How Boulez burgled Morton Feldman

How Boulez burgled Morton Feldman


norman lebrecht

January 12, 2016

Exclusive to Slipped Disc, by Ivan Ilic.

ilic morton feldman


Today, 12 January 2016, would have been Morton Feldman’s 90th birthday. The proximity with Pierre Boulez’s death is a reminder of their relationship, which was strained from the beginning. Boulez dismissed Feldman’s early experiments with graphic notation as “too imprecise” and “too simple” in his correspondence with John Cage.

Nevertheless, it was Feldman’s music which sparked the idea for Boulez’s Éclat (1965): “You listen to some music and you immediately think of what you can extract from it for your own use”, he said.

“I was listening to a work by Feldman. It does not matter which one…at that moment the idea of Éclat came into my mind. Under the influence of Feldman’s piece I realized that one could compose music with short cells, even single chords, which come from nothing and disappear into nothing”.

Boulez’s description of Éclat reads like a perfect characterization of much of Feldman’s work: “I wished to write contemplative music – one which had no direction or perceptible development. The subject itself does not develop – the basic feature of the music is its timbre”.

And more: “I could perhaps liken Éclat to the behavior of fish in an aquarium. They hover motionless for a long time – all we can see is the slow gliding of colors”.

Feldman only found out about Boulez’s admission in 1983, when it was shared by interviewer Bálint András Varga, former head of promotion for Universal Edition. Feldman was “visibly intrigued”.

Although Feldman never forgot Boulez’s earlier slight, he didn’t seem to bear a grudge. Envious of Boulez’s success, he mentioned him often in his lectures: “There is no difference between me and Boulez, no difference! He made a million dollars with Peugeots, he became a Peugeot tycoon, and I make safety pins, but I also made a million dollars. So there is absolutely no difference. We’re the same.”

Morton Feldman

Bálint András Varga’s Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers (University of Rochester Press, 2011) pp 21, 23 and 77.
Morton Feldman’s lecture at the California Institute for the Arts, February 1981:


  • Nicola Lefanu says:

    We shouldn’t feel too sorry for Feldman’s finances. He made mega $$$ with trading works of art.

  • Hilary says:

    Éclat and the companion piece is my favourite are among my favourites.
    I’m puzzled by Feldman’s reference to Peurgeot cars. Seems out of character….more akin to someone like Karajan.

  • Geoffrey Dorfman says:

    Morton Feldman was very comfortable in the company of the abstract painters of the New York School. The Artists’ Club — called “The Club” — hosted talks by a first rate bevy of composers in the early 1950’s: Virgil Thompson, Edgar Varese, Pierre Boulez, Henry Cowell, Stefan Wolpe and of course their own man, Morton Feldman. I once asked an old painter friend of mine about Boulez.The impression left by Boulez was not favorable, according to Milton Resnick. Boulez was so very young back then, and so overly sure of himself playing the ‘enfant terrible’ card perhaps a little too strong for their tastes. In Boulez’ defense, the French were not favored back then amongst that set.

  • ron says:

    great piece, great quotes. “I wished to write contemplative music – one which had no direction or perceptible development. The subject itself does not develop – the basic feature of the music is its timbre”.

  • Ken Hannaford says:

    The Boulez statement is simple and true, whether composers are well known or unknown they should be listening to other people’s music and absorbing ideas. It is the same with teaching composition, you have to spread your musical net to help novice composers understand how to structure ideas and develop ideas of their own. Keeping one’s ears open to how music is created is essential.
    What I don’t like about the article is the notion that wealth resulting from the use of music is a yardstick to success, if so, popular culture has to be far more valuable than art music. Being a very minor composer who offers music, analysis and works to the public without a desire for recompense, it would seem that my view is biased. From my days as an educator I have seen many times that the public values what it pays for in education over what it gets in return.
    As an unbiased reader I think Boulez comes out best in the article.