Ivan Ilić’s Interview with Morton Feldman scholar, Chris Villars

As many will know, I have recently been hosting an inteview series here on my blog called Classical Conversations and I recently interviewed Serbian American pianist, Ivan Ilić. Ivan has published this interesting interview with Chris Villars, a scholar who runs a website devoted to the American composer, Morton Feldman.

Interview with Morton Feldman scholar, Chris Villars.

Chris Villars was born in Cambridge in 1949. He has lived most of his life in London, until 2010, when he retired and moved to York. He studied Physics and Philosophy at Birmingham University, graduating with a degree in Philosophy. He pursued a career in teaching, then in Information Technology.

 In 1997 Villars created a website devoted to American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). The website is among the most extensive online archives pertaining to a contemporary composer. There are hundreds of documents, including interviews, transcribed lectures, musical analyses, and a detailed discography.

In recent years Feldman has emerged as a major 20th century composer. Villars has discreetly but persistently documented the legacy of Morton Feldman: the complexity of the man, and his softly intriguing music.

I interviewed Villars in May 2013.

Ivan Ilić: When did you first experience Feldman’s music?

Chris Villars: I became interested in modern music in the mid-1960s when I was 15 or 16. Around that time I became aware of Feldman; he was one of many composers who interested me. I discovered music mostly through BBC Radio 3, which, in the time when William Glock was Controller of Music, was very active broadcasting modern music.

There was also a notable contingent of English musicians that actively championed Feldman’s music like Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury.

Yes, Cardew and Tilbury were very well-known in the UK new music scene at that time. John Tilbury is still today Feldman’s most important advocate and exponent here. Two other people were particularly important in establishing Feldman’s reputation in the UK. The first was Wilfrid Mellers at the University of York; he met Feldman in New York and invited him to York several times in the 70’s. The other was Bill Colleran, head of Universal Edition’s London office. The story of why Feldman switched his publisher from Peters in New York (the publisher of John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Feldman himself until then) to Universal Edition in London would be well worth researching in detail.

 What was it that drew you towards Feldman’s music?

 My interest started in the 1990s when Hat Hut Records released their pioneering series of recordings of his later works. I worked in London at that time and was a frequent browser at Harold Moores Records. One day they were playing something – I think it was “Crippled Symmetry” – and I was hooked.

 When did you start your website about Morton Feldman?

 It started in January 1997. At first, there was just a CD discography. You can still see the site as it was soon after its launch at the Internet Archive.

The site grew pretty quickly, mainly in response to people asking for more. I got emails asking, “Why don’t you list vinyl LPs as well as CDs? Why don’t you include information about who Feldman was and analyses of his works?” To me, one of the great things about the site is its collaborative nature.

How did Feldman’s close friends react when they learned that an English outsider was organizing all of this information?

The reaction has always been overwhelmingly positive. No one has refused permission to reproduce their material. The Feldman Estate and the Senior Archivists in Buffalo and Basel have always been extremely helpful and encouraging.

What steps have you taken to make sure that the information will always be available?

 At times, I imagine doing two different things: advance-fund it with the hosting company, so that it would remain available for a while after my death. Or I could approach an appropriate permanent institution (perhaps a university) to host an archive of those parts of the site judged of lasting value. I often ask myself, why is there no Morton Feldman Foundation? John Cage, Earle Brown, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, and so many others have enduring Foundations to look after their long-term interests, and actively promote their music and scholarship. Why not Feldman?

You edited a book of interviews with Feldman and lecture transcriptions, entitled Morton Feldman Says. There is also a detailed chronology and bibliography. How did the book come about?

In 2003, Joseph Kohlmaier of the design company Polimekanos approached me about producing a book on Feldman. We settled on the idea of publishing the Feldman interviews and lectures I had collected on the website, in book form. Joseph was adamant that it should be well-designed with plenty of photos. This meant it would be an expensive project. After about a year’s work we had to shelve it, for lack of funds. A year later, Joseph persuaded Robin Kinross of Hyphen Press to take it on. The quality of the book published in 2006 attests to the enthusiasm and professionalism of Joseph and Robin. Two thousand copies were printed; it sold out in 2010.

What did you learn about Feldman during the book project that you didn’t already know?

Lots of things! But I often ask myself, does anything you know about a composer actually affect your enjoyment of the music? I’m inclined to think not. I can’t think of anything I know about Feldman that has increased (or decreased) my enjoyment of his music. That happens through listening I think. It is as if the artwork and the artist’s life are two quite separate things. You can appreciate the art without knowing much about the artist. And vice versa: you can get seriously involved in studying the life of the artist without spending all that much time with the art (a very real danger for me I’m afraid!).

Another recent book, Morton Feldman in Middelburg, was full of little tidbits that allowed me to make connections I hadn’t made before. Are there still surprises for you?

All the time! The most recent example: Feldman’s passionate enthusiasm for Pierre Boulez expressed in his 1981 CalArts lecture (Sebastian Claren and I are currently revising the transcription):

“Now what saves Boulez for me is his ear. And it shows from his earliest music. His Sonatina for flute and piano is a masterpiece. You would listen to that piece, the aggregates that he would get out of the row, what do you think, you know, he got the right four notes! And how he uses it, and where he does it and then where he puts it, that sense of registration and timing, capital! How he could just stay in one register, say, for four measures! Everything! And the balancing act! It is a tour de force of a consummate ear!”

What other documents are you aware of that are not readily yet available?

There are numerous recordings of lectures and conversations that have not been transcribed or published yet. There are also the recollections of many people still living who knew him which have not been collected. There is a real need for a thoroughgoing biography.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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