Excerpted interview conducted by David Deboor Canfield for the
September/October 2013 issue of Fanfare Magazine
Canfield: Lou, tell us s little bit about your background.
Pelosi: I learned the rudiments of music even before I was in
kindergarten. My father was a semi-professional piano teacher.
However, I didn’t really understand much about the nature of
music until much later, when I was in my 20s. At that time I
began piano studies with a teacher from Romania [Susan Tenenbaum],
but it became clear to me that I was not to be an entertainer — that is,
performer. Left with no real outlet, I decided to attend the conservatory,
which at that time was dominated by rationalistic elements. I was
fortunate amidst all this to have had as my first and most important
composition teacher a man by the name of Arnold Franchetti, an Italian
emigré with an irascible personality, but one who from the very first
lesson made clear that the summit of music for him was Bach, and that
his teaching would be based on that premise.
Canfield: Your First [String] Quartet is a favorite of mine among all the
works of yours that I have heard. I think it stands up very well in its
emotional impact with the great quartets of our time.
Pelosi: Thank you!
Canfield: Do you compose at the piano?
Pelosi: Yes. I do not try to write anything of value without confirming it
on the piano as a sound source. Since 1975, I’ve made my living as a
piano technician, and so I know the sound of the piano very well! Not
only that, but I have to know tones in their most intimate relationship to
one another. So, I’m absolutely bound to the sound before I decide on the
proper note or placement of a note within a composition. It must sound
right to my ears. I cannot look at a piece of [my] music to know if it’s
right — I must hear it. This is true when I’m at a rehearsal, or wherever.
I will immediately know if there’s a missing accidental, or a misplaced
note in a chord, etc.
Canfield: In the program notes of your CDs, you state that you are not a
performer. Obviously, you’ve been involved with pianos for your career,
and must play at some level. Can you play any of your own pieces?
Pelosi: No! Not in any way, shape, or form that would be acceptable to a
listener. I do have a couple of close friends (not my mention [my late wife]
Rosemarie!) that I have invited over to hear me plod through a new work.
But it’s always at a slow tempo, and not with anything that a professional
pianist would bring to the piece. I do try to take care to make a piece I write
idiomatic to the instrument(s) for which it is written. The members of the
string quartet that recorded my three quartets confirmed that I had written
very well for their instruments, and expressed the desire that I would write
more such works.
Canfield: Where do you see your musical idiom going in another five or ten
years? Do you see your music undergoing stylistic development, or have
you found your artistic compositional voice?
Pelosi: I think that from the moment that the slow movement of my first string
quartet was written, there has been no essential change in the way that I
approach my compositions. For me now, the most compelling music is
contrapuntal music, that is, music in which each line makes sense in and of
itself. This is the essence of music — not dots on a page, not textures, not
colors, not rhythm devoid of tonal direction, none of that. Obviously, those
lines are not arbitrary, but have to have some relationship to one another, and
have to add up to a sense of movement that the ear can follow. If the ear can
follow it, then the mind can follow it too, and be satisfied with it. So I don’t
foresee that the sound of my music is going to change.
Excerpted interview conducted by Donald Isler July 3, 2019 for his Isler’s
Insights Facebook series
Isler: Can you describe your background?
Pelosi: My grandparents were all Italian immigrants and I grew up in a semi-
literate milieu. Neither of my parents was able to finish secondary school,
needing to work instead. In a way, it’s surprising I became a composer of
classical music. My father gravitated toward the popular music of his day and
even became a bandleader before the war. He was my only childhood music
teacher; starting at age five I had a weekly piano lesson with him after church
(he played the organ as well) for eleven years and gave my first recital in
kindergarten. But, aside from the usual exercises and pedantic sonatinas, I
don’t remember ever learning a classical repertory piece. By my mid-teens I
went hard for folk music — playing, singing and songwriting.
Isler: For an eventual composer, your education was atypical too.
Pelosi: Yes! I received a B.A. in English Literature from the University of
Notre Dame. Accepted then for both a Masters program in literary criticism
and a Doctorate in literature at the University of Indiana, I never could matriculate
because of the Vietnam War. Instead I returned home and worked as a social
worker for almost four years.
Isler: And during this time?
Pelosi: In addition to becoming editor of an activist welfare rights union
newspaper, I enrolled in private piano lessons at New Haven’s venerable
Neighborhood Music School. Luckily, my instructor was a recent Romanian
emigré, Susan Tenenbaum. She was driven and inspired, a very good teacher!
At my first lesson she assigned me a Bach suite, music of Bartok and Schumann’s
Abegg Variations. All of a sudden a whole world opened up. Within two years I
had decided to do college over, this time preparing to be a composer. I spent
another four years at the Hartt Conservatory getting a Bachelor’s degree in
composition. My teacher now was composer Arnold Franchetti. He was
dictatorial but committed to the highest spirituality in music. From the beginning
we concentrated on Bach. During the first summer I took private lessons at his
Isler: What then brought you to the Manhattan School of Music?
Pelosi: I realized that I had no background in intellectualized, that is, serial music.
So I went there for a Masters degree (which I obtained in one year doubling the
course work), working with Charles Wuorinen. He was a very fine person, but
(my fault certainly) I learned next to nothing.
Isler: You’ve said that you studied this way of writing because you felt you had to,
thinking you lacked the breadth and cultivation to know what to do. But gradually
you realized that this was not how you wanted to compose.
Pelosi: I think that music, and all art, should be generated from a combination of
instinct, intellect and emotion. The 1970s saw the height of cerebral music. One
composer I knew chose all the notes of a piece before writing it! To my mind this
is the death of music. Parts of one’s compositions may be preconceived, but much
of it can only be validated in the act of discovering. I thought the folk music I had
written was good, and wanted my serious music to have the same immediacy on a
deeper level. I didn’t yet realize that I had already learned what would be the
basis of my mature music.
Isler: Which was?
Pelosi: That I have an instinct for the linear dimension where harmony and
counterpoint work together to create a flow, a direction away from, and a direction
towards. It took twenty years of beating my head against the same erroneous
assumptions before, in an act of grace, or a process of elimination, I came upon a
melody that generated its own counterpoint and harmonic language. It seemed to
compose itself. That was the second movement of my first string quartet.
Isler: And so?
Pelosi: You really can’t get that far away from old ideas about consonance and
dissonance. You have to respect what the ear can validate. And, contrary to what
my academic teachers thought, the ear is a pretty literate judge of what is right in
music. Perhaps my almost forty-five years as a piano technician have sensitized me
to the tiniest gradations in tone.
Isler: How did you come to be a piano technician?
Pelosi: Well, I wasn’t attracted to teach in academia. I did earn some money
teaching piano and guitar. Also, for a while I was a night watchman! In my second
year at Hartt my childhood piano tuner offered to train me. I studied with him for
a year and a half in his apartment, and visited customers with him. But now I feel
sorry for my first clients! I did a pretty good job of tuning, but didn’t know all that
much about repairs. Now I can do any kind of work on a piano, short of rebuilding.
Isler: How and where did you continue these studies?
Pelosi: I studied on my own, staying up late at night and reading every book I
could find on the subject, because I realized this was going to be how I’d earn a
living. Now I tune up to six pianos a day, in addition to doing repairs and other
work on pianos.
Isler: When composing, how do you know when a work is “finished”?
Pelosi: It’s mysterious. The model is the great composers. They give you the sense
that the end comes when it’s supposed to. It’s inevitable, though not preordained.
Isler: I want to ask now in what manner you think you may have been influenced
by your wife (Rosemarie Koczÿ [1939-2007], a prolific visual artist, many of whose
works dealt with the Holocaust).
Pelosi: In Rosemarie, instinct was perfected by a deep craft. She was a guiding light
to me. Her work was almost always on the highest level. And her instincts helped
me to believe in mine.
Isler: In November of 2017 you presented the brilliant young Polish/British pianist,
Mateusz Borowiak, in three recitals at Merkin Hall in New York within a week.
These remarkable concerts included your first six piano sonatas (you’ve since
written a seventh), as well as all the etudes of Chopin and Debussy, and most of
the etudes of Rachmaninoff. Since then you’ve composed a work called Canti, a
set of etudes, and a set of a dozen inventions (the last, dedicated to me!). Much of
this music will be heard in another Merkin Hall concert in November of 2020. Most
recently you’ve written a set of variations, which you consider the most challenging
Pelosi: You take a musical entity that you call a subject, and you vary it without
destroying it, in such a way that you amplify different facets of it, you transform
it, you do everything creative with it, yet you maintain a link with the original.
This is very hard to do. Though my music doesn’t sound like theirs, I feel the
influence of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, as their sets of variations are so great.
Isler: Any advice on the “business” of being a composer for younger colleagues?
Pelosi: First of all, don’t think of it as a business — ever! We all make compromises
in this life; me too, except in the act of composition. Its will cost the soul of the one
who wants to enter into the mystery of what it is to write.
Isler: Any final thoughts?
Pelosi: I don’t think there are many people who can do much more than I in the
realm of creating multilayered music that speaks both deeply and succeeds in
communicating even something on first hearing, and that is connected to the very
simplest of principles, realized perhaps in the most intangibly complex of ways:
the centering upon the most primitive musical instinct in humanity — tone — and
its resonance, away from, and back to. I think the time will come when there is a
recognition of what has been accomplished in these works of the last twenty years.
And I think this music is entitled to its place in the repertory.