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Music Library

Morton Feldman Slee Lecture, February 2, 1973

Baird Hall, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Slee Lecture Tape SLR 320
ca. 10 min.

Transcription by Nicola Walker-Smith; edited by John Bewley, Feb. 2001.

Real Audio file (1.03 MB)

At my last talk, I concentrated on a period of my work roughly from 1957 to 1968, in which the music was conceived in an unrhythmic fashion where the sounds were not precisely placed in relation to a beat or pulse. I talked about my dissatisfaction wi th my graphs music, that the rhythmic possibilities were too related to a steady beat, even though I allowed the performer freedom of rhythmic invention. The graph music was written on co-ordinated paper, where each box was equal to a steady and consiste nt beat. I went on to demonstrate a music in which the tempo or durations were more determined on how the sound speaks in its acoustical reality depending on other factors than rhythm, such as the time span between its attack and decay.

I also talked briefly about my earlier, precisely-notated music, written while I was also composing music on graph. That here too, the rhythm was still related to a steady beat, which was at odds with the music I was writing or wanting to write.

In 1970, something unexpected happened. After about 13 years my music again changed and changed radically. I still had a preference for very soft sounds but I began to notate the music again precisely, if not more precisely than before. The m usic also became, for lack of a better term, 'motivic'. This all began with a composition in memory of my piano teacher called Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety. The whole work is based on a repeated two-note figure alternating between two flu tes. Though much music will be performed this evening, Madam Press is a very short work and I will now play a tape performed last year on the BBC by the Fires of London conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies. It's scored for 2 flutes, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, chimes, celeste, 2 cellos and 2 basses.

The beginning harmonies of Madame Press are vaguely Hollywoodian, then recall Edgard Varèse and slowly metamorphise into something more my own. I was consciously attempting to relive my own musical history while thinking of her. Those were the harmonies of my youth. What was unconscious was the significance of putting the tempo at quarter note equals ninety. It was also unconscious that I repeated those falling thirds 87 times, very close to that fated number of her death. The recap itulation at the end goes into double time as if to symbolize all the years I didn't see her which were passing so quickly.

I have to apologize a little bit for the tuba player in this performance. He missed one rehearsal, came late to the second (which was the last), and expected to do something extremely complicated and he just couldn't get into the fact that all he had to do was play something soft. And he was just sitting on edge, just full of anxiety at the performance.

[Tape played]

The feeling I have about this composition is that I went back as if making peace with a steady pulsating beat, making peace with measured time, a chronological time, that is analogous to life passing by or passing us by. One, two, three, four. It takes very little time in music to count up to 90. A steady beat, after all, is not rhythm, and I no longer had the anxiety that it should or could become such. I approached this new phase with exactly the same feeling for sound as I did in the kind of music that might be more familiar to you as typical of my style.

In all the works heard this evening there is some factor other than rhythm that determines both how the work moves in time and a proportion of each bar length. In I met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg, it was the amount of time for the decay o f the two grace-note figure in the piano. In The Viola in My Life, it was the precise measuring of the crescendos in the viola which became the 'rhythmic' proportions for each measure.

It appears that this new period of mine was shortlived: from 1970 until 1972, beginning with Madame Press and then The Viola in My Life until the Rothko Chapel, immediately followed by I met Heine and then ending with a comp osition called Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano. After the three clarinet piece I was what the romantics called 'lost'. Uprooted, and living very well in Europe, added to the ambivalence of what to do next. While living in Berlin throughout all o f last year, I abandoned what I call the 'illusion of feeling' for again the 'illusion of art'. That is, I went back to a more abstract music, less detailed, still precisely notated, but with another big change: longer, larger compositions. The reason I mention all this is that it places the music of this evening in a more realistic context, as something quite unlike I ever did before or since.