Virgil Thomson, who is about to be 86, cheerily points to a chair on his left and tells you to sit there "because the left ear is the one that hears a little bit. Sit fairly close," he adds, "because if you're as far away as the door over there what I will hear will be like the captain of the plane making the motors go wah-wah-wah."
But despite his years, Thomson's hearing seems to be the only thing that is either out of whack or out of sorts with the cherubic American sage who had the talent and the tact to collaborate with Gertrude Stein on "Four Saints in Three Acts" and "The Mother of Us All," as well as the acuity and wit to preside over American music as the critic of the New York Herald-Tribune. Only recently his "A Virgil Thomson Reader" won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Thomson is here for a concert of his music that launches the Kennedy Center's "American Composers" series in the Terrace Theater. It will begin with "a statement" from Thomson, which shouldn't be too hard for him since making statements has been one of his specialties for most of his life.
The hearing is a problem, because although the device that has been placed in his left ear makes conversation simple enough, the sound of music doesn't come out right anymore. "Notes below violin G are three-quarters flat. Things above middle C are irregularly sharp. On some instruments there are troublesome overtones. It makes strings a complexity. I do my best with trumpets.
"So I never go to concerts and the opera, unless I have another reason to go, like be a part of it. And I don't go that much to the theater, though I can hear better in London than in New York. They speak clearly over there. But in New York they speak down and mumble. Phones are good, except in Paris, where they have a weak signal."
One starts to express sympathy about the frustration he must feel and he breaks in breezily, "It's not frustration. It's a condition. That's all. I still write music all the time. You know, there's nothing new about a composer who is deaf."
It hasn't occurred to him to be despondent. "I'm not one of those sad characters who spends half of a life with a shrink. I've never been to a psychiatrist and so I don't feel guilty. I've never been given a reason to feel guilty."
Nor is he the kind of aging artist who sees Western culture going to hell in a handbasket at the hands of the younger generation. Quite the contrary. He even approves of the new biography of Nadia Boulanger, which uncovers a few not entirely complimentary details about the legendary French teacher who was Thomson's friend.
"It's not a very good book, but it does get into print some information that needs to be there. Perhaps this is the beginning of the debunking. But that's not all bad. Why should Nadia -- any more than Toscanini or even Jesus Christ -- be able to fly on a cloud into eternity without even a bump?"
He does not, though, pretend that either music or painting is in anything like a Golden Age. "There are dips and there are crests and this is a dip. There has been nothing novel in music for a very long time. The nearest thing to a new movement is Philip Glass, and Reich and Riley. It's not radically new, but maybe it is a little."
As to the trends toward isolation and alienation in relations between the artist and the audiences, Thomson is relatively unconcerned. The one thing that draws his ire is the younger generation's habit of playing the radio all day. "It provokes inattention," he declares, "and inattention is fatal."
And he is neither for nor against either tonality or atonality. "It doesn't make any difference. They are just techniques. And when a composer starts fighting over this issue it's usually either to direct attention to himself or to kill off an enemy."
Over the years Thomson has amassed as wide a circle of friends -- although feuds erupt from time to time -- as anyone in music.
He has composed about 100 musical portraits of them, written during sittings much as a painter would do an oil portrait. Ten of them will be on tonight's program, including four premieres. They follow a standard formula, even in the titles, as in, for instance, "Persistently Pastoral: Aaron Copland (Oct. 16, 1942)." That one will be heard tonight.
"I have to do these from life," he explains. "I take a pad and a pencil and look at you and keep writing notes. I have found that my attention span in these works is about an hour and a half, so that means that most of them are short. One difference from the painters is that they like to keep sitters awake by jabbering at them. But I don't want any talk. I can't write music and talk at the same time. They are welcome to sleep or read a book, though. That day with Aaron he came over and just sat. I don't remember whether I gave him lunch or not."
At his apartment in New York's Chelsea Hotel, Thomson says, "These days I answer letters and write music. And when I have nothing else to do I take a nap or read a book." He prefers spy and detective novels. His income is ample and, he points out with a twinkle, "the apartment is under rent control."
At the end of the interview, at the home of a friend in Northwest Washington, Thomson insists on providing an escort to the elevator.
As the door slides open he shakes hands and cautions with a touch of glee, "Be sure to clean up anything I said that was obscene or sacrilegious."
Thomson was the guest of honor last night at a party on Capitol Hill hosted by Roger and Christine Stevens and Livingston and Catharina Biddle. At the party for Washington Post music critic Paul Hume toasted Thomson.
In his response Thomson said it was good to be back in Washington. "It's not one of the towns where they play me every year." Then he referred to some of the artists who will perform his music tonight at the Kennedy Center: "I brought these boys down from Hartford. I think they're pretty good. But tomorrow afternoon we will have a rehearsal and we can find out the worst."