Morty

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.