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Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
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Stephen Sondheim Interview

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

July 5, 2005
Los Angeles, California

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  Stephen Sondheim

To begin at the beginning, what is your first memory of being moved by music? Can you remember back that far?

Stephen Sondheim: No, not really.

I started listening to classical music when I was in my early teens. Prior to that, I listened to pop records or band records, 'cause my father liked that kind of music. And I particularly liked watching... We had a Capeheart phonograph, which was a very elaborate mechanism in which 78's -- which recorded three minutes on a side, and so you had to turn them over by hand -- but this machine turned the record over by a very clever mechanical device, and I used to just watch it, and I think that's how I got into music. I also took piano lessons when I was six years old. But I don't remember being, quote, "moved" by a piece of music first.

Were your parents musical? Did they play instruments?

Stephen Sondheim: My father played piano by ear. My mother was non-musical, she was visual. My father would play. He loved Broadway shows and he would come home and approximate the songs on the piano, and he'd put his hands on the keys, and he'd put my hand, when I was tiny, on the melody, because he always played the melody with his little finger on the top. And so that was my exposure to piano.

Did he actually teach you piano?

Stephen Sondheim: Oh, no. He played by ear. He couldn't read music or anything like that.

How soon was it apparent that you had a musical gift?

Stephen Sondheim Interview Photo
Stephen Sondheim: That's hard. I have no idea. I took piano lessons when I was six and seven, but that's what every nice, upper middle class Jewish boy did in New York City. It was really so my parents could show me off to their guests, playing "Flight of the Bumblebee," and that sort of thing. And then I didn't want to go on with it. I played the organ when I went to military school, when I was ten years old. They had a huge organ. In fact, I believe it was the second largest pipe organ in New York State. I loved all the buttons and the gadgets, because I've always been a gadget man. My feet could hardly hit the pedals, but I played, and that was fun for a year. And then I took piano lessons when I was in prep school, when I was 14, 15 and 16, and gave recitals around Pennsylvania. They wanted me to be a concert pianist, because I had a very good right hand, but my left hand's terrible and I hated performing.

How did you respond to military school?

Stephen Sondheim: Loved it. My parents got divorced and military school gave me a structure. They sent me off. I think a lot of my class of kids, kids my age, were children of divorced parents, and they didn't know what to do with the kids. I liked it a lot. That always surprises people. I liked knowing that I had to be here at 10:03, and do that at 11:07, and that sort of thing.

You were interested in math at one time, weren't you?

Stephen Sondheim: Math was my big interest when I was in prep school. I took some math courses there and I was considering taking math in college, and majoring in it, but since I didn't really want to be a mathematician I went to a liberal arts college, Williams, and so I just took liberal arts courses.

Did math help music?

Stephen Sondheim: Oh, sure it does. Math and music are intimately related. Not necessarily on a conscious level, but sure.

In what way? Symmetry? Balance?

Stephen Sondheim: It's more than that. Harmonic relationships. It's well-known, mathematicians and musicians are often one and the same.

And you like puzzles too, don't you?

Stephen Sondheim: Yeah. That's another aspect of compositional techniques that I enjoy. Fitting things together. I've always liked puzzles, since I was a kid, and I don't know why.

What about games?

Stephen Sondheim: Games? That's a different matter. Yes, I like party games and silly games. I loved chess. I like pure games like chess. But I'm not really into the luck games a lot.

What sort of puzzles interest you? Jigsaw puzzles?

Stephen Sondheim: No. Word puzzles, and logic puzzles and math puzzles. I enjoy jigsaw puzzles, but I'm not particularly visual. So I prefer the other kind.

We've read that you like something called "cut-throat anagrams."

Stephen Sondheim: Anagrams is a game that, in its original form, has a set of protocols in which you form words out of a pool of letters, but you're supposed to wait until the person whose turn it is gives up, and then you can say, "I see a word." But in "cut-throat," you don't wait for anybody. You just turn the letter up and everybody yells whatever word they see. I was brought up, you know, by Oscar Hammerstein in my early teens, and he liked anagrams, but it was the decorous kind. And then, when I met Leonard Bernstein, he and his family played cut-throat anagrams, and that's how I got into that.

As a composer, I wonder if there's a sense, because you're a lover of games and puzzles, that there's always some solution to a given problem.

Stephen Sondheim: I'm sure that's part of it.

Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos, and certainly puzzles. The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is you know there is a solution. I also like murder mysteries for the same reason. Again, the puzzle murder mysteries, the Agatha Christie kinds of things where you know that it's all going to be neatly wound up at the end and everything's going to make logical sense. I think that's why murder mysteries are popular, is this defense against chaos.

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