Features and Reviews
Hal Isbitz: Melody Maker
By Fred Hoeptner
Back in the mid-1980s Galen Wilkes hosted a weekly ragtime radio program on an FM station in the San Fernando Valley. One evening as part of a segment on contemporary ragtime he interviewed guest composer Hal Isbitz and played a tape of Hal performing two of his syncopated compositions: the dramatic "Holiday Rag" and "Vienna," a character piece with immoderate tempo changes commemorating not the Austrian capital but Hal's dog. Although I had been a ragtime fan for many years and thought myself familiar with its visages, here was ragtime that was strikingly different. Suffused with memorable melodies and sophisticated harmonies and exuding a certain poignancy, his pieces captivated me.
I don't recall when I first met Hal, but I suspect that it was during one of the Sedalia or Fresno festivals. He also attended a few meetings in the Rose Leaf Club's earlier years. In any case, in early 2000 I called him at home in Santa Barbara and asked if I could visit and pose some questions to supplement Galen's interview. Hal graciously consented.
Hal's fascination with music began with his childhood in San Francisco, where he was born to Polish immigrant parents April 9, 1931. When he was five years old, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Hal continued to reside until about 1990. Although his parents were not musicians, their love of classical music influenced him from childhood, and at age 9 he decided that he really wanted to learn to play the piano. Aware of the financial struggles that bedeviled musicians during the Depression, his parents at first resisted, but then acquiesced to lessons, although initially he had to practice on the piano at the local community center. After he demonstrated his seriousness, they bought him a piano, with lessons continuing for about five years. At age 14 he discovered the music of Chopin, his love for which has never abated. He readily acquired the basics of harmony and the ability to play by ear without formal instruction by studying the chords of the popular music of the day and, later, by jamming with a friend who played sax and clarinet. With this knowledge he began composing simple pieces.
Hal entered UCLA, initially majoring in chemistry, but soon switched to mathematics. This prepared him for his eventual career as computer programmer, which he followed during most of his professional life. But he also continued with his classical musical training: "a little New England Conservatory, a little UCLA, and a lot of Ernest Kranitz, professor emeritus of music at USC," with whom he studied privately for several years. Topics included the standard classical curriculum: harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and composition, but the latter strictly in the modern classical idiom characterized by dissonance and atonality. "The techniques helped me [later] in composing ragtime, but none of the harmonies," he recalled.
Hal's awareness of ragtime developed gradually: 'Maple Leaf Rag" on a classical radio station, "American Beauty" on a music machine at an amusement park, the Joshua Rifkin recordings (which turned him on to formal ragtime), and finally a movie, "The Sting." From the first he esteemed ragtime as equivalent to classical music. After "The Sting," when ragtime sheet music suddenly became available, Hal purchased a folio and began reading through some of the pieces. Although at the time he was unaware of any contemporary ragtime composition, he was inspired to start making up "little rags," and after about a dozen or so, he started to notate them. After contacting Dick Zimmerman through the author of an article in Westways Magazine, he began attending Maple Leaf Club meetings regularly and often presented his new compositions. Latin rhythms from Tin Pan Alley had always appealed to Hal, an affinity reinforced by Joplin's "Solace " and Matthews' "Pastime Rag No. 5," and soon he began composing tangos as well.
Hal estimates that he has now composed 60 to 70 rags and tangos that he considers of professional quality. He has produced two folios of a dozen each of his compositions, one of rags and one of tangos. Hal's CD of tangos "Blue Gardenia," played by pianist John Arpin, was favorably reviewed on National Public Radio and has reached #4 in Amazon.com's classical sales chart. His ragtime rondo "Lazy Susan" won second prize in the 1997 ragtime composition contest of the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation. Noted ragtime performers Frank French, Jack Rummel, and Jeff and Anne Barnhart have recorded some of his rags. Noting that many ragtimers rate "Chandelier Rag" as his best, I asked his opinion. He called it one of his best, but asserted that it doesn't stand alone: "I rate 'Pearl Street Souvenir,' inspired by my meeting with John Arpin [on Boulder's Pearl Street pedestrian mall], and 'Carmel by the Sea' as high or higher." Another favorite is "Opalescence," which Hal wrote in an ostensibly simplified form after Opal Franey, one of his many friends and fans, complained that his pieces were too difficult for her to play. Hal is continuing to compose ragtime, but probably at a reduced rate of output. "My standards have become higher, my melodies more complex, and my compositions more difficult to play," he explained.
I asked Hal about his composing process. "Basically, it's the germ," he began. "I sometimes get a feeling that something is ready to come out, and I sit at the piano, and usually it does. If I force myself to make up a tune, it's almost always mediocre. Once I get an idea that I like, the rest comes. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes with difficulty, but unless I have something good to start with, I can't do anything with it no matter how hard I try." Hal doesn't draw from a store of melodies ready for use, instead composing each piece individually but composing the strains of a piece in a random sequence. "I composed my latest in the order 1-4-3-2," he explained. Then he spends much time refining and polishing. This process may include altering chords and inserting passing chords. "I can lose a night of sleep worrying whether a note should be E or E flat, and no one else would know the difference," he observed. In some instances he has introduced so much harmonic complexity that he has had to go back and simplify.
To me, Hal's compositions are distinctive and usually recognizable even though I may never have heard the particular piece before. I asked Hal to describe these qualities of his compositions that make them unique in ragtime. "[My compositions] are strong in contrapuntal techniques," he responded. "I pay a lot of attention to the horizontal line. By horizontal line, I mean counterpoint, and by counterpoint I mean two melodies going simultaneously." He also explained that some of his chords are "more chromatic and Chopinesque" than were used by the classic ragtime composers. Although Hal believes that, to remain viable, ragtime must evolve, he asserted that his application of these techniques, which began in the mid-1970s, was unintentional and really even unconscious.
Hal's compositions generally follow the traditional ragtime formats in their sequence of strains, the most common being AABBACCDD, except that he has introduced the rondo format in several of his compositions, one being his classic "Holiday Rag." He had written the first three strains and knew that he wanted to finish with an augmentation of the first strain, but couldn't figure out how to return to it smoothly. "Ah-ha," he thought, "the second strain returns to the first, so after the trio I'll return to the second strain and follow with the first. I was congratulating myself until I found out later that this was one of Mozart's favorite devices." On transitions between strains, Hal commented that he used them as often to change tempo and mood as to change key.
Hal noted that his selection of a title almost always follows completion of a piece. Even so, his titles are often descriptive of the music. For example, the second strain of "Chandelier Rag" brings to my mind the descending layers of an elaborate chandelier.
Finally, Hal conveyed some bits of philosophy applicable to all creative pursuits. First, a piece is never really "finished," it is just released, so one has to recognize when further refinement becomes counterproductive. Second, "I have to write for myself, not for what I think people want to hear. Otherwise it becomes a potboiler. To me that's the be-all and end-all of any creative enterprise."