MORTON FELDMAN (1926–1987)
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Morton Feldman was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926. He studied piano with Maurina Press—herself a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni—whom he credited for instilling in him a “vibrant musicality rather than musicianship” (Zimmermann 1985, 36). He studied composition first with Wallingford Riegger, and later with Stefan Wolpe. In 1949, Feldman met the composer who was perhaps to have the most profound influence on his work, namely John Cage. Through Cage, Feldman became part of a small circle of composers—sometimes referred to as the New York School—that also included Christian Wolff and Earle Brown. Feldman also became part of a larger circle that included several abstract expressionist painters, among them Mark Rothko and Philip Guston, with whom Feldman developed close friendships. Drawn together by their quest for innovative means and forms of expression, these musicians and visual artists met frequently during the 1950s and 1960s to offer support for one another and to exchange ideas. In 1973, Feldman accepted a teaching position, as the Edgard Varèse Professor of Music at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He held this position until he died in 1987. 1
At the heart of virtually all of Feldman’s music is his deep interest in what he would often simply refer to as the “sound” of music. To be sure, it is a strange way of speaking: we might wonder about a composer who was not interested in sound. But Feldman’s interest was unusual. He was interested in, we sometimes say, “the sounds themselves,” or “sound as sound.” In his writings and interviews, Feldman continually brought up the subject of sound, lamenting that it was slighted by composition. He distinguished between the sounds or materials of a composition, on the one hand, and the ideas or “systems and construction” of a composition, on the other hand. 2 For Feldman—as for any composer—the material was what he started and worked with. But it was not something like a motive or a twelve-tone row. Rather, it was the sounds of the instruments. Feldman found beauty in the sounds that emerged from particular combinations of instruments, and even in the individual tones of, for example, a piano or violin. What troubled him was when the most sensuous aspect of such sounds, namely their timbres or colors, was made secondary by the process of composition. (Colors of course most often became secondary to pitches, on which were based the ideas or constructions.) Feldman’s mission became to feature the most sensuous aspect of his materials. To some extent, he was following in the footsteps of composers such as Claude Debussy and Varèse. But the most direct source of inspiration came from the visual arts. In writings and interviews, Feldman often discussed the sense of stasis and surface in the work of the abstract expressionists, suggesting that composers can learn from the “more perceptive temperament [of the painter] that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer’s vested interest in his craft” (Zimmermann 1985, 90). The influence of these painters on Feldman’s own composition he summed up as follows: “The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore” (38).
It was with the intention of creating such a sound world that, in the early 1950s, Feldman made the move of incorporating indeterminacy into his compositions. Feldman was by now acquainted with Cage, who was beginning to leave to chance certain decisions made in the composition of his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1950–1951). What distinguishes Feldman’s series of Projections (1950–1951) is that now, for the first time, chance slips into the performance of the composition. 3 Utilizing a graphic notation, Feldman instructed the performer as to the duration, dynamics, timbre, and density of each sound, but left in her hands the decision as to the exact pitches of the sounds: with regard to pitch, he indicated only whether a sound was to be produced in the low, medium, or high register of the instrument. Feldman reasoned his move to this indeterminate notation as follows: “My desire was not to ‘compose,’ but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here. In order not to involve…[myself] in memory (relationships) and because the sounds no longer had an inherent symbolic shape, I allowed for indeterminacies in regard to pitch.” 4 Most immediately striking about these works is the lack of certain “rhetorical” effects, such as a sense of beginning and ending, development, and climax, as well as of some more basic effects that also depend on particular pitch relationships, such as melodic continuity and harmonic progression. Instead, the effect of Feldman’s music is of something much more static and strangely fragile—as if time were a “canvas” onto which the performers, ever so delicately, “painted” their sounds. In one moment of Projection 1 (1950), for example, we hear just the sound of a low cello pizzicato; in another moment, just the sound of a high cello harmonic; in yet other moments, we hear a small group of sounds, held together by nothing more than their following without break one on another. And we not only hear these sounds, we hear that with which Feldman “primes” the canvas before the sounds, namely silence. Along with the absence of certain pitch relations, silences contribute to the isolation of one sound from the next. The experience for the listener Feldman described as follows: each sound “as if almost erase[s] in one’s memory what happened…. [Y]ou were very fresh into the moment, and you didn’t relate it” (Zimmermann 1985, 230).
Feldman continued to create worlds in which sounds would float “free from compositional rhetoric” throughout the 1950s and 1960s. While works such as the Intersection series (1951–1953), The Straits of Magellan for seven instruments (1961), and In Search of an Orchestration (1967) are also graphically notated, more often than not Feldman used a more traditional notation in which the pitches were precisely notated—though certain details of timing were left in the hands of the performer. Many of the scores from this period consist of an unbarred succession of notes and chords (notated simply with note heads), whose durations are indicated only by a sprinkling of fermatas and grace notes, and a general tempo marking (e.g., Feldman might indicate that each note head is to fall somewhere between sixty-six and eighty-eight). In other works, such as Vertical Thoughts 2 (1963), for violin and piano, and De Kooning (1963), for soprano, horn, piano, chimes, and violin, such free successions are interspersed with sounds—and sometimes even silences—whose durations are either precisely measured or depend on an instrument’s natural decay or a performer’s breath length. Also from this period come works such as the series of Durations (1960–1961), each of which is for a different group of instruments, and For Franz Kline (1962), for soprano, horn, chimes, piano, violin, and cello. In these works, each player moves through her own succession of sounds, choosing her own durations (without trying to align her sounds with those of the other players). The resulting textures differ from performance to performance, both with respect to rhythm and the vertical alignments.
Feldman’s predilection for choosing his own pitches might seem rather curious: why choose, if the intended effect—sounds “free of ‘compositional rhetoric’”—is precisely that for which he had initially given up the choice? However, it is easy to identify concrete reasons for Feldman’s moving away from graphic notation. For one, Feldman could now ensure that at a given moment we hear, not just, say, any high piano note, combined with any high chimes note and any low cello note, but something more carefully crafted: a sound of a precise—and often exquisite—color and intervallic makeup. A second reason for Feldman’s wanting to choose his own pitches was in order to craft the particulars of our experience of such a sound, given its place in a succession of such sounds. The idea was not only to ensure that one sound seemed detached from another, but to also ensure that there was something to be heard in each sound. In other words, with Feldman, succession often seems to become the means, not of combining sounds into continuities and progressions, but of enriching the individual sounds. By means of the particular context in which he placed a sound, Feldman could transform it, from “the sound itself”—that is, just how it would sound if the sounds before were really erased from memory—to a sound that (as part of a succession) is musical or expressive. 5 In deference to the subtlety of these expressive qualities, Feldman often made stringent demands on the performers: they were to play as softly as possible, with a minimum of attack, and without expressive effects such as dynamic gradations, tremolos, or even vibratos.
We might still think in terms of sounds floating “free of compositional rhetoric” with respect to Feldman’s works of the early 1970s—only now what floats is not only exquisitely crafted vertical sonorities, but also, essentially, little bits of compositional rhetoric: melodic fragments, which, on occasion, even develop into full-fledged melodies. The contrast between the vertical and the linear is one of a number of factors that make works such as The Viola in My Life series (1970–1971) and For Frank O’Hara (1973) seem less radical than Feldman’s earlier works. Another factor is a new, more active role for the performers: now Feldman lends sounds expressive qualities, not only by their place in a succession, but also by the addition of, for example, tremolos, crescendos, and diminuendos. But it was not long before Feldman’s music would become, in certain respects, even more radical than was his early music. Indeed, Feldman’s works from the late 1970s and 1980s seem in some ways like expanded versions of his works from the 1950s and 1960s: again the music unfolds moment by moment, only now, by way of extended repetition, one moment extends, not seconds, but minutes, and a whole succession of such moments can extend as much as a few hours.
The inspiration for what would be Feldman’s last change of style came from his growing love of Near and Middle Eastern rugs. Feldman was so fascinated by the irregularities in the patterns and colors of the village and nomadic rugs that he attempted to imitate them in his use of tiny variations in timing and intonation. Even more importantly, Feldman was fascinated by the interplay between the rugs’ colors and patterns. From the way that the rug maker would use patterns in order to feature color, Feldman got the idea of using patterns in order to feature musical colors. Sometimes, this meant using a technique that he had occasionally used in his early music: namely, of taking a succession of a few sounds and simply repeating them. But usually it was a matter of weaving strands of sounds that both repeat and vary into more complex textures. Even in the opening pattern of For John Cage (1982), for example, which is constructed just of two instrumental timbres (violin and piano) and two pairs of pitches, Feldman orders the sounds in such a way as to lend the passage a certain flexibility and continuity. Contrary to what is suggested by the score, we hear groups of sounds, not exactly repeating, but expanding and contracting, as well as overlapping with one another. In the opening of Three Voices (1982), however, strands of short repeated figures—all of which derive from a single four-note cluster—are interwoven so tightly and in such complex rhythmic relations to one another that the individual strands often become lost within the resultant texture. What we hear is an almost three-dimensional mass of sound, which—though it never seems headed in a particular direction—is continually changing. In other instances, the strands with which Feldman weaves a texture are even less repetitive. Near the opening of Why Patterns? (1978), for example, a series of chromatically descending lines on the alto flute are heard against a “sky” of chords in the high registers of the piano and glockenspiel. The latter seem to sparkle or even flicker, not only because of their brightness and percussive qualities—which contrast with the seemingly connected sounds of the flute—but also because of their being so unpredictable: we know neither when the next chord will occur, nor whether it will be a new or an already-heard chord.
To listen to a late work of Feldman’s is to marvel at the imagination with which—even given a small group of instruments—he could weave such a variety of different patterns. It is also to experience the various ways in which one pattern can be succeeded by another pattern. Feldman once described the patterns as “self-contained sound-groupings” that enable him “to break off without preparation into something else.” 6 By suddenly shifting from one pattern to the next, Feldman often added an element of drama that sharply contrasted with the stasis of the patterns themselves. However, Feldman also contrasted these abrupt breaks between patterns with more gradual effects. Sometimes, for example, one pattern seems to unravel before the next. At other times, we may not even be sure where one pattern ends and the next begins: in other words, what initially seems the beginning of a new pattern can sometimes turn out to be just part of a larger and more diverse pattern.
Feldman’s music has always had its detractors. Critics have complained that it is boring, that nothing “happens” in it. Others, however, cherish Feldman’s music. It is celebrated in festivals both in America and Europe, and, especially in the last decade, is recorded with remarkable frequency. Feldman fans can now even exchange information via a new Feldman Web site (http://www.cnvill.demon.co.uk/mfhome.htm). It may seem to some that those who cherish this music simply do not mind being bored. But probably more to the point would be to suggest that the secret of their satisfaction lies in a new way of listening: rather than waiting for something to happen, they are savoring what they are hearing now.
Structures, for string quartet (1951) (Peters)
Intersection I, for large orchestra (1951); II, for piano (1951); III, for piano (1953); IV, for cello (1953) (all Peters)
Three Pieces for String Quartet (1956) (Peters)
Piece for Four Pianos (1957) (Peters)
Last Pieces, for piano (1959) (Peters)
Durations I, for alto flute, piano, violin, and cello (1960); II, for cello and piano (1960); III, for tuba, violin, and piano (1961); IV, for vibraphone, violin, and cello Out of “Last Pieces,” for orchestra (1961) (Peters)
The Straits of Magellan, for flute, horn, trumpet, harp, amplified guitar, piano, and bass (1961) (Peters)
For Franz Kline, for soprano, horn, chimes, piano, violin, and cello (1962) (Peters)
Piano Piece (to Philip Guston) (1963) (Peters)
De Kooning, for horn, percussion, violin, and cello (1963) (Peters)
Vertical Thoughts I, for two pianos (1963); II, for violin and piano (1963); III, for soprano and chamber ensemble (1963); IV, for piano (1963); V, for soprano, tuba, piano, celesta, and violin (1963) (all Peters)
The King of Denmark, for percussion (1964) (Peters)
Four Instruments, for chimes, piano, violin, and cello (1965) (Peters)
In Search of an Orchestration, for orchestra (1967) (Universal)
Between Categories, for two pianos, two chimes, two violins, and two cellos (1969) (Peters)
The Viola in My Life I, for viola, flute, violin, cello, piano, and percussion (1970); II, for viola, flute, clarinet, percussion, celesta, violin, and cello (1970); III, for viola and piano (1970); IV, for viola and orchestra (1971) (all Universal)
Rothko Chapel, for viola, piano, celesta, soprano, alto, and chorus (1971) (Universal)
For Frank O’Hara, for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and cello (1973) (Universal)
Piano and Orchestra (1975) (Universal)
Neither (opera in one act), for soprano and orchestra (1977) (Universal)
Piano (1977) (Universal)
Flute and Orchestra (1978) (Universal)
Why Patterns?, for flute, piano, and percussion (1978) (Universal)
String Quartet (1979) (Universal)
Triadic Memories, for piano (1981) (Universal)
For John Cage, for violin and piano (1982) (Universal)
Three Voices, for soprano and tape (1982) (Universal)
Crippled Symmetry, for flute, piano, and percussion (1983) (Universal)
String Quartet II (1983) (Universal)
For Philip Guston, for flute, piano, and percussion (1984) (Universal)
For Bunita Marcus, for piano (1985) (Universal)
Coptic Light, for orchestra (1986) (Universal)
Palais de Man, for piano (1986) (Universal)
For Samuel Beckett, for chamber ensemble (1987) (Universal)
Behrman, David. 1965. “What Indeterminate Notation Determines.” Perspectives of New Music 3, no. 2:58–73.
Cage, John. 1961. “Indeterminacy,” and “Lecture on Something.” In Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Cage, John, and Morton Feldman. 1993. Radio Happenings I–V. Cologne: MusikTexte.
Delio, Thomas, ed. 1996. The Music of Morton Feldman. Westport, CT: Greenwood. [Includes essays by Paula Kopstick Ames, John Cage, Delio, Morton Feldman, Michael Hamman, Herman Sabbe, John Welsh, and Wes York.]
Feldman, Morton. 1988. “Between Categories.” Contemporary Music Review 2:1–5. [Originally published as “Mellan kategorierna,” Nutida Musik, 12 (1968–1969): 25–27].
Griffiths, Paul. 1985. Modern Music and After: Directions since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hirata, Catherine Costello. 1996. “The Sounds of the Sounds Themselves: Analyzing the Early Music of Morton Feldman.” Perspectives of New Music 34, no. 16–22.
Johnson, Steven. 1994. “Rothko Chapel and Rothko’s Chapel.” Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 2:6–53.
Metzger, Heinz-Klaus, and Rainer Riehn, ed. 1986. Musik-Konzepte 48–49: Morton Feldman. Munich: text+kritik . [Includes essays by Peter Böttinger, Martin Erdmann, Feldman, Daniël Franke, Gottfried Meyer-Thoss, and Walter Zimmermann.]
MusikTexte, Zeitschrift für Neue Musik. 22 (1987). [Feldman memorial volume.]
Nyman, Michael. 1974. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. New York: Schirmer.
Pritchett, James. 1993. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wolpe. Stefan. 1984. “On New (and Not-So-New) Music in America.” Trans. Austin Clarkson. Journal of Music Theory 28, no. 1:1–45.
Zimmermann, Walter, ed. 1985. Morton Feldman Essays. Kerpen: Beginner.
Like Scelsi and Nono, Feldman began to loom much larger in the musical world a few years before his death -- and for similar reasons. His lack of an ideology had relegated him to the second rank in the ideological 1950s, when even Cage had had an ideology: the ideology of having no ideology. Also, as a big man, and a man of humour, he perhaps fitted too well the role of comfortable clown. But in the 1970s, when trust in ideologies faltered, here was a waiting hero: a composer who had been quietly making music by -- as it seemed and seems -- unaided intuition. According to a story of his own: 'My past experience was not to "meddle" with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. "I don't push the sounds around." Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: "Not even a little bit?" ' 84
Using 'my concentration as a guide', Feldman had quickly gone on from the graph scoring of his Projection series, for the reason that he was interested in freeing sounds, not performers. (He did, however, return to graph scoring for works on a larger scale: Out of "Last Pieces", Atlantis, and In Search of an Orchestration.) Before they could be freed, sounds first had to be identified -- and he excelled in identifying harmonies that would, under the pianissimo lentissimo conditions of his music, sound delicate and detached. So he had begun to notate pitches, but to leave them just as note-heads, with no rhythmic indication, as Cage did in the Music for Piano series. Different players, or groups of players, would then proceed through their parts independently: this was the case in, for example, the Durations series for various ensembles ( 1960-1) or Between Categories for two quartets, each of tubular bells, piano, violin, and cello ( 1969). Such a rhythmic loosening would not have been possible in music for several performers without the assumption, always present in Feldman, that the music must be slow, so that there is never any question of linking a sound to what had gone before. Each must exist for itself, and in order to accommodate so many diverse existences, none must dominate: hence the second requirement almost constant in Feldman's music, that it be quiet. In the composer's words: 'the music seems to float, doesn't seem to go in any direction, one doesn't know how it's made, there doesn't seem to be any type of dialectic, going alongside it, explaining it. They [the audience] are not told how to listen, that is the problem. Most music listens for the public.' 85
By the end of the 1960s Feldman had restored conventional rhythmic notation, and in the series "The Viola in my Life" ( 1970-1) -- especially in the viola concerto that is its fourth and last member -- had come near restoring a conventional progressiveness, at least on the scale of melodic gesture: "Rothko Chapel" for chorus with solo singers and instruments ( 1971) includes a melody he had written more than twenty years earlier. But this was a passing phase, and most of his subsequent works, though fully notated, maintain the instant-by-instant unfolding -- as well as the quietness and the slowness -- that had defined his world since the early 1950s. Asked by Heinz-Klaus Metzger if his gentle music was in mourning for the victims of the Holocaust, he came close to agreeing, but wanted to widen the question to include 'say, for example, the death of art'. 'I do in a sense mourn something that has to do with, say -Schubert leaving me. Also I really don't feet that it's a necessary any more. And so what I tried to bring into my music are just very few essential things that I need. So I at least keep it going for a little while more.' 86
If this suggests threads of music squeezed out against finality, the image is borne out by his output up to this point, since, though numerous, his works had tended to be brief and for small ensembles: many are for piano (or multiple pianos), whose sound -- chordal, resonant, reducible to an extreme pianissimo without danger of breaking or fraying -- particularly suited his purposes; others are for choice instrumental groupings; very few involve voices, and those few are mostly wordless. But in the early 1970s the pattern began to change, in dimensions of both size and scoring. There were suddenly more orchestral works, characteristically titled either with their scoring ( Cello and Orchestra, Piano and Orchestra, Oboe and Orchestra, even just Orchestra) or with some pregnant semi-abstract phrase (Elemental Procedures.) Partly this was a matter of opportunity. In 1971-2 Feldman had been resident in Berlin, and from that time onwards he was frequently commissioned by European orchestras and radio authorities.
But the other growth in his music -- the growth in length -- cannot be explained by market forces. At the end of the 1970s his works became immense: Violin and Orchestra ( 1979) plays for over an hour, String Quartet (also 1979) for over an hour and a half, String Quartet II ( 1983) for up to five and a half hours. The possibility of great length may have been opened by his soprano monodrama Neither ( 1977), to a text written for him by Samuel Beckett; 87 but a seventy-minute stage piece is not unusual, whereas a string quartet that goes on for hours without pause quite definitely is. So is the other monster in his output, the four-hour For Philip Guston ( 1984), which was one of several pieces he wrote at that time for a touring group that included the flautist Eberhard Blum, the percussionist Jan Williams, and the pianists Yvar Mikhashoff and Nils Vigeland. (Works of this period, demanding dedication, were often written for particular musicians, who included also the pianists Bunita Marcus, Aki Takahashi, and Roger Woodward, the singer Joan LaBarbara, and the violinist Paul Zukofsky.) 'My whole generation', he said, '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.' 88
Feldman spoke of 'the contradiction in not having the sum of the parts equal the whole': 'The scale of what is actually being represented . . . is a phenomenon unto itself.' 89 At the beginning of his career he had, even more than Cage, been influenced by the New York painters of his generation and the one before, 90 and in his late works he may have wanted to achieve -- as he did achieve -- the kind of presence a large Rothko has by virtue of its scale: the grandeur and the strangeness that come simply from there being so much of it. (Yet, whether in Rothko or in Feldman, these gifts are not unearned: what they demand from their recipient is acceptance, not striving.) Another influence on Feldman's late music -- or 'permission' for it, to use his own word -- came from Islamic rugs, which he collected. On his floor there was, for instance, an Anatolian chequerboard piece 'with no systematic color design except for a free use of the rug's colors reiterating its simple pattern'. 91 Symmetry on one level, of geometry, is combined with asymmetry on another, of coloration -
And certainly the works of his last eight or nine years (works which must, in terms of duration, account for fully half his output) have little beyond repetition in common with those of Reich and Glass. Pulse, where it exists, is slow, and the music remains quiet. Most decisively, there is no process, but still a drifting. Tonal features return: they can hardly be avoided when there is so much repetition, and in some pieces -- such as Triadic Memories for solo piano ( 1981), which can play for up to an hour and a half -- Feldman made a feature of them. But the motive implications of common chords are resisted. 'Chords are heard repeated without any discernible pattern. In this regularity (though there are slight gradations of tempo) there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion.' 92
Feldman's repetitions also differ from most in his creation of a symmetry 'crippled' by asymmetry, whether from 'slight gradations of tempo', from changes of orchestral colour (in The Turfan Fragments) or from rhythmic notations which look exact but will inevitably be performed a touch inexactly. For instance, at the start of Three Voices ( 1982), shown in Example 74, the co-ordination of the top part with the other two is unlikely to be precise, and the imprecision -- suggesting life, suggesting failing -- seems to be wanted. Composing the piece shortly after the death of his closest painter friend, Philip Guston, Feldman had in mind a singer with two loudspeakers behind her. 'There is something kind of tombstoney about the look of loudspeakers. I thought of the piece as an exchange of the live voice with the dead ones -- a mixture of the living and the dead.' 93 The dead would have to include the metrical regularity and the harmonic directedness that the music can no longer operate -- 'something . . . to do with . . . Schubert leaving me.'
MODERN MUSIC AND AFTER
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS