Morton Feldman was an icon in new music…and my teacher. He was inside the incubator that was the New York music and art scene in the 1950s. His influences were not other composers, but the abstract expressionist painters that he would close the Cedar Tavern with on a regular basis…deKooning, Guston, Rauschenberg, Kline, Rothko…
But he was also a riot, a large man with long, slicked back hair and a Bronx accent so thick that I sometimes wished his lectures were close-captioned. He commanded the room. His patience was legendary. His students learned to stifle moans when, at the end of a two-hour piece we were listening to during class, he’d say, “play that again…” and he’d just sit back, and listen with his eyes closed. His metaphors were dense and, often indecipherable (for example, to a Hungarian graduate student in Morty’s orchestration class who was going on and on about Bartok – “Just because you invented paprika doesn’t mean you use it in every dish”). To this day, I wonder about the connection between rats, James Bond, and composing.
When you handed a piece of your music to Morty, you held your breath. He’d look at what you’d written, he’d look at it, listen to it in his head or at the piano…and listen to it again…and again, and he wouldn’t so much critique as pronounce. “Yeah, this is alright.” Alright was reason to celebrate.
I was fortunate to have one of my pieces on a program recently that drew a
fairly large audience. Afterwards, friends and students came up to congratulate
me, and I was feeling satisfied with the evening as I left the theater. Then, I
heard it, that phrase no one in the arts is happy to hear: “I didn’t like it,
did you?”…(I get that a lot)…
It was an older couple walking in front of me. Tamping down my
knee-jerk reaction of “well, then you don’t understand new music,” I thought
instead about the phrase at the end of that sentence: “did you?” The person
I’d overheard was inviting conversation. He was saying that the piece hadn’t
appealed to him, but he was open to another take on it. Isn’t that really a
positive outcome? When people talk about your work, it continues to live beyond
I confess I didn’t wait to hear his companion’s
response. Sometimes you have to take the positives and get to the parking
All new music is not created equal. There are the pieces that are recognizable, pieces that are easy for audiences to digest, pieces that come with their own legends. I was thinking about the variability the other day as I spoke to a class about John Cage’s 4’33”. Everyone knows it…or thinks they do. So, how do we talk about new music when what looms large in the public’s collective consciousness is a piece that, to all conventional appearances, is a piece that contained none at all?