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Feldman Interview from Soundpieces:

by Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras

The following interview was originally published in Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers by Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1982) pp 164-177.

Morton Feldman was born on January 12, 1926, in New York City. He studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, and went on to study composition with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. He currently is Edgard Varèse Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Interacting with New York's abstract expressionist painters, as well as such composers as John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff, Feldman began writing music that would, in his words, "project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric." In the early 1950s, he achieved these results through his invention of graphic notation, which permitted the performer freedoms in pitch and rhythm. From this method he went on to a more conventional form of notation, wherein pitch was determined but time values were only broadly fixed. Throughout his career, Feldman has also written traditionally notated scores. These pieces belong to the same sound world as his other works: They avoid systematic compositional methods and employ soft dynamics and subtle, undramatic gestures. Since the early 1970s, he has worked exclusively in conventional notation.

The authors interviewed Morton Feldman at his home in Buffalo on August 17, 1980. They were both somewhat apprehensive due to his initial reservations about granting an interview. However, their fears were instantly dispelled by his warmth and generosity. His good will and expansiveness informed everything he did: his conversation, his patience, his lack of reserve, and his cooking.

Q: We've read that earlier pieces of yours, such as Extensions 1 for violin and piano, employ the complete serialization of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and even the succession of metronomic tempi. Is this accurate?

FELDMAN: That's wrong. It's the only piece where I ever used a kind of metronome modulation. I must admit that it was the only work I ever wrote where an idea from somebody else really influenced me. It was Milton Babbitt; the idea of the metronome changes came from his Composition for Four Instruments - which was written in the late forties, I believe. I use it now sometimes as a teaching suggestion for my students when their work is rhythmically somewhat boring, and they don't have the expertise for actually changing the rhythmic language of the piece - it looks funny to them if the piece immediately changes rhythmically.

Maybe the style of the piece suggested total serialization because it was out of the Webern atmosphere; very much so. But the piece didn't use any system at all.

Q: You've described your dislike of the sound of electronic music, likening it to "neon lights" and "plastic paint," saying that it's "too identifiable." Did you feel this way before or after the composition of your Intersection for magnetic tape in 1951? Would you characterize that piece as sounding like that?

FELDMAN: Have you ever tried to get a hold of that particular composition? I have a copy, but I've never wanted it realized by others. I'm sure they'll make it sound more interesting than the piece should sound.

I don't want to be political about it, but I loathe the sound of electronic music. I think it's perfectly fine as a teaching vehicle, if you don't have any money around for live performance. You know how certain pieces of Beethoven's are now played only on "Pops"? Well, electronic music started in universities; now it's in the high schools; pretty soon it'll be a device in kindergarten. You could spend a lot of time in a studio putting it all together. And you're very fortunate for having something to do. I really think you're very lucky to find something to do for an afternoon.

Q: Did you approach that piece as an obligation to investigate a new medium, or were you more excited about electronic music then than you are now?

FELDMAN: Let's put it this way: One of the best definitions of experimental music was given by John Cage. John says that experimental music is where the outcome cannot be foreseen. Very interesting observation. After my first adventure in electronic music, its outcome was foreseen.

Q: It's been suggested that works of yours that involve the decay of sounds were influenced by electronic works at that time, because of their emphasis on the decay of sound.

FELDMAN: Absolutely no connection.

Q: In the Columbia recording of your Piece for Four Pianos, you participated in the performance. Do you remember if you listened to the other three pianists? Or did you try not to think about what they were doing?

FELDMAN: It works better if you don't listen. I noticed that a lot of people would listen and feel that they could come in at a more effective time. But the spirit of the piece is not to make it just something effective. You're just to listen to the sounds and play it as naturally and as beautifully as you can within your own references. If you're listening to the other performers, then the piece tends also to become rhythmically conventional.

Q: What do musicians find most problematic about your music?

FELDMAN: When you play an instrument, you're not only playing the instrument; the instrument is playing you. There's a role to play. And the problem I have with the performer is that my sense of the instrument is not that role-playing aspect. By role-playing I mean the baggage one brings to performing by demonstrating how good the instrumentalist is. They're not interpreting music; they're interpreting the instrument, and then the music. When Heifetz played Mozart, he was doing Mozart a favor. It was the violin he was playing, and then Mozart.

Q: Of the three types of notation you've used - graph, free duration, and precise notation - have you found that one invariably receives the poorest performance?

FELDMAN: I think that my earlier, more unconventional notation drew performers who were attracted to the performance freedom inherent to the music. However, with my precise music, the performers are now more involved with me, which seems to annoy them to death.

Q: Then performance problems for you have multiplied over the years?

FELDMAN: Recently, I went to a BBC studio recording of two major works of mine. Luckily for the American conductor, a lot of the performers for the BBC have continually played my music under other conductors through the years. This conductor evidently looked at the score and thought that it was so simple, that he came totally unprepared.

I don't even know if that's a serious problem now. The question you ask would be legitimate for most, but not for me. There's nothing wrong with your question. But half of my life was spent being upset and concerned with this problem. And now I think that if Milton Babbitt could say, "Who cares if they listen," my feeling is, "Who cares if they play it."

Everything that I'm going to say in this interview is not something that just came off the top of my head; it's something that I've been thinking about and living with for years and years and years. The problem now is that all these things are evasive subterfuges from sitting down and writing that piece of music. I don't think it's now a time for performance, anyway. I think it's now a time for work and reflection. I think it's time for a lot of young composers and a lot of not too young composers to perhaps also stop composing.

For me, a bad artist is an insane artist. And I think there are too many loonies writing music. And by loonies, I don't mean "kinky avant-garde." I mean people who work comfortably, don't worry, have no pressure. You know, they used to say that John Cage was a dangerous influence; and although he never at all said, "Anything goes," I would say that there is an intellectual atmosphere around in which considerably less "extreme" minds than John Cage feel that anything goes. And it shows in the music. It's bad music because it's delusionary.

Q: Are you implying that certain compositional styles are more pernicious than others?

FELDMAN: No. No, it's not a question of styles. What's compositional style? That's a dangerous subject to begin with altogether. The only style a composer is allowed is his own. If he doesn't have one, he should get out of music.

I don't even think that this is an elitist point of view. If somebody's causing a lot of trouble and confusion in his mental state as he's walking down the street, are you an elitist if perhaps you suggest to the family that this person should be put away? You know, there was a fad some years ago - it touched here, but it was very big in England - a very classy character: Laing. Familiar with Laing? "Three cheers for schizophrenia! They're the normal ones, and what is normal?" What's normal. I'll tell you what's normal. Perhaps twenty-four people are going to be interviewed in your book, right? What's normal would be if seventeen of them would stop writing music tomorrow. That's normal.

Q: Ten years ago, you declined a teaching position, saying that your idea of teaching wasn't what was happening in music departments. Is Buffalo a unique environment, or has there been a real change in academic attitudes toward music?

FELDMAN: I think it's almost accepted at major universities that when they bring in major people, those people are to teach the way they feel it's best to teach. And they establish a certain policy. But there is a problem in teaching composition. It reminds me of somebody I knew who was a damned good sculptor. At the time he didn't have too much money and he took a job teaching young people sculpture. He spent all his time in just teaching them how to hold a torch and how to take care of their materials.

The ideal student is the student who doesn't have to be taught. All you can do is be sort of an instrumental coach with important insights and suggestions. The problem that I find with teaching (and I would say that this probably holds true with any creative field) is that when a young composer has very little equipment, there is a fantastic vested interest in holding on to the little that he or she has. They learn two steps, and their concerns are in doing an exhibition dance with two steps.

Q: You've said that you use whichever notational style that a particular work calls for. But over the last ten years, your scores have been fully notated.

FELDMAN: I have to interrupt you here. A lot of people feel that they're not notated enough. I read a review of a score the other day: "Except for a few tenuto marks, not enough information is given for performance."

Q: Do you think you've been writing fully notated scores in recent years?

FELDMAN: Very few composers have the gift to write a notation where the piece really plays itself. Mahler had it. Maybe the expression helped. But if you're doing Haydn or Mozart: "Am I doing this too dry? Am I doing that a little too bright?" There are problems.

Q: Do musicians become indignant because they have to efface themselves in order to play your music?

FELDMAN: Everybody gets a little bit annoyed when they're involved with problem solving, especially when they don't know what the problem really is and they don't know if they've solved it.

Q: Have you just defined your situation as a composer? Trying to solve a problem without being sure what the problem is?

FELDMAN: You're absolutely right. I'm making a parallel to how I work. I'm involved with "problem solving," but I don't know what the problem is. In other words, a piece starts to develop, and problems arise. I don't begin with problems; if you begin with a problem , you'll solve it.

The piece is like an operation. Everything is going along OK, you're a good surgeon, and then problems happen. Pneumonia sets in, or you sew up the trumpet in the belly of the piece. All kinds of problems develop.

Q: In light of the range of problems that can arise, do you still feel that you'll use whichever notational style that might be necessary?

FELDMAN: No. Notation is an aspect of style. And I find that if you use a certain type of notation, it cannot help but develop into a certain style. And the style of my graph music was super for the time it was written. At the time I wrote it, I didn't know that it was going to be style. Now the question is, should I continually work in that area, that notational style, and perfect it and bring it into high style? Which, in a sense, was what the post-aleatoric period did with aleatoric music; they brought it into high style.

You have to understand that no matter what you're going to do, it always leads to style. But precise notation slows it down a little bit. Just enough. Like doing 55 on the highway. It slows it down. And I like that slowing down aspect. It's involved more with thought than ideas.

Q: Has this slowing down gone hand in hand with the increasing length of your pieces?

FELDMAN: I would say that the one who best answered something like this was Hemingway when he talked about the difference between typing and writing. I would say that the "chance" era was typing. Journalistic. Headlines. If you don't like the word "journalistic," then I would say prose.

I was talking to you about rugs before. What's interesting about a rug is that the whole rug culture was derived from the technical limitation of what kind of knots were being used. Or take a look at that Jackson Pollock drawing; it's absolutely elegant. And I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with it when I say that part of its elegance is part of the technique of how it was made. He splattered the ink on the page in the way that only he could do, and no one since could do with such an eye and with such elegance. But the technique of how he did it developed the look or the style of his work. That is what notation is to composition. How you notate determines more about the piece than any kind of system using this or that. Of course, if you're into a certain type of system, a certain type of tradition of how best to notate that system does develop; that's true enough.

All I'm really saying, in a long-winded way, is that notation, at least for me, determines the style of the piece.

Q: Did the time you spent away from precise notation affect your use of it when you returned to it?

FELDMAN: I wouldn't say that what I was doing was not precise. It was as precise as Pollock.

I never really "returned" to traditional notation. If you ever look at my list of works, I always alternated between one and the other.

Q: So you wouldn't think of the graph or free duration pieces as a hiatus?

FELDMAN: I saw it very, very differently. I saw it like somebody does a sculpture and then does a painting. For me it was very clear-cut that it was really another idiom with its own problems and its own solutions. One also didn't feed the other, or help the other.

But I did find things that I never expected. For example, I found that my most far-out notation repeated historical cliches in performance more than my precise notation. Precise notation is my handwriting. My imprecise notation was a kind of roving camera that caught up very familiar images like a historical mirror. I don't want the mirror of history in my work. I want it in my education, but I don't want it in my work.

Q: Your work Rothko Chapel seems a definite break with what you've earlier described as your compositional aim of creating a minimum of contrast.

FELDMAN: It was a piece written for an occasion, and I think it's one of those pieces which I'll never write again. I felt that I had to write something that I thought was appropriate. I enjoyed doing it.

There was a period - the Rothko Chapel, The Viola in My Life, a few other pieces - when I was thinking of Bob Rauschenberg's photo montages. At that time, I would use a tune just the way Bob would put a photo on a canvas. But I now feel that in music it doesn't work the same way.

Q: Throughout the '70s, your pieces have been getting longer and longer. Had you wanted to write lengthy pieces as far back as the '50s, but refrained from doing so because you thought you wouldn't be able to get them performed?

FELDMAN: No. There are two types of long pieces that annoy me: the epic - the padded, portentious piece - and the long process piece. I think my tendency now toward longer and longer pieces is actually a tendency away from a piece geared for performance. Psychologically it's not geared for performance. I also feel that my plunge into the longer and longer pieces had a lot to do with the change in my lifestyle.

The fact that I have more time to compose now means that I'm asking myself different questions. Also, what does any artist do when he doesn't have any problems? He looks for new ones. What began to interest me was what might happen in a very, very long piece in one movement. Stravinsky is the last great movement-form composer. Some things do become outmoded, for whatever reason; and I feel the movement form is outmoded.

So, as I go into that long piece, I come up against very interesting problems. And the problems are not necessarily the search for compositional solutions or devices for continuity. When you're working on a very long piece, you eventually have to ask the question: "Are there new forms?"

You also have to develop your own paraphernalia to hold it together, rather than maintain the conventional idea that what develops might hold a piece together. That's what I meant earlier by problem solving: To get through a big piece, you don't come with any kind of prearranged schema; you just find ways to survive in this big piece. And the most important survival kit is concentration.

Q: You mean your ability to concentrate on the materials you're working on?

FELDMAN: Just concentrate on not making the lazy move. For example, most composers are involved with the potential of the materials, and they milk it; and they milk it ingeniously. I'm involved in keeping the thing going, but not necessarily via its implications. So, if you're not going to be involved with the implication of your material, how do you keep it going?

Q: Do you see a piece like your recent String Quartet as a challenge to other composers to write pieces that run longer than one side of a record and still sustain interest and maintain musical invention?

FELDMAN: I can only attempt to answer that question indirectly. Someone like Elliott Carter, for example, would feel that the moment is not important; it's the overall construction of the piece. I agree with him on the overall construction of the piece - I wouldn't agree with him on what he would think makes for this overall construction of the piece - but I feel that the moment, the rightness of the moment, even though it might not make sense in terms of its cause and effect, is very important. There's a remark of Giacometti: He said he wants to make his sculpture so that if the tiniest fragment was found, it would be complete in itself in such a way that one almost might be able to reconstruct it.

The piece that I'm writing now is a piece that is involved with fragments of material; just the presentation of fragments of material. There's no implication of the material. But that's another story. I'm not interested in the aspect of completing, or satisfying a need to make what we think is that terrific, integrated piece of music. I agree with Kafka: We already know everything. So there's no need for me to finish the piece in terms of anyone's expectations, which include my own.

Q: You mean that there's no reason for you to put something in an arch form because we know about arches already?

FELDMAN: Most concepts of form that one can articulate about appear to be involved with a series of chronological insights that succeed in only a relatively short work. Most musical forms are really only "short stories" which begin, develop, and end.

With the violin concerto I wrote recently (it's only an hour and a half), I wrote a "row for the moment." I spent seven hours working on a twelve-tone row that I use only for three measures of the piece. And then the piece goes on, and about ten pages later, I felt that what I wanted was to have a little frame, and inside the frame I wanted some beautiful symmetry. Symmetry isn't my bag, but I needed some beautiful symmetry at that moment. I then quote a row of Webern that is a prototype of perfect symmetry. (It's a famous row.) I just quote it, like someone will quote a tune; but I only quoted it for its symmetry. I also used it as a kind of quasi-cadenza for the soloist. And then I just went on with the piece.

Then I had another idea. All right, I'm not interested in symmetry, so I quote Webern. I'm also not at all interested in intervallic relationships. But I felt the piece needed some "intervallic logic." So I quote another row of Webern's. Actually, without that moment of symmetry, without that other moment of lucid intervallic relationships, the piece would have lost a lot. In other words, in writing a long piece, I would make curious moves but only for the moment. Decisions that I would never think of, say, in composing a twenty-minute composition. You want a piece to be logical. Well, you're not going to sit down and have a ten-course meal of logic; you're satisfied with just an hors d'oeuvre, a little logical hors d'oeuvre served to you by a famous waiter! You want a piece to be beautiful. OK, give them a moment of beauty - how much more do you need? So what happens in a long piece is that sooner or later you go through the whole parameter of possibilities, and everybody's going to get something out of it, I'm sure. The form of a long piece is more like a novel - there's plenty of time for everything.

In Rothko Chapel, I felt the piece needed a tune, so instead of writing a tune, I took a tune I wrote when I was 15. That's the photograph aspect. And even Webern is a photograph: an old, torn photograph of interval relationships; an old, brown, dirty photograph of symmetry!

Q: All we've been able to read about your studies with Stefan Wolpe was that the two of you argued all the time.

FELDMAN: I'm very sorry about that; Stefan was hurt when he read that. We talked a lot - that's about all I really meant.

Wolpe got a very bad deal. I would say that Wolpe's bad deal was very much like the relationship of Léger to the Cubists. They would say, "What the hell is he? Is he a Cubist, isn't he a Cubist?" And yet Léger was a fantastic painter, and since there are many more fantastic painters than there are composers, he had his day in court and he won his case. But if we had a whole bunch of intelligent people around, they would realize, "Oh, yeah, Wolpe, yeah, Léger, yeah! He has this special flavor, yeah, he doesn't have to be like ..." Understand?

His string quartet's a very beautiful piece. He had this genius for writing beautiful music that wasn't beautiful - very hard to do. Like Léger.

Q: You've complained that in the last twenty-five years, there have been no composers who have really shook up anyone. Do you think that the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass represents a new trend? Is it too popular with audiences to really shake them up?

FELDMAN: In some ways the message is a little shocking in the Reich phenomenon. And that's what makes it interesting. That's what I'm interested in; very strong alternatives. I'm already in my mid-fifties, I'm supposed to have a developed language, and if you think I can sit down and write a piece and not be worried about Steve Reich, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and Xenakis, you're nuts. I worry about these people. I worry about strong alternatives. And sometimes, some people have something to worry about. Brahms had something to worry about with Wagner. It is a contest. And I don't know if most of your readers know this - I don't even know if the music lovers at large know it - but Wagner won; Brahms lost. Of course, he didn't lose if you're lying on a blanket in Tanglewood and you hear the opening of his D Major Symphony. But he lost. He lost like Ted Kennedy lost, with everybody cheering.

Q: A not uncommon critical reaction to your music is, "It's a beautiful music that shows us no future." Does that comment mean anything to you? Are you concerned with the future of music in general, or of your music in particular? Do you believe that other composers will learn from you and that you'll thereby win, just as Wagner won?

FELDMAN: For any music's future, you don't go to the devices, you don't go to the procedures, you go to the attitude. And you do not find your own attitude; that's what you inherit. I'm not my own man. I'm a compilation of all the important people in my life. I once had a seven-hour conversation with Boulez; unknown to him, it affected my life. I admire his attitude. Varèse's attitude. Wolpe's attitude. Cage's attitude. I spent one afternoon with Beckett; it will be with me forever. Not his work; not his commitment; not his marvelous face, but his attitude.

Copyright © 1982 Cole Gagne & Tracy Caras

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