Morton Feldman
in conversation with Thomas Moore

On 9 November 1983 I interviewed composer Morton Feldman at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. We had just heard Feldman’s For John Cage, beautifully performed by violinist Paul Zukofsky and pianist Ursula Oppens. The interview was published by the journal Sonus (Volume 4, Number 2, Spring 1984) as a verbatim transcript, but unfortunately the editors took it upon themselves to “clean up” Feldman’s grammar, so although he said, “Cage and myself are still doing the most interesting work,” the version in Sonus says, “Cage and I are still doing the interesting work.” Such alterations were made throughout the interview, without my permission. So I’ve posted here the “real” interview for your enjoyment.

Thomas Moore: In the ’50s you became involved with not only John Cage, David Tudor and Earle Brown but also the painters Rothko, Rauschenberg and de Kooning. What did you absorb from the visual artists as opposed to the musicians?

Morton Feldman: Well, you have to remember that I met Cage not in the ’50s but in 1950, which is important. It was the beginning of everything in my life and to some degree of that particular art world, too. Not that fabulous work wasn’t done, say, in the late ’40s, but Rauschenberg didn’t come into town until 1951. It was a very important period for everybody, that dateline, ’50–’51.

Up until then I didn’t know too many composers. Most of the composers were the ones I went to high school with, or whatever. But the most significant composer that I knew was my teacher, Stefan Wolpe. It was actually through Wolpe that I met Cage. To some degree, though, I met him later in a more glamorous context. And it was also through Wolpe I met Varse, who I began to visit.

Meeting Cage — it was the beginning of my musical life, really. As far as the influences of the painters or Cage and so on, I prefer a word like “permission” rather than “influence.” And so there was a terrific green light. Up until then, everything was red light. When I got involved with this world, everything was green light.

And a lot of conversation. Lot of conversation with everybody. Those were famous times for talk. It was actually an artists’ club, I think. Always talks, always talks. Interesting questions, interesting discussions. Things that composers wouldn’t talk about. I remember one famous discussion of a panel, all of these famous painters. And the panel was “When Is a Painting Finished?” It was a very lively subject, and the answers were lively. That’s not a compositional subject.

TM: Perhaps to some people it’s applicable.

MF: No! I mean it would be just a lot of baloney, a lot of malarkey, about some kind of historical, deterministic … I don’t feel that music has been and I don’t feel that music to this day is involved with the real world. These people are involved with the real world, and that’s why we have names like Philip Guston or Rothko or Bob Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns or Jackson Pollock, and the reason they’re so fantastic is because they’re involved with the real world.

And I never found that in music. I don’t find that now in music. I think music to some degree is boring; our point of view is boring.

TM: You have mentioned that Rothko Chapel becomes more abstract as it proceeds through. Do you mean “abstract” in relation to the real world?

MF: No, where the subject becomes less definable as an object. A lot of people feel that music is abstract to begin with. No, I meant that certain subject matter is very difficult to ascertain. Where the quality was there, where the feeling was there. Those devices which we think of as expressive or musical language devices are not used at that particular moment, and yet I felt that the feeling was quite lovely.

TM: What new or emerging trends or composers do you feel have been important for the ’70s and ’80s?

MF: Nothing, we had nothing in the ’70s. We had —

TM: Or even the ’60s?

MF: We had popular music, like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, but they’re show business. Serious stuff, if I may use that word, experimental stuff, if I may use that word, nothing, nothing. Cage and myself are still doing the most interesting work. The young people are a disaster.

TM: Why is this?

MF: They shouldn’t be in the field. It’s a field that requires immense talent. They have no ideas. What the hell they’re doing there, I have no idea. I taught a seminar on my own—I mean I loved the kids, I suppose. They’re not kids anymore, they’re your age, doctorate program. I said, “You like those crazy Arabs that tie yourself up with dynamite and you crash into a building?” I said, “My God, you’re not going to crash in here.” I said, “We have it fixed — it happens about ten years after your doctorate degree.” I want everybody to get out of music. It’s too difficult. It requires immense talent for ideas, when not to use ideas. And a feeling for instruments, and a feeling for sound, and a natural feeling for proportion, not a didactic feeling for proportion, all these things. It’s very, very difficult. It’s very, very difficult. Music is very, very difficult. I don’t even think it should be taught in universities anymore.

TM: Well, what should happen to it?

MF: I think it should disappear from academic life, because the tendency is to be very academic even without academic life.

TM: You yourself teach!

MF: I teach … I don’t know what I do. I don’t know what I do. What is teaching? Teaching is in a sense what happened with Hindemith. This is the story about Hindemith and Yale: He says to somebody, “You know, I invented a system where you can be stupid and get good results?” That was the whole idea—finding ways to make it democratic. It’s not democratic. I mean, composition is not democratic.

TM: You don’t teach that way, I hope.

MF: No, I don’t teach like that, but I let them hang. I teach by not teaching. In a way, I would play things, and I would be a devil’s advocate. I would ask a question, “What do you think about it?” I teach one thing, actually. I don’t teach composition per se, but I go at composition by way of its acoustical reality. That is, I teach orchestration.

TM: You made a statement that, “In art, we must pursue anxiety.” What do you mean by that? In life, we tend to avoid it—must we pursue it in art?

MF: We have to avoid it! Who wants anxiety?! You go to an analyst, you take pills —

TM: But then why in art is it necessary that we pursue it?

MF: Because music is the most stressful thing to write. And it’s in the stress, the balance of what you think and how you could apply it. You just can’t get an idea, it has to go into the darkroom and materialize itself like a negative. That’s its instrumentation. You just can’t get an idea and send it to Paul Zukofsky, it has to be on paper, it has to be articulated, and it has to be not a hackneyed idea. It’s a lot of stress, a lot of stress.

That’s another problem. Young people don’t know the work involved. They don’t know the work involved in doing something lousy. And it’s not a subject, it’s a calling.

TM: In relation to this, I’ve seen many poor performances of your works because people think they’re easy — and they’re not, they’re difficult.

MF: That’s part of my problem. That’s part of my professional perception. And I think I’ve got another fifteen years to live. I just write for people like Paul Zukofsky. I think I’m making a very good decision if I go someplace and I don’t let them play my music. And if they are going to play my music they are obligated to present it in a way, you see. And I’m becoming very arrogant in just saying I don’t have to be put in a gas oven anymore. I wouldn’t mind a gas oven handled by professionals!

TM: I spoke with John Cage about people misinterpreting his pieces, and he said, “Well, I’ve heard lots of misinterpretations of specifically written music.”

MF: But his music is very specific.

TM: It is specific, but it allows for a very broad interpretation.

MF: That’s specific. It’s not a broad interpretation. The interpretation is defined. It is specific within its context.

TM: Within its context, yes.

MF: Everything is open to interpretation! Christ is open to interpretation. What’s not left to interpretation? Grenada, my God, something as simple as that could be very interpreted.

This was a delusion that people had in trying to handle Cage’s artistry. You know what Cage did (being that this piece was written for him)? John Cage was the first composer in the history of music who raised the question by implication that maybe music could be an art form rather than a music form—rather, something about music, always and always something about music and only about music in a historical sense.

I don’t mean to sound so aggressive, but if this is for young composers, I advise them that no matter how gifted they are they should get out of the field. They haven’t got a chance.