Morton Feldman: A Conversation with Jan Williams
Saturday, February 25, 2023 at 1pm

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center {120 College Street}
Free to attend

Join us for a conversation with Jan Williams on composer Morton Feldman. Williams has been a mainstay of the international contemporary music scene as percussionist, conductor, administrator, and educator. Noted composers Lukas Foss, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Frederic Rzewski, Nils Vigeland, Joel Chadabe, Luis De Pablo, Gustavo Matamoros, and Orlando Garcia have written works for him. 

Jan Williams is a percussion soloist and conductor, who has toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. Composers such as Lukas Foss, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Joel Chadabe, Morton Feldman, Orlando Garcia, Gustavo Matamoros, Luis de Pablo, Frederic Rzewski, Nils Vigeland, and Iannis Xenakis have all written music expressly for Jan Williams. Born in Utica, New York on July 17, 1939, Williams later earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at Manhattan School of Music, where he studied percussion with Paul Price and performed as a member of the American Symphony Orchestra from 1962-1964 under conductor Leopold Stokowski. He was invited to Buffalo as one of the first class of Creative Associates for the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in 1964 at the University at Buffalo. While at the University at Buffalo, he created the University at Buffalo Percussion Ensemble in 1964. Later, in 1967, he was appointed to the Music Faculty, and served as Chair of the Music Department from 1981-1984. Prior to his retirement in 1996, he also served as artistic director of the Center of the Creative and Performing arts from 1974-1979 and as resident conductor from 1979-1980. He is Professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo where he and John Bergamo founded the University at Buffalo Percussion Ensemble in 1964. He was the ensemble’s director until his retirement in 1996. He is Trustee of the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music. He has recorded for Columbia, Vox/Turnabout, Desto, Lovely Music, Spectrum, Wergo, DGG, Orion, Hat-Art, OO, New World, Deep Listening, EMF Media, and Mode Records. With Yvar Mikhashoff, he was Co-Artistic Director of the North American New Music Festival from 1983-1993.

Morton Feldman (January 12, 1926 – September 3, 1987) was an American composer. A major figure in 20th-century classical music, Feldman was part of the experimental New York School of composers that included John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and David Tudor. One of his early teachers was Stefan Wolpe.

Early experiments in graphic notation and electronic music eventually led to fully notated pieces and his characteristic sound: rhythms that seem to be free and floating, pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused, a generally quiet and slowly evolving music, and recurring asymmetric patterns.

John Cage was instrumental in encouraging Feldman to have confidence in his instincts, which resulted in totally intuitive compositions. He never worked with any systems that anyone has been able to identify, working from moment to moment, from one sound to the next.

The works of Morton Feldman occupy a central place in the American experimental tradition, not just within the music world. Feldman was very often inspired by non-musical sources, including Persian rugs, abstract expressionist paintings by Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, and texts of Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.

His later works, after 1977, explore extremes of duration. The sixty-minute Triadic Memories (1981) and the eighty-minute Piano and String Quartet (1985) are both incredible examples of Feldman’s later work that challenge our perception of time.

Feldman on duration:

“My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things.”

“Earlier in my life there seemed to be unlimited possibilities, but my mind was closed. Now, years later and with an open mind, possibilities no longer interest me. I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room. My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.” Morton Feldman, Give my Regards to Eighth Street

“Extreme length allowed Feldman to approach his ultimate goal of making music into an experience of life-changing force, a transcendent art form that wipes everything else away. ” Alex Ross, New Yorker

To the question as to why he preferred soft dynamic levels, Feldman replied: “Because when it’s loud, you can’t hear the sound. You hear its attack. Then you don’t hear the sound, only in its decay. And I think that’s essentially what impressed Boulez . That he heard a sound, not an attack, emerging and disappearing without attack and decay, almost like an electronic medium.”

“Almost all of Feldman’s music is slow and soft. Only at first sight is this a limitation. I see it rather as a narrow door, to whose dimensions one has to adapt oneself (as in Alice in Wonderland) before one can pass through it into a state of being that is expressed in Feldman’s music. Only when one has become accustomed to the dimness of the light can one begin to perceive the richness and variety which is the material of the music…

Feldman sees sounds as reverberating endlessly, never getting lost, changing their resonances as they die away, or rather not die away, but recede from our ears, and soft because softness is compelling, because an insidious invasion of our senses is more effective than a frontal attack.” Cornelius Cardew