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Morton Feldman: NEITHER

by Eberhard Blum

[English translation by Chris Villars]

The following review of Sebastian Claren's book, NEITHER. Die Musik Morton Feldmans (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2000), first appeared in the German new music journal Positionen (November 2000).

In 1995, Sebastian Claren presented his dissertation entitled NEITHER. Die Musik Morton Feldmans. At the beginning of 2000, this extensive work, supplemented with updated tables and illustrations, appeared as a book. Since I worked with Feldman for many years, the following text is a very personal assessment of it.

While Marion Saxer, in her book between categories published by Pfau Verlag in 1998, concentrates on Feldman's compositions from the years 1951-1977, and therefore does not concern herself with his late work, Claren includes in his book the entire work of Feldman. There is a detailed list of works, with, so far as Claren was able to find out, the dates of the first performances and the names of the performers. This list and the discography that follows it, which itself of course changes constantly, are for me impressive documents of Feldman's work and its influence. It is exciting to study who performed Feldman's music and where it was presented. That such an important work as Instruments II is missing from these details is unfortunate. Claren could have found out this information from me in our personal conversations, since I took part in the premiere. It took place on June 4th 1976 at the June in Buffalo festival. Members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts played. The conductor was Jan Williams.

It is almost as interesting to read the biography of Feldman that Claren has composed, complete with many new dates, events and quotations. Here though I would have set down some essentially different points of emphasis. Feldman's stay in Berlin (1971-1972), for example, was far more important for him than the biography suggests. For the first time in his life he lived for a long time outside New York. His apartment in Berlin was near the Olympic Stadium. As a child he had followed the 1936 Olympiad in the American newspapers and on the radio. The assassination and expulsion of the European Jews was always part of his consciousness. Now he, that New York Jew, lived at the scene of these events. He spoke about it very often and said that his stay in Berlin had made him a Jew for the first time. A statement I find significant for Feldman's biography and that really should be mentioned.

Claren dates the beginning of Feldman's late work as 1984. I maintain, and conversations with Feldman support me in this, that his late work already began in 1978 with Why Patterns? In this work almost all the procedures of the late works are in essence already worked out. Also, with this work Feldman again wanted to take part in performances of his music. The special features of Why Patterns? are also essentially stamped with Feldman's particular skills as a pianist. Grappling with it himself was certainly instructive. Not for nothing did he establish a performance group and call it Morton Feldman and Soloists. There are few works by him which he has spoken so much about or that he wanted to play again and again. Finally, I would find it absolutely noteworthy that Hessiche Rundfunk, that has played such an important role in the European reception of Feldman, organised a concert in his memory in December 1987 at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt/Main. We led with For Philip Guston, that Feldman had composed for Jan Williams, Nils Vigeland and me. John Cage spoke some words of introduction and said, amongst other things: Even though Feldman himself is no longer there, we will always have his music.

Notwithstanding the additions I would wish to see, I have read the biography with great interest and can recommend it to everyone. The descriptions of works and attempted analyses, which Claren pursues so extensively and precisely, leave me, like all such approaches to musical artworks, cold. I know Claren would also like to track down Feldman's "secret". I believe, and am glad that, in this he is not successful. Feldman's music is and remains mysterious. As long as we listen to his music and play it, the mystery is solved, without us having to be in a position to put the solution into words and say what it is.

To all friends, and particularly the enemies, of Feldman this book is warmly recommended.

So read it!

© 2000 Eberhard Blum

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