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Interview with John Tilbury
Deal, Kent
30 November 2006

At the 2006 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, John Tilbury performed many of Feldman’s works for piano and strings with members of the Smith Quartet. Visiting the UK for this event, composer James Gardner, director of the contemporary music ensemble 175 East, based in Auckland, New Zealand, took the opportunity to record, and subsequently transcribe, this interview with the pianist. Extracts from this interview will appear in the two radio programmes on Feldman that Gardner made for Radio New Zealand Concert, which will be broadcast in April 2008.

James Gardner: When and how did you first encounter the music of Morton Feldman?

John Tilbury: That would have been in 1960. Or possibly ’59. Probably early ’60, when Cornelius Cardew, the British composer and pianist, invited me to take part in a two-piano recital with him1.
We’d met at Dartington at the Summer School in ’59 and he called me and asked me if I would like to perform in a two-piano recital with him at the Conway Hall in Holborn in London. And I agreed, and it was at that concert that I first heard the music of Feldman. There was also some solo music – I played some solo items and so did Cornelius. And he played a piece called Extensions 3, which made a very profound impression on me: I can still remember the freshness of the music, its originality and beauty, to this day. So it was hearing him play – and incidentally he did play the music beautifully, as Feldman himself acknowledged. Feldman once said that Cardew played and wrote about his music beautifully2 – he was talking about his early music, of course. And that was it. I suppose, in a sense I was hooked from that time on. It was something the like of which I’d never heard. And we actually played a piece called Two Pianos at that concert and thereafter – between us – we pioneered many performances of Feldman’s music in Europe. I performed a lot in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, where I was studying for two and a half years in the early ‘60s. Thereafter I was often involved in his music. And still admire it hugely.

JG: What was it that particularly struck you about Cardew’s playing of Feldman? What qualities do you think he brought to the music that other people didn’t?

JT: Well, it was the spontaneity – you know there are so many designer performances, especially these days, where it’s pre-planned and pre-packaged, but with Cornelius you always felt that every aspect of the performance was compelling, was urgent. He was on a very high level of consciousness in relation, say, to the ambience, to the instrument itself, to the time of day. All those things were very important for him. And it was also what one would call, I suppose, a high-risk strategy: he played extremely softly and there was this feeling of adventure about the way he played, which I think made him one of the great Feldman players.

He was very aware of all of the idiosyncrasies attached to playing musical instruments, especially the piano, because for a performing pianist every piano is a different. The idiosyncrasies of the instrument itself, even the stool on which he sat, the audience – all those things were of great importance to him. So the performance was always fresh and alive and somehow a truly unique experience which could never be repeated. And I think that’s what Feldman appreciated about Cornelius’s playing of his music.

JG: And what did you get from it, when you first played the music at this concert in 1960. Was it like anything you’d played before?

JT: No it wasn’t, and really the things I’ve just described were the very things which are lacking in professional musicians because we are trained – programmed, in a sense – to play things a certain way: you practise, and everything is pre-planned. You know where your crescendos are going to be and where the decrescendos are going to be and there is very little room for genuine spontaneity. Whereas with Feldman that was something which was absolutely crucial, was at the heart of the music: the idea that every sound had a unique quality and that it was pointless and even wrong to try and have some kind of blueprint as to how you were going to perform. There were so many contingencies, so many things that could happen which would alter the way you would play a particular chord, make a particular sound, in relation to a previous performance. In that sense, playing Feldman is living your life. Don’t forget that he once said that for him there is no such thing as compositional reality; there’s only acoustical reality3.
And I think this is the first lesson that one learns in playing Feldman. I didn’t learn it quite in that sense – I didn’t know that phrase – but obviously that is what actually at that time appealed to me; that I was dealing with an acoustic reality.

JG: And in rehearsal with Cardew, how did you work? Did he give you clues about how to approach it or did he leave you to find your own way through it?

JT: Cornelius always led by example. He was a great teacher; he would never tell you what to do. He would always lead by example, both as a musician and in later years when he became a political activist. There were one or two tips he gave, one or two things he would throw out. I remember once, when I was perhaps “showing” too much visually while I was playing, he said to me “Don’t forget, John – it’s the audience that’s supposed to be having the experience, not you.” [laughs]

And I remember, in relation to Feldman’s music, he was quite involved in this idea of key release; that there should be a minimum of sound when the key is released; that the mechanical aspect of key release should not be in anyway obtrusive, so that you’d have to be almost as careful about vacating the key as actually approaching it and playing it.
There were probably other things as well but it was really the way he played, and playing with him, actually playing the same music as him – in fact it was literally the same music in the case of Feldman’s two-piano piece; the two pianists play the same material.

JG: But at different rates.

JT: Yes, you just start together, and – like many of those early “Duration” pieces – finish separately. What impressed was the extreme care which he [Cardew] took in the production of every sound: every single sound mattered. Not only that, every single parameter of the sound mattered and the context in which it was played. It was very serious playing.

JG: Had you encountered anything like that in your studies up to that time or was this a new way of thinking about things for you?

JT: No, it wasn’t entirely new. I had encountered it with my first piano teacher, Dorothy Symes, who was a remarkable woman. I never heard her play the piano – and I was with her for ten years. She was too nervous even to play in front of her own students (who were children), although she had a diploma from the Royal Academy of Music and she was a brilliant teacher. So that was one thing about her: I never heard her play. She would demonstrate by singing, which was a very good thing for a pianist, because it was of the essence; and Cornelius used to say himself that singing – the voice – is really fundamental to all music-making. He himself was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. So although Mrs. Symes really had no voice, she used to sing in a very expressive way to demonstrate how a phrase should be played.

Another thing about her was that she used to write, in very large letters, obliquely across the page of a piece of music – a Beethoven sonata or whatever it was that I was playing – she used to write the words in large red letters “L-I-S-T-E-N”, which of course was very important, especially for pianists because so often that’s what pianists don’t do. This idea of listening intently; that was very important.

And another thing – perhaps the most important – was that she was a fearsome perfectionist. She knew exactly what she wanted, so there was no free expression: this is how you play this phrase from a Mozart piano sonata. And everything was pre-planned: the balance between the hands; when the crescendo began; the kind of piano or pianissimo – every single detail. And then she would say “now do it!” Then I would try and of course she’d say “no, no – the crescendo began a bit too loud, or a bit too soon”, or “the balance of that chord wasn’t quite right; there should be a little bit more of the top line.” And so forth. Then she’d ask me to do it again: three times, seven times, fifteen times… And I would be reduced to tears, as a 14, 15-year old. Tears of rage. But that’s so important – that’s what it’s about, being a musician, being an artist. It reminds me of the famous Beckett dictum: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” 4. And she was encouraging me to fail better, always. So she was a remarkable person. And I think somehow that affected my attitude towards all music, not just Feldman, and towards playing, for the rest of my life.

JG: There’s a quote from David Tudor that Cardew mentions – “play Feldman inwards.” 5 What do you understand by that? Did he ever talk to you about that?

JT: No, he didn’t. I think he’s highlighting the very personal nature of the experience, which is so crucial. If you play it really “inwards” it suggests a total commitment, a deep, personal involvement in the music. It’s not something that’s sort of out there, that you can simply project.

JG: It’s not showbiz, as Feldman would say.

JT: It’s not showbiz; it’s something which for yourself is very important, meaningful; it has a certain significance. If something is really “inwards” in the best sense of that word, not just a kind of rampant subjectivism or egoism – if it’s really a seriousness of intent, then that is what I think Tudor was talking about.

Of course one can say that there are other musics like that: in some of Schubert’s music you get that feeling and in some of Chopin’s pieces you play “inwards”, and some of the best performances convey that idea. You don’t have to be too concerned about projecting it. By playing “inwards” you invite the audience to you, you draw them in – and that’s what’s important – rather than playing out to them and projecting to them.
But there is a slight problem here because the fact is that one does have an audience, perhaps in different parts of a large room and one likes to feel that one can reach everybody in that room; that what you have to say is worth listening to, and you want everybody to hear it and respond to it. So I think there’s a balance to be struck, between that inwardness and at the same time a feeling of projection; but one has to be very careful about that, about projection. It’s a strange thing, because although when I’m playing Feldman I’m not really consciously aware of an audience, I do think it [the audience] exerts a strong subliminal influence: although you’re not perhaps at any particular moment aware of it, you know that something is happening with and to the audience.

JG: Did you get that sense in Huddersfield? 6 What sort of sense did you get from that audience, playing those pieces with the Smith Quartet?

JT: Yes! Well, there’s a kind of…I was almost going to say an aura around the music, but in a sense you could say there was an aura around the whole event, because everybody was enclosed within it: the musicians, the composition – and the audience was just as much part of it. And I think that on a subliminal level, as I have already said, the performer does receive things from the audience. It’s very difficult to define what that is, but you know that there’s a very intimate and intense experience that’s happening in those situations, and that it is very important for people, important for their lives, perhaps lasting. And at best, when the audience and the performers and the music are at one, you get this kind of “at-oneness”. For me, as a performer, that is one of the great experiences of any musical event, in any musical situation. That togetherness; something of significance is happening.

JG: Moving on from your time when you started playing Feldman, when did you actually get to meet him, and what are your impressions of the man?

JT: Well, I met him soon after that – it must have been in the early ‘60s when he came to London 7. At that time I was living with my then wife in Highbury and he came to our flat. And then there were some concerts, and some broadcasts at the BBC which didn’t involve an audience. I remember on one occasion recording Extensions 3 – this was in one of the BBC studios somewhere; I can’t remember where; it might have been near Camden Town – but anyway, he was there and he was the audience. And I recall that he was very encouraging and complimentary. And we became friends, and when he was around we would meet – usually in the company of other people; I hardly ever met him alone except when I was recording at the BBC, and even then there were of course other people around him. But socially it was usually with other people – he was very gregarious so there were always lots of people around. And I knew his publisher, Bill Colleran, very well.
Feldman was great company. I mean, he could be quite caustic and hurtful; I never suffered that myself but I saw him in action sometimes. He was a master of the putdown, and he could make people feel quite inadequate. He had that sort of abrasiveness about him. But he was also remarkably warm and very generous. Spontaneously generous. There are many stories of his generosity: I remember when he asked me to work with him and his group in Buffalo – this was already in the late 70s, and he wanted me to go for a year and be part of the ensemble. And he mentioned a salary of whatever. I can’t remember exactly. And I said well, you know, this is great, I’d love to come, but I simply couldn’t manage. I’ve got a wife and family, so there’d be two households to keep and I couldn’t do it, it would be impossible, however frugally I lived. I would have to send money home and I just couldn’t do it. So he said – immediately: “OK – come for one semester for the same money.” [laughs] There was no hesitation, it was a spontaneous gesture. And that, I think, was very typical of him.

JG: Feldman seemed to be a man of contradictions: physically large and loud himself, his music’s generally intimate and quiet – some people describe it as having an “egoless” quality – yet he had a huge ego, so what are your thoughts on that disparity?

JT: Yes, well, first of all, about the size of the person: like many large creatures he was also dextrous; you know, like elephants…

JG: ...or Oliver Hardy

JT: Yes – he had a certain elegance and in many ways you could say he was quite graceful. I mean, he loved dancing – and he danced well; he had style. So that’s a strange sort of contradiction, I suppose. Although they say this about elephants; and you see it in circuses where the trainer lies down and has no fears about being crushed to death; the elephant treads very carefully and both creature and trainer appear quite assured.
But as regards music and the ego…that is problematic. It was the same with Cage. I was in Vancouver recently playing in a Cage Festival8 and one of the American journalists there, who knew Cage very well, and liked him, said that all the stuff about Cage and the negation of the ego could be taken with a pinch of snuff – he said that in fact Cage had the biggest ego of any musician he knew!

I don’t know. I think with Feldman…I’m not sure. Well, he was certainly a larger than life sort of person. I hope I’m not doing him a disservice here, but he was in that category of people who are very sensitive when it comes to their own feelings, but not always as sensitive when it comes to others’ feelings; he could hurt people, but at the same time be easily hurt himself. But on the other hand he was capable of empathizing with people and helping people, like the example I gave you about his generosity to me. He could respond to a person’s difficulties or embarrassment in a very positive way.
Sometimes he could be very patronising to people…reading some of the texts, the transcripts of his lectures, for example, when he was in Canada – I felt that he could be quite patronising to the Canadians9. But at the same time he could be very encouraging, genuinely interested in what other people were doing, and sensitive to their needs and their problems.
Yes, I just think he was conscious of his uniqueness; he didn’t pretend otherwise. And personally I never had a problem with that. I always found him very engaging company, whether he was talking about himself, or art, or music, or other musicians and artists, and in a quite unique way. But I guess you’d have to talk to somebody who knew him better than I did. I think it’s an interesting aspect of his personality; to what extent and in what sense one could say he was egotistical. He was certainly susceptible to flattery. Like many of us.
The ego aspect of it…I’m not sure about that. It didn’t worry me – there are some Americans, you know, you meet them and you shake hands and they ask you how you are, but before you can answer they begin to tell you their life story. I don’t think Feldman was like that. I think he was probably just aware of his own uniqueness and of his own talent and well, why not? I think he really believed himself to be a great composer. In fact he once said, I think, either that he was, or he wanted to be, the greatest Jewish composer10. [laughs] But to go back to your original point, one might say that there is no reason why a composer’s personality should necessarily be reflected in his music. I suppose that would be my position.

JG: What about his relationship with the piano and the way he played it? He obviously had a deep relationship with the piano; it was his instrument. How did that manifest itself in his playing of his own pieces and when you played with him?

JT: I think what endeared him to the piano, and what is unique to the piano, is its experimental nature. First of all, the obvious thing – as any pianist knows – is that when you go to a concert you’re presented with an instrument which you have to use and have to make do with. And when you think about it, most other musicians take their instrument with them. That’s a huge, radical difference. Between somebody who’s lived and slept with their own instrument for decades and a pianist, who just turns up somewhere and there it is. And you have to make the best of it. What can you do? You either play it or you walk away. So it’s a genuinely experimental act, playing the piano. And then, of course, in the actual playing itself one can never be entirely in charge of the sounds in the way that one can with other instruments. I mean, you play a chord and you can sustain it, by means of the pedal, and then it’s really out of your control. You can kill it, by lifting the pedal, but the very complex way that it disintegrates and changes – you have no control over that whatsoever. And I think that’s really what appealed to Feldman. It was analogous to this idea of the painters watching the paint dribble down the canvas. And he was fascinated by that, the way that the painters would just stand back and watch. And this standing back and watching, standing back and listening was, I think, very important for him. And as for his playing, I mean it was virtually conceptual, in the sense that – well, I’ve got a recording of him where you can hardly hear anything at all11...
Now, I don’t think it was the recording; I think that in most instances there was actually no sound. There was no acoustic sound

JG: The note didn’t speak?

JT: It didn’t speak. But he would be right down with his ear on the keyboard, listening hard to it. And that’s something that I’ve mentioned in my essay on him12, that when I played with him on one occasion, in Buffalo, I gently remonstrated that ‘look you’ve written these chords, which are beautiful, and I can’t hear any of it’. And what Cornelius used to do, if it was appropriate – that is, if it was a single sound, or even sometimes with chords – he would actually repeat the action. You know, if a chord didn’t speak, or a note didn’t speak, he would have another go at it. Wasn’t always possible, but often it was. And I suggested this to Feldman and he said yes, and he did it; he would have another go – at least on that occasion. So he would make a bigger effort to actually make the sound speak. But it’s interesting, the conceptual aspect of it all was obviously deeply ingrained in him.

JG: Was it the unpredictability of whether a chord would speak, and the difference of balance each time you play it that appealed to him? I mean if you’ve got a ten-note chord and you’re playing it as quietly as possible, it’s going to be balanced slightly differently every time – do you think that was what appealed to him?

JT: I think it probably was, yes. But it was just that – probably my training got in the way then – you know, it was a ten-note chord which I found was an extremely alluring sound, and I wanted to hear all those tones, so that’s when I asked him if he would repeat a chord or a note that didn’t speak. But maybe I was missing the point. Maybe if just seven out of the ten sounded that would have been fine by him.

JG: Did you ever work with him on the later music?

JT: No, I didn’t. I left the avant-garde temporarily – well, for quite some time – and got very involved politically. I lost touch with him and I didn’t know what he was doing. We’re talking about the ‘70s. Well, actually the long pieces didn’t really happen until the ‘80s, did they? I certainly didn’t work on anything while he was alive, except some of the middle-period pieces in Buffalo when I was there in ’79 I think it was. I can’t recall what we did now. I really don’t remember which pieces we performed. I know we gave a concert at Carnegie Hall and we did some of his pieces, but I just cannot remember which ones they were. But it would have been his music from the ‘70s.
But then in the ‘80s – it wasn’t until after his death, and as a kind of tribute – I played some of the later pieces for the first time. That would have been in ’88, I think. For John Cage with Alex Balanescu and with Rohan de Saram we performed what was then called Untitled Composition and later became Patterns in a Chromatic Field, and some solo piano pieces. And thereafter I got more involved in some of that later stuff and used to play it quite frequently in different parts of the world, especially For Bunita Marcus. And then I got the chance to record all the solo piano music with a company in Austria, in Innsbruck13. And that was important too, because the great thing about that was that the sound engineer loved the music of Feldman. He was totally committed to the project. It wasn’t just a job for him, it was something he was very involved with. And he understood the music. He also owned the piano we used and he tuned it himself. So it was just the two of us. In some respects he was a very difficult character, but he was the right person for this job. He recorded it beautifully, I think. And the basis of that was his love of the music, and his desire to do the best for what he considered to be a great project with wonderful music. And I think he succeeded.

JG: What do you find are the technical and musical challenges of the late pieces, in contrast to the earlier works? The most obvious one is their sheer length…

JT: Yes. I suppose that one of the main difficulties is that you’ve got these time signatures that you have to observe. At least initially. He did say that after a time – when you are really familiar with the music – you don’t have to count, but I personally find that the counting is very important. As a kind of discipline. For example, if there’s a 9/8 followed by an 11/8, for me it’s very important that the (total) second duration is longer than the first.

JG: And perceptibly so.

JT: Exactly. Perceptible for the audience. And if you don’t count, I think these durations tend to get ironed out into the same. For example, in the early works there are lots of pause marks, but with no indication in respect of duration. And the danger there is that these pauses tend to sameness, unless you make a conscious effort for them not to be so. So in the early music I’ve actually notated them: “long”, “short”, “very short”, “medium” – you could even notate the durations in seconds – so as to make sure that I do differentiate them. Of course, one can leave it to the moment and, as it were, ‘improvise’ them, but it’s dangerous. You think you’re varying them and they all end up seven seconds long, or whatever.

And it’s the same thing in the later pieces. I’ve listened to the opening of one of the longer piano pieces, For Bunita Marcus, where there are these subtle differences in the durations: 5/16 alternating with 3/8. And I’ve heard pianists play them and they’re exactly the same. And I assume its because they’re not counting. So if a 7/8 bar is followed by 8/8, for example, I’ll try to count the second duration slower to make sure that there is a difference. Or I’ll add a beat. Or some such ploy. I’m very conscious of that. Pedantic, perhaps. But it seems to me that those things, precisely notated, are important. On the other hand, I think that some of Feldman’s notations are, as it were, psychologically directed.
When you get things like 1/32; in the Trio, for example, you get a succession: 1/32, 6/8, 1/32, 5/8, 1/32… I suppose it’s like what we would call a comma, a kind of restraining element to stop the music from accelerating, perhaps. Something like that. But obviously, in this context, 1/32 really cannot have any durational significance.

JG: Is it also, perhaps, to tie it in with breathing?

JT: Breathing? Well it is, I suppose, a bit like that. Yes, like a breath mark. People describe those commas as breath marks even when they’re writing for the piano; my teacher used to say “here’s a breath mark” [breathes] “take a breath”.

JG: Do you think of some of the phrases as if they were vocal lines, or as if you were “breathing” them?

JT: No. I don’t think I do. As you practise them, as you get to know them, you develop a knowledge of, or rather a feel for, the phrasing and so I suppose your understanding of them as phrases to be articulated in a very elegant way becomes apparent. But in Feldman’s Trio, as Michael Finnissy pointed out to me after our performance in Huddersfield14, there’s no voice-leading, so it seems as if there’s this, and there’s that, and then there’s another thing. And yet with hindsight you feel that it actually seems right, you know, it was right that that chord followed that note and that note followed that chord, even though at the moment – at the moment of playing – there seems to be no reason for it to go anywhere in particular. Perhaps, as you get familiar with the music you become aware of various possible groupings of notes and phrases. Feldman does not provide phrase marks.
The other thing that’s been important for me is that you find that in the later works, because there’s repetition – for example a theme at the beginning actually comes back – it may be extremely effective to play the repeat in a particular way, for example to play it subito pianissimo. It’s coming back, and by playing it suddenly at an even lower dynamic level you draw attention to it. That can be very effective; it can be breathtaking, literally breathtaking. But then the problem with that is: should one keep on doing that? And my own feeling is that one shouldn’t, because it begins to assume a certain form; it becomes almost manipulative, because you know that the audience is going to gasp and say that’s incredible, and you’re beginning to, as it were, manipulate the audience. Another negative aspect is that it can become routine, that you do a certain thing at a certain moment. And I think that’s something that’s easy to fall into; if you’re giving a performance, and you know that if you do this at this particular point in the music, in Feldman’s words – “it knocks ‘em out” – then one has to be very careful of those kind of things. You always have to find new ways. Of course it’s wonderful if and when the audience is surprised and enchanted and inspired, or whatever, by things that happen. But not if it happens in the same place each time. That’s a dangerous path to take. A vulgar approach, it seems to me. So I sometimes consciously do the opposite with those things. If I find that my performance is getting a little bit stereotypical – which can happen – then I either stop performing it, give it a rest, or maybe try to change and turn things round in some way.

JG: At Huddersfield you played a lot of the late works with strings with members of the Smith Quartet. How was that for you, and what was unique about it? What were the problems?

JT: Well it wasn’t a new experience, but it was an experience which I rarely have when I’m playing Feldman, because most of my work with Feldman has been the solo work – of which there’s a lot. There’s plenty to be busy with if you’re a pianist; there are hours of solo piano music. Well, in some of the pieces the problems of co-ordination were real. They weren’t like the early pieces where you are simply playing at the same time. In these later works you have to co-ordinate in specific ways. It’s real chamber music in that sense, in the traditional sense – you have to come in at a certain time with the other player or players. So in a way that was a throwback to traditional chamber-music playing, which was good; I enjoyed that. We all play from the score, so on the one hand you were reading your own part but you had to be aware – visually, because we didn’t know it that well – of what was happening elsewhere and be able to respond appropriately. I’ve done a lot of ensemble music of late – probably more than solo – but it’s always been improvised, and the demands are different. Most crucially, you don’t have the intermediary of the score which for traditional repertoire performance is the basis of an ensemble’s musical co-existence. Of course in the case of the Smiths, they’re wonderful musicians and they’re very nice people, so it was a huge pleasure to make music with them. Just having that opportunity to play with musicians you admire, and who are obviously dedicated to the music – it was a great inspiration and joy to do that.

JG: When you’re in those late pieces – when you’re actually onstage performing them – do you go into a different “zone”? I mean it’s easy – it shouldn’t be but it is – to write these pieces off and think of them all as very quiet and peaceful, but in fact for the performers they’re busy and full of information, full of things to keep an eye on.

JT: Yes, there are all kinds of… This is not New Age music; there are a lot of tensions both in the music itself, and in performance – in the Trio for example, but in the other pieces as well. You know, there are a lot of bittersweet moments in Feldman, for example, and during rehearsal one becomes intensely aware of that. There’s very little time in those pieces – very little opportunity for any kind of indulgence. You’re constantly on your toes. You have to be very, very alert; very aware and conscious of what is happening now, of the ‘frozen moment’, of stasis, but you also have to be aware of what you’ve got to do in the next split second. So it’s a kind of paradoxical situation; enjoying, living, the present but being ready for a future which is literally round the corner, right on your doorstep – it’s there. And so, unlike some of the early music, where you can indulge a little bit, like in Durations II with the cello; you play the chord and you just listen. And at any time you can simply go on and play the next chord. But with the later music you can’t do that. I suppose what Feldman is doing in these later works is creating a kind of controlled rubato; he’s controlling the flow of the music, through the notation. And one has to be aware of that. I don’t think one can take that lightly.

I’ve often talked about transcending the notation; I suppose one does do that, ideally, when one knows the work well enough. But one has to have initially taken the notation very seriously. Otherwise you play a sort of watered-down, compromise version or a very corrupt version of the notation. I think that’s absolutely wrong, because there are reasons for writing this type of duration rather than that duration. Composers like Feldman and Cardew have given inordinate time and thought to the problems of musical notation. So the performer has to be very conscious of that all the time. It is difficult – it’s the most extreme form of concentration because it constitutes the essence of the composer/performer relation.

Concentration is a key issue for Feldman the composer. It’s the word he uses when he speaks about composing. I think he said, I’m quoting from memory, “I approach my compositions where I’m starting off with no ideas at all. What I don’t want is ideas. But what I do need is utmost concentration. If I begin to lose concentration that’s when I…or rather put it this way; when I find that I’m crossing chords out, notes out, then that means that I’m actually losing my concentration.”15 And that’s very much like improvising, I think.

Some of the best improvising I’ve done is when I’m almost not aware that I’m playing. There’s so much concentration on this – doing, being – that one hasn’t got time to think about anything else, and the concept of mistakes, or right and wrong notes, just doesn’t come into it.
And with Feldman I think there is that element of spontaneity and subjectivity. I feel that he does compose in a spontaneous and organic way, that he just sits down and he hears things and then he notates them. I don’t think there’s any big huge plan. I may be wrong. But that’s the impression you get from what he says. He just sits there and it’s a very real situation. That’s why his durations are so extreme, so radical, because he’s thinking in real time, not in compositional time; he’s thinking in acoustic time.


1. The concert took place in January 1960. See also: http://www.users.waitrose.com/~chobbs/tilburycardew.html for Tilbury’s recollections of this period.

2. See Feldman’s Dedication to Cornelius Cardew (March 18, 1982) here: http://www.cnvill.net/mfcardew.htm

In his essay On Playing Feldman Tilbury quotes Feldman as saying “Cornelius played my music beautifully and I don't think anybody wrote about my early music as beautifully as he did” apparently in an interview in the summer of 1985, though I can’t find the source.
See: http://www.cnvill.net/mftilb.htm

3. “Well, one of the reasons I work at the piano is because it slows me down and you can hear the time element much more, the acoustical reality.

You cannot hear these time intervals, especially if you work with larger forces like orchestras. You can't hear the time between. Just sitting down at a table, it becomes too fancy. You develop a kind of system, asymmetrical relations of time. You get into something that has really nothing to do with acoustical reality. And I'm very into acoustical reality. For me there is no such thing as a compositional reality.”

Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmermann first published in Walter Zimmermann's book, Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians (Vancouver: Aesthetic Research Center Publications, 1976) pp 1-20, and subsequently reprinted in Morton Feldman Essays, Walter Zimmermann, editor (Kerpen: Beginner Press, 1985) pp 229-244.
See http://www.cnvill.net/mfzimmr.htm

4. From Worstward Ho (1983)

5. This quote appeared in Cardew’s essay Piano (Three Hands) – Morton Feldman originally published in ACCENT No.4 Autumn 1962, Leeds College of Art and School of Architecture, which is reprinted in Cornelius Cardew – A Reader (Copula 2006) There, the Tudor quote appears on p.59.

6. At the 2006 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Tilbury performed many of Feldman’s works for piano and strings with members of the Smith Quartet: Ian Humphries and Darragh Morgan (violins), Nic Pendlebury (viola) and Deirdre Cooper (cello). The pieces were:
Projection IV, Piece for Violin and Piano and For John Cage (18th November); Four Instruments, The Viola in My Life and Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (19th); Extensions I, Vertical Thoughts 2 and Trio (22nd); Durations II and Patterns in a Chromatic Field (24th); Spring of Chosroes and Piano and String Quartet (26th)

7. Almost certainly April 1966, in fact.

8 The Festival was Silence: John Cage; The Vancouver New Music Festival which ran from 18 – 21 October 2006. Tilbury performed Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes on October 19.

9. See: Toronto Lecture 17 April 1982 in Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987 (Hyphen 2006) pp.135-149
also here: http://www.cnvill.net/mfmercer.htm

10. “I do think about the fact, that I want to be the first great composer that is Jewish.”
From Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Heinz-Klaus Metzger in Discussion (1972)
See: http://www.cnvill.net/mfmetzgr.htm

11. Editions RZ 1010, released in 1994, includes 1970s recordings of Feldman performing Intermission 5 and Extensions 3, and Piano Three Hands with Tilbury.

12. On Playing Feldman (see note 2.)

13. These recordings were released in 1999 as a 4CD set: Morton Feldman all piano LondonHALL do 13. It was produced by Gerhard Crepaz, engineered and mixed by Hanno Ströher.

14. Tilbury performed Trio with Ian Humphries (violin) and Deirdre Cooper (cello) at Huddersfield on 22 November 2006. Michael Finnissy was in the audience.

15. “My pieces are to some degree a performance. I'm highly concentrated when I work. In fact I found ways to arrive at concentration. One of the most important ways is that I write in ink. So if I begin to work and I see that I am crossing out all the time, I realize in a sense that I thought I was concentrated, but in fact I wasn't concentrated. So the writing in ink is an inner parameter to how concentrated I really am.”
Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmermann, idem.

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