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The Classical Music of the Twenty-First Century
by Don Robertson
© 2000 by Don Robertson

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Morton Feldman

I began to recognize the reality of the state of western classical art music in 1967 while I was attending the Julliard School of Music in New York and studying privately with the late composer Morton Feldman. During the 1950s, Morty, as he was known to his friends and students, was a member of John Cage’s circle, but by the time I knew him, he had already broken with Cage. In reality, Morty composed a different kind of music and had a completely different aesthetic.

Every saturday morning, I took the Lenox Avenue subway to Morty’s upstairs apartment in New York City to study with him. We sat at the large grand piano in his front room surrounded by large abstract paintings by his friends Franz Kline,  and Jackson Pollack. I would bring the composition that I was currently working on and note by note, Morty would go though my music and make suggestions and comments, explaining how he created his famous chords and note combinations.

My music at that time was completely under the influence of Anton Webern, but I was daily becoming more influenced by the music of Christian Wolfe, another member of the Cage group,  and Morty himself. The one record that I owned of a Christian Wolfe piece was a musical composition that was very sparse with a lot of space between the notes. I used to listen to this record not at its intended 33 1/3 RPM speed, but at the slower 16RPM, which created even more space and sparsity of notes. Meanwhile, Morty was introducing me to his own world of ‘quiet sounds’ and he spent many hours showing me how he created his chordal combinations, stressing the value of ‘each sound, each note.’

However, at the same time that I studied with Morty, I was also studying with the great master of North Indian classical music, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Khansahib, as his students called him, had recently arrived in the United States and was teaching five or six students in his New York apartment.  I found myself learning two different types of music at the same time. I went to Khansahib to learn the deeply spiritual ancient music of India, strongly based on the foundations of natural scales, and to Morty to work on music that was based on discords.

By 1968, my compositional technique had evolved to the point of total rejection of any consonant musical intervals.* My music by this time was based on the two most discordant intervals in the scale: the tritone and the interval of the minor second.** I had to work very hard when I composed to try to get these intervals to influence the sound of the music and to minimize hidden consonant intervals.

At first Morty had a difficult time accepting this direction that I was heading in. He used the tritone and minor second intervals all the time in his music, but he used consonant intervals such as the minor and major third when he felt they were appropriate, and so did other contemporary composers such as Stockhausen and Boulez. To me, these had now become mistakes. For Morty, my music was too sparse, and it lacked something.

But one day, he turned to me and said, "You have passed beyond John Cage and myself. And that is only natural, since you are a part of the, next generation."

Once he had acknowledged what I was doing, I decided to write an important composition in my new style. Morty helped me in my selection of instruments. This piece would be for bass clarinet, trumpet, celeste, guitar, violin, bass, and percussion. I worked on it for a year.

As the year unfolded, I grew more and more frustrated writing this composition--that I later named Last Piece--because of the difficulty that I had in restricting the consonant intervals. I could hear what I wanted in my mind, but creating the music was an intellectual challenge because of consonant relationships between intervals that could develop between notes that were separated by other notes. I used to tell Morty that what I really needed was a computer to help me compose this music, but computers were not a commodity in 1969.

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* A musical interval is determined by the distance between notes.

** The tritone is the note that divides the octave in half (i.e. the interval C-F#). It was called the devil’s interval during the middle ages and the renaissance and was avoided at all costs. The minor second is the smallest interval of the scale. If you play the notes E and F together at the same time, that is a minor second.

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