I first met Morton Feldman in September, 1973, arriving at his office for my first lesson in the old Baird Hall on the Main Street campus of what was then known as SUNY Buffalo. He answered the door when I knocked, Camel cigarette hanging from the left lower lip, dressed in plaid button down shirt, tie, herring bone jacket and khakis from Brooks Brothers, his standard appearance. I am embarassed to say that I did not know any of his music except the Piece for Two Pianos in which the same music is played without specific coordination by two pianists. I don't recall any preliminary conversation-he simply asked to see what I had brought. What I had brought was a three stave version of a piece for violin and orchestra with hardly any indications of the instrumentation. Morty, who always was seated at the piano during lessons, proceeded to find on the piano the four note chord with which the "orchestra" started. "Who's playing this", he asked? "Strings", I replied. And for the remainder of the hour, he orchestrated the four notes in a continuously changing way, from the most straightforward to the most fanciful, asking after each distribution, "Could it be like this"? My sole contribution to the exchange was, "Yes, possibly". At the conclusion of the hour, he got up, handed me the music and said "If you don't know who's playing the note, you haven't written the note. Get it?...Sonny"! I left the room thinking that my return to Buffalo was either the biggest mistake I had ever made or that he would change my life.
He changed my life.
Morty was very generous with his time in those early years of his teaching. I soon started going to his house for lessons, which started with muffins ,which he baked, and coffee. Then to the piano, where most of the time was spent listening to Morty play through what he was writing. This was in itself instructive because Morty did not play in time so much as taste the sounds, often singing for added expression. In the early 70's his music focused on a very narrow intervallic palette and it would not be unusual for him to play for 20 to 30 minutes various exchanges of three half steps. He allowed us to address him informally and I recall finally saying, "Morty, how can you stay in the same place so long, what about the other nine notes?". He turned to me and said, "I'm looking for the space between the cracks". After a year of this, I needed, I thought, a change and asked him if he would mind if I studied with Harrison Birwhistle, who was visiting for a semester. He encouraged me to do so. But I returned the following semester and spent my remaining year and a half with him.
What I began to understand was that he was never going to discuss virtually all the things that most composition lessons are concerned with-pitch content, form, development of material. Rather, he talked only about two things-what instrument should play what note in what register (essentially his definition of composing) and notation. Through these two concerns he was able to impart to his students, regardless of their style, something essential and useful. He taught us how to listen.
In 1977, Morty invited me to join a group of musicians which included Jan Williams, percussion, and Eberhard Blum, flute, to go to England for some concerts. Thus I joined 'Morton Feldman and Soloists' - an ever changing roster of performers traveling, virtually always in Europe, with Morty, playing his music. It was under this aegis that with Jan and Eberhard, I gave the first performance of Crippled Symmetry in Berlin and with Eberhard the first performance of For Christain Wolff in Darmstadt. Something remarkable happened at the first rehearsal of Crippled Symmetry. The celesta was five octaves and I assumed it had been ordered to play the notes in their written register, unlike the normal transposition, an octave higher. After a few minutes, Feldman came up to me and asked what was wrong with the celesta. I didn't know what he meant, so he asked me to play a passage. When he discovered what I was doing, which was not his intention, instead of telling me to play an octave higher, he said, "keep it where it is".
There are many reasons why the interest in Feldman's music continues to grow, over twenty-five years since his death, but one of them is due to his extraordinary discoveries in the projection of instruments and their combinations of timbres. I would think it highly unlikely that anyone could guess from listening the exact instrumentation of Madame Press Died Last Week at 90. The registration of the sounds is such that
the instruments take on a chameleon like quality which expands exponentially the impression of the size of the ensemble. Feldman's sensitivity to instrumental sound freed him as well from sectarian allegiance to limitations of tonal expression so that one can find in his music, within the same piece even, an extremely inclusive tonal vocabulary. Highly chromatic, non-tonal pitch fields co-exist with diatonic ones. In For Philip Guston, there are two long sections, each about 15 minutes, in which a Lydian hexachord in one transposition is the only pitch source. Variation arises from the exchange of three instruments playing two lines in different registers.
Feldman's other great discovery, which he made very early in his life, is the power of reiteration. In the last of the 4 Songs to e.e. cummings (1951) the Webernian continuity is startlingly broken at the conclusion when the voice loops the final word. The Second Vienese School is then left in the rear view mirror. It may seem like a long road from this brief miniature to the extended duration works but that may be, as Feldman said, simply(!) a matter of scale.