It is often thought that John Cage was the most significant composer to loose our Western ears from traditional modes of listening. However, it was Morton Feldman who, through pieces lasting anywhere between one and a half minutes and one and a half hours, first revealed a delight in the momentary presence of a single sound. It was through listening to Feldman that we were able to rid ourselves of the pressures, ingrained through years of both school and further education, of trying to ‘understand’ music and the guilt of not comprehending the structural context of each and every note. With Feldman’s music there is nothing to understand, no prior knowledge of historical compositional methods needed — a sound is a sound, a piece is a piece. But what exquisite sounds and what extraordinary pieces! And, as Feldman composed primarily using his instinct as his guide, sitting at the piano and listening (his method of composition was ‘the right note, at the right time, in the right place’!), what an exceptional composer.
This does not mean that Feldman’s music is puerile, anti-intellectual, or that there is nothing in his music to talk about. Feldman talked a lot about music, including his own. (Though not as much as he talked about painters and the visual arts.)
One of the fallacies that is perhaps a result of Feldman’s music being more widely heard and recorded in recent years is that his music is ‘about’ quietness. But can it be that the hushed dynamics that do indeed feature in so much of Feldman’s output are more a by-product than a root concern. The concern is instead toward a more physical and tactile approach to sound than perhaps any previous music.
Feldman was immersed in the world of the great American abstract painters – Rothko, Guston, De Kooning – and their absolute concentration upon the medium of the paint upon the canvas, as the primary guiding force for their art, is reflected in Feldman’s music. Here, the medium is the touch of a human finger upon a keyboard, causing a hammer to strike a string. In asking the pianist to play, as he so often does, ‘as soft as possible,’ the pianist is forced to examine his/her touch so that the hammer strikes the string in such a way as to produce a sound of the highest quality, almost regardless of the sounds which precede or follow it. Feldman revolutionised our ability to listen — to enjoy sounds as sounds.
The other quality in Feldman’s music to which we are drawn is its unpretentiousness and its gentle subversiveness. It is simply what it is, inviting the listener, gently but compellingly, to tune in and enjoy.
Feldman defies the expectations of Western audiences by choosing not to revel in virtuosic flourishes, and refusing to manipulate the audience into a climactic (and clichéd) mode of expression.
Feldman, as a character, was, by all accounts, loud, brash, at times slightly vulgar, but as Christian Wolff wrote: “One thinks of the disparity of his large, strong presence and the delicate, hyper soft music, but in fact he too was, among other things, full of tenderness and the music is, among other things, as tough as nails.”
In Morton Feldman Says we would like to put the loud, brash, at times slightly vulgar Feldman at centre stage. Or to be precise, we would like to put the man behind the music, with all of his unpretentiousness and gentle subversiveness, for an hour of examination.
Feldman talked the way he composed, using his instincts as his guide. He said what was in his head whiteout bothering or caring about the consequences or the effect, on the listeners, of his words. Here is an example of Feldman talking to some music students: “Well of course I spend a few hours, or an hour at least every day, jotting down possible things I could talk about. And it’s just amazing when you write down all the categories what you come up with. I also thought about, maybe I’ll just talk about, just the music and not get involved in anything that much in depth about my music. I thought maybe I’ll just tell stories, I love to tell stories. If not my own then perhaps then someone else’s story.
Just as I say the word story I think of about a million things coming into my head. I just thought of a marvellous story Kierkegaard wrote. Not a real story you know, but an incident where he was walking down the street in his neighbourhood and he comes across a new establishment with a sign in the window and the sign says “We press pants”. So he goes back to his apartment, gets hold of a few pairs of pants, brings it down to the store and hands it to the clerk. And the clerk says “Well, what are we supposed to do with this?” And he said “Well, press them of course! You’ve got a sign in the window that says “We press pants”.” “Oh, we don’t press pants here, we only sell the sign in the window.” [laughter] And, of course you all know I mean that as a very biting and important, I feel important aspect of what I feel is the separation of what one is given musically and what one perhaps should get.
I also thought about, maybe I’ll tell the story of my life and my influences, and I kind of got frightened by all the influences. They all seemed very portentous – Freud, Kafka, Proust. And everybody you could think of in my own artistic background. And then I decided there was only one real big influence in my life, and that was my grandmother…”
Morton Feldman was a big, brusque Jewish guy from Woodside, Queens—the son of a manufacturer of children’s coats. He worked in the family business until he was forty-four years old, and he later became a professor of music at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He died in 1987, at the age of sixty-one. To almost everyone’s surprise but his own, he turned out to be one of the major composers of the twentieth century, a sovereign artist who opened up vast, quiet, agonisingly beautiful worlds of sound. He was also one of the greatest talkers in the recent history of New York City, and there is no better way to present him on stage than to let him speak for himself.
The idea of Morton Feldman Says is to turn Feldman’s talks into a score. The score should not have a coherent theme but should sample Feldman’s views on music, art, work, history, and life. The mix should be between personal stories and highly intellectual reflections on matters of composition and sounds.
The text is taken from both formal and informal interactions with audience, as excerpts from interviews he gave over the years. The text represents on one hand the rigid thinker and on the other the spontaneous clown.
The main part of the text is taken from a lecture and subsequent audience Q and A he gave in Darmstadt on 26 July, 1984. In addition we will add an assortment of texts that Feldman gave over the years with no particular order or sense. The text will be composed as we go on building the piece.
Notes on the music
by the composer Martin Siewert
With regard to music, ‘Morton Feldman Says’ in a narrower sense is not about referring to Feldman in an unambiguous and ostensible manner — rather, many of his techniques or structural characteristics are applied by way of paraphrase, such as, e.g., slow structural and dynamic developments, quasi-static repetitive playing scenarios (which amazingly can be found again in loop-based electronic music). Also, some of these parameters are shifted to a level at least partially improvised … but always with a view to basic musical and interpretative attitudes which also are (or could be) the foundation of Feldman’s music.
Furthermore, the duo Katharina Ernst / Martin Siewert in a quasi thwarting and contrasting way opposes these passages, which generally are gentle and more determined with regard to content, with more rhythmical, eruptive material whose points of reference (including their very direct, intensive, and at times downright controversial nature) rather are found in Feldman’s texts and rhetorical excursions than in his music — after all, the topic of the evening first of all are Feldman’s qualities as a pointed theoretician and a rhetorician exceedingly partial to discourse, who in this function not only proves to be a great art critic of the 20th century avant-garde, but also shows surprising skills as an entertainer.
If his music is inscribed with parameters such as reduction, repetition, slowed-down development scenarios, a virtually analytical ‘coolness’, and abstinence (as much as possible) from the individual emotion of personal interpretation, his texts present another picture: they are marked by great spontaneity, a love for surprising, and often controversial replies and inflections, great pleasure in the immediate dialogic-dialectic verbal exchange with his discursive opponent, and not least a lot of wit and humour — great qualities, which however in handed-down discourse are not necessarily associated with his music, and which offer an intriguing point of departure for the partly composed, partly improvised score by Ernst and Siewert.
Concerning the improvisational and creative strategies of the duo working with electronics as well as various string and percussion instruments, it should be mentioned that they do not only refer to each other, but to a great extent also to the text level as well as the protagonists / performers, accepting them as equal partners in discourse, and always searching for creatively inspiring tension with the text, the overall score, and the interpretative identity of the performers on the text and language levels, with regard to densification and intensification, acceleration and deceleration of musical and content developments, as well as surprising punctual interventions and disruptions of form. As it were, an attempt at an inter-/multidisciplinary, hiercharchically egalitarian overall score, by all means with an improvisational impetus, which with regard to strong moods and their breaking, the acceleration and deceleration of music AND text/language, and surprising / tongue-in-cheek cross references, to a great extent refers to Morton Feldman’s wonderful texts and words.
The show’s setup
Morton Feldman Says will be staged like a Q and A meeting between the composer and the audience. The composer arrives to an audience questioning after a concert of some of his pieces. The audience is seated on all four sides while Feldman is seated in the middle on a turn table constantly turning while answering the various questions thrown at him by the public.
The role of the audience is played by four performers who actually sit with the public and function as a sort of Greek Chorus.
The inspiration for this set up comes from the Rothko Chapel.
Feldman was very close to the painters of Abstract Expressionism in NYC. The example of the painters was crucial. Feldman’s scores were close in spirit to Rauschenberg’s all-white and all-black canvases, Barnett Newman’s gleaming lines, and, especially, Rothko’s glowing fog banks of colour. His habit of presenting the same figure many times in succession invites you to hear music as a gallery visitor sees paintings; you can study the sound from various angles, stand back or move up close, go away and come back for a second look. Feldman said that New York painting led him to attempt a music “more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore.” Just as the Abstract Expressionists wanted viewers to focus on paint itself, on its texture and pigment, Feldman wanted listeners to absorb the basic facts of resonant sound.
This setup is allowing words to be the main attraction, the Feldman text is spoken in a direct, immediate, and intimate manner.
There is nothing but text resonating in the room, bouncing off like sounds. Sometimes the text makes sense and sometimes it is just sound, colour, music note.
Listening to Feldman’s talk should feel like being in a room with curtains drawn. You sense that with one quick gesture sunlight could fill the room, that life in all its richness could come flooding in. But the curtains stay closed.A shadow turns and turns. It is Morton Feldman who sits in his comfortable chair and talks, and talks, and talks…