Morton Feldman: Exuberant Dissent
Ivan Ilić reflects on the legacy of American composer Morton Feldman.
American composer Morton Feldman would have turned 90 today.
His birthday is an opportunity to reflect on his legacy: not just his singularly mysterious music, but the curiosity and nonconformist wisdom he shared in his lectures. I was reminded of Feldman recently while reading How to Write About Contemporary Art. The author advises: “raise good questions” and “make pointed observations”. I know of no other postwar composer who did both as often, and with such exuberance.
Feldman’s ideas are best communicated in his long, rambling lectures, transcribed for posterity by a coterie of fans. These lectures often combine food for thought with a disarming, off the cuff style. He loved to crack jokes in the middle of a serious discussion. “My whole debt to Oriental culture is Chinese food” he once said. But he then went on to lambast composers with pre-conceived philosophies and systems: “When a man talks to me about technique in music, I'm sorry to say I think of him as a fool.” This was an explosive thing to say in 1966. “[I]f you settle for a system, which is like settling for a form of government, you cannot go farther than the system allows”.
By calling into question a prevailing doctrine – that composers had to justify their compositional processes – Feldman expressed a bold dissenting opinion.
Now, I’ve tried to imagine a parallel universe in which all the composers of Feldman’s generation jettisoned systems and composed by instinct, as he claimed to. The resulting musical landscape would likely have been just as problematic, albeit differently. But his willingness to go against the grain at a time when aesthetic choices were highly politicised has always impressed me.
Feldman’s penchant for opposition was likely tied to his underdog status. In contrast to the posthumous surge of interest in his music, he felt neglected throughout his career.
At the Paul Sacher Foundation I examined dozens of letters Feldman wrote to American universities, offering lectures about his music. I also read the replies, which were overwhelmingly negative, and dishearteningly few in number. As late as 1986, the year before his death, he confessed, “I have no complaints about my career, but I always wondered why it really doesn’t take hold.”
His position as an outsider had its advantages: Feldman was free to entertain – and voice – ideas which his more successful peers may have shied away from.
He once told the story of a dinner with composer Toru Takemitsu, where they both became excited by the background music on the radio. A long, slow crescendo led Feldman to leap to his feet to prevent the host from turning off the music. Afterwards, they realised that the piece was Sibelius’s 4th Symphony. Feldman’s moral of the story, perennially relevant, was: “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.”
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