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Feldman at the Piano

by Gavin Bryars and Michael Tilson Thomas

In his essay, "James Hugonin and Music"1, Gavin Bryars gives a short description of Morton Feldman composing at the piano in his New York apartment in the late 1960s. A similar description by Michael Tilson Thomas, apparently relating to approximately the same period, is included in the "Appreciation" he wrote to accompany his CD of Feldman concertos and orchestral music2. These two short reminiscences, reproduced below, give interesting and evocative snapshots of Feldman's approach to composition at that time3.


In 1968 I spent some time in New York with Morton Feldman [...]. Feldman was a close friend of many New York artists and there are many connections with visual artists in his work. His apartment contained several paintings by Philip Guston; he wrote an early ensemble work called De Kooning as well as a substantial chamber piece called Rothko Chapel, first performed in that location. Morton Feldman's compositional method involved him in sitting at the piano, his head very close to the keyboard, playing a mildly dissonant chord very quietly, and then holding down the notes with one hand while he wrote them directly into the final score, often in ink, with the other. After a pause he would do the same thing again, making a new decision about a new combination of notes, with the result that the whole composition had come about from many discrete decisions, each one dealing with an isolated musical moment. In due course he had to make the judgement that the piece was at last complete and this painstaking musical method has a clear parallel with James Hugonin's procedure as a painter. It would seem that both composer and painter rely on a form of intuitive logic derived from an accumulation of experience. Feldman's music, through the repetition of tiny fragments of dissonance at a barely audible dynamic, produces a similar "shimmer on the surface" (a term used by James of his own paintings in the 1991 Serpentine catalogue) to that achieved in these paintings by the understatement of their colour harmonics and by the unassertiveness of their structure.


Gavin Bryars


Many nights after concerts or downtown rambles I sat by Morty's side as he composed. "Come ovah," he'd say in his thick Brooklyn accent. "Dis woik dat I'm maykin is dah most bee-you-tiful dat I evah did."

He'd sit at the piano, the big orchestral score page spread out in front of him and very quietly strike a jazzy post-Webernistic chord. "Listen to dat," he'd say. "Flute, alto flute, E flat clarinet, second horn with mute, alto trombone, no mute, three violas ponticello, bass harmonics4. What a sound. Now I'll write it again. Now I'll put in some rests, maybe a 3/8. Now I'm waitin', listenin' for what should come next. Then I find it, bass drum roll and maracas pianissimo."

And so went the evening's searching for the perfect chords, lines and textures that would each have a haunted expression of their own and that could be arranged into designs of sound that resembled the paintings he so loved.


Michael Tilson Thomas

  1. Gavin Bryars, "James Hugonin and Music", www.gavinbryars.com/Pages/writings_hugonin.html
  2. Michael Tilson Thomas, "Morton Feldman: An Appreciation", in the liner notes to Argo CD 448 513-2.
  3. Thanks to Ole Buck for drawing attention to the essay by Gavin Bryars which suggested the publication of this note.
  4. The original Argo liner notes have "bass harmonicas" here. However, as Tom Myron has pointed out, given what we know of Feldman's compositional practice, "bass harmonics" is almost certainly what was intended.
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