Friday, 6 May 2011

Talking to Morton Feldman (and 64 others)

Imagine being able to ask composers like John Cage, György Ligeti, Steve Reich or Karlheinz Stockhausen detailed questions about their influences and their methods of composition. This is exactly what Bálint András Varga did for his new book, Three Questions for Sixty Five Composers. Here, as a taster for this fascinating book, are excerpts from three of his conversations. First György Ligeti:

Noises do not influence me directly, but neither do I cut myself off from them altogether. The outside world makes an indirect impact. Music works with acoustic material, no doubt, but I do not think that the sounds of live or dead nature would influence me in a decisive manner. Various types of movement do. In my view, you see, music mirrors the processes of motion through sound. Machines play an important role… I have, after all, also written a piece for one hundred metronomes.

Although Atmosphères and Apparitions are not programmatic in character—I did not set out to render the sensation of flying in either piece—flying did have an indirect influence on their floating, on the continuous transformation of their musical patterns.

Without asking for my permission, Stanley Kubrick used extracts from Atmosphères, Lux aeterna, and the Requiem in the music of his science fiction film 2001. I was angry with him but I did like his work (apart from the mystical beginning and ending). While composing, I did not think of anything “cosmic” (Atmosphères is meant to convey “atmosphere” rather than “air”), but the film made me aware of the possibility of associating infinity with my music.

As far as Lux aeterna is concerned, the words only served as a chance for me to compose music which is in fact musica aeterna: as if it has been sounding from time immemorial and would be going on forever—we only hear a part of it. It emerges from nowhere, it is here and slowly disappears.

Interviewing Morton Feldman, Varga writes: I must plead guilty to having known precious little at the time about Feldman and his music. All I knew was that he was considered an important composer and that was enough for me to reach for my microphone. It will not be difficult to imagine my acute embarrassment in meeting this unique man face to face. I felt hopelessly European, hopelessly bourgeois, hopelessly underinformed. However, I made a brave effort to conceal my uneasiness and to conduct a conversation with Feldman as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

[On whether Robert Rauschenberg’s white pictures influenced John Cage]
What influenced John Cage in Rauschenberg was an answer to a philosophical question about life and art. Robert Rauschenberg is exactly my age. And brilliant. He said something that was very influential to a lot of young artists at that time. I think this is the influence of Rauschenberg, with his white paintings, to Cage. He said that he does not want either life or art. He wants something in between. A very influential statement: neither life nor art but something in between. And Cage would see this beautiful white thing in the shadows of the environment. He lived in a very beautiful apartment, Cage, and he saw where art and the outside environment could collage.

John Cage is only involved with music forms….That there is nothing there behind the material. So in that sense, John Cage is not a mystic.

Don’t you think that his music exudes an atmosphere and in doing so, it communicates something beyond the music, it communicates a way of thinking?
I think it asks a lot of questions. I think it’s the atmosphere of asking questions.

Whereas yours?

The atmosphere of answering them (laughs).

In that case, one must envy you: you seem to have the answers. Few people can claim that.

Only for my music. Only. You see, that’s another problem: I don’t feel that it’s a community. I could never listen to a piece of Boulez and get some insight from the piece. I could listen to a piece of Boulez and could say to him what I said once to Ligeti, who I like very much, we are very good friends, and I said to him: “György, you are too gifted to write European music”.

Sounds do not surround you.

There are sounds right now.

I don’t hear them.

You don’t hear them?


What sounds do you hear?

Nothing. I hear them but they are indigenous. In a place that builds modern buildings—do you hear the drilling that’s going on? It is absolutely like having a lion in a jungle. I mean it is indigenous to the landscape. It would be interesting if you would hear an Islamic chant. What’s happening here? OPEC, OPEC! (Vienna - where the interview took place - is the headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). In other words: I hear it like everyone else but it is not a source of . . .

. . . inspiration.

It’s not a source of anything. Most of the time I think of it as pollution. Noise pollution.

How about the sounds of nature, such as the wind, birds, and so on?

I have no contact with them. They don’t interest me at all. I can live very well without them.

So in composing, the sounds always come from within.

Yes, only when I am composing. Otherwise, you are crazy. I don’t go around hearing sounds. Some people do! Stockhausen, I am sure, is one of them.

Let’s turn to Karlheinz Stockhausen for our final snippet. Here the Master describes what one might find in one of his best known pieces:

In Hymnen there appear national anthems, that is, completely banal material as well as numerous other situations (recordings made in a Chinese shop, at a student protest demonstration in Aachen, at a ship’s christening in Hamburg, at a soccer match with crowds of people shouting, the squawking of birds, and boys shouting in a school yard). Linked to the American national anthem, you hear odd short-wave sounds (Morse signals, whistling, shrill screeching), as if someone has turned on a radio station at night, with distorted broadcasts. In the context of the “International” the words of a croupier: “rien ne va plus Messieurs Dames,” “faites vos jeux Messieurs Dames,” etc., are heard. Out of the “Rouge” called by a croupier in a roulette hall emerges a four-part fugue in four different languages on the word rouge, with all the different variations of the color red as listed in the color catalogue of a London paint company.

Longer excerpts will follow over the coming weeks. Three Questions for Sixty Five Composers by Bálint András Varga will be published towards the end of this month by the University of Rochester Press.

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