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The following interview was conducted in London on 27 May 1976. It was first published in Studio International (November 1976) pp 244-248.
FO: Do you see much of Rauschenberg now?
MF: No. For me to look at art now would be like Lenin coming back and seeing that everything had become 'radical chic' when they talk revolution. And when Bob wants to do some kind of funky cardboard box it just does not look good on those expensive walls. Don't like it.
FO: You collaborated with him once, though, for the Cunningham ballet Summer Space in 1966.
MF: If you call it a collaboration. It was the most incredible collaboration I've ever been involved with in my life. I didn't see the dance. I just asked Merce to tell me the time structure which I then decided to regulate in various ways, in other ways, and change the structures like oilcloth. If the dance was taking a little longer he would be a little slower. You know Cage's lecture on 'Indeterminacy' ... so it's like an oilcloth but with plenty of material to work with, to either shorten or lengthen. The image of the dance really came from Bob, a conversation I had with Rauschenberg on the telephone, rather than getting it from the dance. Bob told me that the set was pointillistic and that he would use the same colours to paint the costumes. That gave me an idea also: rather than having three scenes going - Merce, Bob and myself - I decided to melt into the decor. So the score is pointillistic.
FO: So that's a direct motivation from an idea of Rauschenberg's?
MF: Yes, he was responsible for me having to decide, should I be more characteristically Feldman, like a kind of velvety back-drop? So I decided to go for sets and costumes. And so it's not a characteristic score of mine. But the ballet looks very beautiful, just perfect, like you get a little speck in your eye and you wipe it away. It makes it even more frontal because you are having all this thing, vibrating there, and then out in front there's the band going. And it wasn't until the dress rehearsal that I actually saw what was going on.
GB: That's fairly characteristic of Cunningham working with musicians and other people: there is this amount of freedom.
MF: The dance is learned first, and it's absolutely fantastic to work in that way. Rather than find people who psychologically depended on the music for their source material. So I was very happy to be the accidental matchmaker.
GB: Quite a number of your pieces which have artists' names in the title, or are dedicated to, for example, De Kooning, Philip Guston and the Rothko Chapel, all seem to be very particular references.
MF: Well, let's start a little late in time. The Rothko Chapel piece was a very interesting commission because it was the only score where other factors determined what kind of music it was going to be. For example, it leaned very heavily on me that the first time I met Rothko, which must have been around 1962, I remember him standing against the wall talking to me about Mendelssohn. He liked the combination of the youth and the lyricism of Mendelssohn, all the fantastic pieces he wrote as such a young man. Rothko got a big kick out of that. So when I wrote the Rothko Chapel I remembered that Rothko did a lot of paintings with the WPA, social realist, and then I saw the whole life of this guy. So what I decided in the Rothko Chapel was to treat it very - not biographical, but my identity was such that I decided to write an autobiographical piece. The piece begins in a synagoguey type of way; a little rhetorical and declamatory. And as I get older the piece gets a little abstract, just like my own career. Then in the middle of the piece there is one thing that is really at odds with the other parts but which makes the piece a very interesting trip: where I just have the same chords, and I'm tripping for a long time, and it's very monochromey.
GB: Are those the vocal harmonies?
MF: Yes, that is a very monochromey section. It's going on for a long time and that's where I reach this degree of abstraction. Not that I'm imitating Rothko but I'm certainly closer to the late pictures that are in the Chapel in that kind of one hue of a colour, and the piece ends with the memory of a piece that I wrote when I was fourteen.
GB: There are a few features about that ending which are strange: for example, that very tonal extended tune with a very steady, vibraphone accompaniment.
MF: Then there is a tune in the middle of the piece, a dialogue between a soprano and timpani and viola, which was a little Stravinskyish on purpose: I wrote that tune the day Stravinsky died. So it was Stravinsky, Rothko, dead. It was the only piece - and it will never happen again - when all kinds of facts, literary facts, reminiscent facts, came into the piece.
FO: You wrote it for the chapel.
MF: I think the orchestration was to some degree affected by the fact that I was writing it for a big production at the chapel. I went down there and I just walked around the chapel. It is built in a kind of glamorous idea of his studio. Actually the studio was bigger than the chapel, and it just cried out - the octagonal situation - to do something at the sides. That's where the antiphonal chorus came in, and something in the middle, and then they had the benches in the middle and they could bring in others. Visually too the whole battery of percussion looks nice.
GB: I was wondering about that antiphonal use of the choir, especially at the end, which would seem to have a reference to something connected with the space.
MF: It was a reference and also another metaphor, in the sense of the interrelationships of all the panels which go from one to another. I used an antiphonal idea to give an overall hue of one thing, using an antiphonal device to make you get involved with the totality. The effect was absolutely stunning. That was for me the first and last performance.
GB: You've written pieces entitled Piano Piece (to Philip Guston), and De Kooning. These are not the same thing as the Rothko Chapel.
GB: The De Kooning piece is an ensemble piece, the Guston is a solo piano piece, but there are not the same kind of references?
MF: No, there are no references.
GB: So these are more like dedications, then?
MF: Yes, but with the De Kooning there is a little bit of a tragic flavour which Bill still has. Remember, he is the most European.
FO: Maybe the most concerned with history as well.
MF: Yes, and he was always a little uncomfortable in abstraction. It was just part of his repertoire in the same way that abstraction was part of Matisse's repertoire. And I think he worked very much like Matisse. One day he'd paint landscapes, another day still life, another day he did calligraphy. The fourth day he'd put them all together and get 40,000 dollars. Closer to a kind of European idea.
FO: With regard to referentiality and Guston, it seems to me that there is a certain kind of hesitancy about the Guston piano piece which is implicit in Guston's pictures.
MF: A little bit I think. Also the touch. It's a piece that's involved very much with touch if you play it.
FO: But also no matter what you put down, whether it's on the keys of a piano or on the canvas, there are thousands of other possible notes or other marks to choose from. And there seems to be that kind of hesitancy in it.
MF: Yes, that's pretty good.
FO: The two people who were really important to you were Guston and Cage in different ways.
MF: Yes, Guston and Cage. I don't see Guston any more, things kind of cooled off. You know there is a great line of Frank O'Hara's where he says 'I'm the most reasonable of men: all I want is unbounded love', some fabulous remark like that. And Guston was always like that in my life. He was very reasonable but, boy, was he demanding. When his work started going into this new period I saw it the first time in his studio. I looked at it a long time and just couldn't say anything about it. He was a little upset that I didn't give him this instant enthusiasm.
GB: You think it was a crucial point for him that he should have had that enthusiasm?
MF: Yes. But I mean every ten years. I couldn't. I met him right after he got back from Italy and did a whole series of red paintings. That was a very important show, a big abstract show in 1950, just when I met John Cage at the Modern. I went to see the show with Cage and I came across a red painting. I looked at that picture and it knocked me out. My eyes are lousy and I walked over to see who the name was. John Cage knew everybody and said 'He's a marvellous person, we'll have to have him over', which he did about a week later.
FO: What do you think you got from the Abstract Expressionist painters? Their lack of predetermined structure?
MF: Maybe the insight where process could be a fantastic subject-matter.
GB: You once pointed out that Boulez had said he was not interested in how a piece sounds, but only in how it is made, and you compared this with Philip Guston's observation that when he sees how a painting is made he becomes bored with it. The implication was that you held Guston's view for music, too.
MF: By process what I really mean is maybe not the way younger people use it now but that Pollock is doing a beautiful choreographed dance around the canvas, measuring, and as the paint falls it becomes the painting, it becomes indistinguishable. There are no other allusions to get in the way of the action of what has happened. I don't want to use 'action' in terms of 'action painting'. It's just very clear what he is doing and what he's doing is in a sense what the thing is. And it's not only true of Rothko, it's true of people like Jasper Johns especially. So maybe that's what I really mean.
GB: Pollock's not a bad example because you did the music for the Hans Namuth film.
MF: What I really got from the painters even though they all worked differently is ... Well, you know a lot of young people today they take the edge and they work from it. And I think the 1950s had a sense of scale and then forgot about it, like Philip. You don't get a feeling of the edge because it's all-over. How one finished the picture was another story, which was one of their favourite conversations: 'When is the damned thing finished?' So what I did musically was that music had its edge in terms of a lot of pre-compositioned setting up. I didn't think about it, I just wrote, bleeding out some place and then ...
GB: Where the graph delineates the time, the beginning and the end of the piece, and within that you interject things in different locations which are not entirely dependent, like seven high sounds in The King of Denmark.
MF: Right, but what happened there was that each page is different. If you look at the score you will see that the grid is the same on each. You know who was very influenced by that? Larry Poon's' early pieces were on a grid. Larry told me he was very into that. He was also a musician - went to Juilliard. That period of my work affected a lot of people, architects, for example.
GB: In a way that's one of the most often discussed periods. That kind of composition is seen as being very revolutionary in terms of your own output, isn't it?
MF: It seems to be. I can understand why.
GB: It does give a lot of freedom to a performer.
MF: Not only that, but what I really did was to break down the whole notion of close passage work. That was something I learned from the painters, but it didn't necessarily have to be from the Abstract Expressionists. The early Mondrians were very important to me in terms of their asymmetric rhythm, and they were very important to a lot of painters. There was a big Mondrian show in 1950. Mondrian influenced me tremendously.
FO: Mondrian has the same kind of hesitancy that Guston has.
FO: Putting down a mark and then half erasing it.
MF: I don't even know if it's hesitancy. Another good word is 'pregnant', but also a key word among my own generation - those of my age like Joan Mitchell and Mike Goldberg - would be 'ambivalence'. They liked the ambivalence of, you know, 'where's the turning, where is it going?' I think of it as another thing, as a sense of something that has been very influential in my life, which made me realise there's something 'fishy' about me as a composer. In an article I once wrote - a little high-flown but certainly true - that the tragedy of music is that it begins with perfection. You can see all the time, while you are looking at a terrific picture, where the artist changes his mind. I love those Mondrians where you can see it's erased. He doesn't even bother to erase it: just as long as it visually gets out of the way, that's enough. There's nothing like that in music, as you know.
GB: In some of your pieces you have little appoggiaturas which actually don't go anywhere that might be during a chord. Is that the kind of thing? A little sound ...
MF: A little bit, a little bit.
GB: Normally, an appoggiatura would jump to an emphasis.
MF: But it becomes something else in music. Recently, for example, in my Frank O'Hara piece when I got the two drum guys, now it seems dramatic in the context of the musical composition. I didn't think of it as dramatic at the time. If there was an aeroplane coming over here we would talk a little louder and we are not even conscious how we are affected. But in music we demand other kinds of priorities.
FO: I remember reading about an experience you had in Philip Guston's studio. You wrote in 'After Modernism' how you called on Guston. He was still at work, so you took the opportunity of having a sleep in the studio, and you woke up.
MF: And he said: 'Where is it?'
FO: Your waking up seemed to have some effect on him. You said 'as though he himself awoke to the sudden sense of the danger of what he was doing was that collision with the instant which I had witnessed is the first step of the abstract experience.'
MF: Very Kierkegaardian.
FO: What's the abstract experience?
MF: It's that other place that is not an allegory. Rothko had it. It's that other place that's not a metaphor of something else.
GB: You refer to a similar thing with music when you talked about the effect of the work of yourself, Cage, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown between 1950 and 1951. You said that each of you contributed to a concept of music in which various elements such as rhythm, pitch, dynamics, previously controlled within a piece, were 'unfixed', and that only by 'unfixing' the elements traditionally used to construct a piece could the sounds exist in themselves and not as symbols or memories. Is that at all related?
MF: I don't know what the hell it's all about, because on the other hand why did an empty canvas work for Rothko but not for Bob Rauschenberg as an idea? In terms of what I'm talking about it didn't work. I don't know, maybe it needed half a coat of gesso more.
GB: Cage has had a great effect on younger artists, at least in some of his ideas more than his music, but at some point your music clearly does diverge from John's quite a long way.
MF: I think now more than ever. I don't know where it meets. It meets in the sense that we are both extremely ourselves now. I think that we've both to some degree become caricatures of what we stand for. About three years ago I wrote a piece called Pianos and Voices. John played in the premier in Berlin, and afterwards he was angry with me. He said: 'You're an extremist! You're a poetic extremist!' I thought that was kind of far out, John yelled at me that I'm an extremist.
FO: What do you think he meant?
MF: I have no idea but I think about it all the time. What might explain our different points of view is that I once told Cage: 'John, the difference between the both of us is that you opened up the door and got pneumonia and I just opened up a window and got a cold.' It is just a question of how much you're going to let in. One of the big problems that everybody has with Cage, people that are working, is to what degree you want to believe in the material as a kind of truth because it's there.
GB: You've always worked much more closely with the sounds themselves than he has.
MF: Right. It's not a big ideological difference. I think what happened with John was that he became much more all-embracing in terms of what kind of shots the camera would take. Remember his very beautiful idea where he invented a camera for other people to take the picture, which in a sense pinpoints his whole consciousness of where he's at. I'm not into that. I just don't know what the hell I invented. I think the big important difference is not that I glorify myself, which would be his criticism of Varèse, for example. I think that I ended with the medium and never went into the environment.
FO: Which means that you didn't move towards a social view of things?
MF: Then into a more social view.
GB: You compose in a very private way, working directly at the piano onto a final score with little or no revision - working directly with the sounds themselves. And Cage seems to have stopped doing that some time shortly after you met.
MF: What is fantastic about Cage is that it's always the great artist that defines the age. In other words if you're just going to use normal instruments, no matter how revolutionary, no matter how beautifully you do it, you are still an easel painter. Cage separated the genre. I'm in the old genre. I think that John also was brought up in another kind of tradition, not the Bauhaus but a tradition of experimentation with materials. And remember he studied with Schoenberg, who was one of the few composers of our century who really didn't have that much vested interest. He was always into research. I think it's that research aspect that has got off on John, even though you may ask what relationship he has to Schoenberg. If you think about Schoenberg's life, it's quite unique that he would leave things and go on to others and be interested in materials, and so in Cage. Both of them, the student and the teacher. Rauschenberg and Cage is also a terrific parallel because they are interested in materials too, and always doing different things. There are times where their work almost coincides. John's transparency scores, the plastic sheets were made just about the same time Bob was doing the plexiglass things. While Jasper is closer to me. Jasper just keeps on going.
GB: He is still 'easel painting' and demonstrating that it's possible to do something new in that way too?
MF: Yes. There's only one me and there's only one Jasper, obviously.
FO: But I get the impression that you feel closer to Johns now than when you first met him in the early 1950s.
MF: Yes I feel very, very close to Jasper Johns. Very close to his work.
FO: Very close to his recent paintings?
MF: It's another aspect of experimentation. I feel very close to Jasper and I feel very close to Rothko's last pictures. A few months before he killed himself, when he was very upset about his work, Rothko kept on saying to me: 'Do you think it's there? Is it really there?' When he had one thing there and one thing over there, and it's art, then you can talk about it. But those last pictures, what is there to talk about? Those pictures are very close to Jasper Johns in certain ways - poetry.
FO: Is poetry, then, synonymous with questioning? That's one of the things Johns' work does, and I suppose Rothko's does in the sense that it poses questions. Perhaps one can articulate the questions Johns poses better in terms of vocabulary.
MF: Well, the thing is: what is the discovery in embracing materials? What I'm really asking myself is: what am I going to learn now with a laser beam? What am I going to learn now? It's nature.
FO: Those being the materials?
MF: Yes. Remember I went a long way. The question that one would ask is a very interesting pedagogical question about Beethoven: since he could knock the hell out of a piano, why isn't his own piano music like that? So you can't use words like control. I'm too old to fall for this whole business that I'm 'getting tired' and I 'want to assert too much control', that I 'want to control what I am doing'. I couldn't care less. But I think a new word might come. You know all the old words of the early 1950s and 1960s are finished: 'responsibility', 'control', they're no longer catchwords, they're not important words.
FO: So if you don't control the materials, what do you control when you're setting about making a piece?
MF: What I'm really trying to get at is: just what is the nature of experimentation now? Both in music and the visual arts if you want to tie this up, what is it? I mean, most of the music of my students is out of Cage. The problem is that in the early 1950s I could have a conversation with my teacher Wolpe - 'What's going to happen? It's all a big mystery' - and you could count on your fingers the whole idea of an experimental tradition. What's an experiment today?
GB: How do you view, then, younger composers working in America since yourself and Cage's work in the 1950s, like Riley, Reich, Budd, Glass, Young, and others who may have benefited from the kinds of freedoms that were instigated then, but who have moved in quite different directions both from you and Cage, and from each other?
MF: Well, John Cage was at a forum once at which I was a moderator between two young composers, and one was a kind of Phil Glass orientation and the other was a George Rochberg, with this kind of quotes-but-they're-not-quotes. Certainly if you go down in New York to the SoHo scene and hear the music that's being done, you see that it's quite accessible. Steve Reich is very accessible, and so is La Monte Young. I'm not being defensive about my own music and the way it's been going the past few years, but just what the hell is the experimental tradition? It's interesting that the experimental tradition is carried on by someone like Cage in America and Stockhausen in Europe. And we certainly don't have an experimental tradition in the visual arts. I think it's kind of frightening. What would you consider the radical work being done today?
GB: I certainly would not have thought now that either Cage or Stockhausen were radical, and I certainly wouldn't have bracketed Cage with Stockhausen as you just did.
MF: I think that Stockhausen's work parallels Cage.
GB: Well, that's a different thing.
MF: He's been very influenced by Cage and certainly he's taken up many of the directions that Cage has gone in.
GB: But he has manipulated them into his own way of thinking.
MF: Yes, but it's into research. It's idea-orientated. Cage doesn't have to be idea-orientated. He told me last summer - it was so charming the way he put it, I couldn't have put it that way - he said: 'So many people tell me what to do next, I don't have to think any more.' Very cute. I don't know what to tell you. I'm doing a lot of teaching these days and I find everything so conservative. You can't tell a student today, and you could never tell a student: 'Why don't you just work and maybe you'll get an idea?' All my most important work was done that way. I never had an idea when I sat down to work. I was reading something in one of those conversations where it turned out that Stravinsky never thought about his work unless he was working, which I thought was very interesting. It's like the analyst joke, you know, a guy calls his analyst and says: 'Doc, I'm going to be ten minutes late, why don't you begin without me?' It's just too incongruous to say: 'Work and the idea will come.' Kline began with an 8, that's what he told me, unless he came in and he really had something. Guston just looked out of the window, made a little mark.
GB: So what kind of teaching do you do? What sort of thing would you do with a student?
MF: I don't do anything.
GB: You would give him the time and freedom to do some work, then, and see what resulted?
MF: I take the terror out of some idea, the idea of a finished piece. They come to me, I'm well-known and the only guy they've ever brought a piece to, and I don't ask them: 'Where did you get your intervals?' That alone is tremendous.
FO: What would be the terror inherent in a piece? The finishing of a piece?
MF: The terror of a piece? That it's good. Harrison Birtwistle was telling me that he had a commission, and of course they want a piece where they play, where they show off. But I'm not into that.
FO: You once referred to the 'terror' inherent in the teachings of Boulez and Stockhausen.
MF: Yes. The terror is that you have to have an idea, while with me my ideas came out of the piece. 'Idea' became the new myth for that old word 'inspiration'. If I was going to wait for an idea to write a piece I'd go out of my mind, I'd commit suicide. But it's a very important terror that the piece has to be good, that it has to make sense, that it has to go somewhere, it has to exploit the materials, you have to use up its potential, it has to feed on itself, that it has to be something.
Copyright © 1976 Fred Orton & Gavin Bryars
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