“If you don’t have a friend who is an artist, you’re wasting your time.” – Morton Feldman was closely associated with a number of visual artists, particularly those of the New York School. This aspect of his work is the subject of a recent exhibition at the Irish Museum for Modern Art. A collection of essays will also be published, including this memoir by composer Kevin Volans.
With Morton Feldman there was no small talk – and a conversation could last for several years. When I was checking in to my hotel for the 1986 International Summer Course for Contemporary Music in Darmstadt, Morty saw me from the far side of the lounge and yelled: ‘And do you think the string quartet is a fake medium?’, continuing the debate we had started over his String Quartet No. 2 in 1984. There was only one subject of discussion: music/art (with, I admit, the occasional footnote about food).
I say music/art because there was always a question in Feldman’s mind as to whether music was an art form, or a ‘music form’, distinct in some fundamental way from visual art. And he constantly examined music and art, unpicking the material and searching for its essence. What is pure material, the nature of time itself, memory function, the role of notation, the role of history, the role of pen and ink? His field of reference was vast – he claimed the biggest influence in his life was his grandmother who said, ‘Morty, know everything, do nothing’ – and his observations and illustrations encompassed Freud, Proust, Nietzsche, John McEnroe, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Coptic textiles, Turkish rugs, the Kabbalah, the highway code, the Rapidograph, Napoleon, dry cleaning, Titian, Rembrandt – indeed the whole history of Western music and art – to name but a few random references that spring to mind. He was not afraid of misquoting anyone, myself included, in order to make a point.
Underlying this was a belief that the material itself should determine the form and the outcome of the music. In this he was determinedly anti-conceptual. He felt that conceptualism had been the undoing of twentieth-century music, where methods, systems of proportioning and extra-musical concepts had forced musical material into moulds that went against its nature. He seemed to feel the distorting factors of time, and the deep psychological and historical meaning of combinations of sounds did not permit a pre-programming of musical structure. The long evolution and perfection of traditional instruments brought a significance in their very nature that did not permit their sounds, their pitches, to be cast into arbitrary or capricious forms. This brought him into direct conflict with the universalist methods and empire building theories of other major figures of contemporary music. Allegedly Stockhausen confronted him: ‘Do you mean that when you choose a note, you choose from all eighty-eight every time?’, to which Feldman replied: ‘For a New Yorker, eighty-eight notes is not a problem.’
‘I can’t write a pitch unless I know which instrument is playing it,’ he often said. ‘Listen Profoundly!’ and ‘Know Thy Instrument!’ he exhorted young composers. I recall a long conversation we had on the different way the G string on a violin speaks, compared to the D string, or the G string of the viola, and how each demanded a different treatment. (No compositional pre-planning I have come across can take this kind of detail into account.)
In a way, he might be regarded as an instrumental snob: the recorder was too arcane an instrument to play atonal music, or the saxophone too brash to be used in serious music. ‘I am not qualified to judge electronic music,’ he would announce modestly, but later would add: ‘I think pitches are too beautiful to be played on the mouth organ!’ I don’t think he enjoyed controversy, but he stuck to his guns. ‘You don’t know how much you have going for you with one note on the piano! You could faint, it’s so beautiful!’
He was strongly opposed to any sort of regionalism or specialism. ‘If you don’t take on the mainstream, you’re lost…. You leave the motorway in a foreign country, what happens? You get lost!’ Or more provocatively: ‘Just because you come from somewhere, doesn’t mean to say that you’re interesting’ (a comment aimed partly at our ‘loving disagreement’ over my interest in African music).
His friendship and dialogue with artists is, of course, legendary and anecdotes abound: ‘If you don’t have a friend who is an artist, you’re wasting your time.’ One day he was arguing with his composition teacher, Stefan Wolpe, who felt his approach was too difficult, too highbrow: ‘But what about the man in the street? What about the man in the street?’ asked Wolpe. They looked out the window and there, crossing the road, was Jackson Pollock. ‘If you need an audience,’ he told a class of young composers, ‘we don’t need you.’
Then there was the large black Rauschenberg he saw when Rauschenberg had just moved into the building where John Cage was living. ‘How much do you want for that?’ he asked. ‘How much do you have in your pocket?’ Rauschenberg replied.
The story goes he got it for less than $20.
But it is his friendship and dialogue with Philip Guston that seems to have been the most profound. It is difficult at this remove to know who influenced whom the most. But their philosophical split is well known: When Guston came back to exhibit in the Marlborough Gallery in 1970 after a long stay in the Hamptons, he shocked the Abstract Expressionist world with his figurative work. ‘What do you think, Morty?’ he asked. ‘Just give me a minute,’ Feldman replied. They never talked again. ‘It was the biggest mistake of my life,’ said Feldman at Darmstadt twenty years later. ‘Never judge a work from the point of view of style,’ he often said – a plea that usually goes unheeded to this day.
His contribution to music is difficult to cover in the space of so short an essay. In my opinion, the great works start with his opera, Neither, written to a libretto by Samuel Beckett (1977). This work seemed to open a door for Feldman, and a series of large masterpieces flowed for the rest of his life. The anti-conceptualist nature of the work and the fact that it was nearly all quiet, sustained and employed small repetitive models, did not prevent the music from encompassing some large and varied themes. In writing very long works, he went beyond the normal limits of what the brain can process and effectively eliminated the notion of large-scale form, focusing on micro-structure and the material itself. The pieces became meditations on time itself, rather than timing.
The following is a very personal take on some of the works:
Coptic Light for large orchestra (1985) is concerned with the nature of orchestration and the relationship of instruments to each other within a large group. I feel Feldman wanted to present the fabric of orchestration, which, similar to a fragment of Coptic cloth, can reveal much about a culture and its concerns through the very nature of the warp and weft.
String Quartet (1979) seems to start out at a point and expand outward in several directions in the space of one and a half hours.To me, this is a work in search of a subject it never finds.
In contrast to this, the six-hour String Quartet No. 2 (1983), presents us with a series of perfectly formed subjects, like a vast collection of Joseph Cornell boxes, each encapsulating a different mood. The structuring principle of this work is memory – Feldman composed in pencil during the day and then made a fair copy in ink in the evening (‘getting closer to the material’), and then turned the pages face down. In the following days he would bring back the material from memory and examine it again – re-notating, reinterpreting – until he felt he knew and understood it, at which point he would drop it out, until nothing was left. The piece can be regarded as a musical equivalent of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981) seems to be a meditation along the lines of Bach’s Kunst der Fuge. To me it says, ‘this is all I can do, and this is all I can do.’ Nothing more.
For Philip Guston (1984), a four-hour study in asynchronicity, in which the four instruments start at the same point and develop away from each other at their own pace, with what seems like astonishing rapidity, while remaining somehow in touch. A truly virtuosic piece of composition.
And in For Christian Wolff (1986) for flute and piano (doubling celeste), the flute, while remaining quiet and still, gives the illusion of increasing stridency and urgency.
Each of the late works was daunting in its scope and imagination – ‘scale’ replaced ‘form’, and ‘musical relationships’ replaced ‘development’, and ‘material’ replaced ‘ideas’. The focus constantly shifted, say, from pitch to interval to tone-colour to rhythm to notation to time, and back. Notation became not just the easiest or clearest way of writing the music down, but something incorporated in the compositional process itself as a sophisticated tool for musical exploration. Each piece became a model of some kind – an unconsummated icon – didactically gruelling yet immensely satisfying emotionally.
Right to the end Feldman remained didactic, and he left us with a conundrum. On his last evening in Europe, just a month before his death, he had dinner with Bunita Marcus, Barbara Feldman, Aki Takahashi and myself. Towards the end of the evening he said: ‘Kinder, I have something important to say. Listen carefully: if ever you have agreed with anything I have said, PLEASE FORGET IT. I mean this. Forget it.’
Published on 1 April 2010
Kevin Volans is a composer living in Ireland. His work, principally in the field of chamber and orchestral music, has been performed at the Berliner Festwochen, Vienna State Opera, Salzburger Festspiele, Lincoln Center, New York, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the BBC Proms.