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Canvasses and time canvasses

Comments on Morton Feldman's film music

by Peter Niklas Wilson

[English translation by BrainStorm translation & interpretation]

The following notes were first published in the liner notes accompanying a CD of Feldman's film music performed by ensemble recherche on the Kairos label, Morton Feldman: Something Wild - Music for Film (0012292KAI).

When we imagine Morton Feldman, we think of pure, crystalline music. Being in the present with the sound, music without stories and without history: this is how we experience this wonderfully undramatic art. Of course we are familiar with Feldman's narrow liaison with painting, his relationship to Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg; of course we know about the influence of American abstract expressionism on Feldman's compository stance. And yet we would hesitate to speak of programme music when describing pieces like Rothko Chapel or For Philip Guston. It may appear all the more surprising that, upon looking through Feldman's comprehensive works catalogue, we find a series of works that could be categorised under the heading "functional music". Perhaps Feldman was much less of a purist than some of his apostles seem to want? This surmise is also corroborated by Feldman's film music, mainly compositions from the 50s or 60s that really do show us an "unknown Morty". Feldman as Hollywood wide-screen colourist? Well of course, not quite, even though there is an anecdote, that illustrates exquisitely the incommensurability of Feldman's music for the purposes of the conventional feature film genre. Commissioned by Jack Garfein to make the music to his film Something Wild, Feldman designed a typical Feldman sound canvas for horns, string quartet, and celesta for a beginning scene, in which the protagonist Carroll Baker (incidentally also Garfein's wife) is raped. The reaction of the baffled director: "My wife is being raped and you write celesta music?" Which prompted the end to this cooperation. (Aaron Copland was much better able to fulfil Garfein's expectations.) Feldman's "film composition" debut took place under much more auspicious omens than that, ideal even. In 1950, Hans Namuth, the filmmaker and photographer who emigrated to the USA in 1933, shot a documentary on Jackson Pollock together with Paul Falkenberg. It was a ten-minute piece that attempted to capture the specific dynamism of Pollock's painting using original means. Namuth had Pollock work on an elevated glass platform and filmed the actionist's gesturing "drip painting" method from below. After the film was completed, cutter Paul Falkenberg added the sounds of Indonesian Gamelan music to the pictures, which incited Pollock's comment: "But Paul, that's exotic music. I'm an American painter!" As a result, Pollock's wife Lee Krasner contacted John Cage who refused the job, however, because he detested Pollock's paintings - and recommended Feldman. Feldman (who did not share Cage's aversion) had actually been thinking of a solo piece for cello, but then expanded this to a cello duo upon Falkenberg's request. This duo was then recorded by Feldman's schoolmate Daniel Stern in May 1951 using multiple tracks. In the following month, the film was shown in the New York Museum of Modern Art. For Feldman, who was still widely unknown at the time, this prestigious job (for which he was rewarded with one of Pollock's ink drawings) opened the door to the world of art - and confirmed his musical orientation.

Obviously, Hans Namuth also believed in the dialogue between image and sound language; because twelve years later, he gave Feldman another job, this time for a film on Willem de Kooning. Feldman considered the piece - De Kooning for horns, drums, piano, violin, violoncello, a study of contrasted, well-coordinated chords and a free sequence of individual sounds - viable even without the film context (as opposed to the Pollock duo) and released the score for publication, a proof that Feldman believed he had written his own music, without restrictions, despite the music's functional purpose.

It was different with the music for the film The Sin of Jesus (formerly Score for Untitled Film) in 1960/61, a score consisting of six segments for flute, trumpet, horn, and violoncello, sometimes facing to a cello solo (6th segment), oscillating between 4/4 and 3/4 beat almost all throughout. What may appear untypical for Feldman in this piece is the dynamic bandwidth that spans all stages between ppp and ff and doesn't shy from crescendi, swells, or decrescendi either.

That Feldman was occasionally willing - and able - to adapt his musical language to the aesthetic (or commercial) necessities of a film context is evidenced with amazing clarity by the five-movement score Samoa (1968). With his music, Feldman seems to have wanted to make an example of how the culinary moments of composition could be emphasised and its interval content smoothed harmoniously and melodically. Excessive the incipient harp arpeggios, concluded by the sound of bells; and almost too beautiful to be Feldman, the two-handed piano arpeggios that follow; and like a hybrid between a Satie imitation (Gymnopédies, of course) and a jazz ballad, the diatonic horn cantilena with opulent harp chords, mostly in major with or without the added major seven.

Feldman for Lovers? In any case: Feldman for film. We know nothing about the cinematographic context of the compositions listed under the lapidary heading "untitled film music" in Sebastian Claren's list of works[1]. However, the score bears yet another testimony to the activities of the film pragmatist Feldman. The sheet music text (in Feldman's handwriting) accurately defines the duration of individual passages in seconds and communicates something of the unknown film's imagery through the subheadings. City, The Beach, Theme, Intro, King-Cross Night, Girls Theme, Last Shot, The Park, Drinking Water, Into Sheep Country, and Desert are the headings of the musical miniatures for winds, drums, and double bass, and the note "Watch Feldman for Cut Off!!!" at the end of the last shot evidences that the composer must also have directed during the recording. Many of these »movements« are no more than sound moments, sounding signets; and this music is also clearly context-oriented in its artistic design. A 3-tone double bass ostinato not only forms the foundation for City, which ends in a trumpet fanfare, but, it also anchors other textures in various permutations, and a genuine theme as in the B-section of The Beach - initially intoned by horn and trumpet, and then performed in downright big-band style by six brass players; is something not readily found in Feldman's "pure" music of this period.


  1. Sebastian Claren. Neither. Die Musik Morton Feldmans. Hofheim/Ts, Wolke Verlag 2000. S.547 ff.

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