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Memories of Morty

by Mark Steven Brooks

In the spring of 1974 I was a Freshman at SUNY Fredonia in upper NY State and decided I wanted to be nearer to a new music center and so applied to SUNY Buffalo to be near the Creative Associates there and to hopefully study with Morton Feldman whose music I was fond of. I went to the University for an interview, brought some of my scores with me and ran into Feldman in the hall. I asked if I could show him a score of mine, a piano piece called Movement And Stagnation (1973). He took it, held it close to his face (he had terrible eyesight) and proceeded to drop ashes from his cigarette all over the manuscript. He gave it back and said, in his thick Brooklyn accent "you know, you don't have to be just a composer, I've got a friend who's a Rabbi who's a composer". Not very encouraging. I decided to transfer anyway. During my one year there I did not get to study with Feldman but I had a number of 'experiences' involving him.

The first I think was during a fall concert where I had the aforementioned piano piece performed. I should mention that it is a very sparse piece, very delicate, with sounds that trail off into nothingness. During the performance Feldman sat in the back row opening up his mail, disrupting the mood of the music. It was on that same concert where I conducted a piece by Elliott Sharp in which Feldman stormed up on stage and plopped a music stand down in front of one of the musicians who didn't have (or need) one. On the next composer's concert I had a piece for cello, harp and flute: In Memoriam Harry Partch (1974). Again a very sparse, delicate piece which opened up with Partch's voice speaking. During this time the piece was interrupted by the sound of Feldman bursting out into loud, irritating laughter, I assumed a reaction to my piece in some way.

During the next semester Harrison Birtwistle was guest composer (a very nice man) and there was a party at his house which I attended. Everyone around me was calling out to Feldman "Hey Morty, Hi Morty" etc., even children. I was sitting next to him and wanted to ask him a question about some pieces of his I was planning on performing in NYC. I turned and said "excuse me Morty". He immediately shot back with "I prefer YOU call me Mr. Feldman", an obvious mistake (to be honest I preferred that too but got caught up in the informal atmosphere around me).

Later that summer I stayed on in Buffalo to attend the annual 'June in Buffalo' composers forums. The guests that year were Christian Wolff and John Cage, my heroes. I unfortunately could not afford to attend, I didn't have the money and could not get it from my parents. I decided to attend anyway and to keep a low profile, not ask questions in the seminars etc. Feldman was upset that I hadn't paid to be there. I explained I didn't have the money but he insisted. I attended anyway as did many others who did not pay to be there but merely watched on. One day there was a rehearsal which I attended. Feldman complained about the lack of lighting. I decided to help out and got up the turn on the lights. He caught me on stage, came up to me and launched into "who the hell do you think you are, you're nothin', you're garbage, you're shit from the gutter". This was in front of the whole orchestra. I was paralyzed and all I could see was my abusive father standing in front of me, yelling at me. He kept at it. After a while all I could get out was a pathetic "I'm sorry you feel that way". He began cursing me out in French! I ran off the stage and into the hall shaking like crazy. Jan Williams, the percussionist, came up to me later and told me that if I stayed in Buffalo I would not be allowed to take part in any concerts unless I made up with Morty. I made the obvious decision to quit school at that point.

A week or two after the incident I was having dinner with David Tudor who I had known since I was 16. I didn't mention what had happened with Feldman but he had somehow heard about it. He told me to "forget about Morty, he does that to people". To this day I don't know if he felt threatened by me, or if he didn't like that I was influenced by his music or if he just saw an easy target. Who knows, but it definitely turned me off to his music.

© Mark Steven Brooks 2001

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