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Introduction to Petr Kotik/Walter Zimmermann Conversation
by Petr Kotik
Ten Nasty Questions put to Petr Kotik by Walter Zimmermann
Following the performance by S.E.M. Ensemble of Morton Feldman's For Philip Guston at the Paula Cooper Gallery in May, 1995, Paula Cooper suggested that we record the piece. She offered to fund the project the same way she funded our Marcel Duchamp recording in 1989. We had a few meetings in the Fall of 1995, to assess the feasibility of the idea and in November, we decided to go ahead. On December 22 and 23, 1995, we recorded the piece at the LRP Studio on West 22nd Street in Manhattan.
The May '95 performance of Guston at the Paula Cooper Gallery was a great success. That Spring, we performed the piece twice: once in New York and few weeks later at the Landesmuseum Mainz in Germany. These were not our first performances of Guston. We have already performed it in 1988. Both concerts in 1995 convinced me that the time has finally come for music of extended duration to be appreciated by broader audiences. I was very much involved with this concept in the 1970s. In fact, all the pieces I wrote between 1971 and 1981 are several hours in duration.
In the Summer of 1987, I wanted to commission Feldman to write a piece for the S.E.M. Ensemble. Feldman and I had not been in touch for over ten years. Our relationship was somewhat strained, ever since the 1975 fiasco with Cage's Song Books in Buffalo. Julius Eastman had decided to sabotage SEM's performance at the June in Buffalo festival, of which Feldman was the director. It ended with a big scandal. Cage got so enraged, that the next day at a seminar at the University, he screamed at us, pounding with his fist on the piano lid.
Although Julius was not part of the S.E.M. Ensemble at that time, I asked him to participate in Song Books, because he performed the piece so brilliantly back in 1971. Cage and Tudor saw our performance in Albany and liked it so much that a year later, when I saw Tudor again, he still talked about it, and especially about Julius. I was convinced that Feldman invited us in 1975 precisely because of Cage's and Tudor's praise of Julius Eastman. This is why I made the effort to have Julius perform it with us again, although he left the group in January of the same year. Julius actually left SEM in a rather unpleasant way. We were rehearsing music by Marcel Duchamp when, in the middle, he stormed out. He began to dislike the work we were doing and Duchamp's music brought his annoyance to a head. I should have guessed that he was unsuitable to go on performing with us, but everything happened rather fast and I continued to trust him. In fact, I expected him to say no to my invitation and was pleasantly surprised that he accepted. If he would have hated the idea of performing Cage, I thought, he would not accepted to do it again. Cage categorically refused to allow any rehearsals for Song Books, and at that time I never questioned the validity of any of Cage's suggestions. Therefore, we had no rehearsals and I only found out on stage what Julius was going to do. By then, it was too late to do anything about it.
Up to this performance, Feldman and I were very close and often collaborated, but after June 1975, we rarely spoke. In the Summer of 1987, I wanted to commission a piece from him for SEM. I wanted to call him to Buffalo, but before doing so, I called Cage to find out whether his phone changed. I had his telephone number, but that was from the early 1970s. By 1987, Feldman became somewhat of a recluse. He taught at the University one day a week and for the rest of the week, he was completely inaccessible. I was told that not even his secretary at the University had his phone number. When I called Cage and told him about the commission, he was silent for a second and said "Morty's very ill. I don't think that your idea of a commission will work, but call him anyway." "I hope that he'll recover," I said. "I don't think so," Cage answered, "it's very serious." I didn't ask what was wrong with Morty and Cage didn't offered the information either. When I called Feldman, he was rather surprised to hear my voice. The short talk we had sounded as if there has never been any problem between us, his voice had an almost an upbeat tone. He said that he would think about it. I didn't have the nerve to ask him about his health. A few months later he died of pancreatic cancer. Sometime later, the percussionist Jan Williams, one of Feldman's close friends and colleague at the University of Buffalo, told me that Feldman spoke rather enthusiastically about the S.E.M. Ensemble commission.
When we programmed our 1987/88 season at the Paula Cooper Gallery, we reserved a date in February, 1988 for the Feldman premiere. I had to therefore find a substitute piece, something from his late period. The S.E.M. Ensemble at that time had four members: Ben Neill on trumpet, Joseph Kubera on keyboards, Chris Nappi on percussion and myself. With such an instrumentation, the choice was clear - it had to be one of the flute/piano/percussion trios. I do not recollect having any specific reason to choose the almost 5-hour long For Philip Guston. Most likely, it was my natural inclination toward long pieces.
In 1988, the audience response for the performance was moderate. We had about 40 people of which about 15 stayed until the end. Bunita Marcus brought a Persian rug, perhaps one from Morty's collection, and laid down on it for the entire performance.
When the Landesmuseum Mainz asked me to perform For Philip Guston in June, 1995, I scheduled another performance of the piece in New York. We needed to perform it before going to Europe.
For me, the time from March to June, 1995, was one of the most difficult. On April 1, the SEM educational program was to culminate with a large scale performance at the Willow Place Auditorium. We had about one hundred students from Brooklyn's Midwood High School to perform, together with SEM musicians, music by Cage, Leroy Jenkins, and my Exercise which was written for this program. From April 23 to May 7, I was to conduct David First's opera, The Manhattan Book of the Dead at La Mama Theater in New York. On May 9th, we performed For Philip Guston at the Paula Cooper Gallery, and immediately after that started to prepare The SEM Orchestra for a European tour, to perform at the Prague Spring Festival on May 30 and June 1st. I arranged for David Tudor to play a solo concert in Prague on May 31, and only at the last minute did I learn that he was too ill to go. Luckily, I was able to get Pauline Oliveros to replace him. In Prague, I was to conduct two concerts, one with a "classical" program (Varèse, Cage, Feldman), and the other one with new pieces by Ben Neill, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Jon Gibson and my first orchestral piece Quiescent Form. Before leaving for Prague, we gave two orchestra concerts in New York, at the Willow Place Auditorium on May 21st and at Merkin Concert Hall on May 23rd. As if this would not be enough, in middle of all this activity, right after the Guston concert, our administrator/manager resigned, citing total exhaustion. She was afraid of having a break down and as a precaution, she simply handed me the office keys and left. Somehow I had to keep everything afloat, including finding someone to manage the orchestra on the European tour.
In this hectic environment, we were able to do only a minimum of advertising for the Guston performance in New York. We had only minimum time to practice beforehand and there was no chance to rehearse in Prague before going to Mainz. The New York performance served mainly to force us to prepare the piece well for the tour.
New York is one of the most difficult places to produce a concert. The glut of events (there are sometimes 30 concerts in a single day) makes it extremely difficult to attract the attention of both the audience and the press. This is why the spontaneous response to the Guston concert surprised me so much. On the day of the concert, we had only three tickets left. "What is happening?" I asked myself. In the evening, when I walked on the stage, I noticed Alex Ross, the New York Times critic sitting in one of the front rows, in a packed hall, with the score in his hands. I couldn't believe my eyes.
When performing Guston, we sit in a circle and my back is to the audience. I have no idea what is going on in the auditorium during the performance. When we finished the piece, I had another surprise, most of the audience was still in the hall. They gave us quite a long ovation. Alex was holding the score and left immediately. I raced after him. "Did you follow the whole piece with us?" I called. "Of course," he answered, rather surprisingly.
His review in the Times was astonishing. Ross compared the performance with Mahler's 9th Symphony which he heard few days earlier in Carnegie Hall.
Ross happened to be in Europe at the same time we performed at the Prague Spring Festival. He was on assignment from The New York Times to cover a few festivals and showed up for our final Prague concert when we performed Feldman's The Turfan Fragments. Afterwards, we had a few beers, and he told me that he is planing to write a book about Feldman's music.
I wanted the texts accompanying the Guston recording to be substantial and in-depth as far as the problems of the composition and performance.
My initial idea was to have a three-way conversation between Alex Ross,
Walter Zimmermann and myself. Walter Zimmermann is a German composer who
knew Feldman since the mid 1970s, has kept close contact with him. He
published a book of Feldman's Essays which include a conversation between
Zimmermann and Feldman. I contacted Walter and Alex and they both agreed to
do it. But as time progressed, it became clear that it was unrealistic. One
could not expect Walter to come to New York just for the Feldman
conversation. So the plans changed. I had a conversation with Walter
separately and Alex Ross agreed to write a small essay. Walter and I met in
Berlin in January, 1996 and recorded a rather extensive conversation. Walter
listened to a 40 minutes excerpt of our recording and the next day, we met to
record our conversation.
The following conversation took place on January 12, 1996 in Berlin. It followed a listening, the day before, to an excerpt from the S.E.M. Ensemble's recording of Morton Feldman's For Philip Guston. The text of the conversation's transcript was edited by Petr Kotik. The text in the brackets [ ] was added later. The purpose of the conversation was to create liner notes for the SEM recording of For Philip Guston.
WZ: Petr, why did you record For Philip Guston when there are so many Feldman CDs on the market?
PK: I don't listen to recordings very often, so I don't really know what is on the market. The decision to record a piece is based on its context within our repertoire. What is on the market has nothing to do with it.
WZ: So what made you decide to record For Philip Guston and not, let's say, Crippled Symmetry?
PK: For Philip Guston is in our repertoire, Crippled Symmetry is not. We performed Guston eight years ago, and although there was no recording available then, it didn't occur to me to record it. After we performed the piece again last May and June, I felt that the time was right to do the recording. The overwhelming response of our audiences was also a factor. However, the most important factor was Paula Cooper, who suggested doing the recording and offered to produce it.
WZ: How do you approach the performance of For Philip Guston? How do you look at the piece? I am asking you because the piece is quite different from early Feldman. I believe that the piece is the first one in the Feldman's late work where memory is not part of the structure. The music progresses form one note to the next note, not like Crippled Symmetry, which is based on structural units, using patterns. There are no patterns in this piece.
PK: It is interesting to me to hear you saying all this because of the difference between the way you look at music and the way I look at it. In the end, we may both arrive at the same conclusion, but your analytical approach is very different from mine. I rarely analyze music the way you do. My decisions are guided more or less by intuition and sometime by chance. For example, I have chosen For Philip Guston mainly on account of its instrumentation and duration. . .
WZ: But Crippled Symmetry has a similar instrumentation?
PK: Crippled Symmetry has a bass flute which I do not own. I remember looking at various possibilities, and the instrumentation had a lot to do with deciding on Guston. It was not a didactic process.
WZ: I was curious about your reaction to the difference between Guston and the former pieces, the fact that there are no patterns which need the use of memory and which have to be performed in a certain way, following a certain path or a tempo. That leads me to my next question. Why do you play this piece, which is more abstract -- and I hope that we agree that it progresses from a note to a note -- why did you choose exactly this piece and not some other like Crippled Symmetry, where Feldman uses symmetrical patterns and repetitions of bits of patterns. There are no patterns in Guston, it just goes from a note to a note. It's abstract.
PK: Maybe I should make a comment about my relationship to Feldman's music. I have been performing it practically all my musical life. The first time I programmed Feldman was in 1966 in Prague with the QUAX Ensemble. That was when Feldman and I established contact and exchanged letters. In Prague, we performed a few small pieces and Feldman then proposed various other compositions which was, unfortunately, impractical for what we were able to do. When I came to the United States in 1969, the soprano, Gwendolyn Simms, asked me to help her with her solo recital. She was a colleague of mine at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo. I suggested to her to do a whole evening of music by Feldman. The program was a kind of a retrospective which even included the Céline piece Journey to the End of the Night. We also programmed some larger ensemble pieces which I conducted, like Rabbi Akiba, and For Franz Kline, a whole program of Feldman's music. Gwendolyn and I met Morty at the Studio School on 8th Street and discussed the project with him. He was thrilled. He was then, I think the director of the school. After he came to Buffalo in 1971, first as a visiting professor, and then staying on as the Varèse professor of composition, we saw each other very often. In 1973, I commissioned a piece and Feldman wrote Instruments for the S.E.M. Ensemble.
WZ: Instruments number?
PK: At that time it was called just Instruments. Now, it is called Instruments I because he later wrote Instruments II. So you see, when I decide to perform Feldman's music, I don't feel that I missed a certain period of his work, I don't need to recapitulate anything. I'm interested in the music alone. Another thing I should explain about myself is that I never listen music analytically. I never did. When I listen to music, whether it is in sonata form, or a piece like Guston, I would have to really force myself to analyze the compositional structure. It is altogether another matter when I look at a score. But when I listen, these things escape me completely.
WZ: Yes, but something must guide you for example, that you have chosen to play For Philip Guston in such a slow tempo. We heard your recording yesterday. Your tempo is much slower than I am accustomed to. What you have said indicates that you know the very the early pieces. There is a sort of a tradition that you know from the early pieces, the more resonating chords and sounds, then there is the middle period, and the late period where he re-integrated structural ideas, and then, in Philip Guston, you have only pitch to pitch situations, register combinations and so on. Nevertheless, Feldman always prescribes a certain tempo. And I think in your performance you must have approached it with certain intentions. What intentions lead you to play it so slowly?
PK: Our tempo is not a result of any intention. We made no conscious decisions regarding the tempo. I don't even remember one discussion about tempo. In fact, what we do is to try to adhere as much as possible to the prescribed tempo. I would take issue with you on whether it is slower than prescribed. I don't think it is slower, or even that much slower. Maybe it's slower than you are used to from other performances. Our tempo became simply the result of the way we naturally feel the music...
WZ: What do you mean naturally? Or do you . . .
PK: I can't really speak just for myself we have here three performers. . .
WZ: But how do you, in a sense, relate to the notation? Feldman writes a very strict and complicated notation. Do you fight with it, or in a sense do you try to identify with it or are you precisely obeying it? Which approach did you take? Are you obeying the notation . . .
PK: Sure we follow the notation as precisely as we can. Of course.
WZ: . . . you don't see it as a challenge, more . . .
PK: It is a challenge.
WZ: . . . and does this challenge make you going around the problem, so to speak?
PK: It is a very challenging piece because of the way it is written. The only way to perform it is to focus and concentrate as much as possible on the music, follow what is on the page with as much discipline as one can possibly give it in almost five continuous hours. The tempo simply happens, it is a result of all that. It simply happens in a given situation, and it may vary from one performance to another. Our approach to perform For Philip Guston is no different from an approach to perform, say Beethoven, Bach or Mozart, it just happens naturally.
WZ: Well Beethoven prescribed very definite metronomic tempos.
PK: Yes, but a performer doesn't check the metronome before walking on the stage.
WZ: Beethoven fits into our discussion perfectly. Namely, many people think that he used the metronome to set the tempos faster than any normal human being could do. This way, he wanted to force the interpreter to do it his way. And that's what I am asking you, is it your way that you are playing the piece? What is your specific approach to the interpretation? What is it based on and where is it coming from?
PK: It is coming from the performance itself, naturally, completely naturally out of playing the music. And playing it as best as we can. That goes for all three of us. We don't ever even think about these matters. Obviously one opens the score, and there on top of the first page is a tempo marking and that guides us. The rest is just a performance.
WZ: So you were, so to speak, not interested in studying the form of the piece which is actually structured in two halves . . .
PK: Not at all.
WZ: . . . the second half, so to speak, being a rewritten, re-spoken first half, . . .
PK: I have no analytical interest to study a piece when I decide to perform it. I really believe Varèse when he said that analysis kills music. Certainly too much analysis does. When you sit down and study the music, actually I would say the score, not the music, it's possible to come to all sorts of strange conclusions. Let's take Varèse, for example, his music is so close to Feldman's. I recently conducted Varèse's Deserts with Feldman's The Turfan Fragments on the same program. It was an amazing revelation. Amazing how close these two composers are in so many ways, especially in structuring their compositions. Anyway, Varèse said many times that analysis kills music. I am not saying it to mimic Varèse. It just confirms my feeling about it. Not only that I have neither a great deal of talent to do analytical listening, nor do I have a desire to do it and knowing that Varèse had the same opinion makes me feel better.
WZ: But I mean, Varèse gave his pieces titles, and the titles refer to crystallization processes, or, in the later pieces, to the influences of Mayan culture, in a poetic way. There must be some relationship between the metaphor of his titles and the music. It doesn't mean that one has to analyze every bit of it, but one has to know a certain environment or background of the pieces, the atmosphere in which he wrote it, or the basic things like crystallization, or atomic clash of energetic contra-opposite forces like in Intégrales. The attacks, the scaling of chords for example, I mean, a conductor must, to a certain extent know all this before he makes the first . . .
PK: Well, Varèse also said that his titles have nothing directly to do with the music, that they are metaphors. So there you have it. The important thing in the end is how the music comes across.
WZ: But it has to be nourished by some background knowledge. Take Feldman. What do you think about the title For Philip Guston. Why . . .
PK: I don't think about it at all. We would have had to go to Feldman and ask him why he used the name For Philip Guston. I don't like to make assumptions, so I don't think about it. The title could have been used in an arbitrary way.
WZ: I think that it is more than that. You know well that the friendship between Feldman and Guston had a problem, there was a crack, and the piece has a crack in the middle, Feldman goes through the piece twice. I don't know why, I should have asked him about it. This problematic friendship, I'm sure, was one of the driving motivations for Feldman to write the piece.
PK: Those are your assumption. I do not engage myself in such things. All I do is take the music, sit down, and play it from the beginning to the end. And that's the end of it, really, that is the way I work.
WZ: What made you decide about the balance? You are playing the flute very softly, in a very soft, subtle range. But on the whole, it is quite in the foreground compared with the other instruments.
PK: The flute is the only melodic instrument which can sustain sound, so, no matter what, it will always be in the foreground. All the other instruments are percussive, that is why the flute sounds very different. Even if it would be possible to play softer, much softer, I will still be doing the only melodic playing, one which the piano and the celeste cannot match. They can just softly attack each note. I, for example, am trying not to make any attacks.
WZ: Yes, but one can also say exactly the opposite. Since the flute has this melodic domain, it can also withdraw more to let the instruments which have a decaying sound come into the foreground.
PK: Number one, we are all playing as softly as possible, all of us, all the time. That is one of the preconditions of playing Feldman, especially this particular piece, to go down to the lowest dynamic level. You cannot start arranging to have some instruments play in the foreground in order to balance the sound, that would manipulate the music in a wrong way. Here, the traditional problem of balance really does not exist. [I have discovered that in The Turfan Fragments. When you look at the score and see ppppp marked for all the instruments all the time, you might think that the sound should be balanced and flat. That would be true for traditional music, but it is not the case in Feldman. What the dynamic marking means is that all the instruments play all the time soft as possible, without regard for the overall balance. If you play the music this way, you discover, how much dynamics there is. The music suddenly take on plasticity, and various dynamic changes start to happen all by themselves. It is because, as the instruments change registers, and overall, as the instrumentation changes, the sound naturally gets louder and softer. That is why Feldman often writes pitches which are in the extreme range, where it is either impossible to play soft, or where one can play so soft that you almost don't hear the pitch.]
[I recently heard in New York a cellist play Feldman's Patterns in a Chromatic Field. He tried not only to balance the sound of the cello and piano, but every time a decrescendo was marked, he started loud in order decrease the volume. It was terrible, absolutely unbearable.] In Guston, for example, when I play the piccolo and it goes up to the high G flat, there is no way that it can be very soft. On the other side, when the alto flute has the low G, it may come out so soft, that you will hardly hear any sound. The same thing goes for all the other instruments. Not only that we do not consciously balance the music, but by playing as soft as possible throughout the piece, we get this plasticity into the performance. And of course, you must add to it all the musical decisions. Occasionally, thematic and melodic progressions ask to be a little louder. One does not sit for five hours and play like a machine. The piece changes as it naturally evolves with raising and falling dynamics.
WZ: If you have this natural approach why didn't you record it in a hall?
PK: Because a recording is a recording and a performance is a performance. In a performance, you listen with your ears and eyes. Recorded music, you listen only with your ears. This is an old problem, seeing something changes the way you hear it. Just recently, we recorded one of our concerts in New York. The recording engineer insisted on using only two very sensitive microphones. The idea was to truly represent the sound as one hears it in the hall. There was no problem of balance in the performance, but when I listened to the recording, it sounded different. Part of the program had an orchestra with a solo voice. We were cramped on the stage in such a way, that the soloist stood behind the strings, to see my cues. In the hall, it sounded fine, but on the recording, the soloist sounded far away. I am convinced that it was because in the hall, one could see the soloist and that compensated for the small loss of volume. In every recording situation, the balance is very important. Everyone knows how long it always takes to set up microphones to find the right balance. For Philip Guston was especially difficult, because of the problem with the different acoustical instruments. The mallet instruments as well as the piano are played with the sustain pedal down throughout the piece. They have this very long decay which sounds like an echo, while the flute is dry and all the notes have precise endings. It took us three hours to find the right balance.
WZ: But you said a minute ago that one should not smooth out the balance. That you welcome the imbalances of registers. That's why you should also welcome the situation if the flute is drier than the others.
PK: We are talking about two different things. We were working on the recording balance, so that the sound on the tape corresponds to the sound in the hall.
WZ: Would Feldman have used another instrument if he could not get a resonating situation?
PK: Guston has to be played in a reverberant hall where the flute gets a long echo. In the studio, one has to manipulate the echo, so in the end, when one hears the piece without seeing it, it sounds as close as possible to a live performance. I find the sound of this recording very close to how it would sound in a church.
WZ: It has something of a magnifying glass when you hear the dampers and sometimes the turning of the pages . . .
PK: Well that's always . . .
WZ: . . . and this is part of the game, because you play with such low dynamics.
PK: Of course, that's the danger. Not only low dynamics, but also the danger of allowing you to . . .
WZ: And the glockenspiel tends to be too loud so you have to strangle it a little bit to get it back. For me, this is the only thing where I feel a little dissatisfied about the sound.
PK: You have not heard the entire recording. The glockenspiel is not strangled at all. There are passages in which it comes to the foreground, especially in the end.
WZ: But still, it is the consequence of that clinical situation in the studio.
PK: A studio situation is clinical. There is nothing you can do about it. It is like eating dry mushrooms, they are not fresh, but they are still good. The recording does not pretend to be a performance. A reproduction is not an original. And this recording is a very good reproduction.
WZ: You said yesterday, that the noise of turning pages should be like an indicator for the loudness one should set the sound.
PK: It just occurred to me that we might take advantage of these noises. The listener can set any level on his home stereo, and I can see that many people might set the level too high. So the noise of pages turning might indicate the right volume for the reproduction. We were turning the pages very softly, so softly that in the concert hall one would not be able to hear it. Because of to the closeness of the microphones, one can hear it on the recording. So, in order to get the right volume, one must turn down the level so that the external noises, like the page turns, will become inaudible. It could serve as the measuring device for setting the right level, so that it sounds the way it does in a performance.
WZ: Let's talk about the notation. In the earlier period, when Feldman wrote the free-durational pieces, every sound existed in its own durational world. I am not sure that it is true, but it seems to me that as the result of his disappointment with the interpretation of this music, he later started to write this very tricky and complicated notation with all the irregular rhythmic situations. I sense in your performance this rather natural flow, and also your free approach to the music makes me wonder: or did you take the notation very literally?
PK: As literally as one can without making it an academic exercise of proving oneself right. Our attitude in performing Guston is no different from performing any other music, that is perhaps why is sounds natural to you. The question is: How far are you going to be academically concerned with precision, and how far are you going to let the music flow naturally? You can ask the same question with every piece of music, not just Feldman.
WZ: What do you think is behind the fact that his music is notated in a very complicated way? Why do you think it is so?
PK: There is more than one answer to this. Number one, in his later period, he had access to better performers, something he did not have at the beginning. So, he was able to create notation which demanded much higher performance skills. Number two, he simply progressed in his writing music, it was a step forward. The complex polyrhythmical and polymetrical writing is for me not the result of a negative reaction to the past, as you have mentioned, but rather a positive step forward. He discovered how to use the notation, to bring the music close to an rhythmically ambiguous situation, with co-existing precision and imprecision, almost like a gel. It has a shape, but it shivers.
WZ: The question then is, if one tries to obey these complicated rhythms most slavishly, one could arrive at a situation where it becomes a hindrance, or something standing in the way of the performance. The question then remains unresolved, . . .
PK: Let me make a comment. I don't know where did it started, maybe it was in Darmstadt, in the post-Webern atmosphere that people got into their heads that the most important thing in new music is to follow with complete exactness what is written in the score. This is absurd! There is no way that you would think of doing that with any other music. It would sound completely awful.
WZ: Yes and no. Of course you have to follow the score, but you have to give your spirit to it.
PK: What is the idea to follow the score exactly without regard to musical spirit.
WZ: But the spirit doesn't necessarily mean neglecting the written score. Feldman notated more and more precisely what he wanted. So if a interpreter neglects it, he doesn't deliver the music with the right spirit. To follow the score doesn't automatically mean that one gets the spirit, but it is necessary. The notes have to be delivered at the right point, at the right time. I ask this question because it is an unresolved problem. If you have someone like Rohan de Saram who plays Patterns in a Chromatic Field very precisely, perhaps you get into this more academic situation. He also said it was the most difficult piece he ever played. If you take the notation very precisely, then you end up in hell because you are calculating every fraction of a second.
PK: Now I have a question for you. Since when, in Western music, or in any music for that matter, since when does notation serve. . . take a piece of baroque music.
WZ: As you know, we don't live in the baroque era anymore.
PK: Well . . .
WZ: We have a lot of broken bits and pieces of historical data which we have to put together to live our lives in history.
PK: You are really not answering my question. Let's take baroque music. It is not played exactly the way it is written. It's understood. . .
WZ: You must of course have the feeling how to play baroque music, you must know the spirit of the time.
PK: Certainly, there is also the question of style.
WZ: There was a completely different concept of ego than it is now.
PK: Of course.
WZ: So my theory is . . .
PK: Wait a minute, let's take another example, Chopin. You also don't play precisely what is on the page either. There has to be a precision in performance, but not the kind of precision you are talking about which is not musical, which is contrary to . . .
WZ: What is musical?
PK: Musical is what musicians do when they perform, not what some theorist constructs.
WZ: I don't think its musical if you take attitudes as in the baroque, classical, or romantic music and throw it into Feldman's score. Serial music came after the war, after the collapse of a terrorist regime in Germany. The purpose of this technique and method was to get rid of history. It was a desperate attempt to invent new system to blank out historical allusions. That is the meaning of it for me, for my generation.
PK: We can . . .
WZ: I grew up in that atmosphere . . . then Cage . . .
PK: Yes, well, I know.
WZ: And then you have Cage with all kinds of techniques to avoid egotism or to get around egotistic situations in music. Feldman is another case. There you find a refusal of a system, a refusal of a kind of Napoleonic thinking. Boulez was Feldman's biggest enemy, the expression of technique for its own sake. I find that there is something more to it, this is what I am asking you, can you get the spirit of Feldman if you neglect the notation? Or do you have to obey the notation exactly?
PK: You see, you are asking the wrong question. Let's go back to baroque music, or to Chopin, who was, as you know, one of Feldman's favorite composers. Or we can go to any other music you wish. Not to play slavishly what is written in the score does not mean that one neglects the notation, or the intentions of the composer, or that one is even imprecise. You are really setting the problem in the wrong way and that leads to a dead end: either one plays the music absolutely exactly or one is neglecting what's written. This is a false premise and that is why I can't really answer it. I am also caught by surprise because I never think about music this way. When I perform a composition, I follow the notation as precise as I can. That is a given.
WZ: OK, but you are also saying, let's say, just look at the first page of the piece, that you perform it in a natural way, the way you like to do it.
PK: What I just said. . .
WZ: Your natural way includes your education and your education, among other things is all flute music . . .
PK: Of course.
WZ: . . . from baroque to today.
PK: Or whatever I rejected from that education. My natural way, at my age, is the history of my life as a musician.
WZ: And my question is: if you perform Feldman in your "natural" way, is it possible to arrive at a new situation so to speak. Could the notation provide, as it should, a filter through which you enter a new room, the room of Feldman's world of music. Are you going through the jungle of complicated notation, to enter this room where you can breathe new air. This is probably what it is. Feldman tried to block the interpreter from his "natural" way of playing.
PK: Well for me . . .
WZ: It is confusing. You said it yourself, that his notation is confusing.
PK: Yes, but to encounter such notation is natural thing for me. After all, I've been doing it all my life, It is a factor in the way I do music. It's completely natural for me to perform Cage, for example. I am not fighting history.
WZ: But also, an interpreter should leave the stage confused.
PK: An interpreter who goes. . .
WZ: . . . shouldn't be too sure about how he is playing it, I think.
PK: Oh, no at all. When we perform, we are pretty sure of what we're doing. Our attitude in performing Feldman is no different from anything else. A musician doing Feldman should be as sure about the music and about the notation as if he is about to play Mozart. Why should there be any difference?
WZ: Listen to the Mozart of the fifties. Listen to the Mozart of the sixties. Listen to the Mozart of the seventies.
PK: Sure, there are differences. So will Feldman be different. So will Cage. You are bringing up a question of authenticity, and I like very much what Boulez says about authenticity. He thinks that it is a fraudulent idea.
WZ: Feldman is dead almost 10 years. Mozart is dead more than 200 years, so there's a big difference. You can grasp it, if you want, and if you don't want to grasp it, that's another matter, but if you want to . . .
PK: One has to. . .
WZ: But you're neglecting it.
PK: No, I'm not.
WZ: You said, "I don't care what is the background . . ."
PK: I never said, "I don't care."
WZ: ". . . what is the background, what is the title, what is behind the title, what is Feldman's friendship to Guston."
PK: I never said that I don't care about these things. I said that I don't make assumptions. I don't make the kind of connections you do. I understand exactly what you saying, but I have a different approach. That doesn't mean that I don't care. If we don't agree on something, that doesn't necessarily mean that one of us is careless and the other one is careful.
WZ: I am not a fan of authenticity, but still, I think one should grasp the spirit of the piece with all possible information which we have.
PK: Of course, but you are not using information. You are making assumptions. When you heard our recording yesterday, did you think that we were not performing in the spirit of Feldman's music?
WZ: No, the recording is very beautiful. OK, this is one thing. The skepticism in my questions comes from your statements when you say that you don't care about what is behind the piece, that you just look at the notes.
PK: I did not say "I don't care." You are putting words in my mouth that I did not say . . .
WZ: I remember exactly what you said.
PK: Look, I simply don't make assumptions to construct all sorts of connections. This is not the way I look at things. We have different approaches, that is clear. My approach is different not because I don't care about the things you are talking about. In the end, these matters are for me not determining. Take the title for example. If the piece would have a different title, it wouldn't make any difference how we played it.
WZ: Sure, but the title is part of the history of the piece.
PK: Maybe. Maybe it was added after the piece was written, maybe Feldman had the title on his mind before he started to compose it. Who knows?
WZ: But for him to devote so much time and energy to write this piece, there must have been some tragic element which I think is the broken friendship to Guston.
PK: I am not sure about that, that is your assumption. The difference between us is that you are speculating and I am not.
WZ: Well, you know that one of Feldman's friends was Frank O'Hara, who came out with the concept of personism. He believed that it's only possible to make a love poem about someone, if that person is not present. Philip Guston, for example, was already dead when Feldman wrote the piece. So there you have, so to speak, a tragic situation in which their broken friendship could not have been repaired anymore because Guston was dead, and I think that this fact inspired Feldman. It gave him certain energy to work it out in his music. This is rather an abstract thing. It doesn't mean then that the music is connected with this problem directly. As I said, For Philip Guston doesn't have any patterns, it progresses from a note to a note. But for the spirit of the work, I think that it is quite important for the musician to understand this strange relationship, this long friendship which was broken and not healed.
PK: I'm well aware of it. Feldman didn't like it when artists radically changed their direction. When Guston started to paint figuratively, he got angry and that was what you call the "crack" in their relationship. But I don't pay any attention to this when I perform the music. Those who don't know who Frank O'Hara was must be able to play Feldman as well as those who knew both of them intimately. We have two different ways of looking at this. But again, speaking about history - please don't take it as if I am deliberately changing our conversation, you described the Darmstadt movement, this idea to follow a score literally, as a way of getting rid of history. I can only quote Feldman, who said, "to rebel against history, one is still involved with history, one is still part of it."
WZ: Yes, I agree, that's why I think it is better to leave history out, so we don't create false problematics.
Let me finish the thing with Frank O'Hara. He said that when one writes a poem about a person who is not present, it has to be abstract, expressing the abstract flow of thoughts. One does not write a love poem as a story, it has to be abstract, expressing energy of love or sorrow or whatever. This energy, so to speak, is part of oneself, creating a mood which is so overwhelming that one simply cannot express it by telling stories. This is why it expresses itself as an abstract situation. And I think that this was the case when Feldman wrote Guston. He was sitting at his desk, and he didn't want to tell the story of his friendship with Philip Guston. You see, he was expressing a certain mood of their relationship, something which was between them -- thinking about Philip and his presence.
For me, this what makes this piece come to life. This is why the music is so abstract. It has an abstract mood. All this comes to life when I listen to the piece. Of course, I know all about Philip Guston and admire his paintings, from both the earlier and later period. And knowing the tragedy of their broken friendship, this for me is the background of the music. When I listen to the recording of the piece, I understand its emotions, so to speak, and I also understand why it is something so abstract, not a story. The flute sound, for example, doesn't have a real flute sound, it can be played many different ways. When you look at a note, you should have a certain intention to play the note certain way. And if I follow your flute playing, sometimes the attack is very smooth and it decays smoothly and sometimes the attack is more concrete and the decay is quite exact. When you use so many different ways to play the instrument, what makes you decide to, in a moment . . .
PK: Nothing, I don't really know.
WZ: Is it chance?
PK: Maybe it's a chance, but it's really music! You have to be a performer to know what I am talking about, there is something -- it's very hard to express -- what happens when you sit and play, when you penetrate the music, when your whole being becomes the music you play. It's very hard to explain what it is that makes a great performance. It's impossible to explain it. It is also impossible to teach it. We don't have the language to express it, we don't have the expressions, the words.
WZ: So you play a certain chance game?
PK: It's not at all a game. It happens when I play, or when I conduct. There are moments when something happens, and it is as if I become the music as well as the people who perform with me. It's almost a telepathic unity.
WZ: But this you can also say about Furtwängler conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
PK: Yes, exactly - there is no difference.
WZ: I mean, what about Cage? Who, who . . .
PK: The same thing with Cage. It is the same thing.
WZ: Nonsense! I mean, at the end of his life, Cage wrote orchestra pieces without conductors. He didn't need this bunch of people anymore.
PK: That was his misunderstanding. He had very little understanding, and in a way very little interest for these matters.
WZ: He didn't need this authoritarian symbol anymore! The conductor was for him a symbol of an authoritarian society.
PK: A conductor is just a conductor, who does not symbolize anything.
WZ: Well OK, but a . . .
PK: Please, just read what he wrote about Mao-tse Tung in the 1970s. Cage made many mistakes, we all do.
WZ: At least he made mistakes.
PK: What do you mean at least? Everybody makes mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. He made mistakes too. Yesterday, I mentioned to you the 1975 incident with Cage in Buffalo. And I said that it was a very important experience for me. It helped me to understand the whole issue of the complex relationship between a composer and his work, it helped me to become more independent. The creative process involves a lot of confusion and the author is often in the dark about what is he doing, but this is another matter altogether.
WZ: What happened in Buffalo?
PK: Julius Eastman decided to sabotage the performance. . .
WZ: Tell me about what happened?
PK: It was the scandalous performance of Song Books, and Cage's reaction to it afterwards.
WZ: Can't you understand that someone who feels cheated reacts like this?
PK: Oh, yes. I am not criticizing Cage's reaction at all, in fact, I am not criticizing Cage at all. To the contrary.
WZ: I mean if one offers a certain freedom in the score and a performer comes and delivers a rotten concert, of course, one can get angry. It's very risky to have an anti-authoritarian concept than the kind of secure orchestra situation with a conductor. But let's go back to your flute playing. How did you manage to get through the piece? Your playing is very lively. It is, throughout the whole piece, not rigid or fixed. It has so many different colors. The question is . . .
PK: You are trying ask me again "how" I did it?
WZ: No, I'm trying to analyze my perception.
PK: This will not be possible.
WZ: Wait a minute, I am talking about my perception. I want you to you to help me understand. . .
PK: Understand what happens?
WZ: Your attacks and decays, there doesn't seem to be any regularity behind it. Each note has its own life, so to speak. So the next performance would be completely different, wouldn't it?
PK: Of course, it will be different and at the same time, it will be the same. Every performance of Mozart is completely different. This is why we go on listening to it. I mean, this is the substance of music. This is music.
WZ: It means that you let yourself go in a sense.
PK: Yes, of course, totally. It is impossible not to. To play stiff for five hours? I would go crazy.
WZ: No, no, I don't mean this. Being stiff is not the alternative to letting go, being loose. What I mean is, one can have a certain basic emotional feel which is constant. Let's say the vibrato is . . .
PK: I cannot even start describing my vibrato. I sometimes use a very strange vibrato. And again, it happens by itself, as a result of the natural way of performing the piece. It's intuitive, it's musical and free. And loose, of course. Not in the sense of being careless, all three of us are playing with great care, trying our best to be focused and disciplined. There is no other way to perform such a complicated score. At the same time, we are loose. Our playing includes all that together, which is of course contradictory, and contradiction, or the co-existence of opposites is actually the natural way of doing things . . .
WZ: Do you know the story of Philip Guston's biographer visiting Morty and asking him about Guston?
WZ: The biographer asked Feldman why does he thought that Guston changed his art at the end of his life. And Morty answered, "He stopped asking questions."
PK: [I am not sure that Feldman was right.]
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