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The Brink of Silence

by Richard Bernas and Adrian Jack

The following interview was first published in Music and Musicians (June 1972) pp 7-8.

Morton Feldman likes London. He has been casting about for a flat here for some time. He feels that people here know his music better than any other audiences in Europe. Many of his recent works are dedicated to English groups - the Fires of London, Alan Hacker's Matrix.

These two and Karen Phillips, the American viola player who was the soloist in three of his series of pieces, The Viola in my Life, were on hand for a BBC Invitation Concert in mid March, devoted mainly to pieces he has written in the last two years. (Apart from The Viola in my Life, the programme also included Madame Press died last week at 90, and Three Clarinets, Piano and Cello.)

In the summer he will have completed a year's residence in Berlin on the German Academic Exchange, which annually invites painters, writers and musicians. The list is distinguished: Gilbert Amy, Berio, Earle Brown, Elliott Carter, Vinko Globokar, Ligeti, Bridget Riley (who is there at the moment), Stravinsky, Xenakis - next year Cage will be there. No duties are involved, but Feldman has been busy.

'Now I know the reason for all those German masterpieces. Life in Germany is so boring. You have to write masterpieces to keep interested. In six months I've completed the piece for three clarinets, piano and cello that I started in London, written a 20-minute piece for chorus and orchestra, and two pieces for five pianos and voices lasting 45 minutes each.'

These last two works will be performed at the ICA next winter. 'I'm one of the few composers left to write at the piano, so I get 'em cheap. I've hired a Steinway in Berlin.'

Feldman is a generous talker. He launched into a monologue on distraction. 'Art is distraction. Like playing cards. A holiday. My wife said to me, "How can you work with a telephone in the room? Doesn't it distract you?" When people phone, the first thing they say is, "Am I disturbing you?" Not in the least. Because I'm not involved with ephemeral sensation in my music.'

'An untalked of problem in music today is the interval. A young composer came to me, very worried about the intervals in his music. The function of the interval is just to extend the composition. When I told him that, he was so relieved. He thought that intervals came from heaven.'

Feldman's recent music has much more incident in it than his pieces written in the fifties and sixties. 'My earlier scores were an empty white room. Now I've added a few choice pieces of furniture.' But he insists that his earlier work is a very important part of his history. Where audiences don't know any of his music, he prefers them to hear his older pieces. 'I could have had big performances of The Viola in my Life in Berlin. But I didn't. The trouble is that they'll like it. They must earn the right to like it by getting to know my earlier works first. I want them to forget their background and their education.' Where existing terms of reference no longer apply, criticism is neatly disarmed. Feldman gloats over the preposterous reactions to his music: 'It's like people squinting at something from the Aztec civilisation and saying they don't alike this or that detail. "Gee, Martha, Greece was so much nicer". Anthropologists are interested in my music because it's like a new culture.'

The cliché about Feldman's music is that 'it trembles on the border of sound and silence.' His own spontaneous reference to the early paintings of his great friend, Philip Guston, is more interesting: 'There's a space all round the edge of his paintings. But a composer can't do that, he is concerned with keeping the party going.'

'None of the ideas I've had have been conceptual or merely technical. They've all come from performance. I was never a dreamer.' And Feldman illustrates this with a story: 'I said to a lawyer, "Legality is reality". He liked it.' As for musical reality: 'Can't is playing a harmonic on a slow bow in tune.'

'My Extensions I for violin and piano used only loud and soft at a time when everyone around me was writing serialised dynamics. That sort of thing is more suitable for electronics. What's the purpose if you can't perform it?'

The free-duration pieces, where more than one instrument (usually piano) plays the same part at individual speeds, grew out of the realisation that no two instruments could ever be exactly similar in tone and articulation. This disparity became the subject of a whole series of works.

Some of the latest pieces (for instance, The Viola in my Life series) are full of little crescendo and diminuendo markings; the beat units of the time signatures are smaller; one feels greater rhythmic articulation. Feldman explains this necessity by the fact that the hairpins require a fixed time in which to make their point. 'You can't write growing sounds with free notation. But the rhythms are not a rhythmic structure.'

'All this I learnt from Varèse, who I first met when I was 17. Do you know that he needed a hearing-aid for speech? But when he came to the first performance of my Durations I-V, he could hear everything. And they're pretty quiet pieces. He liked my music. He used to say, "They don't understand how long it takes for a sound to speak." And they called him empirical! Yet any composer with a two-bit theory gets treated seriously and analysed. And they call me empirical too. What's empirical about sound? You can't write an article about it for Die Reihe, that's for sure. And how do you teach it? But then my dentist tells me he can't teach dentistry!' (Feldman shows the card for his next appointment, made in Berlin for New York three months later.)

A few years ago Lukas Foss tried to get Feldman a professorial chair at Buffalo University. The consensus was, 'Yes, he's a colourful figure, but what can he teach?' At last they seem to have decided on something, because in September he takes up his appointment there. 'I'll probably have at least 15 graduate students and a number of people visiting me all the time. I've got to teach them how to hear. How do you do that? It's just one tyranny replacing another. The tyranny of sound is replacing the tyranny of logic.'

Copyright © 1972 Richard Bernas and Adrian Jack

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