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Music and Painting

by Dore Ashton

The following extracts are taken from Chapter 16 ("Music and Painting") of Dore Ashton's book The Unknown Shore: A View of Contemporary Art (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962). The numbers in square brackets at the end of each extract indicate the original page numbers.

In a 1961 New York Times review of a composition by Ralph Shapey, a singularly gifted young avant-garde composer, the writer, Allen Hughes, praises Shapey's free style. "What Mr. Shapey has produced is a composition of abstract expressionism that seems to lay bare the most secret and elemental doubts, yearnings, torments and despairs of the human soul trapped in the chaos of the urban jungle."

The reference to "abstract expressionism" in a music review can only have come about because of the recent contacts between painter and composer. As John Cage has said in his "Lecture on Something,"(1) just as formerly "when starting to be abstract, artists referred to musical practises to show that what they were doing was valid, so nowadays, musicians, to explain what they are doing, say 'See, the painters and sculptors have been doing it for quite some time'" (To render this thought I have had to violate Cage's typographical innovations.) Concerts by unorthodox composers such as Cage, Stefan Wolpe, Shapey or Morton Feldman are attended by painters. Paintings are often dedicated to composers, and I know of at least one instance where a painter commissioned a musical composition by a contemporary New York composer.

Whether painters and composers in the avant-garde feel mutual rapport because modern music aspires to the condition of painting and modern painting aspires to the condition of music - the old aesthetic problem which has irritated so many critics - remains unanswerable. Certainly excessive interpretation of one art through another always leads to an impasse. But rather than regard comparisons and parallels as risky, we do better to acknowledge that ultimately, all the arts spring from the same basic sources and kinship is undeniable. A musician's concern with musical space and a painter's concern with plastic rhythm are perfectly consistent. [pp200-201]

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Morton Feldman, once a student of Wolpe's, has often devoted himself to a linear, single-dimensional system in which space, as Frank O'Hara has pointed out, is comparable to the space in certain "all-over" Jackson Pollock paintings.(2) Feldman's direct relationship to the painters has, by his own admission, influenced his music. "I have always been interested in touch rather than musical forms."

His music - hesitant, reticent, disembodied and non-symbolic in the sense that the sounds have no reference to anything but themselves - refuses the architectural tradition of music and aligns itself with the expansive space of contemporary painting. Still, though his music is supposed to be totally abstract due to his use of "unpredictability, chance and spontaneity" in his graphing, or scoring, he himself describes the effect of one of his pieces "as if you're not listening but looking at something in nature." By giving the performers great latitude, the composer brings about a diminution of his own choices, just as a painter diminishes his choices when he allows a rill of paint to slide down the canvas's surface unimpeded. Where Wolpe would say that one should mix surprise with enigma, magic and shock, intelligence and abandon, form and anti-form, Feldman would probably take the transcendental attitude that the voice of music - as opposed to noise - is like the first breath of a human, pure and exquisite, uncontaminated by the multiplicity of experience. [pp205-206]

1.John Cage, Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961).
2.Frank O'Hara, jacket essay for New Directions in Music / Morton Feldman, Columbia Masterworks MS 6090. Significantly, O'Hara is better known as a poet and art critic than as a music commentator.

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