Our Great Dead Contemporary

The upcoming Printing House Festival of New Music in Dublin is taking ‘Life After Feldman’ as its theme. Composer Christopher Fox looks at the legacy of the great American composer.

Morton Feldman died 20 years ago. I think he would have been impressed with his posthumous career, at the steady production of books of his writings, at the CD racks full of his music, at the numbers of performances his works continue to receive. He would have enjoyed last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival too, because the new director of the Festival, Graham McKenzie, decided that his first festival programme would make a major feature of Feldman’s music. McKenzie invited John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet to play all the music for piano and strings. It was a bold decision on all sides. In Feldman’s music there is nowhere for musicians to hide; it is music in which the articulation of every subtle nuance reveals almost as much about the personality of the performer as about the composer. And for McKenzie it was a statement of intent: a composer may be dead, but if he’s Feldman he can still be ‘contemporary’.

Before the Huddersfield Festival began I wrote an article about Feldman for the Guardian newspaper. The invitation to write the article arrived as I was waiting to get on a plane to Stockholm and the deadline was tight – they wanted the article as soon as I got back from Sweden, three days later. So there was no chance to do any research, but as I wrote I had an aural image of Feldman’s music in my head. It was not a whole piece or pieces, not even bits of pieces, but a more generalised sense of what I remembered of the experience of listening to the music. Then I went to Huddersfield and the first thing I heard was the cello and piano piece, Chromatic field.

In Nicholson Baker’s wonderful book, U and I, he describes his admiration for John Updike and remembers favourite passages from Updike’s writing. But his memory constantly plays him false and the book becomes a dialogue between (mis)quotations from the ‘Updike’ that Baker remembers and the words that Updike actually wrote. The same thing had happened to me with Feldman. My ‘Feldman’ was far more homogenous, more harmonically and rhythmically consistent, more tonally smooth than the dramatic, unpredictable music that Deirdre Cooper and John Tilbury were playing. It was an exciting, if somewhat chastening, reminder that great art is always more interesting to encounter than it is to think about.

I think Feldman would have liked that story. He liked contradictions. His music is delicate, finely wrought, yet he was a big man, dedicated to food, drink and cigarettes, with a personality even his friends described as abrasive and a rabbinical gift for pithy expression. I met him a couple of times in the mid-1980s at the Darmstadt new music summer school. He referred to me in his 1984 lecture as that ‘young English boy’ and was entirely dismissive of my ideas, but I loved listening to him talk. His conversation was stuffed full of anecdotes, many of them apparently tangential to music but always with something to teach his audience. He also had a strong sense of his artistic ancestry and in the combative international new music scene he was always ready to assert his pedigree. He felt an especially keen rivalry with his European contemporaries, Stockhausen and Boulez, whose music, like Feldman’s, had evolved out of the early twentieth-century modernism of Schoenberg. ‘Did Boulez study with Schoenberg?’ Feldman would ask. ‘No. John Cage studied with Schoenberg’, and because Feldman had studied with Cage that made him Schoenberg’s musical heir.

Feldman’s relationship with Cage was perhaps not quite that straightforward. As the Cage disciple who wrote slow quiet music Feldman established a niche market position during the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1970s he consolidated his position with a series of lavishly scored orchestral pieces, still slow, still quiet, and bounded by the expected attention span of a concert audience. His music was attractive, if you liked that sort of thing, mildly controversial if you did not, but it did not represent an unavoidable aesthetic challenge, unlike Cage’s music. Feldman never said as much but the evidence would suggest that in expanding the time-scale of his music in the long late pieces he was attempting to make a mark in musical history as significant as that made in the 1950s by Cage.

In 1982 Feldman gave a lecture in Toronto. In it he discussed his decision to write music of a length previously unprecedented in western art music and he is engagingly open about his motivations. He described a meal in the Russian Tea Room in New York with ‘a big-time publisher… multi-millionaire, big Cadillac, big Cadillac… And he looks over to me and he says, “Feldman, you mind if I tell you something.” I said, “Go ahead.” He said, “You’re not going to make it unless.” I said, “Unless what?” He said, “You’re a fabulous composer, but you’re not… unless.” “Unless what?” “You need a little drama. Not much. Just a little drama. Just a little bit”’. Feldman does not give the exact date for this meeting but it must have been in the late-1970s and, as he says, ‘I decided I wanted to become competitive, essentially that’s what it amounts to’.

As the composer of the long pieces of his last period, Feldman achieved this, at least to his own satisfaction. Where Cage in 1952 challenged his audience to hear differently by removing his own taste from the compositional process, Feldman’s challenge was to ‘get rid of the audience’. In Toronto he pleaded, ‘Give us six weeks without an audience, and maybe something else could happen’, and in the music which he created in the last decade of his life he made it clear that for him this ‘something else’ was a reassessment of the ways in which music could be an art-form.

Above all, if musical form was no longer to be bounded by expectations of how long an audience might listen attentively, the material essences of music – time, patterns of notes, instrumentation – could undergo the same sort of abstract exploration that Feldman saw as the subject of his beloved Rothko, Pollock and Turkish rug-makers.

But there’s a contradiction here too. As Feldman refined his methods of exploration in the late works he seems to have discovered that longevity was not the most important formal factor; there are some very, very long pieces but many of the others finish after about 80 minutes and my own experience of ‘short’ pieces like the 20 minute long Palais de Mari is not one of time being in any way compressed. If Feldman set out to examine ‘time and the instrumental factor’, to quote one of his best titles, then by his death in 1987 he had demonstrated that the question of time was about more than just duration. To me this suggests there is unfinished business in the project Feldman began, unfinished not just because cancer cut his life cruelly short, but because late Feldman was actually early Feldman with added repetition, more intricate rhythms and patterns, rather than the ‘something else’ he was looking for.

I realise that for some Feldman fans that last sentence will be heresy. I too love Feldman’s music, but as a composer I think there are unexplored spaces in the musical territory which he opened up. I am fascinated, for example, by the spaces before and after we hear music. Asked how he knew if he had reached the end of one of the late works, Feldman replied, ‘I think the piece dies a natural death. It dies of old age.’ But what if the model for music is based not on mortality but on endless re-generation, where the beginning and end of a piece are no more than the points at which the listener becomes able to hear the music? Or, as in my string quartet 1-2-3, what happens if the music stops, not because it has died but because if it has forgotten how to go on? Just as in Darmstadt in 1984, I am sure Feldman would have a diamond-hard put-down with which to dismiss these further thoughts from the young English boy. I suspect he would also have been impressed that ‘life after Feldman’ still seems to involve him, our great dead contemporary.

Christopher Fox’s string quartet 1-2-3, and Morton Feldman’s pieces The King of Denmark and Trio (performed by Aki Takahashi, Rohan de Saram and Marc Sabat) can be heard at the Printing House Festival of New Music in Trinity College, Dublin on 15/16 December. Visit www.printinghousefestival.com

Published on 1 November 2007

Christopher Fox is a composer, teacher and writer on music.

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