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Interview with Wilfrid Mellers

In October 2001, Wilfrid Mellers, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of York, England, kindly agreed to answer some questions from Chris Villars, editor of the "Morton Feldman Page", about his encounters with Feldman in the 1960s and 70s. The interview below is an edited compilation of those questions and answers.

When and where did you first meet Feldman?

In New York, in the late sixties.

Who introduced you to him?

Can't remember, but I should think it was John Cage, whom I knew quite well at the time.

How did his association with the Music Department at York begin?

I invited him, when he was next visiting England.

How many times did he visit York?

Three, I think.

Were his visits just for a few days or for longer periods?

A few days.

Where did he stay during his visits?

Sometimes with us - myself and my then wife. But also in hotels.

How was his music received in England at that time?

He had an enthusiastic following - a minority following of course, but genuinely enthusiastic.

Did he direct performances of his own works during these visits?

I don't think he 'directed' any performances, though he was present at rehearsals, advising.

Do you recall any particular advice he would give to performers rehearsing his pieces?

Well, it was usually to depreciate too much conscious thought and intentionality. Quite like Cage, in his general attitude.

What form did the classes he took on these visits take?

Very informal; he was an informal chap who astutely recognised what was interesting about individual students.

Was it postgraduate classes that he taught?

Both post and undergraduate.

How were his classes received?

He was much appreciated - rather surprisingly to me, since he wasn't in the conventional sense a 'good teacher'.

Are there any tapes or transcripts of talks or interviews he gave during this time?

No: though I remember he gave an impromptu class on (unexpectedly) Schumann!

A class on Schumann must have surprised everyone! Do you recall anything of what he had to say about him?

No, because I wasn't present, alas. It wasn't a scheduled class on Schumann, but just a consequence of his having 'come up' in the conversation. The connection, which is not difficult to understand, was Schumann's obsession with childhood, his own and other people's. Morton didn't have children himself, but was, I think, 'child-like'. And I think that was what the students relished in him; one said to me that he was 'pristine'. That was a very intelligent student - of which we had a number.

How did he spend his time when not giving classes?

I can't know this (!) but when with us we talked a lot, usually interestingly; and we showed him the sights, both in York and in Yorkshire.

Did he talk about painting at all?

Yes; he could hardly have evaded that since visual arts conditioned his attitude to music.

Did he ever make any comment on your book (Music in a New Found Land)?

Well, he thought highly of it.

Did he express any views about other British or European composers?

Hardly at all.

Are there any photos of him during his visits to York?

There may be, but there are none officially recorded.

Was he alone on these visits, or did his wife at that time accompany him?

Mostly alone, though I met his wife several times so she must have been around.

Do you recall any particular incidents of interest during his visits?

Not really, except that he was very painstaking in his attention to the students, perhaps because he appreciated their brightness.

When did you see him for the last time?

Can't remember. His three visits were all in the seventies, I think. I probably met him once in the eighties, back in New York.

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