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Regarding Morton Feldman's music
and wherever it all now goes

by Clark Coolidge

The following article was first published in Sulfur (No 22, Spring 1988) pp 123-129.
All quotations are taken from the essays, lectures and interviews of Morton Feldman.

"I don't start with any plans whatever. I just follow it through."

"I ask at the beginning of working on a piece: What is the material?"

"I no longer give things a name. (I don't call it variation, I just do it another way.)"

"When I work I'm a listener, I'm not a composer."

"I never understood what I was supposed to learn and what I was supposed to break. What rules?"

It doesn't feel any more like a matter of reaching around behind where nobody's been for a while and finding something new. Now we've got the full array of elements, exposure. Like the feeling in writing that everything's been confessed, or processed, if not confused? Certain modes start to come in dry, play out, turn invisible. So it's a matter of how things stand with each other? The distances/proximities the more crucial. For any continuation at all (blank screen). Maybe just open it up, and then walk in among? Perhaps a help to take the mind off whatever the mind knows. Look again, then stop. Not to think. Keep stopping to look again. "Actually now I just try to repeat the same chord. I'm reiterating the same chord in inversions. I enjoy that very much, to keep the inversions alive in a sense where everything changes and nothing changes. Actually before, I wanted my chords in a sense to be very different from the next, as if almost to erase in one's memory what happened before. That's the way I would keep the time suspended, by erasing the references and where they came from. You were very fresh into the moment, and you didn't relate it. And now I'm doing the same thing with this relation. And I find it also very mysterious."

The music (or any) profession: a consensus. Imagine that nothing had ever been agreed on (it actually hasn't anyway). How would the sounds appear?

We have warblers and we have symphonic bands. And all the lodged complaints, even in terms of notes, one could wish. And when we do happen to be knowing in time, right on it, we're as far as the globe gives from discourse. Walls cracking from pressure of all the claims that made them. 'The question is, and it is because of John Cage that we must ask the question: Is music an art form to begin with? Or has it always been show biz based on a kind of small attention span? And by show biz I mean Monteverdi. Is music an art form, rather than a music form, that one could explore and be flexible with? I don't know if music is that flexible to make a metamorphosis into something that doesn't have a formula. But the minute you don't use formula you're considered a Third World artist, like Ives."

It may now be more necessary than ever to be reminded of what the materials are. And that art is not a set of problems solved, more or less, in the last hundred years.

Morton Feldman's music, for all of what might seem a more and more hermetic way of working, is the opposite of sequestered event. It is all out in the open of art, as fielded as it gets. How far away do you need to go to bring in a thing unforeseen? How far will the work let you go and keep the will to remain unresolved and not hide in method? Are sounds ever stronger than when unanticipated?

Perhaps it should all be strange and messy now on, no matter the discrete attracts. Stranger and messier until we have a new aggregate or at least a fresh sense of the matrix from which it all ... I don't understand music once again, I guess I most mean in its structures and transitions and even in its standing nature, when I listen to Feldman's. Fear in its presence. Fear of pure presence? Is there a horror of too much silence that forces us to grasp even the utterly insubstantial with which to build? A bringing of what has vanished into the substance of things? A land where even the exhaled breath is a spy.

It's a storm. It doesn't need underpinnings (explain). Or the veil around you, reach for your pen and you'll rip it. There are no explicative flavors, aromas of understanding. You're present and let it rip or nothing. It's morning, say, and now what do you mean to repeat?

"What was great about the Fifties is that for one brief moment - maybe, say, six weeks - nobody understood art. That's why it all happened. Because for a short while, these people were left alone. Just an unbelievable amount of energy, an unbelievable amount of talent, but the feeling I had was that there really weren't issues. It's as if you had fifteen Stravinskys. And that was absolutely extraordinary to me. It wasn't even a crisis of whether or not one should do figure painting or abstract, because everybody was painting so differently."

The field of Feldman, the scale of notes, is vast, but there is a way in which it is all intimate detail. As if every portion of the universe impinged. The sense that you are very close to a great many very large presences.

Sometimes I just want to say: Stop, Morty, music is not painting. But he can't forget. That painting is also a time-art. Or an interval as timeless as a Mondrian.

A constant press of large tendencies.

"We don't know what art is outside of style, very difficult to know what it is."

I think we have to do quite a bit of forgetting (destruction). Yes, white tile and everything. Reach back into the midst of where you point from. There is plenty of room. But it is never a figured space. What rules there?

Feldman's music a very open procedure, bold, of full definition. You might begin to hear the sound of instruments as brought back from beyond the style you took them for. And feel the memory imprint start to ease off, each time thinking you have been here before but you always never quite have.

"How pleasant tonality is, how seductive variation, how interesting repetition, so you have to fight against it as if the overtones didn't work." The way this century has been too smart, because all those things work. And nobody to stop you, whatever you think to invent, a kind of tragedy, as he says. There's no secret to music ("Either you put something against something else, or you feel it has some kind of organic continuity - there are no other approaches"). But there's also no further room outside this one from which to discuss what happens here from a position of strength. You're totally listening now, and there is no later about it (tendency).

"Action and thought as a simultaneity (Goethe), I love that."

Music may be bigger (an art form?) and crazier (makes less sense, more fear) than you think. I'm hearing how it all keeps going away from me, finally back to the original long way off, down tiers and horizons of opposite substance, to score paper and gilt edges. Funny how it doesn't float but goes solidly directional, even if fractional. Even if, especially if, you can't write it down. But play out there among it all and you'll see, hear the differences, loud as the monkey cliffs. He's stirring it all with your bone, the one of former fancies, pointed adorations of the splendid vast box it all comes in, the one you always assumed touched the very Ink of Creation itself. Buried now though. Mired out there in the universal. Feldman's hands are up before it and very often empty. "The whole idea is not to write a good piece. The whole idea is to get lost, and come out alive."

You mean it goes, it has to, to? It doesn't? ("Sharp is more directional. Flat is less.") And you're making this happen, not happen, right off in my face? I'm unhappy with it, will be happier, why don't you actually go away, etc. I want my golden things (times), my ace captions, full landings, my lodge. But he's taking away what lasts!

To reach that point at which no other points.

"I feel that in my life I'm trying out another option. It's not philosophy. It's the option of writing very long pieces that are very difficult to play, very difficult to hear, and have to do with the life of the piece, whatever that means and not the life of the performer, or what happens to an audience when they go hear it. I'm trying to see what happens when the work does not depend on those other very important, very rigid factors."

What is this art that has nothing of something else in it? Surely there is too much easy connecting of art with other procedures. Standing in the friars' cells of Fra Angelico in Florence it seemed correct (even novel) to return to the image (the note, the word) as object of solitary contemplation, cut off from all those extraneous vitiating pursuits that are supposed to make us feel so good about our involvement with art. "I think we lost that religiosity about music, about sound itself. We don't want to live in a convent."

Think of thing, not of them. "If you need an audience, we don't need you."

I wonder even more about the continuing viability of writing as an art form, it being so bound to the engines of explanation. This writing here a huge frustration, since it can never embody what it is pointing at and swirling around (discussion). I should just shut up. It could just shut itself off? Feldman stopped writing his essays ... and one could usefully wonder at just what point in his music?

"But you're not supposed to understand art. You're supposed to understand culture. Culture is mutual understanding. That is not communication. Communication is what I have in my music, with myself. Communication is when people don't understand each other. Because then there is a consciousness level that is being brought out of you, where an effort is made."

What is the story? No, what is the subtext? No, what is the substance? And what is all this going on between the masterpieces?

Doesn't it seem that the musical structures have become lodged like grammar, in the same connectiveness, leading us always back along the same definitions to the same conclusions? Couldn't we afford to lose a lot of this purely connective tissue? But who wants to face up to a tone, rise or fall?

Are you in a misery, or agony of doubt, or just a mild malaise? Said complaint, whatever region or even form of relaxation, tagged to be relieved by a certain shelf-life music? It drips down the sides of the cabinets. But your job is not to fence or lap it up. Leave that to the border cats. The job is, perhaps, to ice it.

"I like the long pieces because you don't drink it, you sip it. You get saturated more and more. The only way you get deep color in rugs is to dip it over and over. You can't put Z against A in ten minutes. It takes saturating. And time is the liberator."

Feldman's music seems never to manipulate, as if never overdetermining its destination, so not rushing to insure the most ease (audience) in getting there. An absolutely non-rhetorical music ("I'm the Master of Nonfunctional Harmony"). A music without god or stain. A music as dependent on you as milk on the sky.

His makes all other music sound anxious for more space, for higher speed.

And he reminds me of what writing has never quite been able to get away with: Lost in that field purely of nouns that verb and stretch and edge, a radiance which comes when things are not used, not used with other things.

"The Abstract is not involved with ideas. It is an inner process like another consciousness. There is a real fear of the Abstract because one does not know its function. The Abstract Experience is only one thing - a unity that leaves one perpetually speculating. Whereas the literary kind of art, the kind we are close to, is involved in the polemic we associate with religion, the Abstract Experience is really far closer to the religious. Collision with the instant is the first step to the Abstract experience. It cannot be represented. Once you make the leap into the Abstract there are no longer any definitions."

And silence for certain matters. The core function of art will not be defined. It operates according to what appear to be other than consistent laws.

This cannot be said.
This cannot be said.
There are no words.
There may be notes
but they are in another realm.

"You just have to forget about yourself."

© Clark Coolidge 1988

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