Polyphony sucks

[Of course, I forgot to scan/photograph the illustration where Feldman has doodled "POLYPHONY SUCKS", so I should have gone with a different title. It's on page 158 of the book. It's cute.]

The essays from the first decade or so collected in Morton Feldman's Give My Regards To Eighth Street make frustrating reading. They're suffused with the petty complaints, the pointless character assassinations, and the implausible approbations of an ambitious young artist clearing a path:

Messiaen on the other hand is more robust... Messiaen is artistically Gallic and considerably more abstract -- remember he's a younger man. He is fascinated by complicated rhythmic cells derived from the East and shows a curious preoccupation with bird calls.

Out of this poor man's aviary a sustained piano chord in unbelievably bad taste raised the audience to a state of exaltation. I closed my eyes. Slowly the same bourgeois family came into focus. This time they were endlessly climbing hills -- or was it always the same hill? In the frenzy around me I couldn't quite determine. Let me say only that Paul Jacobs's playing of the piano part was so brilliant, so matter of fact, so Olympian, that one felt he should be climbing not hills, but mountains. This, unfortunately, ruined the outing for the other members of the family, but that is merely incidental.

"Mr. Schuller's History Lesson", 1963
This is, you know, fun enough, I suppose. I'm not sure Messiaen's famous bird calls are any more "curious" a thing to get fascinated by than, say, Turkish rugs (although perhaps Feldman wasn't fascinated by them yet, in 1963?) or mushrooms. But connecting Messiaen with the bourgeois family is something Feldman chose to do, it's in Feldman's head -- music is not that programmatic! -- and it's unclear that anyone else would have made that kind of connection. So this passage is amusing, maybe, and gives us a look at how young Feldman (about two years older than me when he wrote this) thought, but I'm not sure it's very... helpful.

After a while, the essays stop trying to tear down "respectable" composers and are satisfied in offering up the fruits of Feldman's wanderings. "The Future Of Local Music", a set of anecdotes, doodles ("POLYPHONY SUCKS"), and reinterpretations of artistic problems, is the highlight of the book. There, he tells stories involving other composers, and sometimes to disagree with them. But he is not quite so interested in calling them bourgeois, clucking at their interests, and washing his hands of them:
Stockhausen asked me for my secret, "What's your secret?" And I said, "I don't have any secret, but if I do have a point of view, it's that sounds are very much like people. And if you push them, they push you back. So, if I have a secret: don't push the sounds around." Karlheinz leans over to me and says: "Not even a little bit?"

"The Future of Local Music", 1984
And so why does he make the switch? Let us say it is entirely my fault. Ten days after I was born, he wrote this:
August 12, 1975

Until about ten years ago I wrote often about music. I no longer do. The writing was usually polemical in content. In recent years I do not want to argue with talent. I want to be thankful for it regardless from where it comes.

"Statement", 1975
Feldman was going on fifty when he wrote that; if you listen to these fantastic conversations between Cage and Feldman from nine years earlier (and if you're at all interested in either of them, you should) you can hear Feldman struggling to accept this position. I think it's a good position, and I'm struggling to accept it as well.

(Nevertheless, tonight I'm going to see Kenneth Goldsmith, who is talented yet antagonizing, so that should test my mettle.)



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