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An Interview with Morton Feldman, 22nd April 1983

by Jan Williams

This interview first appeared in the September 1983 issue of Percussive Notes (pp4-14). Jan Williams writes (July 1998): "The interview took place in Morton's apartment on West Ferry Street in Buffalo on 22nd April 1983. At that time I was on the editorial board for the Research Edition of Percussive Notes and was performing The King of Denmark a lot. I thought that percussionists would be interested in an interview with Morton about the piece. The King was not performed very often back then... now it's done all the time."

JAN WILLIAMS: Morton, since The King of Denmark is undeniably one of the most important pieces for solo percussion, a repertoire piece if you will, how about leading us up to 1964, the date of composition.
MORTON FELDMAN: Well, let's say that everything before 1950 was essentially student pieces and even in those student pieces I didn't hear percussion. I don't remember one of those pieces that used percussion. The first time I used percussion was in one of the first orchestral graph pieces called Marginal Intersection, which I wrote in 1951. But here I used the percussion as categories - in a big battery of instruments - those categories were divided into metal, glass, and wooden sounds. It wasn't clear then, and it's not clear now, what really categorized the make-up of all this. I don't think I wanted conventional instruments. Now that I'm reflecting on it after all these years, I'm sure I didn't want conventional instruments. I wanted instruments for those categories that sounded like metal and sounded like glass and wood to the ear. Later on, for example, in The King, I would naturally bring in a solo instrument even though it would still be involved with categories. I would use "skin" sounds, but I was using conventional skin instruments in The King. I remember bringing in, for the first concert of Marginal Intersection at Cooper Union, plastic dishes and those old heavy aluminum pots and pans that I borrowed from my mother. My models for percussion at that time were from the Gamelon Orchestra, John Cage's early forties pieces, and Varèse's work, where the instruments were used en masse, not soloistically. I used that aspect as a model in Marginal Intersection, except I remember wanting the percussion to sound more like noise. I used "found objects" for sound sources. The King was a very special situation. I actually remember writing The King - on the beach on the south shore of Long Island and I wrote it in a few hours, just sitting comfortably on the beach. I wrote the whole piece on the beach. And I can actually conjure up the memory of doing it - that kind of muffled sound of kids in the distance and transistor radios and drifts of conversation from other pockets of inhabitants on blankets, and I remember that it did come into the piece. By that I mean these kinds of wisps. I was very impressed with the wisp, that things don't last, and that became an image of the piece: what was happening around me. To fortify that, I got the idea of using the fingers and the arms and doing away with all mallets, where sounds are only fleetingly there and disappear and don't last very long. Everybody always asks me about the title, The King of Denmark, and the title really came after the piece. There was something about the wistfulness of things not lasting, of impermanence, and of being absolutely quiet. How it lead to the metaphor, The King of Denmark, which is on a much more serious level, I don't know. The King of Denmark, if one will remember, went out into the streets of Copenhagen wearing the star of Israel that the Jews had to wear around their arm and it was a silent protest. He just walked around and didn't say anything. How I made the leap from the beach to this other thing I don't know, but there was a very strong connection in my mind at that time.
JW: I met you for the first time, I think, at a concert at Town Hall where Max Neuhaus played The King of Denmark. I remember distinctly when I actually met you. It was at the intermission of that concert. Could that have been the first performance? Do you remember?
MF: I don't remember, Jan. I don't remember the first performance. I do remember one or two performances. I remember standing with Lukas Foss in a crowded small hall but I don't know who was playing the percussion. It could very well have been Max. It was around that period. I was standing with Lukas at the back of the hall and, in that I knew the piece, I could hear it. Lukas couldn't hear it. He said it looked very elegant and occasionally he would hear something, but he couldn't hear it. And then I was very concerned about this because, you know, it was considered at the time as an "Emperor's new clothes" piece - do you hear it or don't you hear it? And I asked three friends of mine who were sitting up close at the same concert if they heard the piece, and what was very curious was that the youngest person heard everything. The next one in line, in terms of age, heard just a little bit, and the oldest didn't hear anything. So, there might be a kind of age thing either in concentration or such. People seem to hear it now. The most glamorous performance that was ever given (I don't know if it was Michael Ranta or Max Neuhaus) was at a concert in Venice. Ezra Pound was in the audience and someone told me that they took Ezra Pound and put him on a seat right next to the performer and he heard it and liked the piece very much. I love that idea of bringing in this famous poet almost on his deathbed to listen to The King of Denmark. But now, everybody plays it - some people play it in a capsule version.
JW: How do you mean, capsule?
MF: Like a pocket King of Denmark.
JW: In terms of instruments?
MF: Yes, in terms of instruments.
JW: That's the way I do it.
MF: Yes. I once saw a performance in Berlin - I don't know who played it - but he got hold of every instrument imaginable.
JW: I think over the years people have traditionally done it with large setups. Actually, I didn't do the piece for years and years because of the many terrific performances of the piece by other people, but when I did decide to do it, I decided to do this capsule version - in one sense, as a kind of reaction to the "big band" version.
MF: I once saw someone who cheated a little bit: had some kind of metal things on his finger tips.
JW: It's certainly not necessary. The grid, Morton. You were one of the first to work with that particular type of notation. Would you care to talk a little about how that evolved? After all, you're very important in terms of that type of notation.
MF: I still use a grid. But now the grid encompasses conventional notation. But the initial concept of the grid - Oh, it's like one of those things that you don't know is going to have significance afterwards. I have no idea how it came about. Actually, I was living in the same building as John Cage and he invited me to dinner. And it wasn't ready yet. John was making wild rice the way most people don't know how it should be made. That is, just waiting for boiling water and then putting new boiling water into the rice and then having another pot boiling and then draining the rice, etc., etc., so we were waiting a long time for the wild rice to be ready. It was while waiting for the wild rice that I just sat down at his desk and picked up a piece of note paper and started to doodle. And what I doodled was a freely drawn page of graph paper - and what emerged were high, middle and low categories. It was just automatic - I never had any conversation about it heretofore, you know - never discussed it.
JW: What was actually the first graph piece?
MF: The first piece was Projection I for Solo Cello, which I wrote for the marvelous cellist Seymour Barab. I brought it over and showed him this very primitive notation. It was just again categories of pizzicato sounds, harmonics, and arco and aspects of arco-like ponticello. And then I gave high, middle and low and each box corresponded to a metronome beat. At that time it was 72 which was very slow then. It was endless, the ictus being 72. And then I started to write these pieces. John Cage got very excited, but aesthetically they looked very primitive, as you can see. What John did was to actually sit down for about a week and recopy two scores - two piano Intersections and the Projection for Violin and Piano. If you look at these scores of mine, you will recognise John Cage's handwriting and the pen he used at that time. And that was how it came about. Actually I didn't have any kind of theory and I had no idea what was going to emerge, but if I wasn't waiting for that wild rice, I wouldn't have had those wild ideas.
JW: So, you still use the grid but it is not overt in its presence.
MF: It's still there. One of the problems I had with the early grid is that there was a tendency for it to be too design-oriented. It was very easy to make wonderful designs on the page, which I did. But, it was wonderful for percussion. The percussion just made the balance between being specific and, at the same time, to some degree, general. But I'd like to talk a little bit about percussion instruments themselves. I would say that out of all the instruments, it's perhaps the group of instruments that I have to think about most - and I think that many composers might agree with me on this. In other words, there's a relation to one's ideas and a relation to style - however you want to phrase it - composers, you know, know how they want to use the woodwinds, how they want to use strings, but essentially how to use percussion becomes a big problem - there are not that many examples for an elegant - really elegant - use of percussion in an integrated way. In other words, it's not like... it doesn't help a young composer picking up, say, Berio or Boulez, looking at how they use percussion because percussion, in a sense, is so idiomatic to their style. It's not like taking a look at a Schoenberg string quartet, at a marvelous page that shows how he uses harmonics, which could be independent of one's style. But it's a kind of skill of the instrument that could be employed for another kind of music. So, that is what usually happens with instruments per se of other composers. You take a look at how Stravinsky would use it and you know it could make a metamorphosis. With percussion, it seems to be stuck exactly just in that instrument and how to use it. I recently heard a concert of Ionisation and the quintuplet on the various drums was just so Varèsian - the use of the quintuplet on those drums was just so clean and right that I just can't see them being employed for that particular rhythm and those particular instruments in any other piece except Ionisation. It establishes its signature in relation to the composer too quickly, too readily. I mean, you don't need Varèse. The timpani lick in the Ninth is so characteristic of the timpani and of the Beethoven style, you see, that no matter what kind of pitches you want to use, the minute you would have the timpani interject those kinds of periodic moments, it's Beethoven. You see?
JW: Yes, I do - what an interesting idea.
MF: But at the same time, if you really think about Beethoven in relation to any other kind of striking imagery, it's hard to really say this is the way to use the violin, or this is the way he uses the flute. So, percussion, in a sense because of these factors, becomes the most derivative aspect of a composer's instrumental usage - one that you really have to watch out for. And then there is another very important fact; when I mentioned the early models of the Gamelon, Varèse, and Cage, they were never used cosmetically and they were never used soloistically. They were used as a complete entity or incorporated as an entity with other instruments as Varèse does, say, in Integrales. So, how do you use percussion instruments so they don't become cliché? A very important problem.
JW: Certainly many composers do have that problem.
MF: Very good composers. There is another problem. Let's not call these problems. Let's just say it seems to be self-evident that percussion instruments are supposed to be used ostensibly for very serious situations but in themselves are not expensively made, you know, like a good violin, or a good piano. Instruments that are made as almost a disposable. I mean, any professional composer knows how difficult it is even in the most professional situations, say, to find a good celeste in a major orchestra. The first notes, the C, D - the first three notes usually don't sound, they're usually broken. They're never kept in tune, they're not considered important to be kept in tune. The percussionists themselves seem not to be that finicky, although I'm sure there are a lot of percussionists who are.
JW: There are a lot who are extremely finicky. But the sheer number of instruments involved sometimes causes a problem in terms of maintenance and development. Also, many of the instruments come from a folk idiom where the instruments themselves are rather primitive to start with.
MF: And that's part of their sound and charm.
JW: Exactly.
MF: You wouldn't want that overperfection - it wouldn't make them sound real.
JW: Right.
MF: However, I know that in the work of mine I wrote some years ago for oboe and orchestra in which there are just three percussionists - one's playing a high and one's playing a middle and another is playing a low cymbal, and it is just three cymbals going all the time - the spray. I just know that they did use their best cymbals, they matched them and they discussed them and, when I went to the concert during one of the Holland festivals, I wasn't disappointed. They were just beautiful cymbals. So, percussionists are, by and large, conscientious, but it's very difficult for a performer to understand the style and kind of mallet that sometimes we find, so it's usually just inexperience with a certain type of contemporary music. So, how do you handle instruments that just have inherent problems of not sounding expensive? And that whole business of sounding expensive is part of the image of professional music as we know it. The expensive violin - the expensive bow, you see. Well, my approach to an instrument is finding instruments where terms like "perfection" and "imperfection" of construction are not important. The whole idea of going in tune and out of tune with more precise acoustical instruments is taken into consideration. It was actually with my interest in nomadic oriental rugs that really made me start to use "imperfect" percussion with considerably more security. I'll tell you how. In older oriental rugs the dyes are made in small amounts and so what happens is that there is an imperfection throughout the rug of changing colors of these dyes. Most people feel that they are imperfections. Actually it is the refraction of the light on these small dye batches that makes the rugs wonderful. I interpreted this as going in and out of tune. There is a name for that in rugs - it's called abrash - a change of colors that leads us into pieces like Instruments III which was the beginning of my rug idea. I wouldn't say I actually made a literal juxtaposition between rugs and the use of instruments in Instruments III, but it made me not worry about it. I like the imperfection and it added to the color. It enriched the color, this out of tune quality. Just like I like my piano out of tune a little bit. It's warmer. So that was very interesting. It reached its height in Why Patterns? where I didn't have to be ashamed to make a "lady," so to speak, out of the glockenspiel. It's the only piece I know of that treats the glockenspiel as a very serious instrument. It was a big psychological decision - it wasn't a choice of a novelty.
JW: Right. I remember you wrestling with that problem - the instrumentation.
MF: Yes, and it's beautiful. It's finding the right kind of language. It's just that you need a lot of imagination, a lot of thought. For example, a very beautiful piece by Bunita Marcus, called Music for Japan, in which she uses the xylophone in a very original way, where most composers would have models, you see. Maybe what I'm really talking about in this interview is that we're more dependent on percussion for models than we are on other instruments and that's why so much percussion music is in the realm of cliché. Her piece sounds startling because you don't hear the marimba solo, you don't hear the vibraphone solo, you hear an extended xylophone solo with material that could only be for the xylophone, but there is no model for it, you see. Jo Kondo is another example; he fell madly in love with the cowbells, and uses them very hauntingly and very rightly in his piece which gives the music a lot of distinction. I have no rapport with a cowbell so it's very, very interesting. This leads us back to 1951 and Marginal Intersection, though I'm now much more specific for my battery of percussion. But I'm back to using, say, a lot of gongs when I use a gong, a lot of triangles and three glocks. One glock in an orchestra is cosmetic. Three glocks is orchestral. Where a few triangles is nothing, but 15!
JW: I remember a stunning performance in Saarbrücken of Flute and Orchestra which used a large group of percussion.
MF: It is now very difficult in an orchestral piece for me to have one cymbal, or just one gong - or even chimes. I find myself using three sets of chimes and it's a very interesting thing. As you use more of these instruments, you begin to see the illusion some people have about percussion speaking in a hall or even in a recording session. I remember somebody in a recording session, putting a mike right in front of a celeste.
JW: For a piece of yours?
MF: Yes. And I said "Why are you doing that?" And he said, "Well, you know it's a soft instrument." We played it back and he heard it's not a soft instrument. On the other hand, three chimes, three sets of chimes playing clusters from that left-handed backstage area still doesn't have the acoustical presence of, say, one flute playing very softly from the woodwinds on the right. It doesn't. So, there's this kind of illusion that because you're striking something, you're going to hear it.
JW: I'm sure everybody would be interested in knowing whether there is another solo percussion piece from Morton Feldman anywhere in the realm of possibility.
MF: I'm glad you asked that question.
JW: And, if so, what kind of piece could it be?
MF: I don't know what a new solo piece could be - I'm very surprised, for example, when in writing a piece like Flute and Orchestra I start hearing a few dozen triangles which I never heard before. I'm glad you mentioned it and I'm going to think about it. I think the reason I didn't write one was I was just too busy making a metamorphosis of how percussion is used in a chamber orchestra and then how it's used in an orchestra. I think I'm a very open person, and I would like to get to a point artistically and psychologically where I think I could write a serious piece for triangle and string quartet. That sounds a bit far out, but why not? Rather than having a thing like Tubby the Tuba, which I enjoy and Kleinsinger is a very nice man, there is still this whole idea of Tubby the Tuba as opposed to Ludwig the Tuba. Yes, why not a piece for triangle and string quartet? But I'm not at that artistic or psychological freedom yet. I think you have to be open. I'm very convinced now after Why Patterns?, which is one of my favorite pieces...
JW: Which is scored for piano, glockenspiel, and the flute family.
MF: Yes, the flute family - one player. It is one of my favorite pieces and I never dreamt to write one of my most important pieces with that combination. John Cage was with me last month at a festival when he heard it and he really liked it. Harrison Birtwistle and I had a concert together in Toronto where it was played and Harry was just very surprised that the glock could sound like that and sound serious. That's what they are surprised about, you see. But at the same time - here I'm making the complaint that the instrument is not perfected enough, but again, if it was perfected, it wouldn't have that kind of sad blending - that kind of sad elegant blending and little bit out of tune, going in to tune and out of tune with the rest of the instruments is again very beautiful.
JW: Was not - and correct me if I'm wrong - Why Patterns? one of the first pieces of your current output of rather lengthy pieces?
MF: Not really. I think it's a little over thirty minutes - that's all. No, not Why Patterns?
JW: The recent works are, however, much more extended.
MF: I would say the average length is an hour and a half now.
JW: Your recent Three Voices is...
MF: An hour and a half. And I'm having a string quartet performed next season on the Toronto New Music series, String Quartet No. 2, which I think is about two hours and twenty minutes - easy. I'm giving the maximum on that. It's just an educated guess. Definitely two hours, but it might be longer. I have a whole repeat structure there and because of it, the repeats could add up to about twenty minutes more.
JW: But the overall frame is established early - the overall scope and size of the piece.
MF: Well, I think it's going to be... actually it's a very interesting type of preparation - you know, it's not like planning a trip across the Atlantic and I know I have to take certain types of supplies and the boat has to be seaworthy. It's not a perilous journey; the journey just depends on my own stamina. That's the only thing I have to bring to a long piece. And also psychological - and it is more psychological than anything else - the psychological conditioning to keep it going as long as I feel it must go, but also to stop when I feel it's time. In other words, I need just as much guts to stop at twenty-five minutes as I do to keep it going for two hours and twenty-five minutes. So, I'm open to the possibility of stopping where I might have miscalculated. I don't know how much percussion I could hear for two hours and twenty-five minutes, but I wonder what the perception of percussion would be hearing it for a longer period of time than we are used to.
JW: Good question.
MF: A question like that is really answered to some degree with composers like Alvin Lucier - you know that piece of his, I think, for the very similar timpani? I think they are timpani or bass drums.
JW: Bass drums with ping pong balls bouncing against the heads?
MF: Yes.
JW: Activated by very low modulated audio frequencies.
MF: Yes, in a piece like that it is actually very interesting - I was fascinated in terms of perception. It was very, very interesting for me.
JW: My orientation as a performer has always been towards repertoire building. Having been encouraged by my teacher, Paul Price, that's been my kind of involvement ever since college. The encouragement - active encouragement of composers to produce pieces for solo percussion or percussion in the chamber music setting. There's been a tremendous amount of activity in the past nineteen years, since The King of Denmark, and I'm wondering as a performer to what degree this kind of attitude is still necessary, to what degree percussionists should continue giving the benefit of the doubt to the composer - the young composer, particularly. I'm wondering if we might not perhaps be at a point now where we should be more selective and a bit tougher on composers. You're an active teacher. How to you react to this dilemma of the percussionist-performer?
MF: Well, let's talk about what's available, and then, out of what's available, what seems to be happening. I think that since Varèse we have developed various schools of percussion usage. There's the Varèse-Cage school - we could lump them somewhat together - which seems to walk a very precarious tightrope between sound and noise. There's the European school that has a very big parameter, using Zyklus as a model - a kind of hard edge to a kind of Boulezian soft edge. And then I feel that the Japanese school of percussion - I don't think they ever knew they had a school of percussion - has something to do with (especially in the case of Takemitsu) nature and how percussion instruments were very useful metaphors of nature. If not nature, Jo Kondo's evocative cowbells, then just as an image as he does so beautifully in Under the Umbrella, which I think is going to be another kind of classic as the years go by. Now, if you go to a concert of, say, the various percussion groups, they would seem to juxtapose all these groups just in an improvisational way.
JW: In terms of the way they put programs together?
MF: Yes, in those terms.
JW: That certainly is the case very many times.
MF: It's interesting that the famous pieces of Varèse, or other prototypes - there are not that many of them, whether it's Ionisation or The King of Denmark or Cage's Construction in Metal - are one-of-a-kind pieces. Really, how many times are you going to write a piece with just cowbells? How many times am I going to write another Why Patterns? with glockenspiel? So, maybe the clue to future percussion repertoire is a whole series of one-of-a-kind pieces. There's nothing wrong with it. I'm not that nuts about Elliott Carter's pieces that he wrote for you - the timpani pieces - but they're landmark ideas of actually listening to the timpani, of constructing it and structuring it over a period of time into a piece. In a sense, that's its importance. But a composer like Carter who is essentially not dramatic - you know the whole idea that he could have done that was a very interesting idea, being that the timpani have so many dramatic connotations.
JW: Right, I'd never quite thought about those pieces in that context.
MF: So, there it is - these are all one-of-a-kind pieces. In other words, the professional percussion composer has not written significant percussion pieces. They've written very idiomatic pieces. So, just as I'm loosely thinking and talking about it with you, Jan, it seems to me that the most important pieces are just the one-of-a-kind pieces. And maybe that's the nature of the "percussion" sound. I mean the sound itself of percussion doesn't seem to lend itself to the definitive prototype. In other words, if we use this, if we use that, we can make it viable, you see. Then, we have the whole problem of pitch percussion against non-pitch percussion. Making too much of a hierarchical situation out of either one or the other. That's one of the problems that I have about mixing, where I don't want my percussion to become absolutely "background" if it's non-pitched, and "foreground" if it is pitched. It's one of the big problems that I have in getting my instrumental balance of percussion instruments together when I start a piece.
JW: Certainly Instruments III, with the combination of glockenspiel, three cymbals and triangle presents a pretty formidable problem, one which you handled in a very elegant and beautiful way. It's not technically easy.
MF: But, even there, the pitch identification in the glockenspiel is not that clear. And to use that as an idea was very important, to use the other triangles, and even the cymbals, became a very interesting problem of orchestrating all these instruments together. And that's another aspect - the word "orchestrating." To what degree can percussion instruments be orchestrated? You see, it's also a very different kind of special problem, as opposed to, say, a piano piece.
JW: Yes, quite simply in terms of quantity of instruments and timbres available, this is certainly the case. But, the ambiguous nature of many of the sounds and the unpredictable qualities which vary so greatly from instrument to instrument create special problems.
MF: It's an interesting philosophy - that is, that maybe we should look for percussion's potential in those areas we originally thought of as being weak.
JW: Are you saying to look at those areas of percussion which are not naturally strong or most successful?
MF: Yes.
JW: Things like what: Legato?
MF: No, just certain instruments themselves. I mean like Jo Kondo's cowbells, you see. Or, for example, in The King - if you want to tie it up to The King. What's interesting about The King is that percussion was always used in the sense that what was exciting about percussion was a kind of fantastic availability of all these different kinds of attacks - and here, I take out the aspect of attack. What did I do by using the fingers in The King? What happened? I took out what was considered its strongest aspect. See what I mean?
JW: Yes, the tactile quality of the piece makes it very special - the fact that there are no mallets gives it a whole different feel - no pun intended. After all, a Western trained percussionist in the Sixties does not necessarily have this kind of playing in his repertoire of techniques. That is, playing with one's fingers. And then to take a diverse mixture of instruments as in The King and try to get that uniformity which you ask for.
MF: Yes, so just to re-articulate what we have been talking about, to use these Western instruments in the way that would have been considered the least area for "success" was the success of The King of Denmark. And when I am thinking about percussion - in fact, you're making me think about percussion and I'm glad we've had this conversation - I hope that maybe I would think about how paradoxically I could find a historical weak spot which is also its strength. That's what I really mean. You can't do that with any other instrument. You have to rediscover. You have to make different models for percussion. Back to earlier things in the conversation: I can't repeat it enough - to try to get away from the model in percussion. I remember when I was in your studio and I was composing Instruments III and you were playing certain things for me, and I noticed that just the time element - I drifted for, say, two or three minutes very naturally without any impatience, where that time would be very, very long indeed if it was just an instrumental drone going on. But the whole sense of time was different. You don't have the historical implication of harmonic rhythm or atonal rhythm and you are in another kind of time world there and that kind of time world is very, very interesting for me, especially now since I'm writing very long pieces. So maybe I will write a piece that is very long using that aspect. Or, just thinking in terms of time, and what the instrument could do in the world of time that acoustical instruments don't choose to do. Well, we'll see about that. But I want to certainly try and write an extended percussion piece.
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