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Introduction to "Spaces"

by Tom Johnson

When I was studying with Morton Feldman, at his home in New York City, in the late '60s, he talked a lot about the importance of finding exactly the right sound. Apparently I wasn't getting the point, so one day he tried a new tactic. "Tom, I have a suggestion. Don't write any music for a while. Just listen to harmonies and think about them, and bring me a little collection of chords."

This seemed easy at first, but of course, it is very difficult to make a selection when there are literally millions of possibilities. Everyday, when I would go back to the piano to look for my chords, I would change my mind, and I didn't know what to do. I couldn't go back to Feldman saying I was unable to do the assignment, or that I didn't think it was important. But of course, if I went back with chords that sounded a little like his music or Stravinsky's or someone else's, Feldman would hear immediately that I had not taken his suggestion very seriously.

After working on the problem for two or three weeks, I decided to take him a little collection of seven chords. They all sounded similar, but I liked them all, and I couldn't find any better solution. With some trepidation, I showed my chords to Feldman, who played them over about 10 times in different combinations, really listening, the way he always did, and the way he wanted me to. Finally he looked up and said, "You know, that's not bad. This is really your music. I think you learned a lot from this little exercise." Feldman was never discouraging, but he did not pass along compliments very often either, and his positive reaction here was very meaningful to me.

It was some months after this, when I no longer went to study with him, that these seven chords found their place as the beginning of a new piece that I decided to call Spaces. I could also say that this was the beginning of my life as a real composer.

March 1994
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