The composer was interviewed by Françoise Esselier 45 years ago, here are his thoughts on Boulez, Cage and Stockhausen.

The following interview with Morton Feldman was first published in the winter 1970-71 issue of VH 101, a French arts journal created by Austrian critic Otto Hahn and French critic Françoise Esselier and published from 1969 to 1972. The list of interviewees is impressive, including Marcel Duchamp and Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is Esselier who interviewed Feldman.

There are several unusual aspects to this interview. The first is that it was conducted in English originally, but the audio tapes appear to have been lost. Therefore, until now, this interview has only been available in French translation. 

Given the abrupt beginning of the interview, and from other hints sprinkled throughout, it appears that this must be ‘take two’ of an interview that, for some reason, was not recorded properly the first time. In certain passages it appears that Feldman may be repeating, or perhaps rephrasing an answer given during ‘take one’, and thus making it more concise. At other times it seems that he is improvising and that the second version of the interview has taken a different, unexpected turn.

My ‘re-translation’ into English was facilitated by Nicole Tisserand’s French translation, which captured the spirit of Feldman’s cadence. Anyone familiar with Feldman’s copious interviews, lectures and essays will quickly recognise the vocabulary and concerns that recur frequently throughout his career. Just as in Feldman’s late music, certain motifs return again and again, but they are never exactly the same, and it is this variation that makes it compelling. Ivan Ilić


We talked about European music’s interest in the ‘object’, about the wisdom of John Cage and of Morton Feldman, about horizontal composition, about your disinterest in the analysis of elements. We also talked about variety, about structure…

Yes, John Cage wasn’t interested in information. He was interested in variety, just like he’s interested in mushrooms. One of the major themes was my feeling that the importance of a work could not be determined by its influence. I have a position fairly analogous to that of American painters of the past 20 years. I differ from my European colleagues in that I don’t demand of a work of art that it be interesting. What is an interesting work of art? Of course, someone could respond “So, what do you want, a boring work?” But a boring work for me is maybe an interesting work for someone else…  

Feldman reads France Soir 68, photo © Earle Brown

We talked about the indeterminacy which guides your work, and about your conversation with Stockhausen who couldn’t conceive that, in your music, there is no causal relationship between one note and another.  

I told you that he came to see me. I was at the piano. I was working on a piece and he asked me how I was doing it, and I replied “I’m just doing like this, that’s all”. And he asked me if that meant that each time I wrote a note, I had to select it from among the 88 other notes – I think you’re going to have nothing but anecdotes in this interview. That’s what I look for when I read interviews, by the way. Anecdotes interest me a great deal. One day Boulez said to John Cage on the subject of Winter Music (1957), “It’s very interesting, John. Now you have to do something with it”. And I say, that for me, it’s not what happens in a work of art that makes it interesting, it’s the fact that you’ve never heard anything like it.  

Last night, a young conceptual artist told me that conceptual art is ahead of today’s music because it goes directly to the mind. The visual object has been eliminated. But music, according to him, hasn’t resolved this problem, because it strikes the ear first. It isn’t directly intercepted by the mind. It always depends on physical, emotional and sensual aspects.

Isn’t that an attempt to redefine the object? Maybe he has the impression that the type of work that he described is exclusively in this direct mental process, and nothing else. Maybe. It’s a very interesting problem because most people don’t consider music in this way. I once had a long conversation about a similar subject with John Cage. I told him, “How can you be interested in Duchamp? He does exactly the opposite of what you do”. Most people don’t realise it, but Duchamp and Cage are complete opposites. Duchamp and Boulez are similar.

Morton Feldman and John Cage

Let’s just say that Boulez is the epitome of the intellectual approach, with a process as clear as Duchamp’s, for example. But what John Cage did, and what I have done, is to extract music from the conceptual domain and to place it in the purely physiological realm of sound… Duchamp distanced paintings from the most sensual aspects of perception. Historically, we did exactly the same, but [actually they were] totally different things. 

Another way of saying it is that music was always conceptual. We changed that. Completely. Machaut, Boulez, Beethoven, all of that is conceptual. Music was a conceptual art. And we released it, we freed it. There are still many processes going on, naturally, but we freed it from a kind of logical serialisation of possibilities. It is significant that Cage and I have influenced certain conceptual artists. And yet, our position is radically opposite to theirs… And I think that one of the interesting aspects of Cage’s music and of mine, although in different forms, is that the sound goes directly to the mind, without the mind having to coordinate what the sound has to do to get there, as it does in most other music…  

You see, the European composer doesn’t see things in the same way, he thinks in terms of instruments. When the machine breaks down, he doesn’t think about making another machine, he says that he’s going to invent the best tools to fix it, right? They believe in art. And to believe in it, you’ve got to know what it is. 

I’ve never met a European composer who didn’t know what art was. Let’s take an example. How do you know that Pierre Boulez is a great musician? I’ll tell you. Because it was proven [to be true]. All the reasons for it have been proven. You listen and you say to yourself, “Of course, he’s a great musician”. Would you say Cage is a great musician? “Oh, Cage is not the same, it’s different. He’s wonderful. He is very interesting, without a doubt, fascinating even”. But can you say of him, as you can of Boulez, that he is a great musician? Of course not. And why? Because great musicians are not supposed to innovate…

I just received some articles about a concert of my music in Buenos Aires. It’s fantastic. They speak about me very intelligently. And at the same time, they don’t know how to place me. They appreciated the fact that my music doesn’t have the same sound as the others. And at the same time it bothered them. One of them used the past to attack me. The other one used me to attack the past. They’re marvellous. When I read these articles, I understood why nothing important has ever come out of South America.  

Why don’t you work in different media, like John Cage works in dance, in art, etc.?  

That’s always the question: making a virtue out of a necessity. John is a very different person than me. I think it’s a question of temperament rather than aesthetic. John has always led [his] life within a community. He always has people around him. It’s a public stage. And from the beginning, since his youth, he’s had a house full of people. John and I lived in the same building near the East River for seven years. There were people all the time. What I’m saying is that when there are people, there is theatre. Then he worked with Merce Cunningham’s troupe, he took care of the dance, that is to say lots of people. He took care of the musicians and that means even more people. It’s the audience. [As for] me, in my entire life, I’ve tried to maintain my private life; my work is private. I’m like Jasper Johns and John Cage is like Robert Rauschenberg. The work of Jasper Johns is also his secret, if I may say so. Jasper is secretive. What he does is secret too…

You said earlier that your problem was starting something from nothing.  

My problem is not to be interesting. I am too interesting to just be interesting. My problem is making something out of nothing. Like Kierkegaard said, “In the beginning was the void”. We need to understand that God created from nothing. Every time I do a new composition, I have the feeling of doing something from nothing. Isn’t the fact that God created from nothing more interesting than what he created? But what we want to know is not that someone created something from nothing, but rather how are we going to be able to talk about what was made. Pascal is more interesting than God. God is boring already. Pascal is much more interesting…  

Differentiation was the key word in the ‘50s and ‘60s, now we talk about information. The complex nature of information is the only thing that permits the prolongation and the creation of possibilities of large-scale music. Do you remember the interview I played for you: I told John Cage that Stockhausen always wanted me to write music on a large scale – orchestra pieces – do you remember? And I told him that I was trying to write a piece for piano, to be played with one finger. If I only had one goal in life, it would be to scare Stockhausen. To show Karlheinz that history is going in another direction…

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Do you think you are succeeding in scaring [Stockhausen]?  

I’ve succeeded. I already made him scared, two years ago in Venice. How? Because I made the same music last for 40 minutes. 

For the first time music has become its own language.

Yes, instead of being an aspect of numerous other phenomena, like dance music and devotional music.

The problem of propaganda exists in painting as well. We can immediately tell that a painting was made at the request of the Borgias or to celebrate them. Or that another, painted in the 17th-century in Holland, was subsidised by a rich merchant. 

Today we’re trying not to lead a bourgeois life. For my avant-garde colleagues (Stockhausen) it’s very fashionable to be anti-bourgeois. Honestly. They’re Marxists… Many composers today are, in a certain way, engaged with the political content of their music. They are anti-bourgeois. At the same time, the only public that concerns them is the bourgeois public. 

Do you know the story about Berio, Luciano Berio? At the time that he had written the piece for La Scala, I was with him one evening, we were taking a walk, and then we went up to his place, he showed us the piece and he told me, “Actually, this piece was commissioned from me by La Scala. I decided that, during the concert, I’d hire a claque, you know, some people in the hall. The chorus members would be spread throughout the audience, they would be sitting among the spectators and they would look like members of the bourgeois public. They’ll wear the same kind of clothes and, on the score, I had written, ‘Attack against what’s happening on stage’. So the evening of the performance, everything is in place. The chorus members are in the audience and they start heckling and commenting on what’s happening on stage. And the bourgeois, the real bourgeois who are sitting next to them, start screaming next to them, “Shut up”!’

Certain artists are very preoccupied by the idea they should never repeat themselves. They start with two or three important ideas, and if they can’t come up with new ones, they stop. Earlier we spoke about what John Cage and you have done with respect to this problem.

My problem is that I don’t want to change. My problem is that I would like to repeat myself, and I can’t. I have no desire to change. But my music changes continuously. It’s getting older. I like natural changes, you know. It would be extraordinary to compose a work which works well, and one day
an oboe dies of old age on stage… It would be good for people to perceive this reality, this sort of commentary on the work itself… 

The trouble with music is that it always has something to say, which it reinforces with the mythology that wants something important to be happening all the time. I love art, but I hate all these poses, all this false moralising and this fake pomp that surrounds it in general. I never had an anti-art attitude. John Cage [never did] either. John Cage has nothing to do with Dada, of any kind. Stockhausen is Dada. That’s what Dada is. 

Stockhausen is like a little boy who’s trying to scare you. John Cage has another way of scaring people. He’s kind of like a little boy who goes away in the woods and comes back with a kind of grass snake which he holds out to his mother, who starts screaming, you see? John Cage takes the audience for his mother, you understand? He doesn’t understand why they scream, but he has a totally different attitude. On the other hand, Stockhausen is the little boy who hides behind the doors and who jumps out saying “Boo!” or who climbs in by the window, like Till Eulenspiegel. You know what happened to Till Eulenspiegel, right? In the end he was hanged. I think we should put Stockhausen in a correctional facility. You know what that is?  

Yes, yes, it’s for the little boys… 

Yes. I think we should put Karlheinz in one. But not for very long.  

What would you do without Stockhausen?  

We’d invent another one! Of course, if we didn’t have one, we’d make one up! I think he’s our Lucifer. I think he’s the Devil, because he gives the most convincing argument: how to sin in music. With your Christian civilisation. God wasn’t interesting anymore, so you invented the Devil.

Feldman with John Adams

I heard a beautiful sentence [spoken by] John Cage at the rehearsal of Song Books in Paris. All the performers were on stage and were accentuating their roles by different actions. Cage was delighted, it was chaos. And then Cage stepped aside and said to a friend, “I wonder what all of this has to do with music”…  Stockhausen, on the other hand, knows that his music is music.  

Stockhausen isn’t worried. Stockhausen doesn’t care if it’s music or not; he uses it for the impact it produces. Stockhausen has created a very interesting polarity. Because he articulates the ‘either this/or that’ aspect of our lives. And I think that he clarifies things for most people. 

In my youth, for example, it was either Schoenberg or Stravinsky. One or the other. And yet, there were hundreds of other composers during that period as well. I think that’s what’s happening now. Even though I don’t think the choice is between Karlheinz and John Cage. It’s either Karlheinz or myself. I think that’s the polarity. I have the impression that he swallowed the influence of Cage and that he used it. In other words, if we had a magnifying glass that allowed us to see into the stomach of Karlheinz, we’d see Cage walking around.

Karlheinz can’t swallow me. I think he wanted to. I remember one time, it was New Year’s Eve in Long Island, [Stockhausen] was there for a few months staying with someone who had a very big house. He invited Lukas Foss and me and our wives, to this house for New Year’s. It was an unbelievable evening… Everybody was there, and Stockhausen exclaimed, “And now, we’re going to listen to some music”. And all the young women who were there thought they were going to dance, you see. But for two hours, he played Stockhausen. And all the people started to leave. The owner of the house didn’t have two hours but one hour of my music on a record so he played that. At the end, Karlheinz jumped up dramatically, and he said, “I’ve just decided, I’ve just decided, that…” “What have you decided?” I asked him. “I’ve just decided to use you in my music”. That’s what Europe is. That’s Europe. 

Do you know the story of Picasso who goes to see Braque at his house and Madame Braque starts yelling, “The veil!” and Braque immediately hides everything he’s done… And the first meeting between Picasso and Matisse? They decide to exchange paintings and Matisse chooses a magnificent Picasso, and Picasso chooses a very ambivalent Matisse, and puts it on the wall at his house. Friends of his come to see and say, “Who did that?” and Picasso responds, “That? Oh! Matisse…”