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Encounters with Morton Feldman

by Elliott Sharp

Shortly after my arrival in Buffalo in August '74 I joined the Composer's Forum at the University where I was taking two music courses and working as the Jr. Maintenance Guy/Electronicist for the Music Department. The Forum met weekly and planned a concert or two for each semester. Morton Feldman held court - waxing egotistically philosophical, reminiscing about the good old days of avant-garde music in the Fifties, issuing pronouncements about what should and should not be done in the composition of music, and intimidating the generally fearful and awed students (except, of course, those anointed by him to carry the torch via insipid imitation of Feldman.) He cut quite a figure with his horn rims, greasy pompadour, huge belly, and the ever-present Camel with an inch of ash ready to drop. Certainly, he was very insightful and entertaining (and I loved many of his pieces.)

For the October event, I decided to present HUDSON RIVER #7 - a piece for soprano sax and tape (it appears on ARC2: The 70's). On the tape was a 90" through-composed melody played on the soprano through a ring modulator. This track was slowed down to half-speed and another ring-modulated sax track improvised and overdubbed to the now 180" line. This was then slowed down to 1half-speed again for the performance yielding a 360" heterophonic background over which I improvised a third sax part. Morty called me into his office the next morning, sat me down, and quickly dismissed me (in oxymoronically thick Brooklynese): "You know, improvisation, I don't buy it."

In November '74, I began work on ATTICA BROTHERS for presentation at the March '75 concert. I had been involved with support activities around the Attica prison takeover and brutal police response and its aftermath - it seemed a fitting subject for a piece. Composed for violin, cello, electric guitar, contrabass, orchestral percussionist, rock drummer (the beginning of my friendship and musical association with Bobby Previte), and conga drummer; the piece was structured in two parts over a continuous pulse played by the conga. A conductor with time cards cued the various entries and transitions. The first part featured a through-composed seven-note melody in a pentatonic "blues scale" for the strings stretched over five minutes and harmonized microtonally to produce an angry buzzing with the drummers exchanging short, intense blasts. The second part (three minutes long) featured a through-composed groove for rock drums and bass while the strings wailed like sirens, the percussionist earthquaked, and I improvised fuzzed out glissandi. As we prepared to commence the performance, Feldman stood up from the packed house and yelled "Where's his music stand?" pointing at the conga drummer. I replied that he didn't need one because his entrance and exit were cued by the conductor. Feldman's reply was to climb on stage, grab a music stand from the wings, bang it down in front of the percussionist (jaw-dropped, eyes glazed with fear) and announce, "Now you can play it." Like before, Morty called me into his office the next morning: "You know, you put too much sociology in your music. Music should be listened to sitting in red plush seats, but your music, you have to sit on the floor."

About two weeks after the concert, I was arrested and beaten by the Buffalo police during a student demonstration on campus. I was charged with stabbing the head of campus security for which my bail was $50,000.00 and the punishment sought was 35 years to life in prison!!! The next year of my life was spent dealing with this matter: eventually all charges were dropped in exchange for me not suing the city for false arrest and police brutality. However, I was suspended from the university and banned from campus for a semester. When I returned, I had little desire to finish my work in the music department and instead began studies with ethnomusicologist Charles Keil.

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