Reprinted from The Improvisor: The International Journal of Free Improvisation
Volume X, 1993
Read interview one: Stripping the Piano Bare
Read interview three: Loose Wires and Burnt Ivory
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Composer, improviser, and pianist PW Schreck has been described alternately as an unheralded genius and a temperamental hack. Considering the minimal financial rewards he has received for a lifetime of dedication to his own unorthodox brand of composition and improvisation, we can safely assume the title of “hack” is undeserved. Schreck is a musician who took many odd gigs and commissions to support himself, but always brought to them his unmistakable style, combining layered textures of piano, prepared piano, and piano harp, with a dissonant, aggressive performance style. Schreck has been an active, if not well-known figure in New York’s contemporary music scene since the nineteen forties. The Autumn 1991 issue of the Improvisor featured an interview that I conducted with Schreck that focused primarily on his background, influences, and early works.
In the Spring of 1993 I was fortunate to be able to present a concert of the music of PW Schreck as part of John Zorn’s Festival of Radical New Jewish Culture at The Knitting Factory in New York. I was, however, unfortunate enough to have to attempt to get scores and recordings from the occasionally difficult Mr. Schreck. Eventually I acquired an odd collection of notes, manuscripts, film and recordings (some of them wire recordings) most of them nearly indecipherable. Schreck was generous enough with his time to allow me to sample his original recordings of prepared piano and altered piano harp techniques; he even let me record his preparations live, but it was always with the piano lid closed, and the actual techniques still remain a mystery to me. In preparing for a concert of his work, I questioned him at great length about the pieces which I had chosen to perform, and the interview that follows is excerpted from my transcripts of these discussions which took place at this home in rural Pennsylvania in late 1992.
As always, it was difficult for PW to share information, and what he chose to elaborate on was more anecdotal than technical, but it does shed some light on the work of a composer so closed to the public and the press.
AG My parents played me a 78 called “Chasing My Own Tail” that’s credited to you. It’s in a nineteen-twenties jazz style that I hadn’t heard you play in before...
PW And you won’t hear me play in again! Christ, I thought all those sides were crushed and served as World War Two K-Rations. Boy, was I a dumb kid. That was my first recording and it’ll fucking haunt me ‘til the day I die. [Vaudeville guitarist extraordinaire] Roy Smeck and a drummer... What was his name?
PW Yeah, yeah, Sigmund “Siggy” Lecker and Roy Smeck had a duo called “A Lek un a Shmeck” -that means a taste and a smell, or just a little bit, in Yiddish. They played the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue [in New York] and occasionally hit the Catskills. Corny, novelty shit, but those fuckers could really blow. “Freilach” and “Hava Nagila” never sounded the same after Smeck attacked it with his wild slide guitar.
AG Did you perform with them?
PW I’m getting there... So they have this piano player, Becker, or Zecker, or something, and he’s seventy-five years old and dies of a coronary on stage. The next day they had a recording session for Galicia records and they called me in. I always figured I got that gig more on the merit of my name than my actual technique. Funny thing is, “a lek un a schmeck” means “a taste and a smell,” but in Yiddish “a lek un a shmeck un a schreck” means “a taste and a smell and a horror...” We should have known right there.
AG Did the record do well?
PW It came out, and a month later Galicia records was sued by Columbia records for copyright infringement. See, they took Columbia’s logo and just glued “Galicia” over “Columbia.” I think the 78’s got sold for scrap. Thank god we never got to record that classic follow-up “I caught my own tail.”
AG From what I can hear on the recording of another early work, “Gornisht Helfn,” it sounds like you were using microtonality years before it came in vogue.
PW Microtonality? (Laughs) You know how I named that one? Sol Horwitz, the piano tuner, came to my place in the Bronx. Not that I had any money to pay him back then, but he took one look at that battered up piece of shit piano and shook his head and said “Gornisht helfn.” That means “nothing can help it” in Yiddish. So suddenly I’m stuck with some two-bit commission and a useless piano and it’s time to pay the rent. So I came up with “Calamitonality,” which had more to do with my relationship to my bank than the relationship of my C to my C sharp. I was no Harry Partch California nutcase “Mr. Microtonal” composer, I was getting out of a tight spot, and it sounded fucking great. No “Mary Had a Little Lamb” diatonics, it was a beautiful, ringing, angry sound. Anhow, it gets around that the title of this piece means “Nothing Helps,” and suddenly my pinko sponsor gets it written up in The Daily Worker as “The Anti-McCarthyism Anthem of the Decade.” Oh, the fifties really stunk.
AG It sounds like you continued with “Calamitonality” in your film scoring work on the West Coast.
PW My “film scoring work” at that point consisted of improvising on an even more fucked-up piano for... What the hell was the name of that movie?
AG “Of Dice and Men?”
PW Of Dice and Men!” How could I forget. Half of my pay was in bad whiskey and the other half of my pay was in bad checks. If the fucking director wasn’t dead I’d be on his doorstep today collecting the money he still owes me. It was Film Noir because they couldn’t afford lights. But it wasn’t too low budget for me, oh no. Most of it took place in a barroom and I just sat there at that shitty piano and improvised my “score” all through the shooting. Finally they threatened to pay me more for not playing than for playing.
AG We’ll be performing “Maurice’s Theme” and “Barfight at Julius’s” from the soundtrack.
PW Well good luck. The “Barfight at Julius’s” scene climaxed with me getting strangled with piano wire - my great cameo appearance! Let’s hope you go over better than I did. Los Angeles wasn’t good for me. Neither was New York, come to think of it.
AG And then you returned to New York?
PW On my hands and knees. I begged my patron to help fund my work for piano harp, tape recorders, drums, and guitar. When I first got back to New York, I was a sanitation worker for as long as I could stand it - which wasn’t long - but I found all kinds of great old recording gear that some rich dabbler on the Upper East Side just threw away. I had tapes of prepared piano combined with live musicians, and I’d be playing the piano harp along with it all. I was really onto something. We’d have sessions improvising late into the night, until the landlady started screaming “A sof an ek!” Which means “Enough! Stop it!” in Yiddish. Naturally, that’s what I named the piece. I told my patron that “A Sof an Ek” meant “Eternal Soul.” She was touched. And she fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
AG So that’s why I’ve been having cataloguing nightmares!
PW (Roaring with laughter) I haven’t heard that in twenty years! That was my favorite stunt, give the piece a name in Yiddish and a totally different name in English.
AG Did you use similar arranging and tape techniques in “Sound of the Independent Speaker?”
PW That was a low point... I found a worse job than haling trash; making change in the subway. [This was before the use of tokens.] I was crazy bored, underground all day, and those old trains were fucking deafening. I started dragging in my old wire recorder and recording the noise. Then I got really nuts and started bringing two recorders. I’d use one to play recordings of my piano harp, and another one to record the sound of the first one playing the sounds of the piano harp vibrating off of the rails. I almost got run over by those fucking subways. But the sound... It was enormous and uncontrolled raging piano distortion. I’d record and re-record and repeat the process until nobody knew what the fuck it was.
AG Were you have health problems?
PW Well, beside losing my mind, I was losing my hearing. Overexposure to a narrow band of very loud frequencies. I wanted my audience, well, not that I had an audience... I wanted to demonstrate how deafness affected music and sound.
AG Do you still have hearing problems?
PW What? (Laughs) No, it was temporary. But I was an angry son of a bitch. I took it out on anyone who would listen to my music with what I called “The Law of Harmonically Diminishing Returns,” loud, distorted waves of piano. When I wrote “Sound of the Independent Speaker” I added electric guitar and drums. The Daily Worker said I was “Striking another blow against HUAC and McCarthy with the ‘Sound of the Independent Speaker’ - the man brave enough to speak out,” but I really named it for the tinny little speaker that I used on the Independent Subway line... That’s what they called the Eighth Avenue subway in those days
AG Do you have any general advice for someone performing your music?
PW You sound so academic... (Chuckles) This music wasn’t cooked up in some university, it was based on improvisation. I never had an orchestra at my disposal, I had a hopelessly out of tune piano, a couple of tape recorders, maybe a drummer if he wasn’t a stickler for being paid... But I never felt like I needed that other shit. You work with what you’ve got. The dissonances on a beat-up piano can sound more beautiful than eighty union hacks reading down your score. Just because the funds aren’t there, it doesn’t mean music isn’t. And remember, if your landlady yells “A sof, an ek!” don’t stop, name a piece after her.