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Morton Feldman: Conversation without Cage

by Michael Whiticker

The following is part of an edited transcript of a substantial interview by Michael Whiticker with Morton Feldman at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music in July 1984, three years before the composer's death. It was first published in the Australian journal Ossia: a journal of contemporary music (Vol 1, Winter 1989) pp 6-9.

MF: I want to give my compliments to Australia. Ever since your government paid a few million dollars for a Jackson Pollock painting, I figure that it must be a marvellous country. [Laughter]

You know, I nearly got to Australia - to Melbourne. They thought they'd be real smart and invited me down in the summer - which is their winter. They wanted me to do some teaching and they offered me a stipend. So I asked for exactly the three months that I would get teaching anyplace else. And that three months was evidently something they wouldn't pay ... It wasn't that much out of line! ... I'd have taken much less ... it was negotiable. But not too much! - It's expensive to fly to Australia!

MW: That's a shame, it would have been interesting to have seen you there.

You are having your Second String Quartet performed here (in Darmstadt) tonight, a two-and-a-half hour piece ...

MF: It's a shortened version! The Kronos Quartet is only using this revised version, which I dictated over the phone. I told them "you can take this out, and this and this ...", and it adds up to a cut of about seventy-five minutes. Actually, it's the repeats which are very important to the piece ... I suppose you just can't wait to ask me why the piece is so long? ... - I think that the piece is so long because our attention span is so short! Five minutes is too long for most people - it's a serious problem.

This is not going to be a five-hour interview, so I can't tell you the story of my life, but I can begin to tell you that in a kind of middle-aged crisis, it dawned upon me that there was a possibility that music might not even be an art-form! Music is essentially built upon primitive memory structures. The average listener doesn't even feel that a piece has form unless something comes back with a certain slight variation: ternary - ABA - form, for example.

In my String Quartet - often I do things to alienate memory. For example, I might have something return, but it returns in a different ordering. It seems only a little familiar ...

Like when we see someone for the first time after five years and she looks like the same person but ... (You have this all the time, especially at my age.) I'm walking down Madison Avenue and I hear: "Morty, is that you? Gee, you haven't changed a bit". And she looks like hell, you know! She's finished!! [Laughter]

So I put things into a different ordering. Some material might even return in another key, God forbid, which is evoking the whole idea of modulation. ... Or it might come back in another place where the instrumentation differs in only a very, very small way. So there's the possibility for infinite variation. Actually, I have to work harder in constructing pieces these days because I don't want "baby food" memory: I want real good, very sophisticated memory.

I was once married to a woman who could eat anything and tell you what was in it: the most complicated recipes. Her memory of taste ... now that's what I call memory!

I'm also involved with nineteenth-century nomadic, oriental carpets, especially Turkish. Let's take a civilisation unlike our own, over-educated civilisation, (at least mine is): somewhere where they can't read and write - a woman from a village, a rug-maker. She has, indigenous to her region, perhaps twenty-five or thirty different rug-layouts and designs which she has to remember. So she has many, many designs. Then she also has borders, various kinds of borders. She has a fantastic repertoire, much more than Claudio Arrau, or my great friend Roger Woodward. And if you're listening to this Roger: you may fool the rest of the world with your phenomenal memory, but compared with one of my rugs and the makers, Roger ... It's like learning all the works of Chopin and the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas by rote. That's memory!

MW: So would you say that what you are doing is on a large scale, while everyone else is ...

MF: NO! What everyone else is doing is on a large scale! It's a very large scale - it's called nothing.

I'm not doing very much - that's why it's so long. In fact, what I'm doing in the String Quartet is essentially using three notes. Like this rug-making, I'm using the first three notes of the chromatic scale. By that, I mean that its conceptual ingredient is a minor second and a major second. Everything else is a repetition. Except what I also do now is use all the 88 notes so that I have all the timbral spectrum ... it changes all the time.

Compositionally, the piece is involved in the only two elements known to us in music. One is change, and the other is reiteration. It's a kind of synthesis of change and reiteration, even the change of that which is being reiterated. But the piece is essentially constructed out of just three notes: combinatory situations, into slight gradations of microtonal spelling. In other words, a little sharper, a little flatter. It's like putting turpentine on paint to loosen up the grit a little. ... I'm not even doing it for a conceptual reason. I'm doing it because string instruments do it so well, without any effort. That is, they play out of tune so well! [Laughter] Most people can't even hear it!

In a piece, I'm interested in what I remember, of what my concentration is. Actually, my pieces are performed like those of a latter-day Gluck. It's a reform movement: to sit, to listen; for young composers to see what it really is to make something, to think about it, rather than to engage in some sort of conceptual rip-off.

MW: What are you hoping the listener will be able to find in your music?

MF: Well, to develop another kind of sense: to remember other things: a certain type of pizzicato, rather than "the big tune". [Hums the opening theme from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.]

MW: With so many people fascinated by minimalism these days, do you think that the world is catching up with Morton Feldman?

MF: Well, I'm not gonna catch up with the world. Somebody's got to budge here, and I don't think it's gonna be the world! [Laughter] Do you know that marvellous remark of Kafka's? - "In your fight against the world, back the world!" ... Or, as my grandmother would say, in a more colloquial language: "Go fight city hall"!

I feel liberated. For the first time in my life, I'm free; free of the anxieties of the reward system. ... To most of the kids who come to Darmstadt, I would quote the last paragraph in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain: "If thou livest or diest, thy prospects are poor". And I feel that it's poor here because of not being inner-directed. They don't ask the right questions. And the first question is: "Am I really a composer? Do I have any talent at all?" Everybody's here selling something. I'm selling nothing - but it's the most expensive nothing in the world! [Laughter] I'm just saying: lock the door and sit down and work. That's all. ... Very basic. It's a cliché.

I met Ruth Crawford once when I was a kid (John Cage introduced me) in this vast room full of all male composers. And there was Ruth Crawford - she was the only one sitting down. Since then I've developed a kind of "upmanship": when I go into a situation where all my colleagues are, I sit down. - She was my role model! [Laughter] And I spent the whole evening, instead of hobnobbing and making deals, with this woman asking me what kind of music I wrote and everything ...

MW: But tell me what would happen if every composer at a gathering was to sit down and remain seated.

MF: Theodor Reik, who was an important psychologist, had the right idea. He said infants were egomaniacs without an ego. ... That's what's happening today. Egomaniacs without sit down! They have no idea what is it to sit down and write a piece! They think music is easy! They're looking how not to do anything any more! ... Gar nichts! ... Nothing! ... They're looking for the concept, the Holy Grail!

MW: So what can Morton Feldman offer a young composer?

MF: What my father offered me. He said: "Morty, I'm gonna give you what my father gave me - The world" ... [Laughter] "Gee, thanks, dad, thanks a lot ..." [Laughter]

I spoke to (Wolfgang) Rihm, who's a very gifted composer, and he said: "I don't think, Morton, it's very good to take on the influence of other cultures". Vienna, Berlin, New York, Melbourne - what you don't know is that you're all writing the folk music of your own region.

I have a friend who is a very wealthy guy and he collects beautiful things from Easter Island, New Guinea - pieces of art; and he also collects modern painting. So he's teaching in a school in New York and he brought the kids home to see his collection. And he asked if I would talk to them ('cause I was his house guest then). So they came and he was talking about this piece from New Guinea and so on. And there were all these marvellous paintings on the walls. And then I started and I pointed to a very famous Frank Stella and my first sentence was "And that is New York folk art!"

And this is something we don't realise!

I remember I had a terrible argument with Stockhausen back in the '60's. He started to make fun of a work of Aaron Copland's that I like very much, Appalachian Spring, and that marvellous shaker tune -[sings]- that beautiful, broad, gorgeous, heartbreaking tune. (And when you saw the girls dancing to that tune, it just broke your heart!) Anyway, he was laughing about 'hillbilly' ... Stockhausen ... So I sing to him -[sings]- that smaltzy, Tyrolean folk tune that Berg uses in the Violin Concerto. And I said to him, "Das is not hillbilly? Your hillbilly is better than our hillbilly?" They don't think of it - they think it is Western civilisation - Western music - their little landler, gavotte ... Very interesting ... I don't consider them the West. I consider European civilisation an underdeveloped country in terms of their attitude. There was an article, or a whole issue, in Time or Newsweek entitled 'Europe is not working'; I think they've had it here.

The sophistication of other cultures, especially what we would consider "primitive cultures" - the architectural layout, the thinking, the background - make people like Boulez into a game of monopoly. And we've never had that before.

So I see everything as local - even New York. I remember an article in Berlin that started off "The Jewish-American composer from New York" ... It's very, very, very, very peculiar the way that an international culture, when they talk about other cultures, they want to break down their origins. You'll never find in a New York paper, you know, what the ethnic breakdown of someone from Australia is.

There are many things we have to think about; we have to question everything if we want music to be an art-form. If we don't find the culture in iconography, in symbols which people feel tell them something about their country, you end up with all that kind of ethnic baloney that a lot of young Australian composers were writing in the sixties. Why were you slumming in those cultures?

There's no such thing as an indigenous Australian material, but there will be an Australian attitude. Like in Ives ... Forget about these quotes of hymn tunes unless you're an American WASP artist and you don't know what the hell it's all about anyway! How about 'The Housatonic', you know, that gorgeous thing in the Three Pieces ? There's nothing in it, but it's what D H Lawrence would write about Hawthorne: a certain type of atmosphere.

And that's the same thing with every country. Countries have atmospheres, they have a smell. Get the smell of Australia, get the atmosphere! You're an open society like England, not like Canada or Austria, which culturally are closed societies. You may be more open than America was. ... Maybe ... I don't particularly want to sit up in front with the taxi driver, and I don't want to be called "mate" all the time, but you're an open society, and that's what's going to be in your work. Don't look for an iconography that spells "Australia". ... Is that still rampant in Australia?

MW: I would say, yes and no. There's an interest in what might be termed, in Germany, the "Neue Romantik", so there is some searching for an identity in this. There is still an interest in Japanese and Indonesian cultures, but it's receded. ... I would say in general that Australia is very much like the rest of the world in that the composers are working in many styles. There doesn't seem to be any particular school, although there does seem to be more and more who are happily writing tunes that Grandma would whistle.

MF: Would people like Cornelius Cardew - people with that sort of attitude take hold in Australia? - brilliant intellectuals who lived in Cologne writing Victorian bar-room tunes?

MW: Well, ... I don't think so.

MF: I think it's a big mistake looking for a national identity. It's absolutely ridiculous! I mean, I'm Jewish because people tell me I am!

MW: Do you think that a national identity can only come about unconsciously?

MF: Proust knew what it was all about. The whole lesson of Proust is not to look for the experience in the object, but within ourselves. Australia, then, is an object, like the history of music or late Beethoven. You can't go to late Beethoven to get the experience in ourselves. If we don't know how to reach this experience, then we should go see a psychoanalyst; we shouldn't go and have an interview with the Arts Council ...

You see, all these things are not true; they're phantoms, they're metaphors. Can you believe in coloured dirt? A painting is made out of coloured dirt! It's an artifact, a metaphor! They're trying to adapt the right type of metaphor for their feelings and beliefs.

Most of us are the "living dead", as they said in the old movies. We want the experience in the object; the beautiful girl, the car, gods and many other things.

We can on the other hand be idealistic ...

Copyright © 1989 Michael Whiticker

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