[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

Christian Wolff on Feldman

The texts below are all included in the book, Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings & Conversations (Cologne: MusikTexte, 1998) and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author. Page references to that book are included at the end of each text.


from Taking Chances (1969)

from Conversation with Walter Zimmermann (1975)

"... then some music was really happening" (1992): Preface to John Cage, Morton Feldman, Radio Happenings I-V

Tender and Tough as Nails (1987-1990): Three Statements on Morton Feldman

The Sound Doesn't Look Back (1995): On Morton Feldman's Piano Piece 1952

from Taking Chances (1969)


The first one of us, however, who really went in for indeterminacy in performance was Feldman with those pieces written on graph paper where the range of the instrument is divided into high, middle and low, and the performer can pick any note from the specified register. Feldman has dropped indeterminacy nowadays, and he must always have looked at it very differently from Cage.

I think this interest had to do with his interest in painting. He used to put sheets of graph paper on the wall, and work on them like paintings. Slowly his notation would accumulate, and from time to time he'd stand back to look at the overall design. For him it had less to do with belief in chance: it was more function than anything else. He would talk about different weights of sound - and that was simply the easiest way to express them. Pitches didn't really matter, as there were so many other controls, and he used chance without its interfering with expression. What Cage admired in him and what they had most in common was heroism - trusting in performers, despite the risk that they might destroy the thing completely. Unless the performer committed himself to the pieces, they could be horrible, and it was their very dangerousness which made them so beautiful. Cage's were beautiful in the same way, just because you never knew what would come next.

You never think of yourself as part of tradition or a member of a group. What happens is that there are a number ideas around, some of which you have in common with others. All that we had in common was a desire to do something different, so as to be clear of styles which were not ours to borrow, or which seem to have gone dead. We did admire each other, but we had no desire to imitate each other. Feldman says a group gives a sense of permission, a feeling that you do have to fight against an accepted standard because others are working outside it too. It must have been very different for isolated figures like Varèse. In fact you find that he was squelched at one stage of his career: he stopped producing, as he had no space to work in.


From a conversation with Victor Schonfield, director of "Music now" in London, published in Music and Musicians, London, May 1969. [Cues, pp66-68]

from Conversation with Walter Zimmermann (1975)

Meeting you here now in Cambridge I remember a piece by Morton Feldman called Christian Wolff in Cambridge. What is so remarkable about Christian Wolff in Cambridge?

Well, as I was saying before, I've lived a long time in Cambridge. And I think what Feldman had in mind was, he's been here twice in Cambridge when I was here. And the first time he met me, he came to my room. I was staying in one of the Harvard dormitories, in an old fashioned building, old-fashioned room with a very high ceiling. And I was sitting at a desk sort of with books all around, and sort of my nose - I'm short-sighted - my nose very close to the paper. And he came in, and he saw me there. And then we had a very nice time. I had organized a concert on which his music was played.

And then, perhaps five, six, seven years later, again there was a concert. And Feldman again decided to come up. In those days Feldman very rarely left New York. So it was very unusual for him to go anywhere. This was quite special. And my address was once again this very same place. And he knocked on my door, and there I was in exactly the same situation he had seen me five or six years before. And I think that sense of not changing over long periods of time is what gave him the idea of that title. Beyond that, I don't know, like everything in Feldman's music, it's extremely hard to verbalize it. Its techniques, its methods and all the rest of it. By verbalizing I also mean analyze. There is no system. He works just by sort of sheer intuition, I think. And our own relationship has a little bit of that character. We don't ask too many questions. And I think some of that also is expressed in the title of the piece.

Yeah, also I think Feldman has very strong emotional attachments. And I think he also has a strong sense of that period, when he and Cage and myself were living in New York, and Earle Brown, and always comes back to that, I mean it's like being in a Garden of Eden. This in the early fifties. And I believe that he must have changed. I also saw him recently in June. He got a chance to hear me where I talk now, and I don't think he likes it anymore. But I think he regarded me for a long time, because I was the youngest also, as the surviving representative of that golden era, you see of the fifties. I like his music very much. There's no question about that. And I think I have learned a great deal from it. It's affected my own music too.


Well, for example, the one thing I can always put my finger on is, it's I think from Feldman's music that I first had the sense that all intervals are equally accessible or equally useable or equally beautiful, which is curious, I learnt that from John Cage. All sounds are alike. But Feldman chose the intervals, rather than allow them to happen by chance. Also, he restricted himself mostly to pitched sounds rather than using noises.


From a conversation with Walter Zimmermann in 1975, originally included in his book Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians (Vancouver, 1976). [Cues, pp100-102]

"... then some music was really happening" (1992):
Preface to John Cage, Morton Feldman, Radio Happenings I-V

These conversations, clearly enjoyed by the participants, were carried on for a radio audience. Of course they speak for themselves. (I have little local information to add, just that Morton Feldman's piece for electric guitar talked of in Radio Happening II, of which I had the only score, kept in my guitar case, disappeared for good when the guitar and case were stolen from our car in New York later in 1967. The piece had been played once each at Harvard, in New York, and in San Francisco.)

They have a sense of freshness, perhaps because the time (1966-67) had elements of transition. John Cage had taken indeterminacy to a limit of generalization in the Variations sequence (Variations V in 1965, VI and VII in 1966). The sound saturated HPSCHD, notions of scales and appreciation of Mozart are on the horizon. Much of the writing that would go into A Year from Monday (1967) was just being done. John's appetite for and use of ideas is more lively than ever, now additionally fired by Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller (Thoreau's notebooks will be drawn to his attention in 1967), and the ideas now explicitly include a "world" with economics and politics in it (see the Diaries).

Generally Morty's work and preoccupations (with weight, color and pace, and with a kind of paradoxical purity compounded of self-abnegation and truth-to-self, a purity John was to characterize as heroic, then erotic - finally, though, I think oscillating between the two) seem less changing. But some shifts can be seen on the way at this time in the increasing elimination of indeterminate elements in the music. Morty is also about to change publishers (from Peters in New York to Universal Edition in London), and a long involvement with European music scenes is just beginning. Interestingly it is Morty in these conversations who raises questions about the Vietnam war (Radio Happening IV).

There are interesting differences, held in a kind of cheerful suspension - there's a lot of laughter in these conversations (unlike the conversation recorded in 1983 and printed in the journal Res [Res 6, Anthropology and aesthetics, Autumn 1983, Cambridge, Massachusetts, page 112]). For instance, the discussion of collaboration and individual, personal work (Radio Happening V), or of quantity and quality (IV). Morty tends to be interested in the self's perspective on the process of producing music, John is getting that process out into a social world. Morty is more likely to be personal and intuitive, John detached and rational. But then again there are, for example, Morty's observations on the sociology of the new music and art world and his acute sense of how Varèse 's music works (Radio Happening V), and there are John's moments of pure optimistic faith in (of course perfectly rational) ways that society could be improved and his final point of reference which he calls simply "poetry."

When I said I would write something as a preface to these conversations John was still alive. Now both speakers are, like Satie, Joyce, Duchamp and others in John's An Alphabet, ghosts. Death comes up in these conversations, towards the end of Radio Happening II and twice in IV. John once mentioned that Morty had once said to him that sometimes when he, Morty, was composing, he felt as though he were dead, and then (he implied) some music was really happening.

Written in October 1992 at the request of Gisela Gronemeyer and Reinhard Oehlschlägel, published in: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Radio Happenings I-V, Köln: Edition MusikTexte, 1993. [Cues, pp360-362]

Tender and Tough as Nails (1987-1990):
Three Statements on Morton Feldman

The puzzle is, how does he do it - write the music, put it together. Some time in, I think, 1966, when I had become interested in working with electric guitar, I asked Morty would he consider writing for it. I offered to come over with the guitar to show him what I thought it could do and how it sounded. He agreed, and when I came we immediately set to work, he at the piano, playing a chord: "can you do that?" I could. "How about this?" With some contortions (the guitar was laid flat so I could better see what I was doing - I'm not a guitar player, and this way I could finger and pluck with either hand), yes. "This?" Not quite. "Now" (with changed voicing, or a new chord)? Yes. And so on, until he had made the piece. Tempo was slow and dynamics soft, the structure dictated by the amount of time we were able to concentrate on the work. The sound, the chords or single notes, were reverberations set off by his (characteristic) piano playing, feeling for a resonance, then confidently transferred to the guitar within that instrument's capacities (sometimes adding one of its particular features, the ability to make small slides with a vibrato bar).

When we were finished he gave me the music he'd written. I played the piece - it was called The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar - three times in public, at Harvard University, at the studio of station WKFA in San Francisco, and at the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts in New York City. I kept the music - there was only the one copy - inside my guitar case. A few months later guitar and case were stolen out of our car.

The content of a Feldman piece is the result of his compositional work, which is to say sounds he has, one way or another, listened for and notated carefully (a process, one senses, he has much enjoyed). Sometimes there is an additional content, more explicit and one could say more obviously personal, and also somewhat external to the music: a tune he had written when a teenager and with Hebraic reference in Rothko Chapel, for example, the very few occasions on which he set texts (Céline, Rilke, e. e. cummings, O'Hara, a line from one of the Psalms, Beckett), the linking through titles to people or events, which was perhaps more simply a registering of affection.

Sometime in the early seventies I happened to see a documentary antiwar film about Vietnam. The music accompanying it was very striking, of very high quality and sounding, I thought, particularly apt for the subject of the film which gave at once a sense of the war and the absolute need to resist it. At the end of the film the credits showed that the music was Morton Feldman's The King of Denmark. It had been recorded for the film quite loudly throughout, which made its sound difficult to associate with Feldman. Because the piece was for percussion (of no specified pitch), its being much louder than Feldman had specified altered its sound more drastically than might have been the case with conventional instruments. The title of the piece referred to that king of Denmark who during the Second World War, when the occupying Germans commanded all Jews to wear the Star of David, appeared in public wearing one too. The King of Denmark was a political piece. Its political character shone through in the Vietnam film, for all the changes its sound had been subject to.

Written in 1990 at the request of Ernstalbrecht Stiebler for the program booklet of Hessischer Rundfunk, Forum Neue Musik, February 22 and 23, 1990.

* * *

What has been the effect of his work on mine? It is, like nothing else, there. Like a tree. You could count on it. Like John Cage's work, David Tudor's, Alvin Lucier's (and a few others), it keeps alive, in part also by changing somewhat, that feeling of clearly doing new work, we used to call it "experimental," which appeared in the early fifties. It has an identity so intense that you don't need to worry about identity at all, which is liberating. For a long time, to consider a practical point, I thought of Feldman's choice of intervals and chords as implying that any combination of pitches was "all right," so long as their placing, the rhythm of their continuity (a rhythm that actually erased an ordinary feeling of continuity) and their sonority worked, which because of his ear and feeling they always seem to. In the meantime I have noticed that in fact his chords draw on a fairly restricted distribution of intervals, favoring the minor ones, seconds and sevenths - clearly at a distance from the diatonic directions (including in some measure my own) of the seventies. In retrospect, Feldman's music's not changing, simply extending over the years, probably made it easier for me to attempt what seemed to me sharp changes in my own work, beginning in the seventies. I find it hard to write about his work simply, though what there is really to say I think is in fact so simple it takes your breath away.

Probably written about the same time (1990) for a concert program. Perhaps not used nor printed.

* * *

We met in 1950, through John Cage, when I was sixteen and he in his early twenties. We were all doing work that was clearly different, newly different - from one another, but joined by our delight in each other's work (and by John Cage's organizing the concerts of it and a few musicians, David Tudor centrally, playing it), and by its difference from any other we knew. I still find mysterious his way of putting the music together, or rather of erasing any traces of a sense of its having been put together: it's just there. How does he do it? He's the only composer I know whose work seems made in a way that cannot be accounted for, explained, by any other means than the impossible one of becoming that composer oneself. He talked wonderfully, sharply, outrageously, but that wasn't quite his music. One thinks of the disparity of his large, strong presence and the delicate, hypersoft music, but in fact he too was, among other things, full of tenderness and the music is, among other things, as tough as nails.

Written in 1987 at the request of Gisela Gronemeyer and Reinhard Oehlschlägel, first published in German in MusikTexte 22, Köln, December 1987. [Cues, pp364-368]

The Sound Doesn't Look Back (1995):
On Morton Feldman's Piano Piece 1952

Sometime in the year of its composition I heard Morton Feldman play his Piano Piece 1952. After he finished, Luciano Berio, sitting next to me, said something about the piece's "dialectic." I don't recall just what, but I was struck by the effort, which at the time seemed to me characteristically European, to say something, to conceptualize this passage of sounds, a soft succession, regularly paced, of single notes, moving almost without exception back and forth from right hand to left, somewhere in treble to somewhere in bass and back again.

Piano Piece 1952 (score example)
Piano Piece 1952: Beginning
from Feldman: Solo Piano Works 1950-1964
Edition Peters No. 67976
© 1962 by C F Peters Corporation, New York
Reproduced by kind permission of Peters Edition Limited, London

What is there to say? The music appears to be unanalyzable. I don't see any system, at least none which could account for the presence of one sound in relation to another in continuity. Each sound is simply itself, and even in the continuous, even rhythm of alternation - perhaps even because of this rhythm - erases, as Feldman might have said, the memory of what precedes, or, one could say, stills the impulse to connect and the habit of conceptualizing. You are, in the end, completely exposed to your own listening.

If we say anything, its point is not to discover what he had in mind when he wrote (strictly speaking, I'd say he had nothing in mind), but we could try to look for things which it might have interested him to have us notice. For instance, uses of register; what he called "weight"; equilibrium; resonance or reverberation (he often asked for a minimum or near invisible attack when making a sound, allowing the sound to appear as a kind of after-resonance). I see no interest as such in pitch class or interval pattern organization.

Each sound (a single piano tone) exists for itself, and the piece as a whole is itself too, has a coherent presence. How does that happen? Complete concentration, I would guess, at the time of writing (he often wrote in ink, no corrections), without the distraction of any system of composition, but under exactly limited conditions: only single notes, all of equal duration (a dotted quarter - to make the player pay a little bit more attention), to be played very quietly throughout (but slight, unpredictable differences would result in performance if playing very softly is strictly attempted, differences in dynamics and so in the durations actually heard).

One can take some stock of what's written. There are a hundred and seventy-one notes altogether, beginning and ending in the treble, alternating, as said, between treble and bass, moving always down and back up, except twice: once starting at the seventieth note, four notes move continuously up (left hand crosses over right), and then at note 161, four notes move down (right hand crosses over left). In the first case, the fourth note is G''', then followed by C#'. In the second case, the first of the four notes is G', which is preceded by great C#. A symmetrical reciprocity ("chiasmus"), except for the register changes of G and C#. But I doubt this is part of any (pre-) compositional design. For one thing, G and C# are adjacent four other times, with different octave placings for each pair (notes 15-16: from C'' to small G; 59-60: from C#'' to contra G; 130-131: from great G to C#'; 170-171, the piece's last two notes: from small G to C#'''). The register choices, constantly shifting, seem made just for the sake of sonority, and not by any calculated design. Some sort of half-memory, I would think, is involved and a process of discovery in the actual process of writing, undistracted by any compositional ideas.

The adjacent pitch pairs, C# and G, variously voiced and appearing at irregular points (and there are others: Eb and E: ten times; G# and Bb: four times; A and Bb: five times, for instance) at once allow and erase a difference. An equilibrium is maintained such that one may sense the ghost of a pattern being continuously a little bit rearranged. But in all this there is no anxiety, no need to "hear," extrapolate, understand, et cetera, this process. Just listen to the sounds as they come and go. The music is evidently made by ear, and that's the way to take it in. (It is also made, though I understand this less well, analogously, by eye, like a painter, applying sound to a surface. This particular piece, with just its succession of single sounds and finely calibrated range of "weight," could be thought of as a drawing in black and white.)

I note just one other trace or illusion of a patterning (and doubtless a number of others could be extrapolated). Triads. Triad notes alternating with non-triad ones, between treble and bass (upper and lower staves of the score): the third, fifth and seventh notes of the piece make up a first inversion F# (major) triad; the eighteenth, twentieth and twenty-second notes make up an Ab triad (and, dovetailing, the twenty-second, twenty-forth and twenty-sixth notes point to a B triad without its fifth). There are, similarly, subsequent triads of E (minor), D, E (without fifth), Ab (with repeated third), Ab, A6 dovetailed with C6, E6, D in second inversion, G6, F#6 (the latter two, adjacent, at the piece's end). (These triads, by the way, are rarely spelled normally, as, of course, they are not heard in any functional sense.) Again a suggestion of symmetry: F#6 at almost the beginning of the piece and F# at the end, but different positions and quite different voicings. And three major (B on notes 42-44, Bb on 50-52, G on 67-69) and one augmented (E on 126-128) triad, as well as nine diminished seventh chords (for example on C at 19-21, on B at 22-24, et cetera) are outlined by successive notes.

Another way to describe what is going on might be to say that what I happened to have found to "analyze" - the suggestions of patterns - seem at first memory markers, that is, they would resist Feldman's desire for pure, unencumbered sonority. But in fact this is a resistance so partial and casual as to be continually overcome. The sound is simply present. It doesn't look back. That's what makes this music utopian.

Re-writing (1995) of what was first written in 1988 at the request of Thomas DeLio, but not at that time used. [Cues, pp370-378]

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