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Feldman on Feldman

Lecture given at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Auckland Park, Johannesburg, July 1983

Transcribed by Rüdiger Meyer

The copyright of this lecture is owned by the Estate of Morton Feldman. It is published here with their kind permission. Any further use of this text must be cleared with Rüdiger Meyer and the copyright owners.

Well of course I spend a few hours, or an hour at least every day, jotting down possible things I could talk about. And it's just amazing when you write down all the categories what you come up with. I also thought about, maybe I'll just talk about, just the music and not get involved in anything that much in depth about my music. I thought maybe I'll just tell stories, I love to tell stories. If not my own then perhaps then someone else's story.

Just as I say the word story I think of about a million things coming into my head. I just thought of a marvellous story Kierkegaard wrote. Not a real story you know, but an incident where he was walking down the street in his neighbourhood and he comes across a new establishment with a sign in the window and the sign says "We press pants". So he goes back to his apartment, gets hold of a few pairs of pants, brings it down to the store and hands it to the clerk. And the clerk says "Well, what are we supposed to do with this?" And he said "Well, press them of course! You've got a sign in the window that says "We press pants"." "Oh, we don't press pants here, we only sell the sign in the window." [laughter] And, of course you all know I mean that as a very biting and important, I feel important aspect of what I feel is the separation of what one is given musically and what one perhaps should get.

I also thought about, maybe I'll tell the story of my life and my influences, and I kind of got frightened by all the influences. They all seemed very portentous - Freud, Kafka, Proust. And everybody you could think of in my own artistic background. And then I decided there was only one real big influence in my life, and that was my grandmother.

I was brought up by my grandmother. My mother and father were together in business during my early years and then my teenage years. And occasionally she would come up with some kind of remark or some kind of advice and when she decided to tell me something there was only one gesture that she would use. She would shake her fists like this. If she would tell me to hold on to my money, she would shake her fists like this and you could actually see bills. Ten, Twenty, Thirty dollar bills being held onto you see. And then one day she told me something and I think that's what my music is really all about, she said, "You know, that you must know everything, think everything and do nothing." [laughs]

And then the whole relationship between my grandmother and my father. They lived together in the same house for fifty years. And they never said a word to each other. Which I think is a marvellous environment to grow up, there was no hostility there. They never actually complained, they never complained to me about each other. I realized that there was something fishy going on, but I saw that you could live - without communication. For Fifty years. And then I developed another attitude, an attitude perhaps to the audience, to musicians, to everything outside of my exterior life. That is - I think of the whole world as my mother in law. [laughs] I really do.

That kind of detachment in a sense enabled me not to treat my music as my mother in law. Now to the music. It is very, very hard to explain, I've been asked for years about my music, I once spent a few days with Karlheinz Stockhausen in which he already had before I came, a lot of my music. And it was the music probably up to 1966. This was in 1966 in a suburb of New York City. He was there for about a year. He came down one morning and he said, "Morty, what's your secret?" And I said "Karlheinz, I don't have a secret." He says, "You must have a secret. Don't tell me that every time you decide what note to use you have to think of eighty eight." (You see, the keyboard.) I said, "What's eighty eight notes Karlheinz?" But he wasn't satisfied with that answer. And then I went on, I saw that he was looking for some kind of confrontation, I said, "Karlheinz, I don't know if you know that Nero", I was really saying that he was Nero you see, "That Nero had a brother. Let's say that you're Nero and that you wrote epic poetry and I'm his brother and I wrote lyric poetry. Well Nero said to his brother, also the way you're saying to me "What's your secret?" the lyric poet rather said, "Brother Nero, I have no secret." He says, "You must have a secret. Torture him for the secret." And then he tortured him for the secret and he brought him back after this poor fellow had been tortured, he was all mutilated, and he says "Really Nero, I have no secret." And then Nero looks at the guards and says "Finish him off." In the meantime Stockhausen and I are, eye to eye ... with this situation.

I have no secret. And if I tell you why I have no secret you will think that it is the most audacious, the most arrogant remark you could hear from a musician either in or out of South Africa. The reason I have no secret, and a secret really means a system, is that I don't need it. For me to have a system would be would be like Rockefeller selling newspapers on the streets of Johannesburg. It's as simple as that. My ideas, my notes, for whatever reason, just come to me. The only time I do have a system is when I'm stuck and it's almost like a little gasoline or a little push of the car to get it going. I do have other things, for example, a lot to do with a different kind of terminology. Rather than system I would use the word "strategy". Or "format" a simple word like "format" or "presentation", I don't even have a word like "process" in my thinking. But strategy, and a strategy usually comes about in terms of the same kind of thinking that any other composer would have. Like anybody else the opening measure and its potential and its flexibility. But what I don't do is try to make a system out of it. But in that sense like almost any other professional composer it is the opening ideas. In that sense I am just as conventional as everybody else.

I'l1 talk a little bit about the programme I'm going to play right after this introduction. The programme spans roughly about thirty years. It's not big jumps, it jumps, jumps perhaps of eighteen years. And there's a peculiar kind of chronological thing here. The first piece chronologically will be a piece for violin and piano which I haven't heard actually since I wrote it. Never really heard it afterwards. It was never taken up, picked up by anybody. And which actually was my introduction into the New York musical world and which ... It made me quite well known. It was just about the time I met John Cage and he called up Virgil Thompson and he said "you must meet this young man." Virgil Thompson was a very influential composer at that time. He had one of the few salons in a wonderful old bohemian hotel, still exists where rock and punk millionaires hang out. And it was on the top floors actually of the hotel where he had these beautiful Edwardian rooms. And the hotel to me was fantastic. Not because he was living there but because Thomas Wolfe made it famous. Thomas Wolfe lived there for a few years. So when I first went into the hotel with my wife, it was just wonderful. Going up to Virgil Thompson's apartment. There were a lot of people there and John, I didn't know too many performers, and John got a marvellous young lady, who was a super violinist, and David [Tudor] was the pianist for essentially what was maybe a two minute piece. So I was quite nervous with this introduction to the New York musical world. And the piece was played. And there was a very legendary for an American, a very legendary composer who was a very big time Hollywood composer in 1950 writing all the Humphrey Bogart movies, and that was George Antheil. And he was there and it was all very exciting. Well anyway there was a Sonata of Antheil played. There was ... some other things that I don't really remember, and there was this piece ... and that was the end. I didn't talk to anybody. I didn't get into any discussions. I just sat there with my wife and I behaved myself, after all I was about twenty four or so, not even twenty four.

Well, the next day I spoke to John Cage and he says ... oh, I said to him "Did you speak to Virgil Thompson? Did he like my piece?" He said, "Well, if you must know, he said, "Never bring that man to my house again." He said "I don't want to hear how much of a genius he thinks he is with every note he writes."" [laughs] And we've had problems ever since, Virgil Thompson and myself.

A very important piece to me. I think about it all the time. I was just finishing my studies with Stefan Wolpe and it was very difficult for me to write this piece because there were very little notes. Obviously there's was a kind of Webernesque influence in it, but it's not a Webernesque atmosphere. And if one would look at the piece I wrote right before and this piece ... It's amazing that I could do it.

Then, probably the next piece is ... "Between Categories" ... I think, it's not that important. Anyway BETWEEN CATEGORIES. For those of you that heard my piece DE KOONING it's very much the same format. And I think the one important thing about the piece, that is, the essential idea of the piece for me, was to have two small groups, like a doppelganger, of the same instrumentation and it was a kind of, creepy type of symmetry, only because of the symmetry of the colours. But not really of the same musics. Only towards the end do you hear an arpeggio on one piano taken up in some kind of distant relationship with the other piano.

WHY PATTERNS? Oh there's another piece, the first piece that opens up the programme. INSTRUMENTS 1 is part of a trilogy. I do write sometimes sets of pieces where I wanna take essentially where I'm at into another kind of instrumentation, or into a different kind of colour, or a different kind of instrumentation. I don't want to explore it all in one piece. I feel that it wouldn't be appropriate. And this was the first. The whole, this is absolutely unlike like WHY PATTERNS? and BETWEEN CATEGORIES, this is precisely notated. In this piece the focus as I remember it had to do with breathing. Breathing in terms of a kind of breathing timbre. Listening to the instruments and trying to clock what I feel their own timbral rhythm would be. That's essentially what the whole series of these three pieces were concerned with. Breathing, rhythm as breathing.

WHY PATTERNS? ... the instrumentation is very important. WHY PATTERNS? is one of the few pieces that I ever wrote where I was actually inspired by an extraneous idea, outside of the music itself. As I mentioned a few times I'm involved with a certain area of oriental rugs, older rugs, with old colours, and I had a rug and I happened to catch, well actually it was an interesting rug because there was no field in the rug. The rug was made up of just a series of borders. Just like a Jack in the Box, just getting, some were wider, some were, ... and rugs are no different for example than musical scales. For the most part a lot of them, at least the ones I like, only have about seven or eight possible ... basic colours. There's a variation of colours, it's called "abrash", that is - the dyes are done in small batches and what happens is that the colour, the gradation of the colour changes, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes quite noticeably. It adds to the rug especially in the refraction of the light on it. And that's what I caught, looking down just haphazardly at this rug of just patterns, and how the patterns are just going around, and what's interesting about these particular rugs unlike the kind of more commercial Persian rug is that the pattern repeats itself, but it's never really exact. It's as if every time they do it again it's done idiomatically. It's quite different. In fact I actually measured one pattern that seemed the same all over, and it was different. And the colour actually changes, because of this dying thing, this "abrash".

And I decided to write a piece essentially of patterns, which I was never really involved with, my music wasn't really ever concerned with composing pattern situations, in which there was no sharing of the material. Each one because of the nature of its instrument and the nature of the pattern, is independent, or interdependent from each other.

So basically there were just three colours here, and then I had to decide, very much, I didn't have any colour clue from the rug. In other words they were somewhat homog ... somewhat, I wouldn't say they were homogeneous. They didn't tell me say for example which instruments to use. Though it took me a long ... as soon as I got the instrumentation then the piece in a sense ... went pretty well.

And the instrumentation is very ... well for example - using the glock in a serious way. Actually treating the glock as if it's an instrument rather than just a toy. And I also chose it because like "abrash" you see, it's kind of out of tune. And I like the metaphor of going in and out of tune with the various flutes and with the piano. I once gave a concert in Toronto. I was on a programme with Harrison Birtwistle and Harry was very interested in this piece, in the format of this piece. And he said to me, how many instruments could this work with and what kind of instruments could do it, the way he felt I did it in WHY PATTERNS? And I said, "Harry, I tried to write a lot of ... I thought I was onto something with WHY PATTERNS?", I said, "but I think it's just for flute, piano and glock, so we might as well forget about writing another one."

Then there was another interesting compositional problem. Alright, you're writing a pattern and she has a pattern on her rugs, but, how do you make it with a kind of, well, how do you imitate the abrash and how do you imitate the ever changing idiomatic way that she's changing as she's going around the rug with a pattern?

So there are quite simple things, I might have the same pattern, but the most subtle, the most discreet kind of change might happen even in its reiteration. Also what's marvellous about the rugs is that this imperfection makes the kind of conventional patterning in a sense quite lyrical, and it's quite gorgeous.

So on the one hand we have the mechanical aspect of it, the changing aspect of it. The looseness yet tightness of it. Very enigmatic the way they do it. The concentration of how they do it. Because they're looking down at it, they're concentrated, they can't just toss it off.

So consequently I came up with this format. The music, every individual part is super precise, yet when you put them together, essentially not polyphonically however, I would say polyrhythmically, this precision plus the imprecision of its vertical happenings more or less created the feel of the rug.

Oh, we're going to run a little over because I now, I wanna just play, being that there are no orchestral pieces here and being that I do write large pieces I thought I should just play one and so we're going to run over, Jacques, if it's alright, about five minutes. And being that we're not going to have an interval I think that everything's going to be okay.

Very, very briefly about this piece. This piece is also part of a trilogy. And to a great degree I think that it's responsible by the mood of Samuel Beckett. Because I wrote an opera of sorts on a poem, if we can call it that, that he wrote for this opera, and I really got into the Beckett mood. It's in another piece called Piano, and then it's in this piece, and then I got out of it, I just shrugged and got out of it. Now, the strategy of this piece, there's no strategy of how, for me, to evoke the Beckett mood, I just, I'm in the Beckett mood, that's all. It was like being a vegetarian for a week. And then I went back, you know, to another diet.

Oh, now I remember, it was right after I wrote WHY PATTERNS? The opening theme of the flute and orchestra piece is a theme that I obsessively use in the opera in different kinds of combinations. Piccolo against E flat clarinet. And every time I use it I use it in a different place. Actually it's also the opening flute line also in WHY PATTERNS? Unknown to me at the time it spelt out B A C H. A local critic, who I once had in a class actually, who was a musicologist, he was very pleased with himself and he wrote how this piece was a tribute to Bach, which it wasn't, it was just that when I modulated it for the flute it happened to be B A C H.

And ... OK so the strategy of this piece was ... the working title for my attitude was - "Don't compose, try things out." And wrote it down, "Don't compose, try things out." But there's no such thing, once you're trying something out on paper, you're composing. So that little riddle was more or less like a ... some kind of a ... game evidently, some kind of game, I don't know what term to use for it, in which I'm saying to myself, "No. You're composing now, you're not trying things out." And what I tried to try out was problems of juxtaposition, how "z" sounds against "e". Questions like "What is new material?" What is material that I don't understand, which justifies trying it out ... you see rather than using a word like experiment, I'm too old to experiment but I'm not too old to try things out.

Okay and with that we'll hear Flute and Orchestra, written around I think it's 1977. It's with Hans Zender and the Saarbrucken Orchestra. I don't remember the second name of the flute player, it was the first flute player, Roswitha somethingorother, I'm very embarrassed, I don't remember at this particular moment. I'm also trying out polyrhythmic structures, that is ... the expanse of the flute. And now as I'm talking I remember how I got the idea for WHY PATTERNS? and its polyrhythmic situation. I didn't want to interfere with the expanse of the flute as it's breathing, against rhythm, you see. I'm involved with breathing, which I don't consider rhythm, but I have to measure it in time and the actual rhythm which I'm really hearing as rhythm.

Okay. Thank you.
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