Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Morty, oh Morty

Morton Feldman is so hard to write about. I've managed to avoid writing about him with any seriousness thus far. I've done John Cage to death, I've done Earle Brown in some detail, I've spent some quality time in the David Tudor papers, and if pressed to say something intelligent about Christian Wolff I could definitely pull through. But Morty? Luckily, I have not had a gun pressed to my forehead with the knowledge that if I simply talked about Feldman's length and quietude I would be shot. But it is going to happen some day. My grand plan is to write a book some day about the New York School (my advisor loves it when I talk about my next book instead of my current dissertation), and so I'm just not going to be able to avoid it.

It's not that I don't like him. I love him. I saw Yuri Bashmet play The Viola in My Life with the San Francisco Symphony when I was in high school, and even at that early age, barely having heard of John Cage, I knew it to be beautiful music. When my professor--the estimable Alvin Lucier-- played us Two Pianos in the first music class I took in college, I was spellbound, and checked the score out of the library to ponder. As I have blogged before, I occasionally put on the epic Flux recording of String Quartet No. 2 for solace in times of blustery despair. Last summer I read his collected essays, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, and still quote its clever lines left and right. Like this one: "Impressionism isn't painting, it is an idea about painting." I just wrote that from memory. I consider Feldman to be the only true postmodernist of the New York School. 'Cause as Gayatri Spivak says--and here I also quote from memory, but probably in error--postmodernism is the result of living under postmodernity. I read that to say you can't adopt postmodernism, you've got to be born under it, and breath it out instinctively.

...I brought John a string quartet. He looked at it a long time and then said, "How did you make this?" I thought of my constant quarrels with Wolpe and also that, just a week before, after showing a composition of mine to Milton Babbitt and answering his questions as intelligently as I could, he said to me, "Morton, I don't understand a word you're saying." And so, in a very weak voice, I answered John, "I don't know how I made it." The response to this was startling. John jumped up and down and, with a kind of high monkey squeal, screeched, "Isn't that marvelous. Isn't that wonderful. It's so beautiful, and he doesn't know how he made it." Quite frankly, I sometimes wonder how my music would have turned out if John had not given me those early permissions to have confidence in my instincts.

I love John Cage the squealing monkey. But anyways, okay, so Morton Feldman is great. No question there. But if you believe in writing in specific and communicable detail about what makes a piece of music great, we obviously can't stop there. And I have no idea how to. How do you deal with his music with any specificity? There is not much in the way of good writing to turn to. Kyle Gann just did a post that is a great example of how to do it--he notices that Feldman tends to change his textures more or less page by page. Obviously the question is what next to do with that observation, but with Feldman's all-too-mystic music I think it is crucial to start with this sort of demystifying maneuver.

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