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AN I N T E R V I E W WITH V I D A C H E N O W E T H b y Leigh H o w a r d Stevens

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The idea o f doing this interview with Vida Chenoweth was given to me by James L. Moore during m y visit to the Ohio State University Marimba Camp. I hope that I have asked questions that will be o f interest to P A S readers. M y only regret is that the printed page will n o t reproduce the expressive inflections in Dr. Chenoweth's voice. Other than this unavoidable infidelity, the transcript is virtually unedited. Leigh Howard Stevens
IS: VC: W h a t is t h e m o s t f a m o u s m a r i m b i s t in the w o r l d d o i n g in N e w Guinea? Presently I ' m c o m p i l i n g a catalogue of musical instrum e n t s of Papua N e w Guinea. A n d in addition, I ' m trying t o define t h e music system o f t h e Eastern Highlands Province, and to d e t e r m i n e h o w m a n y language groups it encompasses. I n three weeks t i m e I e x p e c t to assist t w o y o u n g Papua N e w G u i n e a m e n w i t h t h e translation o f the Gospel o f Luke, into the Usarufa language. What were t h e p e a k years o f y o u r p e r f o r m i n g career? I w o u l d say t h a t the peak o f m y p e r f o r m i n g career was f r o m 1957 w h e n I was a c c e p t e d b y t h e c o n c e r t audiences o f Guatemala, t h r o u g h a b o u t 1 9 6 3 during w h i c h t i m e success c a m e in N e w Y o r k and E u r o p e . A t t h a t t i m e did y o u in a n y w a y suspect t h a t y o u m i g h t n o t d e v o t e t h e rest o f y o u r life to the m a r i m b a ? T h e answer t o t h a t is t h a t after an a c c i d e n t w h i c h t h r e a t e n e d t h e loss o f t h e fingers o f m y right hand, which had been seriously burned, I considered f o r the first t i m e t h a t m y career m i g h t end. A n d it was t h e n t h a t I gained a n e w spiritual perspective and a desire to serve others. M y h o p e and gratitude t o o k shape as I read the r e c o r d o f G o d ' s revelation o f himself in the p e r s o n of Jesus Christ. When I began to c o m p r e h e n d the m e a n i n g o f life, there c a m e a desire to help o t h e r s to u n d e r s t a n d it. One does n o t cease t o be a musician w h e n h e discovers his relationship to God, b u t his talents will likely be rechanneled. W h e n did y o u get interested in e t h n o m u s i c o l o g y ? My initial interest in e t h n o m u s i c o l o g y s t e m m e d f r o m an interest in t h e history o f the m a r i m b a - w h e r e did it originate-where is it p l a y e d - b y - w h o m - a n d w h a t music do t h e y play? I ' m still curious a b o u t musical practices o f o t h e r p e o p l e - b u t it d o e s n ' t end there. T o d a y , music traditions, w h i c h are aural, face t h e danger of obliteration. Realizing t h a t an aural t r a d i t i o n needs to skip b u t one generation and it is lost forever, m y aim is to encourage creativity as far as I ' m able. T h e greatest t h r e a t t o indigenous music, as I see it, is the transistor radio. Do y o u r e m e m b e r the first t i m e y o u heard a m a r i m b a ? I was familiar w i t h t h e sound o f the m a r i m b a f r o m childhood. As for t h e precise m o m e n t o f e x p o s u r e to it, I ' m n o t sure. We have o n e in our h o m e - m y older b r o t h e r played it, and I r e m e m b e r m a r i m b a ensembles practicing in m y father's music store. What was y o u r musical b a c k g r o u n d prior t o playing the marimba? All f o u r of the children in m y f a m i l y began piano lessons early. I c a n ' t recall w h e t h e r it was before or after we began p r i m a r y school. F r o m t h a t time, t h e n o n t h r o u g h high school, we studied various instruments-I t h i n k o u r h o m e c o n t a i n e d at one t i m e or a n o t h e r every i n s t r u m e n t b u t the harp. I t was n o t unusual to hear f o u r d i f f e r e n t instruments being practiced simultaneously in the evening. LS: VC:

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Do y o u t h i n k p i a n o training is crucial to a marimbist? I a m grateful t o have had piano as a basic instrument, and I w o u l d e n c o u r a g e others in this because o f t h e valuable store of literature f o r it, and also because I t h i n k it is i m p o r t a n t to a p p r o a c h the m a r i m b a as a m e l o d i c instrum e n t m o r e closely related to o t h e r k e y b o a r d instruments t h a n t o o t h e r percussion instruments. Was Clair Musser y o u r o n l y m a r i m b a teacher? M y initial instruction o n the m a r i m b a was f r o m a s y m p h o n y player w h o was primarily an organist, t h o u g h he played t i m p a n i in t h e local orchestra. I studied w i t h h i m o n e year and t h e n he left o u r city. I was twelve then, and l e f t o n m y o w n to a p p l y w h a t e v e r I c o u l d learn o f music to the marimba. It was n o t until I transferred to N o r t h w e s t e r n University as a junior t h a t I b e c a m e again a f o r m a l s t u d e n t of m a r i m b a u n d e r Musser. W h e n y o u ask a b o u t teachers, r e m e m b e r t h a t it is n o t just the o n e w h o makes y o u literate in music or shows y o u h o w to place y o u r hands on t h e i n s t r u m e n t w h o is y o u r teacher. S o m e teach us the structure o f music: c o u n t e r p o i n t , h a r m o n y and f o r m . Artists, we have heard, teach us h o w to c o n t r o l nuances, shape a phrase, sustain the f l o w o f a m e l o d y . . . every musical e x p e r i e n c e helps to f o r m us musically. T h e works of great c o m p o s e r s teach us a great deal. We e x p l o r e o u r instruments continually, b u t over and above t h a t we learn a b o u t music all our lives, and f r o m m a n y sources. What do y o u r e m e m b e r a b o u t y o u r lessons with Musser? I recall in particular the feeling o f n o t being r e a d y for m y lesson. I was always u n d e r t e m p o , and practiced m o r e quietly than the others because I w a n t e d c o m p l e t e c o n t r o l over t h e w o r k b e f o r e I " e x p r e s s e d m y s e l f , " and also because I was n o t c o n f i d e n t of m y ability. Musser's greatest c o n t r i b u t i o n to m e as I l o o k back, was that o f inspiring and encouraging m e so t h a t I began to b e confident. When did y o u first p l a y in E u r o p e ? H o w was t h e m a r i m b a received there? M y E u r o p e a n d e b u t was in 1 9 6 2 I believe. To play for c o n c e r t audiences in E u r o p e was like finding lost relatives. T h e y u n d e r s t o o d the music. This m e a n s that t h e y did n o t have to u n d e r s t a n d the instrument, n o r did I have to explain myself. We c o m m u n i c a t e d - a n d I m e a n we, for I have never felt c o m m u n i c a t i o n m o r e strongly f r o m an audience. In Vienna, a couple c a m e to m e back stage and confessed that t h e y had c o m e to scoff at a n o t h e r n o v e l t y f r o m A m e r i c a - n o t k n o w i n g w h a t a m a r i m b a was-and t h a t t h e y w a n t e d to apologize f o r their skepticism. Mature audiences do n o t focus u p o n the m e d i u m o f music, b u t rather, t h e m e a n i n g o f music. What were the circumstances surrounding the c o m m i s s i o n o f the Kurka C o n c e r t o ? R o b e r t K u r k a was a friend of m y manager in N e w York, and it was his idea t h a t Kurka, recognized t h e n as o n e o f t h e n a t i o n ' s nine leading composers, (by Life magazine), write s o m e t h i n g for me. He arranged for us t o m e e t and t h e c o m p o s e r was at o n c e t a k e n w i t h the p o t e n t i a l o f the instrument. We had m u t u a l respect for each o t h e r ' s art f r o m t h e beginning. I b e c a m e well a c q u a i n t e d w i t h him, his wife May, and daughter Mira, w h o at the t i m e lived near m e o n the West Side. We were struggling t o g e t h e r in the ordeal o f trying t o m a k e a living, and at t h e same time, r e m a i n dedicated to our art. N e i t h e r o f us had any m o n e y , b u t b o t h o f us w a n t e d a m a r i m b a c o n c e r t o . We agreed t h a t B o b go ahead w i t h c o m p o s i n g it, and I was to p a y h i m w h e n e v e r I could. A f t e r m y t o u r o f t h a t season, I m a d e a first p a y m e n t w i t h all the proceeds f r o m it. The r e m a i n d e r was paid by t h e Orchestra o f A m e r i c a later w h e n t h e y w a n t e d to p e r f o r m it in Carnegie Hall. In t h e m e a n t i m e , Bob died of l e u k e m i a and never heard the work, e x c e p t as I was learning it. Did y o u c o m m i s s i o n a n y o t h e r works or w e r e o t h e r pieces

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written for you?


No, I did n o t c o m m i s s i o n works for the m a r i m b a , t h o u g h m a n y c o m p o s e r s did write for m e : Bernard Rogers, Eugene Ulrich, Hal M o m m s e n , H a r r y H e w i t t , J o r g e S a r m i e n t o s and o t h e r s t o o . Villa-Lobos gave m e a c o m p o sition he had originally c o m p o s e d for violin. He t o o died shortly afterward and never heard it on the m a r i m b a . What d o y o u consider y o u r first major p e r f o r m a n c e ? Do y o u r e m e m b e r w h a t y o u played?

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My first major performance was at Fullerton Hall in the Chicago Art Institute, playing the first program o f works written expressly for the marimba. It included compositions by Fissinger, Matthies, Musser, and Creston. LS: Was most of y o u r repertoire solo, or with piano? VC: More of m y repertoire was for solo marimba rather than marimba with piano. LS: Most performers have one or t w o " f a v o r i t e " pieces-what were yours? VC: I never singled out any particular works as being favorites because I never performed any music that I didn't believe in. LS: Are there any memories of performances that are particularly vivid? VC: I have vivid memories o f many concerts and recitals. My debut recital in Chicago was very important to me in that it was a beginning. It drew the older established musicians such as Alexander Tcherepnin, R u d o l p h Ganz, and Felix Borowski to me. Their encouragement and endorsement gave me the courage to continue. My first professional engagement was at William Woods College where m y sister and I had been students, and this vote of confidence meant much to me. The acclaim to Guatemala's musicians and concertgoers in 1957 was o f special significance, since Guatemala was the h o m e of the marimba. The warmth of their reception overwhelmed me. The first performance as soloist with orchestra was under the kindly direction of Guy Frazier Harrison in Okalahoma City. Harrison was a champion of contemporary music and young artists. My European debut was unforgetable. I never played better in m y life. I mentioned the Viennese audience before, as being incredibly responsive. By responsive, I do n o t mean wildly demonstrative, but almost the opposite. During m y first number which was unaccompanied, melodic, and serious, I was apprehensive as

y o u might imagine. Afterward there was complete silence, as if t h e y were stunned, I moved in slow m o t i o n as I fumbled for a chahge o f mallets-afraid of breaking the spell. As the program continued, I felt an indescribable force o f oneness that carried me along and enabled me to do my best. Afterward, we knew one anothar-without words-without explanation-but just through the music itself. The premiere o f the the Kurka Concerto in Carnegie Hall was the greatest strain of m y life, and it was so for a number of reasons. Fo r every young artist the judgement of New York critics is a matter of making or breaking a career. But m y load was heavier still. It was the premiere of an important new work by a composer whose death we all felt very keenly. Its success hinged on me. In addition, it was the first time a marimbist had been invited into the hall, and I knew it meant success or failure for the instrument too. All this would be measured in thirty minutes. When the buzzer sounded backstage, I could hardly make it down the stairs. I remember clinging to the handrail and concentrating on each step. The music I knew backward and forward, the orchestral parts as well. But I felt so weak, all I could do was cry out to God for help. When one critic wrote that m y confidence was " e p o c h a l " , I was amazed. In the morning I was afraid to read the papers, but waited until friends began to ring up congratulating me. Success was hard to believe. Those are some of my memories, but of course, there are m a n y more. LS: Do y o u think it is harder or easier today for a marimbist to get started in a recital career? VC: Let me answer this way: If a jumper clears ten feet, all know it's possible. It should therefore be easier for a second jumper to achieve ten feet, if n o t eleven. Having said this I must add that once he clears eleven feet, the world will expect twelve feet. That is to say, a single performance is n o t sufficient to sustain a career.

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You've seen many young American marimbists in the past five years; h o w do y o u think the over-all level of playing compares with that of t w e n t y years ago? Generally, I ' m disappointed. I've heard only three or four who should a t t e m p t to concertize. So the level has n o t changed much. Artists are as rare n o w as they were twenty years ago. H o w about the literature? Literature has advanced considerably. And this is very much in the favor of today's marimba student. The ground has been broken in a number of ways. The prejudice against instruments whose development has been outside the usual European background has all b u t disappeared. It remains for the performer to develop sufficiently. You've also visited Japan; what are y o u r impressions o f their playing and literature? In Japan I heard every level o f playing, as anywhere. One or two rank several leagues above the majority. Many players expressed to me a desire for tonal music. Most o f the literature I heard was serial and interesting to musicians, but unable to satisfy the asthetic thirst of m o s t concert audiences. A t present the only recourse is transcriptions o f familiar works. In America the literature of marimba is more varied. What are your feelings about Bach and other transcriptions on the marimba? What pieces o f this type did y o u play? Every instrument needs its own literature: This is what I sought for the marimba from the beginning. T o develop m y technique and knowledge of music, I played privately, Scarlatti, Schubert, Bach, Mendelssohn, Bartok, Stamitz, various arias and art songs-just about anything m y four mallets could handle. But I did n o t make these m y repertoire. Bach's music has a singular place in m y life. Occasionally I played one Bach in m y solo recitals, but more often used it as an encore.~By transcription I hope y o u do n o t mean arrangements, as I would never have the presumption to change one note of Bach. If I could n o t play it as he set it o u t on the page, I certainly would not perform it. Do y o u know of any unpublished marimba music that should be brought to the attention o f publishers? There's a great deal o f unpublished material for marimba, yes. But publishers are disinterested I've found. H o w about your b o o k The Marimbas o f Guatemala - is it going to be reprinted? The b o o k on the marimbas o f Guatemala will be reprinted, b u t more than likely in Spanish. I do have another b o o k coming out soon--actually it is a compilation of news about the marimba by the Guatemalan scholar, David Vela. I have only translated it into English. Is there any over-all advice y o u ' d give to a young marimbist? No, there is little advice I would give to a y o u n g marimbist. Amateurs d o n ' t listen, and geniuses d o n ' t need it. An y advice I sought as a youngster was m e t with negative or pessimistic response. I know w h y now. No professional wants to encourage a youngster to pursue such a lonely and very hard road, full of disappointment and hardships of which they have no understanding at the time. I t is n o t a normal life, and the moments of reward are widely spaced when they do come. You used a " n o mistake" practice s y s t e m ~ w o u l d y o u tell us about it? Practicing should be done on a fully conscious level. Often students become mesmerized and repeat errors over and over. If y o u program an error into a computer, the computer will n o t perform satisfactorily. It is that simple. The brain is a computer. Do y o u have any thoughts on " t o t a l percussion" training as opposed to specialization on marimba, timpani, or some other area? Are y o u in fact asking whether it is practical to be a marimbist as opposed to a percussionist? I d o n ' t see the two as natural alternatives. The marimba is a melodic instrument capable of harmony and counterpoint. It can stand alone. Or is the question, "should one train for solo work or orchestral w o r k ? " W h o can answer that for another? I suppose those teachers who advocate " t o t a l -24-

percussion" are reasonably sure their pupils will obtain a llvlihood that is more or less regular. In such case, the marimba is relegated to the ranks of percussion. There is a demand for percussionists in orchestras, but the soloist must create a demand, and that is a risk. LS: What place in music do y o u see the marimba occupying ten years from now? VC: Anything could happen. LS: Would y o u care to speculate on what music history will have to say about the marimba 100 years from now? VC: One hundred years from now, it will have had a history in western culture, which it did n o t have prior to the twentieth century. Even dictionaries and encyclopedias have come a long way in defining it. As a youngster writing m y first term paper, I found it defined in a reputable dictionary as " a few rough slabs thrown over an open pit, and beat upon by savages". LS: Do y o u think that y o u will ever return to marimba playing or teaching full-time? VC: Let's just say that I hope to one day. I S : After you complete your work in New Guinea, will you settle in New Guinea, New Zealand, or America? VC: I feel at h o m e in so many places it makes settling a problem. LS: If you could affect the past, present, or future of the marimba with some sort of magic wand, what events, conditions, or attitudes would y o u change? VC: I would like to see the dedication of Stradivari on behalf of marimba construction. I would like to see the dedication o f Beethoven on behalf of marimba composition. I "would like to see the dedication of Wanda Landowska on behalf of marimba performance. THE I N T E R V I E W E R LEIGH HOWARD STEVENS is one of America's foremost young concert marimbists. He has studied with the renown Vida Chenoweth and his mastery o f mallet independence has greatly expanded the compositional and musical possibilities for the marimba.
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