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All Things Considered, Thursday, July 14, 1983


with Host Susan Stamberg

(An excerpt from Michael Habermann's recording of Sorabji's Le Jardin Parfumé. The music continues to be heard behind the conversation.)

SUSAN STAMBERG, Host: You probably cannot identify this music and you are not alone. The composer, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, is a 91 year old recluse living in England. His compositions are so difficult to play that after a pianist allegedly mangled his work in performance 47 years ago, Sorabji banned anyone else from playing his work in public. "No performance at all," he said, "is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty." Seven years ago, Sorabji broke the ban and allowed a young American pianist, Michael Habermann, to record some of his music. Habermann first discovered Sorabji's work when he was a teenager. He wandered into a bookstore in Mexico City and found the most complicated piece of music he had ever seen.

(The volume is turned up on Le Jardin Parfumé. Volume is then turned down.)

MICHAEL HABERMANN, Pianist: It scared me. It was so difficult-looking. I didn't buy it.

SUSAN STAMBERG: You did not buy it?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: No. I thought about it, but I left the store and I came back. I did end up buying it for a dollar, and that was the beginning of my interest in his music.

SUSAN STAMBERG: And you took it home and sat down with it at a piano and tried to play it?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I tried to play it.


MICHAEL HABERMANN: It was so frustrating. I couldn't put left hand and the right hand together.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Well, what was so complicated? The number of notes, the rhythm.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: The notes, the length, the rhythm, you name it.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Your hands just wouldn't do it.


SUSAN STAMBERG: Well, you were 18 years old.


SUSAN STAMBERG: At what point did you find you were able to make some sense of those black dots on the page?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well ...I decided not to learn it. I just decided to live with it and when I had some spare time at the end of the day to figure out a small portion of it - and I liked it. So I just continued and continued.

SUSAN STAMBERG: So, slowly by slowly, measure by measure, literally you tried..

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Sometimes beat by beat... very frustrating, but very rewarding because I, I really like the music. It's difficult but it's worthwhile.

(The volume is turned up on Le Jardin Parfumé. Volume is then turned down.)

SUSAN STAMBERG: What happened from that time when you bought the yellowing piece of sheet music in a shop in Mexico to this point where now you are working on a third album, recording of his music?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: I wrote to Sorabji, eventually. I learned his music, and I sent him a tape and I asked him for permission.

SUSAN STAMBERG: It was the tape that did it.


SUSAN STAMBERG: I read somewhere that he has said he himself can't play some of the music he writes.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well, he's a composer. We can't expect him to do everything.

SUSAN STAMBERG: You've never met him face to face?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Yes, once. He looks a little bit like Einstein. He's got wild white hair and he's very impressive.

(The volume is turned up on Le Jardin Parfumé. Music then continues in the background.)

SUSAN STAMBERG: Sorabji's music is a little like Debussy or Ravel - waves of sound as caressing as a warm summer shower. The music is so difficult to play that one critic speculates that Michael Habermann must have ten fingers on each hand. Well, he doesn't, but Michael says he does have to memorize the music because it's played so quickly there's no time to follow a score and turn pages.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: It's a little difficult to describe the difficulty because there are so many difficulties. Oh - there are long stretches, long scales in double notes, so you have to play two notes at the same time instead of one note, but they have to go at the same speed as if you were playing a single note passage. So there are stretches of chords, and combinations of rhythms; for instance, you might have three or four different rhythms going on in different registers.


MICHAEL HABERMANN: And it's not so much a question of stretch, but of texture - a lot of things going on at the same time, and one has to be able to differentiate these various melodies and accompaniments, and countermelodies and on top of that his pieces are very, very long. This Opus Clavicembalisticum is Sorabji's longest piano work. It's 252 pages.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Oh my goodness! How long does that take to play?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: About three hours.


MICHAEL HABERMANN: If you want to see the score..

SUSAN STAMBERG: Sure, do you have it with you? That's not just an attache case, that's a suitcase!

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Specially built to carry this music.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Oh my goodness, it's an inch and half at least, thick ...

MICHAEL HABERMANN: And weighs four or four and a half pounds.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Indeed it does. Two hundred .... I cannot tell you I'm a pianist but I know what the notes are and capable of sitting down at the piano so let me look at this music. (LAUGHS) This is incredible! I don't even understand. This is a double staff. How is that possible?

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Well there are a lot of notes to be played ...

SUSAN STAMBERG: He couldn't get them all in one staff so he had to write another staff underneath.

MICHAEL HABERMANN: Right. But it's so beautiful - that's what's really amazing. Even though it's very complex it really works as music.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Michael Habermann has recorded two albums of Sorabji's music. Habermann is a doctoral candidate at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music.

(The closing page of Prelude from Sorabji's Prelude, Interlude and Fugue is heard.)

NOAH ADAMS: And for this evening, that's All Things Considered.

(Credits follow...)

© Copyright NPR® 2000. The interview by NPR's Susan Stamberg was originally broadcast on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered®" on July 14, 1983, and is used with the permission of National Public Radio, Inc. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information, please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 513-2000.