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Morton Feldman talks to Paul Griffiths

Originally published in Musical Times (August 1972) pp 758-759.

Morton Feldman, the American avant-garde composer, who is to teach at Dartington Summer School this month, talks to Paul Griffiths.

PG: Mr Feldman, I understand that you studied first with Riegger and Wolpe, but presumably your association with Cage was very important for you.

MF: My association with Cage was what Edmund Wilson called the 'shock of recognition'. And also we're great friends ... I was on my way before I met Cage - my music didn't change when I met Cage, in fact it's the opposite: his music changed when he met me.

It was in those early years that you introduced imprecise notation in your 'Intersections'. How did that come about?

It was in the air for a long time in the visual arts - Duchamp, even Arp, who created some beautiful sculptures in which he used a drop: wherever it fell he nailed it down. In a sense my work was paralleling a historical precedent in the visual arts.

Would you say that these visual artists had more influence on you than any musicians?

No, because it wasn't a case of saying: 'The painters did it, let's find an equivalent musical concept'. It came about because my music was becoming more complicated (Boulez and I are the same age), and I wasn't interested in organizing everything - which is the definition of all great music until 1950. If I was interested in organizing anything, it was the timbre.

I was interested by your mentioning Boulez, because if one looks at concert programmes of about 1952, Boulez's piano sonatas were being played in concerts with music by yourself and Cage, Wolff and Brown. And yet it strikes one that what Boulez was doing was very, very different from what you were doing, in that he was interested in the sort of organization that you said you were not interested in.

John Cage was the first to bring Boulez's music to America - he brought back the Second Piano Sonata. I introduced Cage to David Tudor, who memorized it and gave it at a concert where it made a sensation. But what attracted us to Boulez was not his ideas - we were very excited about Boulez because his work was the result of a crush on Artaud. I don't want to imply that we weren't interested in Boulez's compositional processes, but it would be like seeing marvellous, fantastic sculpture from, say, French Equatorial Africa.

But it wasn't musically connected with your own work.

No, but the poetry was new, and that was what we were interested in. Just as we were interested in the poetry of Webern, and not so much in how he arrived at the poetry.

Getting back to the question of notation, did you at any point abandon conventional notation for graphic notation, and then take it up again?

No, I always worked with whatever notation I felt the work called for.

But in recent years you do seem to have moved from very imprecise notation to much more precise notation.

At the concert which the BBC recorded in March, all the pieces were precisely notated, but for different reasons than one used to notate precisely. For example, in The viola in my life underlying almost every viola sound there is a slight crescendo. Now in a free duration you cannot write a crescendo, so the rhythmic proportions were brought about because of the durations of the various types of crescendo. I've become fascinated with precise notation now, because I use it to measure other things, which ordinarily I would never have thought of. Most of my music of the past two years is precisely notated, but each piece for a different reason.

Why is that set called 'The viola in my life'?

I thought it was just a pretty title.

There was no particular reason for choosing the viola?


About titles, I read that 'Madam Press died last week at ninety' was given that title after the piece had been completed.

That title was given to me by my mother. I came back from Europe and called up my mother, and the first thing she said to me was 'Madam Press died last week at ninety'.

What about 'I met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg'?

I was in Paris, it was early in the morning, I found myself in the Rue Furstenberg, and I had the association of Delacroix's studio and that world. I was thinking a lot about Heine because of my situation (I found myself more or less in voluntary exile for a few years). And then I was writing, and in the middle of the piece I just wrote down the title: I met Heine. Titles are very peculiar things. My publishers were not too happy with the titles they were getting from my recent stay in Berlin - they were more like still-life titles: Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano; Chorus and Orchestra; Pianos and Voices. I just felt there was something about my life in Berlin that suggested these very flat, factual titles.

It sounds as if you write fairly quickly ...

By the list of compositions? When I write, I write swiftly, not quickly. I usually write straight off in ink.

What is it that leads you to begin a composition? Or can't this be generalized?

Yes it can - it's usually the same thing. For me composition is orchestration, and so what leads me to begin a composition is a weight, an orchestration, which is new for me. Though my music sounds pretty much the same to many people, it's very different to me with the change in orchestration; because my compositional impetus is in terms of the vertical quality, and not what happens in terms of the horizontal scheme.

You have not had much interest in introducing electronic sounds into your orchestration?

I'm not happy with electronic sound - the physical impact to me is like neon lights, like plastic paint, it's right on top, whereas I like my paint to seep in a bit. Part of my musical thinking is to have the sound sourceless, and it's too identifiable. My pieces fail if one can say: 'Ah, there's a trombone, there's a horn'. I like the instruments to play in the natural way; they become anonymous. Most new sounds come about when the instrument does not become anonymous, but deals in marginal worlds; and so they are precarious in execution.

So what you are after is a very pure sound.

But it's difficult for a musician to play that way. I have yet to hear an easy harmonic played beautifully and without vibrato with a slow bow on the cello. I have yet to hear a trombone player come in without too much attack, and hold it at the same level. I have yet to hear that kind of control. That's why these instruments are not dead for me: because as yet they have not served my function.

Do you regard your work as belonging to a particularly American tradition?

I would just say it as a point of fact: I'm an American, and the work of an American artist is different. You read Goethe and the work is pretty consistent. You read Melville - now the differences between Pierre, Moby Dick, Typee, and the other short stories and novels are fantastic, but still it's the world of Melville. I'm more interested in living my musical life like that. I think Cage's work and my work is very realistic about history and about sound, which is what music becomes, but was the least important aspect of musical thinking.

Is there anything being done in Europe at the moment that you have some admiration for?

I greatly admire some pieces of Ligeti, but not for the reasons that he would like me to admire them. I greatly admire some of the earlier pieces of Kagel, before he got involved with theatre - the whole sound of Sonant, and Anagrama, a stunning piece. I greatly admire the composition and the attitude of Cornelius Cardew. I greatly admire certain aspects of Xenakis, where he has none of the historical references propping the work up - that excites me.

I would be interested to hear your views on music education, as I believe you are coming to Dartington this summer.

Yes I am. Well, one of the tragedies of music education is that it doesn't produce composers. I turned down a very good job a year or two ago, because my idea of teaching just isn't what's happening in departments. I didn't want my students involved in performance groups, or in writing music for performance.

Why are you against that?

Because one of the tragedies of aleatory music is that it is totally dependent on the performer to make the composition. The difference from Cage's attitude and my attitude - where the same charge could be laid - is that we try to make our initial conception clear, without trying to make a Hollywood success. When I hear my own aleatory music today in a concert hall, I'm embarrassed, because it's not as 'successful' as the aleatory music of my students. It's simpler, it's different; it's not as interesting. The trouble with music composition as taught in colleges is that what you're learning has only one word: analysis. You're given models, and the implication is that there's a secret to learn that will help you compose. That's the first tragic assumption.

But haven't developments in music always taken place in response to previous developments? It would have been impossible for Beethoven to write as he did without knowing what had been done by Mozart and Haydn.

I don't feel that Beethoven really emerged from Mozart and Haydn.

Well, let's just say that he took forms from them; whatever he did was on the basis of forms which had been developed in the past.

But forms are tricky things - there are so few of them in music. You sound much more realistic than me: of course, how could I have developed if I didn't have Webern and if I didn't have Varèse? But I never consciously used them as models.

So what should music education be doing?

I think it should just be for performers; I don't think composition should be taught. It's interesting that the four most influential composers in America today - myself, Earle and Cage, and Christian Wolff really because he's a classicist - had no connections and no training in music departments. So my attitude is: keep everything as human as possible, create a sense of proportion, good atmosphere to work, quietude, fantastic people there to help when they need them, and let them quietly get discouraged and get out of this tentative commitment they made; rather than creating some kind of Utopia.

© Paul Griffiths 1972

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