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New York - Feldman's Music

by Dore Ashton

This article was originally published in Canadian Arts, Vol XXI, January 1964.

It used to be a gaucherie to discuss music in terms of painting, but within the past ten years a whole generation of composers has led the way, comparing their new effects and methods to those of Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder and contemporary artists.

Possibly this interchange - at least for music criticism - is an internal necessity. If, as Schopenhauer maintained, music is not a reflection of phenomena, as are the other arts, but a direct projection of the will, or soul, then the terms of discourse are all but impossible. Music commentary must go outside its own non-representational realm. Schopenhauer's pervasive influence saturated not only his own century, but ours as well. Even in the early rebellious music literature of the twentieth century, his ghost is heard intoning in the background. For instance, Ferruccio Busoni's 1911 essay, Sketch for a New Esthetic of Music, echoes the philosopher by insisting that music "realizes a temperament without describing it."

Such observations annihilate the critic who must use language, metaphorical language, to discuss his reactions. Where then is there a suitable metaphorical vocabulary? Apparently, for younger composers, it exists in the plastic arts.

The rapprochement of painters and composers is not only a matter of language. This is clear in Morton Feldman's notes accompanying a recent recording of his and Earle Brown's work (Time Records No. 58007). Both of these younger composers claim a kinship with the contemporary painter, and Feldman goes so far as to credit his work to earlier encounters with painters. He writes that during his early association with John Cage there was very little talk about music. In fact, they and a few other composers hung about the Cedar Bar, frequented in those days by painters such as de Kooning, Pollock, Kline and Guston. As a result of his concourse with painters, Feldman writes, his attitude was radically changed. "The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed before." And when he writes of one of his first graph pieces that he wanted not to "compose" but to "project sounds in time, free from a compositional rhetoric" it is easy to trace the principles of the abstract expressionists.

The methods Feldman and others used to circumvent traditional associations were drastic and technically beyond my competence to describe. By abandoning classical notation, using graphs instead, they changed not only the relationship of sounds to each other, but of performer to score. The latitude given performers, who sometimes selected their own notes, was in effect a liberation of sound. That is, the chance element (too much stressed, I suspect, since I take it for granted with Baudelaire that there is no chance in art) allowed sound to expand - in Feldman's words, "like drips of paint."

Whatever Feldman's technical procedures, his results are markedly original. Just as it makes no difference how Arp, for instance, made a collage - whether he let pieces of paper flutter to the floor by chance, or arranged each piece formally - so it makes no difference how Feldman arrived where he did. The music itself, like the collage, is all we can know.

His conception of musical time, his goals, are of course indescribable. But his effects can be characterized. Most of his compositions dilate in the time known only in reveries - that muted, strangely attenuated time that shifts course imperceptibly, draws us on in gliding, arabesqueing lines, much as a swan navigates a pond. It is time known to us, but only in reverie. In waking, pragmatic life it is completely unfamiliar. Probably it is for this reason that Vertical Thoughts, performed for the first time in a concert recently, eludes definition. I had no idea how long it lasted since the "real" time is unimaginable.

Each instrument enters only as the sound of the preceding instrument fades. The composition opens with two pianos, each edging in turn into sound, as though the sound originated far away and long before in time. As the reverberations fall away, little gullies of stillness emphasize the haunting quality of the softly struck piano notes. The suspense of attenuation in this poignant piece is enormous. Fugitive notes, played softly, exist in time in equal modes. That is, violin notes, soprano notes, and timpani notes, all enter the same hushed space equally. In its quiet gravity, Vertical Thoughts has something mediaeval about it.

Feldman's use of instruments is singular. Unlike many contemporaries, he seems to take it for granted that there is beauty of sound and that we can all agree about it. Not seeking to startle or make artificially "new" sounds, he is free to derive the greatest expressive range from his instruments. He can use the violin delicately, even conventionally without losing originality. In some ways he is like the painter not afraid of using Venetian red even if it recalls Titian. This is apparent, too, in his occasional "quotation" of convention - a run of three or four notes in a mock arpeggio that reminds us of conventional time fleetingly, and enforces the strangeness of the surrounding lines.

Feldman also uses the human voice to great advantage, accenting its affinities with other instruments. A piece such as For Franz Kline scored for soprano, violin, cello, French horn, chimes and piano, brings out the voice most subtly. Here, by the way, all sounds are given with the performer selecting his own duration for each sound within a slow tempo.

While this would appear, again, to give great latitude to the performer, and rely considerably on chance, in practice it does not seem to. The choice of duration of sound is inevitably governed by habit, by instinct. The voice, and instruments wielded by musicians, are both dependent on the organic rhythm of breathing. It is terms of breath that this composition finds its own natural dirge rhythm. Feldman's music is a close-up of breathing, a projection of a human function so intimate that only an artist would give it a second thought.

Yet, as direct, as physical, as "natural as breathing" as Feldman's music is in one sense, it is equally metaphysical and artful in another. There is something strongly symbolist in his approach, something striving beyond mere non-representational qualities of suites of sounds. This is most apparent in The Swallows of Salangan scored for mixed chorus, seven cellos, four flutes, alto flute, five trumpets, two tubas, two vibraphones and two pianos. Following the same principle as For Franz Kline, this rich composition is skillfully controlled.

The symbolist attitude inherited from the late nineteenth century - that art is an evocation - is apparent, not only in the close textured, finely spun composition itself, but in the text accompanying it, a quotation from Pasternak: "I loved the living essence of historical symbolism, or putting it another way, that instinct with the help of which we, like Salangan swallows, built the world - an enormous nest . . ."

Even before reading the text I heard the piece as an evocation, not of any "thing" or event, but of a complicated état d'esprit. Feldman uses the voices as a transparent veil, a delicate web softening the colours of trumpets and tubas, fusing the whole in a spherical abstraction. The soft-washed image then, recedes before the mind trying to grasp it, leaving only its moving aura behind. The aura is the essence of the piece.

Feldman is a symbolist in that he prefers the ambiguous, the veiled, the imprecise. He also understands ornament. Debussy, who like the great symbolist poet Mallarmé, gave a special meaning to the term "arabesque", wrote that the musical arabesque, or the principle of ornament, was the basis for all the arts. He spoke of primitives such as Palestrina using the "divine arabesque" discovered in Gregorian chant. In the gravity and delicacy of tracery in primitive music one finds Feldman's spiritual geneology.
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