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The Tale of a Chance Meeting That Set the Music World on Its Ear

Originally Published in The Forward on February 2, 2001

Morton Feldman and John Cage at the University of Buffalo

Morton Feldman and John Cage at the University of Buffalo Image by Courtesy of Non Fiction, an office for cultural innovation based in Amsterdam

It takes only a few people to make an era. On February 9 to February 11, Carnegie Hall will present a series of three concerts and several related events celebrating two such people who met by chance. When John Cage met Morton Feldman at a 1950 concert at that hall, it was a seminal event: The two singular composers became friends and went on to challenge not just each other but also a great deal that happened subsequently, inside and outside the world of classical music.

Feldman (1926-1987) was a Jew from New York who described himself exactly that way, although he was not observant. Cage (1912-1992) was a transplant from California who gravitated through his personal versions of transcendentalism, anarchism, Hinduism and was about to discover Zen. Both produced huge bodies of work that still have the capacity to attract and illuminate some people as well as shock and enrage others, and to question the very notion of what music can be. They remain more bracingly avant-garde than almost anyone alive today.

The weekend festival, “When Morty met John: John Cage, Morton Feldman and New York in the 1950’s,” captures the tectonic shift after World War II when New York became the world center of concert music and of art. It investigates the earlier works of these two remarkable composers in the 1950s, and includes a tour, films and discussions with the composers’ friends, including major New York School painters. Excellent interpreters are essential for appreciation of their music, and this festival features musicians capable of making the music come alive. Early Cage will astonish anyone who thinks he or she knows this elusive and difficult-to-perform composer. Now that he is no longer with us, the music stands by itself, and, in the right hands, it is transformative.

Feldman’s compositions, unlike the man himself, are extremely quiet and beautiful. His luminous, monumental late works are some of the most powerful and mystical ever conceived. The early works in these programs will give an idea of how the composer got there. The dialogue between these two geniuses was extraordinary. Looking back at what the two of them composed and thought, it is clearer than ever that for both, music was almost a kind of spiritual challenge.

The remarkable “Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman” (Exact Change, edited by B.H. Friedman) has also just come out in print, so we can get the brilliant, cantankerous story in assorted essays from a gloriously fulminating Feldman: “What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment — maybe, say, six weeks — nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened.” Like Claude Debussy before him, Feldman questioned the “acquired virtues” of “professional” musicians: “Art is a crucial, dangerous operation we perform on ourselves. Unless we take a chance, we die in art…. [For professionals] music is not an art. It is a process of teaching teachers to teach teachers…. A painter who continually turned out paintings exactly like Jackson Pollock would soon be on his way to Rockland State Hospital. In music they make him the chairman of a department.” Elsewhere he writes, “Not ‘musical meaning’ but human breathing brought music into the world.”

Feldman insisted on the primacy of the spiritual: “Byrd without Catholicism, Bach without Protestantism, and Beethoven without the Napoleonic ideal, would be minor figures. It is precisely this element of ‘propaganda’ — precisely this reflection of a zeitgeist — that gave the work of these men its myth-like stature.” From the transcendentalists, Cage adopted Hindu concepts such as the ninepermanent emotions (four positive, one balanced, four negative): heroic, erotic, wondrous, mirthful, tranquility, sorrow, fear, anger and the odious. These Hindu ideas infuse several of his works in the Carnegie concerts. For his part, Feldman filtered all these viewpoints through a very Jewish consciousness.

When Cage and Feldman met, the former was by far the better known and also 14 years older. Feldman acknowledged that without Cage’s encouragement and friendship, he might not have blossomed into the composer he became. But he was no shrinking violet. After Cage became attracted to the central Zen concept of nothingness, he wrote his classic “Lecture on Nothing” (on his own esthetic) paired with “Lecture on Something” (on Feldman’s esthetic). Both can be found in his book “Silence” (Wesleyan University, 1961). Feldman, though honored, said Cage had the lectures backward and that the multiple conceptions of nothingness in mystical Jewish thought were at the core of his own compositional consciousness. He shot back: “We experience ‘nothing’…not unlike the medieval kabbalists, who understood it as the ultimate place where it becomes possible to speculate about God.”

Like a good talmudist, Feldman even enlisted Zen to challenge his friend, saying, “Just as there is an implied decision in a precise and selective art, there is an equally implied decision in allowing everything to be art. There is a Zen riddle that replies to its own question. ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature?’ the riddle asks. ‘Answer either way and you lose your own Buddha nature.’…You can’t reach heaven with knowledge, you can’t reach it with ideas, you can’t even reach it with belief — remember our Zen riddle!”

The book also has wonderful light moments, such as when Feldman thought it would not help Jackson Pollock to see a psychiatrist because “Jews invented psychiatry to help other Jews become Gentiles.” Or when he deliberately teased his friend Philip Guston, who played down his Jewish heritage, by praising Guston’s painting as “Chasidic —exalted.” It is ironic that in his lifetime Feldman was most appreciated in Germany. The composer Alvin Curran told me once of walking with Feldman down a German street at a time when colleagues were encouraging him to move there, saying he would get all the support he needed to compose freely. By way of explaining how unthinkable such a move was, Feldman stopped in his tracks, pointed to the cobblestones and, with chilling directness, asked, “Can’t you hear them? They’re screaming!”

The John Cage and Morton Feldman series is one of the innovative legacies of Franz Xaver Ohnesorg (Carnegie Hall’s executive director, who is about to end his brief tenure early in order to accept a major position in Berlin). Ara Guzelimian (artistic director at Carnegie) supervised, and composer-vocalist sound artist Joan LaBarbara directed the series. Performers include Ms. LaBarbara, Margaret Leng Tan and the Flux Quartet. The cast of supporting characters in this story besides Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston includes painters Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning,Franz Kline and Mark Rothko; choreographer Merce Cunningham; poet Frank O’Hara, and musicians David Tudor, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. (The last two will also have compositions performed in the festival.)

Mr. Mostel is a composer whose latest work, “The Travels of Babar: An Adventure in Scales,” has just been nominated for the 2002 Grawemeyer Music Award.

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