Reprinted from The Improvisor: The International Journal of Free Improvisation
Volume IX, 1991
Read interview two: Father of Calamitonality
Read interview three: Loose Wires and Burnt Ivory
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Improvisor, composer, and pianist, PW Schreck was born in New York City in 1924. Always distrustful of the microphone, camera, and interviewer, he has never given himself the chance to achieve the respect (if not the notoriety) that he deserves. I first heard of PW as a child, when my mother reminisced about her days as a torch singer in the clubs of Manhattan's 52nd St. His name came up frequently, and I came to imagine a wild, uncontrollable genius subject to fits of rage. As a teenager I finally got to meet him (he came to stay with my family during a painful drying out period) and I found a man who was at once kind, funny, impatient and always cranky. Only as an adult have I come to fully appreciate his talent; his intuitive approach to the piano as an extension of his body and his inventive use of the entire instrument are unequalled. He has brought techniques of improvisation to many unlikely situations; big bands, films, and concert halls to name a few. Unforgettable to the few who have seen him perform, he remains unknown to many more. After persistent coaxing I convinced PW to give up one afternoon for this too-rare interview.
AG: When did you start playing music?
PW: When my uncle rigged up a cart, tied it to our neighbor's milk truck, and loaded up an upright grand piano that he found outside of a ballroom that had burned down on Amsterdam Avenue. He dragged it from Harlem all the way home to E. 205th St. in the Bronx. I was down in the basement ditching school when I heard this giant shimmering metallic clang. He was prying the charred wooden case off of what was left of the burnt-up piano with a crowbar and BANG! The piano harp hit the floorboards. I thought that he had finally shelled out for an instrument for me, but his plan was to throw the burnt wood in the trash and sell the rest of the piano to Benny the junkman as scrap metal. When I found out that it wasn't for me, I was so pissed off that I got some house paint and wrote "Geh kak afn yam" all over the harp frame -- in Yiddish that means “go shit in the ocean” -- and he was too embarrassed to try to unload the damn thing. I got one hell of a beating, and goddamned if I was going to play like Harpo Marx, but I got my first instrument, one bastardized burnt up paint peeling piano harp, case and keys burnt in a trashcan to keep the bums warm.
AG: The piano was your first instrument, most of the piano at least?
PW: I think every snot-nosed kid should get their piano one piece at a time. Give them some idea of what's in the thing. Get those goddamned ivories out of the way and see what they're really made of.. At least every Mama and Papa wouldn't be bitching about one more chorus of "Chopsticks!"
AG: How did your early piano harp study affect your playing later?
PW: Study? (laughs) I beat that thing with everything in the goddamn basement! The neighbors got so pissed that I learned to fake seizures so they would have pity on me. They thought I was some poor feeble-minded schlemiel. Then I'd invite their daughters into the basement for a private harp lesson and we'd smoke cigarettes and drink wine that I liberated from Mrs. Lombardi's cellar. You know, I never could get those resonant harmonics back with a regular piano in wooden furniture bondage. Kind of like my first love... Piano never rang as true after that naked harp.
AG: Did your early piano harp playing inspire you to work with alternative piano techniques as an adult?
PW: Alternative techniques? There never was an alternative for me! I'm not George fucking Crumb... I don't need some college boy writing his thesis on my "Alternative Techniques!" I got an instrument by sheer willpower and got stuck on the sound of really letting those strings vibrate. When I finally managed to get myself a "real" piano, I spent a goddamned lifetime trying to make it sound as good, because back then you could bet your ass you couldn't get a cab, let alone a paying gig, hauling around a burnt-up frame. First I tried to get that sound back with the "Hold down the pedal until the cows come home" style, and God knows that I ran that into the ground. Arty old ladies loved it, so I got plenty of work playing the starving new discovery in Fifth Avenue salons. I never worked up any material, I just faked it. Drinking fancy wine with their beautiful spoiled daughters did some advantages, and I did get swayed by temptation more than once, but it just wasn't worth keeping that trash up. Then one day I realized I sounded just like somebody doing a lousy job of sightreading Ravel, so the sustain pedal and the martini gigs went out of my life and into the dumpster forever.
AG: Is that when you started working more in the recorded medium?
PW: No, that's when I started working more in the department of sanitation. Ever collected garbage in New York in August? I think it ranks up there with doing weddings. After a while I found a wire tape recorder in the garbage with boxes and boxes of wire tape. I strung up part of a piano harp with the wire that had already been recorded on, and dragged the recorder's head over the whole contraption. It got me evicted. You never heard so much feedback in your life. Finally I learned to control the thing and found out that the tapes were hours and hours of anti-commie court proceedings and HUAC bullshit. Boring! One of my old patrons caught wind of what I was doing and wanted to commission a piece that "reflected the paranoia of our times," which was fine with me because anything would have beat slinging trash by then. She paid me a lot of dough to go to some fancy rented theatre and drag that old recorder over tapes of distorted slowed-down voices of ranting assholes. Her rich bohemian friends loved it. She advanced me for another piece, so I made tapes of me playing my piano harp on a wire recorder, then I strung an old piano harp with that wire tape and I alternated it with regular piano wire. Now that was a great sound... The piano wire vibrating and recording wire both on one frame. It was a total fucking surprise whenever I played the thing, there was no way you could control it. That was the beauty of it: feedback, rumbling, incredible harmonics, you name it. She got the piece into a concert of 20th century chamber music, and I swear they would have thrown fucking rotten eggs if they had them. The New York Times called it "Gratuitously dissonant electronic bansheeism," and the bohemians said that I had sold out since my early political work.
AG: Was this the end of your tape recorder experiments?
PW: Yeah, inspired by a desire to pay rent.
AG: But you continued playing?
PW: Well, I ran into an old friend, a vocalist, Baby Eberle. He had his own band and was looking to make a comeback in the fifties. Most musicians were more interesting in playing bebop than in backing him.
AG: You weren't involved in that scene?
PW: Bop? Never. Shit, if I wanted to play scales and patterns like a speeding runaway train, I'll stay home and practice out of the fucking Hanon book. Music was supposed to be opening up, getting freer, but "I Got Rhythm" and its five thousand variations played at the same tempo by the same five or ten junkies just never appealed to me. "Downbeat" once called me a second-rate Bud Powell, but I think they referring more to my mental condition than to my playing style.
AG: And this vocalist...
PW: Oh yeah, Baby wanted me to put a band together for him. He couldn't afford a big band, so we really had to screw around to make a seven-piece band sound really big. He was willing to try anything; I could never tell if he was really creative or just plain stupid. We worked up a lot of standards that didn't have too many rapid chord changes -- "With A Song In My Heart", "April In Paris", stuff like that. As long as we stuck to corny old tunes we could get away with murder. We never had rehearsals, so we just faked a big harmonic mush. Mantovani was big at the time, so we went for that 1,001 Strings sound, as played by underpaid and underrehearsed musicians. I was the "arranger", so I'd pick a key and say "Guitar -- harmonics. Drums -- brushes only. Bass -- use that bow and no less than two strings at once. Horns -- overtones, harmonics, and when in doubt, arpeggiate." It was great. All improvised. No such thing as a wrong note. We were big in the Poconos for our easy, lush sound. Then I started reaching inside the piano, seemed only natural at the time, and some asshole hotel manager fired me on the spot, said that I was destroying that broken-down, out of tune piece of shit piano. Next thing I hear, Baby Eberle was back on 52nd St., singing lyrics to Sony Stitt solos.
AG: Did you continue with that style of arranging?
PW: Only out of need. I moved out to LA in 1957 because I couldn't shake a bad case of bronchitis, New York was too fucking cold. The LA club scene was totally screwed. As usual, I couldn't get a gig to save my life. I wound up scoring a film called "Of Dice and Men". I was dating the director's daughter at the time. It was film noir because they couldn't afford lights. They gave me six hours in a back alley recording studio, so it was me and the piano harp again, plus some LA union hacks who were friends of the caterer. They were the most uptight bunch of stiffs I've ever played with. I wound up spending most of my pay on booze to try to loosen those guys up, and we ended up recording the violinist out in the alley, the string bassist in the shower, and the drummer in the basement. The engineer hated my guts, and the director thought I was a crazy son of a bitch, but the truth was, I had to separate those assholes or they wouldn't improvise. They thought it would ruin their careers if their union colleagues saw them improvising with some nutcase crawling inside his piano.
AG: Is the film ever shown?
PW: They ran it in Paris a few years ago as part of a festival. I hear of it being shown on TV every five or six years. I also had a bit part in it playing a piano player who gets strangled with piano wire.
AG: That sound like stereotyping to me.
PW: All of a sudden PW stood for piano wire.
AG: That's what I always thought. What does it really stand for?
PW: Philip Washington Schreck. My father was an immigrant who wanted to give his son a patriotic name.
AG: Did you continue composing for films"
PW: I wouldn't call it composing. It was more like trying to sync total chaos to some cheesy Hollywood piece of drek. I was broke and I was cheap, so I got hired by directors who were also broke and cheap.
AG: You also scored some cartoons?
PW: Where did you hear that? Oh god, the nightmare of my life. You gotta come up with a precise hit every time some barnyard animal slips on a banana peel. I felt more like a rodeo clown than a composer. I gave up on trying to write anything in advance, we'd just collect in the recording studio and make our boings and clangs. Fight scenes were always fun though, I'd make the musicians chase each other around the room like the cartoon characters, so we'd wind up with some wild cacophonous mess. I specialized in cacophony. I also specialized in getting fired.
AG: What have you been doing since then?
PW: I've been doing some work in Italy. Some communist film makers have been working on a documentary, supposedly an expose of the HUAC trials. God only knows where they got the dough, but they've been bringing me out there to re-record the music every year while they cut and re-cut it. They also dug up some ancient home movie of my piano harp/HUAC tape performance, silent of course, and they want me to record a new soundtrack. Some fly-by-night French company wants to put out a CD of my film music, but I'll believe that when I see it. I thought that most of my master tapes were destroyed by a recording studio in the sixties.
AG: Any closing thoughts on improvisation?
PW: I've put up with a lot of bullshit for playing improvised music in places where it wasn't too popular. I've also done pretty damn good when people didn't know that they shouldn't like it. Don't get pushed into writing a second-rate piece of trash when improvising is what you think is appropriate. If I was in a tight spot -- a cartoon, for instance -- I'd always bring the same scribbles on manuscript paper just in case some creep insisted on composed, notated music. Didn't use it once, though. And remember, it sure beats "Babyface" for the hundred and ninetieth time.