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US composer accuses another of sexual violence

December 10, 2014 by norman lebrecht

41 comments.


In an Italian interview, Bunita Marcus accuses her mentor Morton Feldman of sexually molesting her and other women, wrecking her marriage and stealing her ideas. The two composers worked closely together for seven years until Feldman’s early death in 1987. Feldman’s work is widely performed, Marcus’s less so.

Marcus has previously spoken about sexual abuse within her family.

bunita marcusMorton Feldman

Comments (41)

  1. Hilary says:

    Immortalized in one of Feldman’s piano pieces “For Bunita Marcus”

    1. Kevin says:

      Does the name Myra de Groot ring any Morton Feldman bells?

  2. william osborne says:

    I hope that Bunita will address these issue with Morton Feldman in a substantial and documented form. It is very complex. I’m not certain of the details, but she worked closely with him from 1976 until his death in 1987, and they were in a relationship for the last seven of those years. In this context, it becomes difficult to determine what was consensual, manipulative, partially coerced, and completely forced. And in such a private sphere, it is virtually impossible to give objective proof of one’s observations. One of the worst horrors is that given the trauma involved and its effects on the mind, it can be very difficult for victims to determine exactly what was done to them.

    Jenny Johnson’s 2010 article linked in Norman’s comment is done with a great deal of understanding, insight, and sensitivity. I hope there will be similar people to help Bunita with the Feldman issue. There are so many impossibly complex gray areas involved. For the sake of the new music community, I hope there are people like Johnson and others who will help her sort these things out to the extent even possible.

    I’ve noticed that the new music community is supportive of Bunita’s efforts to deal with child abuse, but when it comes to one of their idols like Feldman they tend to hush up. They don’t want to even begin with the problem, which must only add to the confusion and disorientation that Bunita must feel.

    I think many women musicians of Bunita’s generation (she is now 62) faced similar problems with sexually exploitive teachers. And I think there is a lot of unspoken trauma we are not acknowledging, often because these women were not able to even remain in the field. It would be very helpful if there were substantial research put into documenting this history, but no one in classical music wants to touch it.

    I think the situation in the USA is much better today because women in music are now present in sufficient numbers to protect each other, and because sensibilities have changed about the sexual exploitation of university level women students. Most schools have clearly defined policies about student/teacher relationships and there is little tolerance for genuine offenders.

    Progress has been slower in Europe, where these problems are less scrutinized. At the conservatory where my wife teaches, a student cut her wrists after a professor ended a relationship with her. Another professor at her school has been married five times, the last four to his students. The relationships were very abusive. When he retired he was beginning a relationship with a sixth. He was an especially extreme case, but not fully outside the norms. When my wife addressed the Rektor (the Dean) of the school about the problem, he laughed and said if he did anything he would have to fire a third of the school. The next day, in an unrelated meeting with several faculty, he made a crude joke about the problem. I do not know of any program to substantively deal with these problems in German conservatories. If there is one, perhaps someone can let us know about it. News about the policies in other European countries would also be welcomed.

    1. MWnyc says:

      William, I agree that that Rektor’s attitude was unprofessional, of course.

      But how old are the students at the conservatory where your wife teaches?

      Bunita Marcus didn’t even meet Morton Feldman until she was 24. She was a grown-up. And she was not married to him. (Indeed, he was married to someone else.)

      I think the problem is not that the American new music community doesn’t want to deal with a troubling accusation against one of its idols.

      It’s that Marcus is coming forward with this accusation now, 27 years after his death (and having spoken well of him during those years), with no corroboration or evidence beyond her own say-so, and Feldman can’t defend himself.

      To many people, that seems unfair.

      1. william osborne says:

        I agree that this is a very problematic case. As I mentioned, it is very complex, which is why I feel it should be addressed in a substantial and documented form, at least to the degree possible. In a long term relationship, the perceptions of perpetrators and victims can be very subjective, and all the more so, when the victim suffered child abuse. There is much to be clarified.

        There are many reasons why it’s not unusual for victims of domestic abuse to remain silent for decades. And Bunita didn’t wait 27 years. I believe she has spoken about this in more private contexts for some years – one of which was on my wife’s Facebook page. And given the complexities of these relationships it is also not unusual for victims to praise the positive aspects of their abusers. In fact, it is often the imbalances created by intense admiration that create an environment conducive to abuse.

        It is also important to understand that this involves two different issues. One is the exploitation of students, and the second is domestic abuse. Bunita’s case appears to be both, but with domestic abuse being the larger problem. It would be important to clarify the extent the two issues overlap in this case, if they do. There seems to be a continuum from Feldman’s position of authority as a teacher over a student to a domestic relationship that continued the same unequal power structures. This created an especially precarious situation since victims of child abuse can project past traumas onto an adult relationship. This creates yet another level of complexity that needs to be clarified.

        It is true that older students can better protect themselves from sexual exploitation by teachers, but one should not minimize the difficulties even older students faced, especially in the days when they were among the very few women in departments. As one person noted, resistance could end their careers. It is also important to note that the many women of Bunita’s generation who suffered these problems were exploited as undergraduates who had fewer resources for defense.

      2. william osborne says:

        To answer your other question, I notice that most of the exploited students where my wife teaches are undergrads. And to add some balance, I can think of one case where a professor dated and married a student and they have a very long-term, successful marriage. She was older and mature and he was unmarried. Their ages weren’t extremely varied, and they were both foreigners in Germany and shared a common cultural background since he had lived in her country as a foreigner for many years. It isn’t so hard to tell when a relationship is honest, loving, and meaningful. And I notice that administrators seldom concern themselves with relationships of that type. At the same time, administrators need the policy tools at hand to deal with the creeps who are just predators.

  3. gerald brennan says:

    So he was so horrible to her that she stayed loyal to him for 11 years until his death? There’s waaaaaaaay more here than Norman’s glib gloss.
    It takes two.

  4. Eleonor Sandresky says:

    Gerald, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Bill has it right. It’s all about power and women have been systematically stripped of their (our) power from very early in our lives. “It takes two” is only a fair comment in a balanced and fully consensual relationship. A student/teacher relationship can never be balanced. It works the other way too, if the teacher were female and the student make. Not balanced.

  5. Eleonor Sandresky says:

    I meant to refer to male students above. Not make!

  6. Bunita Marcus says:

    Thank you to the first two com mentors on their insight and sensitivity. It’s too easy to blame the victim. Anyone who understands domestic violence can understand the terror I lived under. I was soooo glad he died so I could live my life.

    1. Arlene and Larry Dunn says:

      Bravo for your fortitude Bunita, and thank you of your music.

  7. Mark Henriksen says:

    To think that the only kind of power in a relationship is rank is to disregard the wide and varied dynamics found in relationships. However, universities in the US have policies and if claims are made that can be substantiated, heads fall. This happens consistently in academia in the US.

    1. Alto says:

      Few of those policies were in place in the 70s and 80s. Even fewer were enforced in any meaningful way.

  8. Ian Pace says:

    ‘I’ve noticed that the new music community is supportive of Bunita’s efforts to deal with child abuse, but when it comes to one of their idols like Feldman they tend to hush up. They don’t want to even begin with the problem, which must only add to the confusion and disorientation that Bunita must feel.’

    Exactly. Unfortunately this pattern can be observed in many fields of life – denial and defensiveness when it comes to to ‘one of one’s own’.

  9. gerald brennan says:

    To deliberately place oneself in a subordinate position and then complain about the outcome seems quite senseless to me.
    To assert that one has no choice in how one handles one’s relationships seems doubly so.
    Perhaps I am missing something here? But if I am, I have not discovered it in previous posts.

    1. Matthew Greenbaum says:

      You’re missing a lot. During Morty’s day, women had no choice but to subject themselves to this shit, or give up on a career. Plus, Feldman was a “larger-than-life” “genius,” an angle that he must have worked for all it was worth.

      Students fall in love with teachers – it’s called “transference.” Teachers have to learn to deal with it and not get sucked into their own narcissism.

      1. MWnyc says:

        “Students fall in love with teachers – it’s called ‘transference.’ Teachers have to learn to deal with it and not get sucked into their own narcissism.”

        Fair enough, Matthew. But when the students are adults, they have to deal with it and not get sucked into their own transference. Or, if they do, they have to accept responsibility for having done so.

        1. Bunita Marcus says:

          I was not in love with him ever. He assaulted me over and over again. I loved my husband. I had zero interst in any other man. . Read my tweets.

        2. Alto says:

          Speaking abstractly and not about Ms. Marcus’ specific case, I’d say that it’s the responsibility of the teacher not to take advantage of that power dynamic regardless of whether or not the student is an adult. To otherwise is unprofessional and unethical.

          If the only opportunity one has to form a romantic relationship is by engaging with a student that said person is probably too pathetic to be in a relationship in the first place.

    2. James says:

      Gerald – it’s been well-documented over the years that many women find it very difficult (if not impossible) to escape from abusive relationships. It’s not as simple as saying “to assert one has no choice… is [senseless]”, and if it were a case of just being able to walk away from it, don’t you think they would? To doubt any of that makes you, as the saying goes, “part of the problem”.

      And to query why Bunita Marcus has chosen to say what she says after years of not doing so? Well, there are all manner of reasons – fear of not being believed, fear of being victim-shamed, the desire to not have to relive long-suppressed traumatic memories… Maybe now that allegations of “historical sexual abuses” are being taken more seriously in various parts of the world (e.g. the Catholic Church across the globe, various parts of the entertainment industry in the UK, also in some areas of UK musical pedagogy), Miss Marcus has found the strength to open up about her experiences.

      I wish her well…

  10. Matthew Greenbaum says:

    Exactly, Eleonor – Matthew Greenbaum

  11. Hilary says:

    On the other hand, the charge of ‘stealing ideas’ is less serious. All great composers do this and the more brazen the better! It’s not the ideas themselves which are important but what the artist does with them. Mahler isn’t diminished because he culled from Beethoven’s Fidelio and Rott’s Symphony and the same applies to Feldman in relation to Bunita Marcus.

    1. Ian Pace says:

      Other composers may ‘steal ideas’, but I think there is something particularly reprehensible about doing this from one of one’s own students. I have encountered a case of an academic ripping off material from one of their own PhD students’ dissertations without accreditation, and find that of a similar nature.

      Obviously not on a par with sexual assault, but still symptomatic of a wider set of attitudes towards others. I would say that if you read most of Feldman’s articles and interviews (especially those from Middelburg, published more recently through MusikTexte) he comes across as a boorish, arrogant and contemptuous bully (also a rather disconcerting nationalist and xenophobe, quite happy to pass patronising judgements on whole peoples just based on nationality).

      None of this makes his music in itself any more or less valuable to listen to, for sure. But I would say that the whole ‘package’ of Feldman which is regularly disseminated and ‘sold’ (and may form a part of the experience of listening to his music) is tied in with the idea of a rather jovial and lovable ‘Morty’. This is what needs serious questioning now.

    2. Bunita Marcus says:

      What you say is true Hillary between professionals. But this does not apply to my situation.

  12. charrier says:

    Anyway, great words from Marcus about Feldman in this little boo publisheda few years ago : http://lemotetlereste.com/mr/solo/mortonfeldmanforbunitamarcus/ Strange then…

  13. gerald brennan says:

    Matthew,

    Thanks for your observations. I see where you’re coming from and I don’t dispute the thrust of your argument. Just a couple of points to make.

    — “You’re missing a lot. During Morty’s day, women had no choice but to subject themselves to this shit, or give up on a career.”

    Or strike out on one’s own; Or find a different teacher. If it simply HAD to be Feldman, well, there are consequences to such a choice.

    — “Feldman was a “larger-than-life” “genius,” an angle that he must have worked for all it was worth.”

    You may well be right, but that is your presumption. Morty isn’t around to put his two-cent in — a situation no one seems to think would be relevant.

    GB

  14. Jon Appleton says:

    Should I no longer listen to Feldman’s music? How about Berio? Rorem?

    1. Hilary says:

      You must continue to listen to Feldman’s music.
      As a person, he was clearly a mixture of lovable and loathsome (like most of us in varying degrees) and his music is a replica of his personality, not diametrically opposed to. For all their textural delicacy, an ego of outsize proportions could only have dreampt up pieces like Violin and Orchestra and Coptic Light. As Michael Tilson Thomas wrote “he was a connoisseur of music,art,food,women and the aesthetics of east and west”
      Obviously, composers like Feldman are not the ideal composition teachers as they are like a guru. Good, for a one off lesson/lecture as a burst of something different.

  15. Eric Salzman says:

    Morty was a brilliant guy although, curiously enough, he was big, boorish, arrogant and rude — exactly the opposite of his music. He once stuck out his leg and tried to trip me up as I was walking down the aisle of a concert hall; fortunately I saw it first and was able to jump over. He also loudly booed in the silence at the whispered end of the premiere of my “Foxes & Hedgehogs”. What was was all this about? He didn’t like something I had written about him.

    1. gerald brennan says:

      Eric,

      That’s pretty shocking.
      I’m sorry to say that more and more I try not to know too much about the artists I love. It’s almost like their art takes all the good and what’s left is the dross.
      Sorry you had to put up with that.

      GB

  16. gerald brennan says:

    James,

    — “it’s been well-documented over the years that many women find it very difficult (if not impossible) to escape from abusive relationships. It’s not as simple as saying “to assert one has no choice… is [senseless]”, and if it were a case of just being able to walk away from it, don’t you think they would? To doubt any of that makes you, as the saying goes, “part of the problem”.

    I don’t abuse women and disallow it in any form in my presence. ABUSE, James, is the problem, not me.

    I agree that many women are mired in the inability to extricate themselves from abuse. But there is no alternative for women but to conquer the Fear, and use the laws available to them, else they slink into victimhood.
    This is not a judgement; there is simply no choice.
    Our decisions (such as whom we pick to “teach” us) have consequences.
    We are all of us, women and men, affected by Fear. But there is no refuge in Fear.

    GB

    1. William Safford says:

      I disagree. An alternative is to make clear that such behavior by men (or women, as applicable) is unacceptable, then enforce it as necessary.

      You may find the following op-ed (not about Morton Feldman) helpful in understanding this dynamic:

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/13/bill-cosby-raped-me-why-did-it-take-30-years-for-people-to-believe-my-story/

      In this story, I find it especially sad that it took a man to make the allegation, for her to be believed. Kudos to the man, but how sad for the greater point.

      1. Bunita Marcus says:

        Excellent article. Thank you.

  17. Bunita Marcus says:

    @bunitamuse: I stood up to Morty, challenged him to be more reasonable. I argued, threw him out, tried to get him to see options. He called me Reality.
    @bunitamuse: Morty changed and our friendship became something rare. Eventually we defined it as family. I know Morty would support everything I’m doing.

  18. MWnyc says:

    “Maybe now that allegations of “historical sexual abuses” are being taken more seriously in various parts of the world (e.g. the Catholic Church across the globe, various parts of the entertainment industry in the UK, also in some areas of UK musical pedagogy).”

    Thing is, James, the victims in those cases were generally children, or at least minors.

    Bunita Marcus was an adult when she studied with, and then was in a close relationship (of whatever nature) with, Morton Feldman.

    So – unless she is alleging actual physical violence or physical coercion (in which case she should say so) – she bears an adult’s responsibility for her choice to remain close to him for years.

    That’s not to excuse Feldman if he was, in fact, abusive toward Marcus.

    But it does seem strange – and a bit unfair – that, having spoken warmly of Feldman for some time (in this 2010 interview, for instance), she accuses him of abuse now, 27 years after his death, when he can’t defend himself.

    1. Bunita Marcus says:

      I was accusing him back then so he had plenty of time to respond. I was telling him the horrendous damage he was doing. I tried to stop him from doing it to others. So Morty knew and he could not control himself.

  19. Boring Fileclerk says:

    The accusations are strange considering I thought that Feldman was gay. But I’m not surprised that any student of a famous musician or performer should have to endure this abuse. It’s a sad fact that such abuse is ramped in the “classical” music world, and we have sadly turned a blind eye to it for far too long.

  20. Miguel Frasconi says:

    Thank you Eleonor and William for your thoughtful posts. This is an important topic that should be followed no matter where it leads. But it is also important enough that it should not be introduced with just a flashy headline and an untranslated link. This is the worst of the internet. I wish Bunita well and encourage her to share her experience when and where it feels right. Some of the comments here show that the violence of power is still something many people don’t understand.

    1. Bunita Marcus says:

      Amen

  21. Tom Myron says:

    ‘Michael Tilson Thomas wrote “he was a connoisseur of music, art, food, women…”‘ MTT should never write anything ever again.

  22. Marion Smith says:

    I have no way of knowing what did and didn’t happen to Bunita Marcus. I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on her motives. And by no means do I intend to discount the very real presence of sexual abuse in society.

    But I think it’s worthwhile to point out that there is little support for the idea of “repressed memory” among psychologists. Elizabeth Loftus is a prominent psychologist who studies human memory, and has written extensively on this subject, most notably in her book THE MYTH OF REPRESSED MEMORY: http://www.amazon.com/The-Myth-Repressed-Memory-Allegations/dp/0312141238


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