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An Interview with Morton Feldman

by Jolyon Laycock and David Charlton

During a visit to England in May 1966, Feldman went to lecture at Nottingham University and was interviewed by Jolyon Laycock and David Charlton. The following transcript was first published in Opus 2 (Spring 1967) pp 18-20. Opus 2 was a low-budget student arts magazine produced by David Charlton.

L: The first thing we wondered was what sort of reception you've been having from the universities you've been to. Have they treated you with respect? or apathy?

MF: I think for the most part it is as if I came from Mars. But actually, I think that England is being perhaps subjected - or injected -

C: Invaded?

MF: That's because Stockhausen was here, was it? But there are some very gifted young English avant-garde composers, like Cardew and Bedford just to name two, and many more that I've heard about.

L: What do you think of Richard Rodney Bennett or Alexander Goehr?

MF: Well, I don't know. There was a type of English music, avant-garde music, which was English - Schoenbergian music that always sounded kind of Hollywoodish.

C: You mean a sort of blending with English traditions which made it sound popular or debased?

MF: Yes, that made it sound very much like a situation that happened to Mrs. Feldman and myself while we were witnessing the changing of the guards. After it was over they played a medley from "The Sound of Music". So that was my first introduction to English surrealism and I think that English twelve tone music has that aspect of English surrealism.

L: Are you in any way frightened or concerned about the apathy of the English public in general towards contemporary music, even music after Schoenberg and Stravinsky?

MF: Well, I think that's so with every public. It's the same thing in the States; in fact it is better in England, because you're more polite. So in a sense I think that an avant-garde composer can almost get away with murder in England.

L: Do you feel concerned about the cult that has built up around so-called indeterminate music?

MF: What about the cult that was built up around the Gothic organ? I don't think you really mean "cult": you mean the "mystique".

L: Yes. The sort of gestures that become mannerisms, the whole idea of affectation.

MF: But you can say that about every music - the affectation of the rococo.

C: And you are confident that today's avant-garde music will carry on to be the normal thing in fifty years time.

MF: It is not a question of "the normal thing": I think it will continue the continuity of affectation, which is what art is. I mean, I read in the British "Encounter" an excerpt from Ionesco's journals and he says quite poignantly how art is just an alibi. So you see, I can't have a vested interest in art altogether, never mind trying to defend indeterminate music. I think, in a sense, where indeterminacy is different from, say, Dada, is that Dada wanted to bring various political, psychological etc. etc. problems into art that didn't exist before. Dada was not too much involved with the aesthetical, and I think that indeterminacy is one of the first revolutionary changes in art that were purely aesthetical, and that is why, for example, twelve tone composers are present day academicians: they can't understand it because it deals with aesthetical problems.

L: You say "aesthetical problems". Now do you think that, in a sense, it has no "style"; that it would never become, say, the basis for a new tradition?

MF: No, I don't think so. I think that unlike most music the processes involved are more directly related to the persons who are doing it, so that unless an unfortunate thing happened, such as a Congress of indeterminate composers - on the river Ouze - where they all decide to standardise symbols and notations, I think you're going to have what happened in painting, where in one particular time, for that matter one year, you have ten, twenty completely individual types of painters, kinds of painting, happening in one city - Paris. Just think of it - Seurat, Renoir, Cezanne. We don't have that: we have Benjamin Britten, that is, out of a very traditional musical heritage, you have a maverick, a maverick just because his stance is a little bit different. One thinks there's a personality.

C: Following on from this, do you think that indeterminate music, your music, is for yourself or for everybody?

MF: I think it is for everybody; I think that all art has its special audience. You have the certain types of faces that you see at a Renaissance concert, at a Wagner concert. It has its audience as well as any other music has its audience. All audiences are departmentalised; so I think it is a kind of fantasy to think of a "serial" audience. I met someone who could only listen to Mendelssohn: he was an audience of one.

L: As long as you have an audience, no matter how large or small it is, your music has a reason.

MF: Well, one is a majority of one!

L: Do you think of your music in any way as experimental, or is it something in itself?

MF: No, I don't think of my music as experimental: I think of Beethoven as experimental, because he was really looking for something; he was looking to break the Bechstein because it didn't have enough tone; I am not looking for anything.

L: Aren't you looking for new sounds?

MF: No, not particularly.

L: But you do find it ...

MF: It's not a question of looking for new sounds; now when you talk that way it is because you are thinking of other types of music. I actually feel that whatever happens is pretty limited: so when you talk about indeterminate music, you don't talk about that type of autonomous, say timbre, structure that is set up, willy-nilly. In other words, if you are writing an indeterminate piece for eighteen flutes, all you can hear are eighteen flutes, you see. And the word 'indeterminate' almost suggests some kind of a wistful idea that maybe you hear a bazooka - you don't have bazookas in this country do you? - we have them in the hills of Kentucky - old English descendents that speak in kind of Elizabethan Cockney and play the bazooka. You are only going to hear these flutes, you see.

L: Could one say that you are more interested in the idea of exploiting a combination of instruments?

MF: No, I am not interested in exploitation.

L: You are interested in writing music for a specific combination of instruments, because of their sound?

MF: Yes, well maybe you mean "am I interested in the possibilities?"

L: Yes.

MF: Not particularly. I am not particularly interested in instruments, actually. I'm interested in sound and of course it might seem unrealistic to think of sound without its instrument. The instrument is merely the vehicle, the stencil of the sound and in some ways we have to guard against the instrument in order to hear the sound or find situations in order for the sound to speak naturally. For example; an oboe: I can't think of any composer in his right mind being involved with the sound of the oboe; again, there is a dichotomy here - what is sound, and what is the sound of the instrument? What much of indeterminate music has done, I think, is to break down this whole business of that instrumental identity. For example, John Cage can do things, in a sense, which have completely changed the nature of sound, in order to get rid of that instrumental identity, or that instrumental association. I on the other hand might produce a sound so naturally, so much without attack; but because it is done so naturally and because it is without attack, I've had professional musicians think that a violin was a high tuba. In other words, it is as though we don't know the instruments any more when presented without their more vulgar aspects of performance.

L: Have you had any opportunity to work with electronic instruments?

MF: I don't particularly care for them, they are too undimensional. They're too psychological. I find that you might as well just use an organ. In fact, I found a very interesting and quite recent piece of Stockhausen - the "Momente" - I heard a sound, and I said to him "Oh did you use an electric instrument there?" And he said, "No, an organ." So you might as well not squash your Gothic organs, because you might need them as substitutes.

L: You admire Cage presumably; or can you be said to be a follower of Cage?

MF: No, I'm not, actually. I would not be ashamed to be a follower of Cage, but we're not related whatsoever. We met and began at the same time, and we're very close colleagues, and we're really not involved with each other in many ways. I think the thing that brings us together, that brings Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and myself together is that the impetus and the basis of our work was sound and that each one went in his own way.

L: What other composers do you admire or have an interest in?

MF: Josquin ... Mozart. I like that particular type of music that does not push. I spent the weekend with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and he had a lot of my scores, and he took them to his room and said goodnight. And he came down in the morning and he said, "I know you have no system, but what is your secret?" And I said to him, "Well, Karlheinz, I have no secret but if I could say anything to you, I advise you to leave the sounds alone; don't push them; because they're very much like human beings - if you push them, they push you back. So if I have a secret it would be, 'don't push the sounds'." And he leaned over me and he said, "Not even a little bit?"

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