Reprinted from The Improvisor: The International Journal of Free Improvisation
Volume XI, 1996
Read interview one: Stripping the Piano Bare
Read interview two: Father of Calmitonality
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This is the third in a series of interviews from The Improvisor with the Bronx-born composer, improviser, and iconoclast Philip W. Schreck. In April, 1995, I performed his music in Switzerland and Germany with my trio, where I had the opportunity to expose a new audience to his under-appreciated and under-recorded work. In preparation for these concerts I met with Mr. Schreck at his home in rural Pennsylvania. We discussed his unique approach to each of his day jobs, his idiosyncratic use of the piano, his amazing ability to work creatively in the most adverse conditions, and the individual piece I was preparing. As always, he preferred sharing anecdotes and personal opinions to discussing specific technical information.
AG: I’m interested in performing some of your earlier film music. I’ve heard rumors that some of the first films that you worked on were military-related projects...
PW: My own personal military secret... The “Scrappy the Goat” files. We could’ve lost the war with that drek.
AG: Scrappy the Goat?
PW: In 1942 Uncle Sam decided that it was time for me to do my patriotic duty. At the time I was playing piano at Rudy’s Playpen on 52nd St. in [vocalist] Baby Eberle’s band. There was a drunk who always used to haunt the place, Moose Beerbohm. He worked for the draft board assigning new draftees. The day I got my draft notice I showed up for the gig in a state of shock, and proceeded to get stumbling drunk. By the end of the night I was exhausted, terrified, and incoherent, with my draft notice in my hand, and Moose was even more plastered, and babbling about some new Army film unit. We were sitting at the bar and he kept buying me drinks and promising me some bullshit about getting me a gig with this new top-secret unit. The next morning at 8 A.M. I had to report to the draft board, hung over and looking like I passed out under the piano (I think I did) and there was old Moose, who was in much worse shape than I was. But sure as hell, he got me my assignment, and that afternoon I was off to the Offutt Army Air Force base in Nebraska, doing my military service with the Army Office of Public Morale. Some guys got through the big one with flat feet and fallen arches, but I served my country with flat beats and fallen arpeggios!
AG: No boot camp?
PW: No boot camp, no basic training, just a not-so-bright future with the new Army Office of Morale, Film Division. It was almost enough to forgive Moose all of his obnoxious heckling. When I got there, I expected to work on some top-secret espionage training film, but I was assigned to the “Scrappy the Goat” projects, writing music for animated short subjects. The series promoted America’s wartime scrap metal drives, and featured the antics of a mischievous can-eating barnyard animal. Civilians did their part collecting pots and pans for the scrap metal drives, supposedly to be melted down for military use, but I remember a huge field in Idlewild where it all got dumped.
AG: And the music?
PW: What’s the matter, you didn’t come here to listen to my old war stories? In Sarpey County, Nebraska, 1942, with almost no budget, I didn’t have a lot of musicians to choose from. The first film I was assigned was called “Pots and Pans Put Victory in Our Hands” which I scored for piano, guitar, and drums. The drummer, Fritz Bard, got transferred to the officers’ club in Lincoln [Nebraska], so I was left high and dry and drummerless. On Sunday nights I used to go into Omaha for a weekly poker game run by Chester Magnusson, a guy who had a habit of taking the local hayseeds for all their milk money - or should I say milk of magnesia money. A lot of these geezers were doing their patriotic bit by serving as air raid wardens, since they were too damn old to enlist. One night, after losing my minuscule recording budget to Chester, I came up with the seemingly brilliant idea of recording the soundtrack with piano, guitar, and a volunteer orchestra of air raid wardens, who would perform the percussion parts on scrap metal: pots, pans and their beat-up old helmets. Those alte kakers [Yiddish for “old men”] were raring to go. They were perfect. Couldn’t read a note of music, no natural sense of rhythm, just BANG BANG BANG like they were out in the barn shoeing a horse. No trained drummer ever gave me that kind of enthusiasm, or willingness to improvise. After that, I used them for all of the films - “Don’t Scrap Freedom,” “A Scrap of Democracy,” “Scrappy Gets Der Fuehrer’s Goat” - I can’t remember the rest of those cornball titles. The clanging, banging percussion became my trademark. One guy specialized in helmets, another in sheet metal, and so on. You can bet none of the scrap metal collected in Sarpey County ever made it back to that field in Idlewild - it really was being used for patriotic purposes! After I was discharged, I heard that they continued as “Chester’s Air Raid Cavaliers,” disturbing god-fearing Nebraskans at local dances and county fairs wherever they played.
AG: I’d also like to perform “Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires,” but there doesn’t seem to be any consistent documentation of the detuning of the piano. I know that earlier in your career you worked with deteriorating pianos out of necessity, but at what point did you develop the concept of deliberately detuning the piano?
PW: Concept? (groans) Back in the sixties in New York everything became a concept - if you didn’t come up with some fekakte concept, your music didn’t mean shit. The actual music almost became secondary. A lot of my work was improvisation-based, and I saw no point in justifying it verbally. Me, I had a concept: go play the gig and actually get paid. Now that’s high concept to me. I guess it was too high, because I didn’t work much back then. I had so little work that I took a gig - at night! - as a night watchman. Things were looking really bad until I showed up for my first night at work, in Long Island City, Queens, and found out that I would be guarding the Steinway piano factory! I was actually getting paid to sit around and play all night, and I didn’t have to play “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” once! It was a dream. A warehouse full of pianos. Warehouse “B” was my favorite assignment - that was the depository for the seconds and the pianos that just wouldn’t play right.
AG: Is this when you wrote “Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires?”
PW: Eventually. It was just too strong of a temptation to not go reaching inside the piano and just tweak the tuning a little bit. You see, it starts small. The looser the strings were, the longer they would vibrate. actually, “Loose Wires...” wasn’t the only piece that I wrote at Steinway. The first piece that I wrote there was “Fantasy for Piano and Floor Polisher.” The only other guy there that I had contact with was Willie, the Ukranian maintenance man, and twice a week he’d be in Warehouse “B” polishing the floor with his monster floor polisher, whether the place needed it or not. Needless to say I found the resonant frequency of the floor, and tuned down those pianos so that as soon as he pushed the fucker into Warehouse “B” the pianos would just start vibrating, humming, buzzing, shaking; it all depended on how broken or detuned they were to begin with. Poor Willie was scared shitless. Either he thought that the place was haunted or that somehow he had broken every piano in the joint, and he’d lose his job. He was a totally methodical guy, so I plotted his course through the warehouse and altered the pianos in sequence, so that the sonorities would develop as he worked his way through the room polishing the floor. If I wanted to throw him for a loop, I’d move the pianos around and create kind of a theme and variations. He hated that warehouse. Apparently it got so he would beg not to have to clean it anymore.
AG: And you got fired?
PW: Christ, not for that. Warehouse “B” was a no man’s land. I could do anything to those pianos and no one would have cared. After Willie jumped ship I needed a new source to get the pianos vibrating, and once by accident I set off the burglar alarm...
AG: And you got fired?
PW: Fired, who me? (Chuckles) No... After a while nobody even bothered answering the Warehouse “B” alarm. But let me tell you, that alarm would really get the pianos roaring. It became a nightly event, as I worked on my “Alarmed Piano” series. They had two of those old-fashioned bell-type alarms, one on each door on each side of the warehouse, and not only did I learn to set them off, but I could take them apart and replace the bell with any number of objects: tam-tams, gongs, old brake drums, a thunder sheet... When I used a pitched piece of metal, I could pinpoint a frequency more easily, but I preferred to use some big, uncontrollable slab of metal - the door, for instance - and listen to all those Steinways sing. With an alarm going on each side of the room, the din was incredible. Then, of course, I’d have my own personally detuned piano to improvise along on.
AG: And you got...
PW: No, I didn’t get fired, but I did get transferred. I guess they figured if the alarm went off every night they needed some real security in Warehouse “B.” They moved me to the main warehouse, which was a little less remote. I was guarding the normal pianos - not their discarded outcast brothers. These pianos were waiting for their final inspection before they got shipped out, so detuning them became a real challenge. I coudl forget about the alarm or the floor polisher or anything else that entailed extra time, because now the pianos had to be detuned, played, and then tuned back up before the end of my shift.
AG: So this is when you wrote “Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires?”
PW: You got it. I started on one piano. Then it seemed stupid not to take advantage of having two. I brought in my old wire recorder so I could record it all, and wound up also incorporating musique concrète techniques using the recordings that I had made there. Meanwhile, it was getting to be a real pain in the ass trying to get everything in and out of tune in time. I barely had time to play. I was adding more and more pianos, and the tunings were getting more and more random, out of necessity. So there I was, spending too many nights with no sleep, and not being able to actually hear the piece in all of its glory, since I could only play one piano at a time. One morning on my way home from work I ran into Jimmy “Six Finger” Eberle, who I hadn’t seen since he subbed for me in his big brother’s band [vocalist Baby Eberle]. He was a great player, not a real technical genius, but he really knew how to use all of the notes on a piano, including those high ones and low ones that everybody seems to ignore. Also, he’d do just about anything for a bottle of Four Roses, so I knew he was just the man I needed. That night we went out to the warehouse together, with a bottle in my overcoat pocket. I detuned the pianos as quickly as possible, while Jimmy drank, smoked, and drank some more, and finally I could hear my work in its double piano glory. Jimmy was a great improviser and collaborator, and we worked through the piece and improvised and hammered away at it for hours and hours. As long as the whiskey flowed, Jimmy was good for it. It was an amazing wall of racket, and we weighted down the sustain pedals on all of the other pianos, so that they would start roaring along due to sympathetic vibrations... What a left hand this guy had! It was all incredibly loud and we sound like a very strange version of Mead Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. Then, in our state of near stupor, it seemed like a brilliant idea to get the burglar alarms going as well. I think I lost part of my hearing and some of my mind that night. We were so enthralled by the glorious was of pianos that we didn’t hear the cops answering the alarm or the morning shift of inspectors showing up! They found us, drunken and disheveled, duetting away madly. Every piano was out of tune. Steinway didn’t like it. The cops didn’t like it. “Zwei Meshugene Piano Shpielers Arreshtiert!” [Two Crazy Piano Players Arrested] was the story published in The Forward [Yiddish newspaper in New York]. It was the best press I ever got.
AG: And then you got fired?
PW: And then I got fired.