A Digital Conversation with Hal Isbitz

Hal Isbitz
Hal Isbitz

I first met Hal Isbitz in 1991 at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, and again in Santa Barbara, California in 1992, while playing a piano concert there. In my opinion, Hal is one of the most important composers of the post-1960 ragtime era. He recently turned 90 and retired from programming and composing. I regard him as an elder statesman.

Hal won second place in the 1997 Scott Joplin Ragtime Composition Contest for “Lazy Susan”; he won the Ragtime for Tulsa Foundation Competition in 2007; a CD consisting of his piano tangos was released in 1998 (played by the late John Arpin on Marquis Classics); and this author was the first pianist to record his rags on a commercially released CD (The Graceful Ghost, Capstone Records, 2007). Sadly, his work has, nonetheless, been considerably neglected.

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Personally, I believe Hal to be erudite, witty, somewhat reserved, yet devoid of any of the egotism that one all too often encounters in the performance world. Hal’s musical style is untheatrical yet dramatic; quiet—yet intensely disciplined.

His parents were born in Poland and were, apparently, quite musical.

Hal Isbitz: My father loved classical music, and listened to it constantly on [the] radio. My mother had a nice singing voice. Both were musically illiterate. I was born in San Francisco…[but]…lived most of my life in Los Angeles.

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Matthew de Lacey Davidson: Please tell me about your musical training.

Most of my musical training was privately with Ernest Kanitz then professor emeritus at USC. I took a one semester night course in orchestration at UCLA Extension. There are only a few things I remember from my studies. (We’re talking 60 years ago). The most ambitious thing I wrote was a violin sonata, which thankfully is lost. I remember analyzing fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier and writing fugues.

In your voice leading, I hear the choral harmonizations of J.S. Bach.

While at UCLA I took a course each in counterpoint and harmony and I remember analyzing the [Bach] chorales. I really learned to pay attention to voice leading from Dr. Kanitz, who maintained that practically any chord progression will work if the voice leading is natural…[As to unusual harmonies]…I can only say that I write what I hear and what my fingers find on the keyboard.

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What was your first ragtime experience?

What got me started was Joshua Rifkin’s first recording of Joplin rags, which I came across displayed at a record store. I remember particularly the last strain of “Fig Leaf Rag“, which I still think is the best thing Joplin ever wrote.”

Have you written works other than ragtime?

I became interested in writing tangos after my acquaintance with “Solace” [by Scott Joplin] and Artie Matthews’ “Pastime Rag #5.” I was also influenced by popular Latin style pieces such as Vincent Youmans’ “Orchids in the Moonlight.” Then I discovered Ernesto Nazareth and I was off and running. I have arranged…a few of my works for violin and piano, [and] one for cello and piano (“Bon Bon”). There is a tango (“Anastanza”) for flute and piano…commissioned by Jeff and Anne Barnhart. I subsequently did a solo piano reduction.

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How did the late John Arpin become interested in your work?

I met John in Sedalia [Missouri], at the…Scott Joplin festival, and I hung out with him in Boulder [Colorado] at the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival. He told me he wanted to make a recording of…[my]…Blue Gardenia folio, and…sent me comments on each piece before making the recording.

That was nice. He was, indeed, a great artist. Who are your favourite ragtime composers?

No surprises here. The 3 J’s of ragtime: Joplin, Joseph Lamb and James Scott.

And classical ones?

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I like almost all of them, except for Bruckner, whom I find tedious, and Vivaldi, who I believe is overrated. If I had to pick favorites I suppose I would pick Beethoven and Chopin.

With the clever way you thwart the expectations of your listeners, I hear Schumann and Brahms. Do you like their work?

Oh, yes. With Schumann, the symphonies, piano concerto, and solo piano works such as Carnaval. With Brahms, the late piano works in particular.

Why so many titles about flowers?

I know very little about flowers. I suppose I was unconsciously following Scott Joplin’s example of what I call his botanical rags: “Maple Leaf,” “Fig Leaf,” et al.

Who taught you piano and have you performed in public?

I have played in public occasionally, e.g. at meetings of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Club in Los Angeles…although…I have neither the skill nor the temperament. I had three years of piano lessons from the age of 9…my teacher was a local teacher of no distinction.

How did you become a computer programmer?

I have a BA in math from UCLA…I got hired as a computer programmer trainee while living in New York. I had gone…[there]…in 1956 and applied to Juilliard as a composition student. I had written some piano pieces to accompany my application. I was rejected, told to study privately, and reapply in a year. Okay, but I needed a means of support. I answered an ad in the New York Times…[and]…was transferred to Boston to begin training. After 15 months, I was transferred to Santa Monica. All this long before there was such a thing as Computer Science. I really liked working as a computer programmer. I did software development and maintenance.

Are you an intuitive or analytical composer?

My writing is strictly intuitive. I have never approached writing intellectually.

Do you have any other talents or interests that most of us don’t know about?

I read a lot, mostly crime fiction, although occasionally I may come across something of literary merit. Accidents will happen. I’m interested in the fine arts and architecture. I still enjoy tinkering with computers.

Should you be interested in Hal’s piano pieces, he would be happy to sell you any of his four folios of original sheet music. You may contact him directly at [email protected].

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Matthew de Lacey Davidson is a pianist and composer currently resident in Nova Scotia, Canada. His first CD, Space Shuffle and Other Futuristic Rags (Stomp Off Records), contained the first commercial recordings of the rags of Robin Frost. His second CD, The Graceful Ghost: Contemporary Piano Rags (Capstone Records), was the first commercial compact disc consisting solely of post-1960 contemporary piano ragtime, about which Gramophone magazine said, …a remarkably talented pianist…as a performer Davidson has few peers…”

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