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Coming Face to Face with Feldman

by Richard Bjorkman

I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, in the U.S.A. On December 16, 1963, a concert of contemporary chamber music, organized by Christian Wolff, was given at nearby Harvard University. I was still in high school at the time, and I remember that I had to ask my mother if I could go. Anyway, the concert was my first heavy exposure to the music of the New York School. It included Morton Feldman's "Last Pieces," Wolff's "For 1, 2, or 3 People" (with Wolff playing flute), and John Cage's "Music for Amplified Toy Pianos" (which rather abruptly expanded my fundamental concept of what music is).

At the concert, a rather heavy-set man with thick glasses sat behind me. As he entered the hall, a number of people in the audience seemed to recognize him in the way that one might recognize a minor celebrity. He was very well dressed, and I concluded that he must be someone very important. About two weeks after the concert, I saw for the first time a photograph of Morton Feldman and realized that he had been the well-dressed man sitting behind me.

In the years following that concert, I developed a love for Feldman's music that seemed to grow almost without bound. As it turned out, the 1960s was a wonderful period in Boston for new music in general and for Feldman's music in particular. During this time, Christian Wolff was a graduate student at Harvard University, and Alvin Lucier was director of the Brandeis University Choral Union. Not only were these two individuals distinguished composers in their own right, but they were also tireless supporters of Feldman's music. Thus there were live performances of "Projection 4," "Two Pianos," "Two Instruments," "The King of Denmark," "Christian Wolff in Cambridge," and "The Swallows of Salangan." Wolff, by the way, did his graduate work in classics, not in music. During the 60s, the Harvard Music Department had Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, and Luciano Berio as guest professors, but, from what I could gather, wanted nothing to do with Wolff. Such an attitude was unfortunately emblematic of the disdain generally accorded the New York School at that time.

One performance from this period that I particularly recall occurred at Harvard University on May 14, 1967, when Christian Wolff played Feldman's "The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar." What makes this piece unusual is that it is one of a small handful of Feldman pieces that have never been published. The piece, to the extent that I can recall it, was very soft, very slow, with fairly long silences. The concert took place outdoors in the courtyard of Eliot House, and this presented a bit of a problem for the Feldman piece. Eliot House is located near Memorial Drive, which is heavily traveled by high-speed traffic. This creates more than a little background noise - not an ideal location in which to perform a quiet piece by Feldman. I remember straining to hear every note of the quiet and sparse piece above the noise from Memorial Drive. I cannot remember whether Wolff performed the piece sitting or standing, but I believe he was sitting. There was something delightfully incongruous about seeing the soft-spoken Christian Wolff, conservatively-dressed in a suit, playing a very soft, very slow piece by Morton Feldman on an instrument associated almost exclusively (at least at that time) with rock music. The question, of course, remains why the piece was never published. I suspected for many years that Feldman had simply withdrawn the piece, but it has come to light in recent years that, in fact, the manuscript was in the Christian Wolff's guitar case, which was stolen from his automobile.

By 1968, I had become a student at Tufts University (also in the Boston area). The Tufts University Chorus had previously joined forces with the Brandeis University Choral Union for the Boston performance of "The Swallows of Salangan." Now an on-campus music club named Odikon happened to have some unspent money they couldn't figure out what to do with, so they decided to invite a composer to come and give a lecture. And who better to invite than Feldman? I remember that his fee for the evening was $400 plus expenses.

The evening of Feldman's lecture is an event forever etched in my memory. I undertsand he arrived wearing a pork-pie hat. He began his lecture by reading aloud his published article "Some Elementary Questions" (reprinted in Thomas DeLio's book The Music of Morton Feldman) and that was when I first noticed that he spoke in an unrepentantly outrageous New York accent: "...I had an idée fixe that if I found the right chair to wayk in, all compositional problems would become non-existent. I actually found that chair ... walking in Chinatown one day with Robert Rauschenbayg. It was an old-fashioned accountant's chair, tall and staydy, with the wayd 'Univaysal' printed in gold letters...."

Feldman had brought slides and tapes with him. Following the reading, he asked that the house lights be dimmed and that his first slide, showing the title page of "Out of Last Pieces," be projected on the screen. (He simultaneously lit a Camel cigarette.) Referring to the slide, he said, "This is a dream. This is a dream. This...uhh...you got the slide in there the wrong way." Indeed, the slide was upside down. The projectionist very nervously reoriented the slide several times until it appeared to him to be correct, only now it was left-right reversed. Feldman looked at it and said, "Ahh...it's not right. If I had a sense of humor, I'd say it doesn't matter." After a dozen more extremely nervous attempts, the projectionist got it right.

Feldman went on to discuss "Out of Last Pieces," and "In Search of an Orchestration," describing the latter as "'Out of Last Pieces' five years later." In similar fashion, he discussed "The Swallows of Salangan," and "First Principles," describing the latter as "'The Swallows of Salangan' five years later." He also played tapes. In his discussions, Feldman spent considerable time explaining how his unusual notations are to be interpreted but, curiously, even frustratingly, said almost nothing about how he actually wrote the compositions.

Throughout Feldman's slide presentation, the building custodian (a man not renowned for his subtlety) was waiting backstage for his cue to turn the house lights back on. Feldman gave the cue: "As Kierkegaard said, let there be light." Nothing happened. Five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds, nothing. Finally, a member of the music faculty jumped to his feet and bolted across the stage to grab the lights.

The lecture concluded with a brief question and answer session. After the lecture, there was a reception in an adjoining room where, for over an hour, Feldman mixed easily with the generally youthful audience. Some fragments I recall:

"I work directly in ink. I'm infallible. Of course, sometimes I'm more infallible than I am other times."

"Very few performances of my own music really affect me. It only happens once every few years."

"The music of Josquin brings tears to my eyes."

"I can see the places where Beethoven was cheating, where he wrote certain notes because that's the way his fingers fell naturally on the keyboard."

"Most of the titles of my pieces occur to me after the piece is completed."

"The flute is in. The oboe is out. The clarinet is out. The bassoon is out. The violin is in. The viola is questionable. The cello is in. The horn is in. The trumpet is in. The trombone is in. The tuba is in. I love the tuba! I'm crazy about the tuba!"

"I wrote an article about that, but they published it in Swedish. Can you read Swedish? It's not in English, it's only in Swedish. What are ya gonna do?"

At the end of the evening, a young woman came forward and, in one of those well-intentioned but thoroughly embarrassing gestures, said, "Mr. Feldman, we'd like to make you an honorary member of Odikon and present you with this Odikon pin." We all cringed, everyone except Feldman who salvaged the moment brilliantly: "Aww, what do ya know? Can I hawk it? You know, I've got just the jacket to go with this - it's purple!"

And then he was gone. As I went home that evening, I realized that I had come to the lecture expecting to find answers, clues about how the music was actually put together as well as some sense of connection between the composer and the music. But Feldman would share nothing other than the most obvious generalities about how he made the music. And throughout the entire evening, I had watched this man with the thick glasses, greasy hair, and New York accent, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and I had kept saying to myself, almost in disbelief, "This is the guy who wrote 'Durations'? This is the guy who wrote 'Piece for Four Pianos'?"

And now many years have passed since that evening in 1968 and since Feldman's premature death in 1987. Having championed Feldman's work (at least among my friends and anyone else who'd listen) back in the 60s, I was gratified to see the recognition that his work finally began receiving in the 90s. Through a small number of published analyses (in Thomas DeLio's book and elsewhere), we are slowly gaining a sense of how Feldman actually wrote the music. And the apparent disparity between the man and the music, which so baffled me on that winter evening in 1968, has now been publicly commented upon by numerous writers.

One other Feldman tidbit: Several years ago, I met a fellow who had briefly studied with Feldman during the 70s when Feldman was living and teaching in Buffalo, New York. He told me that Feldman wrote all his music with a 19-cent Bic pen.

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