Morton Feldman speaks with John Cage

Photo of Cage and Feldman

I recently listened to all five hours of the Cage/Feldman Radio happenings of 1966–67. Despite the “far out” title, these radio shows were pretty tame: just John Cage and Morton Feldman sitting in a studio talking with each other, mostly about music. Their conversation is highly entertaining, and I’ve always appreciated the way that this 1960s version of John Cage comes through as a person, not just a figure in a book.

What I realized this time around is that I have always thought of these shows entirely in terms of Cage, just as I did in the previous sentence. Feldman was not the focus of my research and writing, and so I tended to pay less attention to his parts of the conversation. But now I’m working on Feldman, and so I heard it inverted: I masked out Cage’s comments and my attention perked up when Feldman would speak, especially when he talks about his compositions. There’s the great story about the piece for electric guitar that he wrote for Christian Wolff, now lost, billed on the concert as “The possibility of a piece”. Feldman also talks about the composition of Two pieces for three pianos, In search of an orchestration, and First principles. He gets off great one-liners at the expense of Stockhausen and Boulez (among others), like his complaint that such composers “change their sound to fit their mind … like dirty underwear.”

Both Cage and Feldman found the attention and even respect paid to them in the mid-1960s to be uncomfortable, and this theme keeps reappearing in the conversation. For my book on Cage, this was the source for my portrayal of the 1960s as a difficult period for him, but now I see that it may have been a similar situation for Feldman. Feldman yearns for the halcyon days of the 1950s, when he wasn’t well known and wasn’t making anything known, and hence was happy: an unknown making music that was unknown, even to himself.

All of this makes me think about the relationship between John Cage and Morton Feldman. Hearing them in conversation, I get a feel for a friendship and a collegiality that is more subtle than is usually described. The two common attitudes are too extreme. Some consider Feldman as something like a student of Cage’s, or a “follower”, or a “fellow member of Cage’s school.” Feldman can then get lost in Cage’s shadow, and in reading Feldman’s writings and interviews of the 1960s you can clearly see him pushing back against this. The other attitude is a reaction to the first: Feldman has nothing to do with Cage musically, they are even antithetical. I’ve heard fundamentalist Cageans take swipes at Feldman for his musical apostasy, damning him for his rejection of chance and indeterminacy.

Neither of these views—Feldman as Cage follower or Feldman as Cage opponent—stands up in the face of hearing the actual conversations between these two composers. The truth is somewhere in between, and I see it as a cop-out to describe them as “just good friends.” They worked so closely together in the early 1950s because they were joined by common values and ideals. They both saw the primacy of sound and they both were looking for something larger in music than just their own personal identity. The spiritual dimension of Cage’s work is commonly spoken of, but I believe that something similar is very important to Feldman as well. It is on this common ground that their friendship was built, two composers walking through the night in lower Manhattan, looking for the truth in music.

Note: The Radio happenings can be heard online at RadiOM, the online audio channel run by Other Minds.

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