John Cage and Morton Feldman in Conversation, 1967




Listening to a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage today (on this new recording of his Works for violin and piano, I searched on the web for some information about Feldman and Cage, and found these very fascinating recordings of the two of them in conversation, recorded for WBAI in 1967, and available from Archive.org.

I: July 9 1966
On intrusions – is it reality or culture? The role of the artist – deep in thought.
Is it possible to avoid the environment around us? Being constantly interrupted? Larry Rivers, Bob Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Boulez, Black Mountain College. On boredom and Zen, Buckminster Fuller.

II: July 1966
Governments, modern music, freedom from being known. Writing for large or small ensembles. Boulez and Stockhausen’s reactions. Writing for Christian Wolff and electric guitar. de Kooning. Lukas Foss. Cage comments on Feldman’s soft sounds. Having stamina to make an action. On working alone. Working “at home”. Being asocial and the telephone. Edgard Varese. The question of death.

III: 28 December 1966
“There is so little talk these days.” Talking in England. The ICA lectures. Kitaj. David Sylvester. English pompousness. Cardew. Compositions as “work-in-progress”. Thinking about Mozart. Webern and other possibilities for new music. Differences between Boulez and Stockhausen piano pieces. Varese and process. Space, silence, notation, scales. Finding the vertical. Grandeur of Varese. Stockhausen’s refusal. Looking into the future. Buckminster Fuller’s ideas on ending war.

IV: 16 January 1967 (Part 1)
Design in a disposable world. How our sense of time has changed. “How do we spend our time?” Conversation as enjoyment. Impermanence and music. “Do you prefer the composition, or hearing the music?” Feldman working on “In Search of an Orchestration”. Composers silent on Vietnam. Painters are not. Protests in Europe. Fuller’s views and World Resources Inventory. Global Village.

V: 16 January 1967 (Part 2)
Varese or Webern? On Boulez. On an upcoming concert in Cincinnati.
Problems, stories of performances. “Why do you continue to compose?” Creating new notation. Students making compositions. The way things are done nowadays. Things are “less narrow now”.
Children, and the Middle Ages. “If we apply ourselves to the social situation… as composition rather than criticism, we’ll get somewhere!”

Interestingly, I started listening while playing Feldman’s For John Cage in the background, and this was strangely satisfying.

Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach

Note: I originally wrote this post in October, 2007, and having an urge to listen to Einstein on the Beach today, I decided to update it and tweak it a bit.

Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach is one of the seminal works of minimalist music. (This genre of music is characterized by repetitive motives and rhythmic structures.) Described as the “first in a Glass Trilogy of operas about men who changed the world through the power of their ideas,” Einstein, first performed in 1976 with staging by Robert Wilson, was so full of new ideas that it rocked the music world. The combination of spoken parts and singing, the tight integration of set design and dance, and the use of minimalist music in such a large scale work, mark Einstein as one of the defining works of minimalist music. Whether you like minimalism or not – and I can understand those who find it boring, even though I don’t – it is hard to deny the importance of this work.

An extensive quote from the notes to the Nonesuch recording, while slightly hubristic, gives a summary of its importance. “It is the first, longest, and most famous of the composer’s operas, yet it is in almost every way unrepresentative of them. Einstein was, by design, a glorious “one-shot” – a work that invented its context, form and language, and then explored them so exhaustively that further development would have been redundant. But, by its own radical example, Einstein prepared the way – it gave permission – for much of what has happened in music theater since its premiere.”

In 1984, I was fortunate to see the revival of the work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York, and was marked by the audacity of the music and the staging. Ten years later, when Nonesuch released a “new” recording of the work, I bought it immediately. (The original, and shorter, Sony recording, originally issued on Tomato records (which I actually still have somewhere on LPs) was later re-released on CD.) Unfortunately, neither of these are available on CD any more, though you can purchase them by download. It’s quite a shame that this opera is out of print on CD.

While I have listened to it several times over the years, it languished on my shelves until a recent query on a classical music newsgroup reminded me that I hadn’t listened to it in several years. So, how does Einstein stand up after all this time? Does it still sound as important? Does it sound dated? Einstein is clearly a product of the 1970s, both musically (Glass’s music has evolved since then, but not to the point of rupture) and culturally (there are many cultural references to the times). The work consists of the following:

DISC ONE
1. Knee 1 8:04
2. Train 1 21:25
3. Trial 1: Entrance 5:42
4. Trial 1: “Mr. Bojangles” 16:29
5. Trial 1: “All Men Are Equal” 4:30
6. Knee 2 6:07
DISC TWO
1. Dance 1 15:53
2. Night train 20:09
3. Knee 3 6:30
4. Trial 2/Prison: “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” 12:17
5. Trial 2/Prison: Ensemble 6:38
6. Trial 2/Prison: “I Feel The Earth Move” 4:09
DISC THREE
1. Dance 2 19:58
2. Knee 4 7:05
3. Building 10:21
4. Bed: Cadenza 1:53
5. Bed: Prelude 4:23
6. Bed: Aria 8:12
7. Spaceship 12:51
8. Knee 5 8:04

As you can see above, there are several long sections, which provide the “meat” of the work – ranging from ten to twenty minutes, or grouped into scenes lasting about twenty minutes each – and there are also what Glass and Wilson called knee plays, “brief interludes that also provided time for scenery changes,” with spoken text containing numbers, solfege syllables and poems. These five knee plays provide musical anchors for the work, using the same motives throughout, and the other long sections the “meat” of the narrative.

Some of the sections, such as the first long part, Train 1, or the later Dance 1, are raucous examples of Glass’s signature style, replete with organ and fast rhythmic motives, while others, such as the knee plays, the Entrance movement, and Mr. Bojangles, are more subtle and relaxed. Others, such as Night Train, fit somewhere in the middle. Throughout the work, there is a tension between the speed and intensity of the different sections, providing enough variety – within the relatively strict framework of minimalism – to keep the listener interested. (Though one loses all of the visual effects, which, as I recall, were quite striking; enough so to keep me interested throughout the nearly five-hour performance.) This said, the faster movements seem to me to be the weakest sections of the work, at least musically. They seem to belong to a different era of Glass’s music–similar, for example, to his Music in Twelve Parts, in their “radical minimalism”.

Glass’s music is gradual, but not in the same way as, say, Steve Reich, the other major minimalist composer of the period. Glass seems to focus more, at least in Einstein, on atmosphere, whereas Reich’s music is more about process. One of the most emblematic sections, “Mr. Bojangles”, which features a speaker reciting what may be seen as simply a nonsense text, a chorus, and obligato violin, and what could pass for a minimalist continuo, is a modern version of a Bach cantata. Musically, this section is one of the strongest in the entire work. Visually, if my memory serves, it was also stunning, and I seem to recall that the violinist was sitting on-stage as he performed his part. (And the seductive melodies and motives of that obligato violin return throughout the work, providing coherence, and beautiful music.)

There is no plot to this opera, and it is not even entirely about Einstein. The music, while fitting together, could be listened to separately. In fact, as the notes to this recording point out, “some of the music in Einstein had been originally written for a long series of concert pieces.” For those who cannot sit through the 3:20 of the entire work, there is therefore nothing wrong in listening to it in bits and pieces. After all, this is not an opera in the usual sense of the word. It is more like a series of set-pieces that fit together because of their similarity, motives and atmosphere.

To respond to one of the questions I asked above, Is it dated?, I must answer emphatically that it is not. Minimalism has been integrated into much modern music, both “classical” and electronic music, as well as other genres. Glass and Reich can both be seen as groundbreaking precursors, and, while Einstein may have shocked the first people who saw it performed in July, 1976, at the Festival d’Avignon, little of its music or staging would be seen as unorthodox today. Musically, a few of the sections may sound a bit clich├ęd, but, for the most part, this music has aged well, and, after nearly thirty years, belongs to the canon of classical music.

While some of this music will annoy anyone who feels that minimalism is not “real” music, other sections of the work are brilliant examples of musical atmosphere and structure. I am pleased to have brought this work back into my listening rotation, even though I won’t be listening to the work in its entirety each time – I’ll listen to a handful of sections, perhaps, or one disc at a time. (With iTunes or an iPod, making a playlist of my favorite sections would be interesting as well.) But I would also like to see a DVD of a performance of Einstein. I don’t know whether any of the performances were filmed, but, if not, it certainly is time for a revival in order to do so. Much more so than many classical operas, this work depends greatly on its visuals and staging, and the time is right for it to come back into the zeitgeist.

Essential Music: Morton Feldman

Synchronicity is such that I just received the latest issue of the New Yorker, which contains a very interesting article about Morton Feldman, who is now considered to be one of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century. I say synchronicity because it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered Feldman’s music, by browsing through the iTunes Music Store. I purchased his Triadic Memories, an astoundingly simple yet profound piano work, and his Piano and String Quartet, which pulses to the rhythm of human breath and is full of understated surprises.These later works by Feldman should be called minimalist, but they aren’t the same type of repetitive minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, two of my favorite composers. It’s more a minimalism of reduction, of stripping away the arabesques of music to leave only the salient parts that provide feeling and emotion. In Feldman’s music, the silence is as important as the notes.

Feldman also wrote some very long pieces in his later years: For Philip Guston, which is over four hours long, and his String Quartet 2, that clocks in at around six hours. (At the time of this update, in June, 2011, the String Quartet 2 is only $20 from Amazon in MP3 format.)

And while I’m rambling about minimalism, one of the most astounding recordings I’ve heard in recent years is Harold Budd’s As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), a 69-minute remix of a song on the Avalon Sutra album, which has great similarities to Feldman’s music…

There’s a lot of music to listen to here, but I felt the need to share this discovery. I just wonder why it took me so long to learn about Morton Feldman. Perhaps part of the reason is the scope of many of his works; you won’t hear hour-long works on the radio very often, or even in performance. But finally I have discovered his work, and it’s a very good thing.

Update: Since I first wrote this article in 2008, I have collected a great deal of Feldman’s works. Many of them are very long, but once you appreciate Feldman’s musical language, you are more than happy to take the time to listen to them.