Habermann’s rigorously imaginative pianism. In a fascinating bit of reportage, Garvelmann recalls Habermann spending a week on a single measure, making sure that all elements were in place. This kind of dedication brings to mind clarinetist Eric Dolphy playing one note for days, answering his father’s rather impatient queries: “That thing has other notes on it, doesn’t it?” with: “I haven’t got this one right yet.”

Then, there is the music itself. “It lives in the borderland of chaos,” laughs Habermann. To elucidate Sorabji’s compositional approach to someone who has never experienced it is akin to describing the myriad and constantly changing sensations of swimming to anyone who has never been in the water. How to catalog, let alone render sensible, a substance that is always the same yet always changing, whose temperature, density, intensity, and sonic properties exist in a constant state of measureable but also subjective flux? Even tempo becomes subjective. Certain pieces are faster than others, but, as a sense of meter dissipates, at least to the listener, tempo takes on a certain fluidity. “There’s something impulsive about his work,” Habermann now emphasizes, and his voice rises as the long-fostered fascination and excitement pervade it. “It alludes to various compositional systems but doesn’t conform to any of them. I think that ambiguity of structure and form was what initially attracted me to his compositions, but it was more than that! There are all those sharps and flats that don’t resolve in the way they should, structural elements don’t follow each other or cohere as they should, and these long pieces shouldn’t work, but quite often, they do!” Habermann and I begin to explore the question of system in Sorabji’s music. He has spent considerable time and effort analyzing it, contributing a chapter to Paul Rapoport’s compendium Sorabji: A Critical Celebration (Ashgate, reprinted 1994). “You know that phrase that Messiaen uses: ‘The charm of impossibility,’” he enthuses. “That is not the world Sorabji inhabits. In order to have an impossibility, the possible needs to be established; Sorabji’s music does not take possible and impossible into consideration!”

This is the point, the unifying factor at the heart of Sorabji’s aesthetic. Two staves are simply not enough; he needs three or more, especially as his music becomes more complex, to contain the palimpsests of ideas pouring forth from his pen. Habermann calls it “the Sorabji bottleneck.” He is kind enough to have shared a BBC program with me in which Sorabji discusses one of his favorite composers, the similarly sui generis Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951). Sorabji’s words trip over each other, sentences are left hanging, other languages are employed as English fails his constantly questing monkey-mind, to invoke the Buddhist adage.

Habermann has experienced this firsthand. A letter from Sorabji, again kindly shared, sets the date as August 6, 1980. “What you hear in that broadcast is what I heard,” he reminisces. “It wasn’t a castle, as might be suggested by the name of where he lived [the village of Corfe Castle]. He talked about the decline in the production of good paper, and we had tea, cake and wine. I remember thinking that he would be taller; you know who he reminded me of? Nicolas Slonimsky! I met him once.…”

Habermann is off, speaking enthusiastically about Slonimsky, and there it is. Sorabji, Slonimsky, Habermann himself, all possess that fire-in-the-belly approach to living that imbues Sorabji’s music. Whether the layered chords of Opus Clavicembalisticum, the floating harmonies of the nocturne Gulistan (The Rose Garden) or the serio-comic and parodic Chopin transcriptions, voluptuous and sometimes excessive ideas abound, scattering tempo, form, and tonality in their ever-morphing wake. An interpreter better equipped than Habermann, even so many years after the bulk of these performances was taped, is difficult to imagine. If melody is paramount to a work’s vision, he will foreground it, but never at the expense of whatever rhythmic and harmonic multiplicities are in play. His sense of the relationship between dynamics and color, and all the requisite shading, is second to none.

I ask Habermann that general and predictable question of Sorabji’s relevance in 2015. “I don’t know,” he says, almost curtly, after a brief pause. “I’m not sure how music like that stays relevant in a world where attention spans are getting shorter and investigation is getting more and more superficial. That’s one of the reasons I got out of university teaching and focused more on composition and transcription. People don’t want to learn anything anymore, especially at the university level; not only do they feel like they don’t have to know anything, they don’t even feel the need to apologize for their ignorance!” Student stories follow, along with anecdotes about technically perfect but emotionally arid competition interpretations. “We used to read through scores!” Habermann is indignant. “I’d bring in piles of them; there was a level of inquiry years ago that just isn’t there anymore.”

His work as teacher and composer—he taught at Peabody Conservatory from the middle 1980s until 2010—has been overshadowed by his Sorabji association. Experiences with students seem to have birthed the compositions and transcriptions. Again, from an email:

“I had a student who, after watching some videos on YouTube of amateur pianists massacring the first movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ concerto from The Four Seasons, decided she wanted to play it too. The arrangements were so awful that I felt impelled to make a few alterations to the best one of the lot. After this student migrated to another instrument, I still had some curiosity in this conversion process. Could this first movement be turned into a piano piece? I started from scratch, and ideas came. The movement done to my satisfaction, I thought my work was over. It would be impossible to transform the rest of the music into idiomatic piano music. But suddenly, one evening, the whole second movement seemed to be dictated. Again, I thought my job was done. But 2/3 done? Not the whole work? How could that third movement be translated? But one evening it happened again! I started writing it down frantically. Now the work is complete.”

It is a tour de force, channeling Vivaldi through a late Romantic lens, with Rachmaninoff and Busoni providing the harmonic background. Vivid directions to the performer set the wintry scene, replete with gusts of wind and stamping feet. His Scarlatti homage is even more adventurous, transforming a C-Major harpsichord sonata into a wild and thorny landscape of accidentals that, somehow, end up safely in the home key, at least for a while, and the circuitous path by which it gets there would constitute a study in itself. These are virtuosic works, sometimes even using more than two staves to make their point, but they are rife with feeling.

My inevitable question about current and future activities is met with something approaching a sneer. “What am I doing now?” The laugh ensues, a bit louder this time. What emerges is a picture of a man in semi-seclusion, like Charles-Valentin Alkan before him, but with eyes and ears still turned toward the outside. “I want to play, I really do, but I guess you could say I’ve been pursuing other avenues of research. I really enjoy the private teaching; I find that I’m much more relaxed now, and I’m doing a lot of reading that I always wanted to do. You remember that I told you I approached music from a purely emotional standpoint? I’m trying to augment the approach by acquiring the historical knowledge I never had.” He surrounds himself with biographies and music histories, mainly but not exclusively of the 20th century, and when asked, as often as not evaluating the authors’ work in irreverent bursts. “Don’t read that—absolute garbage!” However, as might be expected, Habermann’s relationship with Sorabji’s work remains unpredictable. As I put the finishing touches on this piece, he informs me that he’s begun work on his sixth Sorabji disc, the first in some 12 years. “We’ll see, but somehow, at this point, it just feels right.” I hope it happens, as no one can bring form and order to the structured chaos that is Sorabji’s music quite like Habermann.

Copyright ©2015 by Marc Medwin, all rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission