[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

Morton Feldman

by Paul Griffiths

The following article is composed of two excerpts from the author's book Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945 (Oxford University Press, 1995) pp 94 & 303-306. Numbers in square brackets refer to notes included here at the end of the text.

Morton Feldman’s early Projections and Intersections pieces, written between 1950 and 1953, are series of 'graph' compositions in which [...] time is represented by space, and in which the spaced boxes specify only instrument, register, number of simultaneous sounds, mode of production, and duration. The two series differ in that the Projections are to be consistently quiet, while in the Intersections 'the player is free to choose any dynamic at any entrance but must maintain sameness of volume' - though 'what is desired in both ... is a pure (non-vibrating) tone'.[1]

Musical example 1
From Edition Peters No. 6940
© 1951 by C F Peters Corporation, New York
Reproduced by kind by permission of Peters Edition Limited, London
Example 1: Projection II (Opening)

Example 1 shows the opening of Projection II, where the dashed lines mark off units of a second; the first sound heard is a five-note chord in the extreme bass of the piano, followed by a middle-range trumpet note, a note in the mid-treble of the piano, and so on. In other works of the same period, such as the Extensions series or Structures for string quartet, Feldman used conventional notation in order to achieve non-compulsion differently, by having delicate figures repeated over and over again. But the ideal is essentially the same: as John Cage pointed out, 'Feldman's conventionally notated music is himself playing his graph music'.[2] The exceptions to his world of low-density, low-speed, low-volume music were few and extreme: the hectically eventful Intersection III for piano, or the unrealized and probably unrealizable Intersection for tape.[3]

* * *

Feldman began to loom much larger in the musical world a few years before his death [...]. 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?" '[4]

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 (l960-1) 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.'[5]

By the end of the 1960s Feldman had restored conventional rhythmic notation, and in the series The Viola in My Life (1970-l) - 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 feel that it's all 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. '[6]

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;[7] 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.'[8]

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.'[9] 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,[10] 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, can Anatolian chequerboard piece 'with no systematic color design except for a free use of the rug's colors reiterating its simple pattern'.[11] Symmetry on one level, of geometry, is combined with asymmetry on another, of coloration - an asymmetry subtly complicated by the fact that the colours of rural rugs are uneven, because yarn was dyed in small quantities. According to his own account, it was out of such observations, rather than by glancing aside at the minimalism of younger New York contemporaries, that he began to work with repetitive pattern at the time his music grew.

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.'[12]

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 2, 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.

Musical example 2
Example 2: Three Voices (Opening)

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.'[13] 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.'

1.Statement by Feldman republished in The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, 104.
2.Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London, 1974), 45.
3.See n.23 to Heinz-Klaus Metzger, 'Essay on Prerevolutionary Music', published with LP EMI C 165 28954-7.
4.'Crippled Symmetry', RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 2 (Cambridge, MA, 1981); reprinted with CD Hat Art 60801/2.
5.Conversation with Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Earle Brown. A recording and transcription are supplied with LP EMI C 165 28954-7.
6.EMI C 165 28954-7.
7.Beckett's sixteen-line 'libretto' - the only text he wrote for music - appears not to have been included in any collection of his writings. It is reproduced, in the original, with an extract from the score in Gottfried Meyer-Thoss, 'Facetten des Transluziden', Musik-Konzepte, 48-9 (1986), 122-34.
8.Universal Edition brochure (1994).
9.'Crippled Symmetry'.
10.In 'Crippled Symmetry', for example, he refers to Rauschenberg, Pollock, and Rothko.
13.Quoted in note with CD New Albion NA018.

© Paul Griffiths 1995

[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]