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Morton Feldman and The Shape of Time

by Louis Goldstein

The following essay was first published in Perspectives on American Music Since 1950, edited by James R. Heintze (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1999).

"Give the most with the least ...It [means] in creation to recognize the essential, and...to create it with the least display of the means that serve as medium of expression." Hans Hofmann [1]

In making note of Pierre Boulez's famous comment that he was not interested in how a piece sounds, only in how it was made, Morton Feldman responded, "No painter would talk that way. [He recalled Philip Guston telling him] that when he sees how a painting is made he becomes bored with it. The preoccupation with making something, with systems and construction...,"[2] was something that Feldman saw as a characteristic of the music of his day, and in many cases, the actual subject of the music.

Feldman ackowledged that in a sense, music history is a history of construction. "Music has always been involved with re-arranging systemized controls. ...There seemed to be no alternative." Arnold Schoenberg's method was "still another organizational process, and one that adapted itself perfectly to the old forms." [3] Even John Cage's chance determinations were so meticulous that they bore some relationship to this mindset. The gradual exploration of new possibilities in sound seemed to have little compositional significance. "What was emphasized was the unifying of all these new musical elements into significant form. An emphasis on this more evasive element - sound - would have upset the precarious balance of the 'ideal composition'". [4]

In 1950 and 1951, Morton Feldman, along with Christian Wolff , Earle Brown, and John Cage (and then-pianist David Tudor cannot be separated out from this group of composers), each in his own way, "...contributed to a concept of music in which various elements ...were de-controlled." [5] The following important statement of Feldman's is from a 1966 essay titled, "Predeterminate/Indeterminate":

Up to now the various elements of music (rhythm, pitch, dynamics, etc.) were only recognizable in terms of their formal relationship to each other. As controls are given up, one finds that these elements lose their initial, inherent identity. But it is just because of this identity that these elements can be unified within the composition. Without this identity there can be no unification. It follows then, that an indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe. This catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound - which unified everything. Only by "unfixing" the elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music could the sounds exist in themselves - not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with. [6]

Feldman implies that when a composer composes, he necessarily, and as a matter of course, re-orders the memories of music already heard and learned. Feldman, on the other hand, was able to escape from the reliance on any methodology whatsoever, and to compose with a reliance on instinct. He spoke of composing as making one sound, then making another (with taste, an important word in Feldman's vocabulary). He said, "My music is hand made, so I'm like a tailor. I make my button holes by hand. The suit fits better." [7] He detatched from each other the parameters of music traditionally used in compositional construction, and strove to isolate a purely sonic essence, divorced from its possible function in, for example, a pitch scheme or a rhythmic pattern. He carefully removed each button (to continue his analogy), meticulously unravelled all the threads of the suit, and thoughtfully laid out the material in new designs of his own invention.

The piano piece Two Intermissions (1950) [8] is representative of Feldman's early composition. It begins with a "Webernesque" sound, shaping sevenths and tritones into short, discreet phrases. Although it is a brief composition, not quite three minutes in duration, it seamlessly changes nature at the midway point, where the sounds seem to begin to embrace the silences that surround them. The rhythmic play continues through the second half, but now with register assuming a new importance as a compositional element, effecting shifts from one idea to the next.

Much can be said as well about the harmonic sensitivity. A single pitch, for example, can be made to recall an earlier chord, while in fact that single pitch may or may not have been a part of the chord. [9] The final chord is a particular wonder: it sounds like a cadential major chord, but the pitches say that it is really an augmented triad with a major seventh.

Taken as a whole, the piece celebrates the act of discovery, of finding and experiencing the sheer physicality of sound. The emphasis is squarely on sound, laid out in new designs of Feldman's invention. What was the source of these new designs? What working methods appeared when his freedom from methodologies was gained?


Partly through John Cage, Feldman met the painters and poets of New York. He found himself more attracted to the way painters worked than the way most musicians did. He became friends with Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. He wrote this about their work:

The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore. [10] ... Anybody who was around in the early fifties with the painters saw that these men had started to explore their own sensibilities, their own plastic language...with that complete independence from other art, that complete inner security to work with what was unknown to them. That was a fantastic aesthetic achievement. [11]

Examples of this exploration of the artists' own sensibilities are easy to find, constituting nearly the entire body of their work. Jackson Pollock's "Sleeping Woman" of 1941 is a useful starting point. [12] The subject of the title can be seen clearly, connected to surrounding images I take to be depictions of night thoughts and night feelings. Lines can be bent into familiar shapes, as they are for the subject of "Sleeping Woman," but the artist's primary interest lies in the opposite direction - toward the unfamiliar, the new, the exploratory.

Similar body shapes return frequently in a series of drawings and paintings labelled "Untitled." In one "Untitled" of 1943 the body shape merges gracefully and magically with abstract shadings. In another "Untitled" the resultant mix is startlingly different. In "Untitled" of 1944 the human figure returns in a cruder version, while more attention is lavished on the fantastical swirlings surrounding it. Still, body figures abound. Starting at the edges and working inward, one can lose sense of the drawing being anything but figures. Is it abstract? A quick look does not reveal an object, but all the lines seem to represent something, confusing the notion of the meaning of the term "abstract art." [13]

There is a sense of endless adventure, of untold possibilities and unceasing invention. Pollock did not just walk around the canvas and drip paint. In fact, Feldman disliked the term "Action Painting" because

it gave rise to the erroneous idea that the painter, now being 'free', could do anything he liked. But, [Feldman pointed out] it is not at all true that the more one is free, the more things one has to choose from. Actually, it is the academician who has the alternatives. Freedom is best understood by someone like Rothko, who was free to do only one thing - to make a Rothko - and did so over and over again. [14]

Continuing with Feldman's words, "We think of Rothko, of Mondrian as simplifying the problem of painting, not realizing that they added a still further complication. How could anything that never existed before be considered simple?" Feldman also asked, "How could a process [be considered simple] that did not reveal itself [to] be meaningful, at a time when process [was] how we... understood art?" [15]

Perhaps music is partly an abstract language. But in the essay "After Modernism," Feldman pointed out that Renaissance choral music conveys religious ideas, Romantic music conveys literary and philosophical ideas, and certain 20th-century styles convey mountain peaks of logic. Is music truly abstract when it serves such different and such definite functions? [16]

The abstract ... is not involved with ideas. It is an inner process that continually appears and becomes familiar like another consciousness. ...We would like to surrender to this Abstract Experience. We would like to let it take over. But we must constantly separate it from ... that aspect of the imagination that is in the world of the fanciful. In my own work I feel the constant pull of ideas. On the one hand, there is the inconclusive abstract emotion. On the other, when you do something, you want to do it in a concrete, tangible way. There is a real fear of the Abstract because one does not know its function. The imagination is so many things; it can go so many ways. [Paul Klee also agrees with this notion.] ... The Abstract Experience is only one thing - a unity that leaves one perpetually speculating. The imagination builds its speculative fantasy on known fact. Facts that have their basis in a very real, a very literary world. Even when it is irrational, it can be measured in terms of the rational - like Surrealism. The imagination provides answers without a metaphor. The Abstract Experience is a metaphor without an answer. Whereas the literary kind of art, the kind we are close to, is involved in the polemic we associate with religion, the Abstract Experience is really far closer to the religious. It deals with the same mystery - reality - whatever you choose to call it. [17]
Here is a tug of ideas that results in perpetual speculation: Feldman came to think of the essence of sound as a moldable phenomenon in and of itself, and separate from the other elements of music, such as pitch and rhythm. In his mind, sound, with its density and timbre, could have its own shape, design, and poetic metaphor. In a surprisingly Ivesian statement, [18] Feldman wrote
I began to feel that the sounds were not concerned with my ideas of symmetry and design, that they wanted to sing of other things. They wanted to live, and I was stifling them. [19]
He came to feel that instrumental color robbed the sound of its immediacy. He might think of the instrument as a stencil which creates a deceptive likeness of sound, but one that he then heard as exaggerated, blurry, larger than life, and endowed with an emphasis and a meaning that it did not have in his ear. [20]

Franz Kline once told Feldman that only rarely did color not act as an intrusion into his painting. In music it is the instruments that produce the color. Is music possible without instruments? Feldman once wrote that his entire creative life was an attempt to adjust to this dilemma. [21] An apt comparison can be drawn to Mark Rothko, who said that he removed from his canvases all of "memory, history, and geometry," which he referred to as "obstacles between the painter and the idea." [22]

The piano piece Intermission 5 (1952) [23] is similar to Two Intermissions, except that it contains two starkly contrasting dynamics (as opposed to the earlier composition's all pianissimo dynamic), and also in its continuous use of the sustaining pedal. This likens the work to an abstract painting with two strong tonal areas; for example, very bold slashes and very pale fields on the same canvas. The pedal, in effect, erases the silences and creates a wash of sound.

Although the general motion and effect of Intermission 5 is typical of this period of Feldman's output, the concluding section moves off in a striking direction that anticipates future developments. This remarkable ending is a repeating pattern, but a pattern that appears only at the end. Therefore, in regard to the composition as a whole, it is not a symmetrical pattern. This is an important idea in Feldman's later compositions. Many people feel a sense of tragedy, or even of doom, in this ending. It is a final picture. The composition has arrived somewhere, but there is a palpable sense that it will stop. It will be over. It will die.

A sub-lingual, emotional connection can be felt with the work of Mark Rothko. [24] His paintings were always intensely personal, but during these years they begin to appear to reflect an expression from deep within the mind of an extremely sensitive experience. [25] His aloof, tranquil rectangles refuse conventional figure-ground relationships. Their hazy, soft contours (even in the more stark, early rectangles,) bleed and melt into an atmospheric environment. They float with their surroundings, and are not isolated against a background behind them.

The canvases describe a generalized, atmospheric space, painted in with such delicacy that light seems to emanate from within. The subtle vibrations where adjacent colors touch give the appearance of actually radiating light. [26] In the decades of 1950 and 1960 their heightening grandeur and their increasingly subtle harmonies accrue to them the aura of spiritual objects of contemplation.

Rothko's palette gradually became more somber. Ultimately, the subject is the space and luminosity that flows around and within the painting's rectangular areas. The artist discovered the means to make color alone the voice of mood and emotion. [27] In Rothko's own words, he was "interested only in expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstacy, doom, and so on." [28] Feldman said, "...a sensation (can emerge) that we are not looking at the painting, but the painting is looking at us." [29]


Feldman also liked to compare his long pieces to Asian rugs, for which he had a passion. The rugs that interested him most were ones which were irregular in their symmetries. That phrase, "irregular symmetries," has an odd ring, but one will discover in it an apt description of many rug styles of Central Asia (not Chinese rugs and not Indian rugs). Looking quickly at rugs from the Uzbek, or from the Turkomans (Tekke, Saryk and Yomud), one sees the same patterns repeated throughout a space, and the impression is strong that the result is symmetrical. However, closer examination reveals, to use one specific example, that an inverted candlelabrum shape along the borders is repeated eighteen times on one side and nineteen times on the other, and further, the colors do not match up. [30] Similarly, in the same rug, the central square is comprised of patterns which look the same, but are in fact composed of small variations among the details.

In rug after rug, one can find unreflected borders and unmatched colors. Occasionally, more rigid symmetries are balanced by a field which stands alone. Sometimes even the overall shape of the rug is not symmetrical.

In his music, Feldman often arranges sound so that repetitions are recognizable as repetitions, but the patterns of those repetitions are not discernible. At the beginning of page 8 of Triadic Memories (1981) [31] there is a series of phrases in which different pairs of notes are repeated on each of the three lines that make up the system. Even though each line is composed of only two pitches, when the system is played as written the listener is more aware of the relationships between the notes of different lines than the repetitions within each line. This is further complicated by the repeat sign, which of course does create an exact symmetry, but at a time interval beyond most listener's memory. In addition, the last line of the page sounds like an exact repetition of the first line, but in actuality the high pitches are a semitone higher than on the first line.

In this and other late Feldman pieces there are patterns within patterns and deceptions within deceptions, yet the tastefully rendered sonic result is an exquisite, iridescent beauty unlike any other. [32] Floating tones and mesmeric harmony are surrounded by eloquent, mysterious silences. [33] True to a statement made concerning his early graph scores, Feldman is still attempting "to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric." [34]

A primary concern of Feldman's during the last decade of his life was what he called the 'scale' of his composition. He pointedly distinguished between the words 'form' and 'scale.' He said that up to about an hour in length, the ear wants to hear 'form.' After an hour it's 'scale.' As a comparison, Feldman told of visiting Mark Rothko one day when an assistant was stretching and restretching a canvas to slightly different sizes. "Rothko was standing some distance away, ... deciding whether to bring the canvas down an inch or so, or maybe even a little bit higher." [35]

Rothko's scale ... removes any argument over the proportions of one area to another, or over its degree of symmetry or asymmetry. The sum of the parts does not equal the whole; rather, scale is discovered and contained as an image. It is not form that floats the painting, but Rothko's finding that particular scale which suspends all proportions in equilibrium. [36]

Where Rothko found means to make color alone the voice of mood and emotion, Feldman found ways to make sound alone, not its forms or progressions, the means to the same end. In his late music Feldman aspired to a condition whereby the space of a canvas is a paradigm for the length of a composition.

Western forms have become ... a paraphrase of memory. But memory could operate otherwise as well. In "Triadic Memories", there is a section of different types of chords where each chord is slowly repeated. One chord might be repeated three times, another, seven or eight - depending on how long I felt it should go on. Quite soon into a new chord I would forget the reiterated chord before it. I then reconstructed the entire section: rearranging its earlier progression and changing the number of times a particular chord was repeated. This way of working was a conscious attempt at "formalizing" a disorientation of memory [the italics are mine]. Chords are heard repeated without any discernible pattern. In this regularity ... there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion: a bit like walking the streets of Berlin - where all the buildings look alike, even if they're not. [37]

With all the attention placed on the liberation of sound in 20th-century music, a more profound and far-reaching liberation has sometimes been ignored: the liberation of time. [38] Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories is an example of his work with "Time in its unstructured existence...how Time exists before we put our paws on it... our minds, our imaginations into it." [39] His concern with how a musical composition sounds, rather than how it is made, set him on a path toward a new concert experience. A temporal landscape is created, where memory, the cornerstone of perceiving musical form, is consistently thwarted.

During the course of performing Triadic Memories my own sense of time is stretched and tugged in ways I never before experienced. There come moments when the unit of time I am measuring in my mind suddenly doubles and simultaneously begins to move at half the previous tempo. Sometimes I experience beats of time slower than I have ever been able to imagine. For me, the sublimity of the ending, one hundred minutes into the piece, results from two possible conclusions playing off of each other. Sometimes the effect is one of utter tragedy, when in spite of great effort, time finally does break down and an awareness of terrifying emptiness is discovered. (Sometimes I remember the suicides of so many of the abstract expressionists, and Feldman's own early death after years of heavy smoking.) Other times I remember the words of the artist-protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Bluebeard. Near the end of the novel, explaining his work, he says:

The whole magical thing about our painting...[and he realizes] this was old stuff in music, but it was brand new in painting: it was pure essence of human wonder, and wholly apart from food, from sex, from clothes, from houses, from drugs, from cars, from news, from money, from crime, from punishment, from games, from war, from peace--and surely apart from the universal human impulse among painters and plumbers alike toward inexplicable despair and self-destruction! [40]

The line between these two opposing conclusions can be a narrow precipice between two canyons. The listener can find him or herself struggling to maintain footing, and the wind is blowing. But the problem of relating pictorial space to temporal length might best be left to poets.


Basho (1644-1694) is reported to have said, "Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk." What he meant, according to an early admirer (Doho),

was that the poet should detach his mind from self ... and enter into the object, sharing its delicate life and its feelings. Whereupon a poem forms of itself. Description of the object is not enough: unless a poem contains feelings which have come from the object, the object and the poet's self will be separate things. [41]

It is revealing to paraphrase that quotation and commentary in terms that apply to Feldman's compositions: Learn about Time, from Time. Enter into Time, sharing its delicate life and its feelings. Whereupon a composition forms itself. Description of Time is not enough: unless a composition contains feelings which have come from Time, Time and the composer's self will be separate things.

Matisse said almost the same thing about painting an object: "The object must act powerfully on the imagination; the artist's feeling expressing itself through the object must make the object worthy of interest; it says only what it is made to say." [42] Feldman's music shows the influence of the visual artists who moved beyond the idea of the object as subject, by making time that "object worthy of interest."

Continuing to paraphrase, but now from an article by A.R. Ammons in the American Poetry Review: magnificent about music is that it is an action like any other action, yet it stands not as an isolated, esoteric activity, but as a formal and substantive essentializing of all action. [43]

The primary motion of the composer is to put things together and touch a source that feels like life; to put motion together into a sequence of time. Feldman's dismissal of traditional structure (and its replacement with "scale") may lead to a rejuvenation of this element of music (as previous dismissals have led to previous rejuvenations). Musical composition can once again be revealed as what at its best it has always been: a formal and substantive essentializing of all action. Composition essentializes the flow of time.

Barn's burnt down-
I can see the moon.

--- Masahide (1657-1723) [44]

[1] Cynthia Goodman, Hans Hofmann (New York: Abbeville Press 1986), 110.

[2] Morton Feldman, "Predeterminate/Indeterminate, [1966]," in Morton Feldman Essays, Walter Zimmermann, ed. (Kerpen, Germany: Beginner Press, Germany 1985), 47. All subsequent Feldman essays cited below are from this collection.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Ibid., 48.

[6] Ibid., 49.

[7] Quoted from the booklet accompanying the Elektra Nonesuch compact disc (79320-2) titled "Piano and String Quartet" (1993).

[8] New York: C.F.Peters, 1962.

[9] See, for example, the single high "E" of measure 56, which seems to refer back to the chord of measure 48.

[10] Feldman, "Autobiography: Morton Feldman (1926)", 38.

[11] As quoted in Nyman, Michael, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (New York: Schirmer Books, 1974), 43.

[12] The drawings mentioned here can be found in Bernice Rose, Jackson Pollock: Works On Paper (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1969). In the absence of this source, similar effects can be found throughout Pollock's work of the 1940s.

[13] One drawing in particular, "Untitled" 1945, posed a particular challenge. I found it to be so gorgeous that my natural reflex was to look away. It took some time for me to learn to look at it.

[14] Feldman, "Give My Regards To Eighth Street," 77. "Allover composition" was something else Feldman later discovered he had in common with Jackson Pollock. In the early 1950s Feldman had been taping graph paper on his walls, building sonic designs in various places simultaneously. Many years afterward he learned that Pollock had been laying canvas on the floor at this time, painting while walking around it. Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry," 1981, 136.

[15] Feldman, "After Modernism," 1971, 102.

[16] Ibid., 103.

[17] Ibid., 103-104.

[18] See, for example, Ives' essay in 114 Songs, Peer International Corporation (New York, NY), which includes this statement:

...a song has a few rights the same as other ordinary citizens. If it feels like walking along the left hand side of the street - passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it? ...Should it not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing?

[19] Feldman, "A Compositional Problem" (1972), 114.

[20] Ibid., 114

[21] Ibid., 114

[22] Dennis Sporre, The Creative Impulse: An Introduction to the Arts (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 596.

[23] New York: C.F.Peters, 1962.

[24] For a fascinating and detailed comparison of two specific works by Feldman and Rothko, see Steven Johnson's "Rothko Chapel and Rothko's Chapel" in Perspectives of New Music 32/2 (Summer 1994): 6-53.

[25] Rose, Barbara, American Painting: The 20th Century (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), 86.

[26] All of the objects mentioned in this article are best viewed first hand, but Rothko's paintings particularly suffer in reproductive media. Color plates and slides do not capture the effects described here.

[27] Patterson Sims, Whitney Museum of American Art (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985), 137.

[28] Selden Rodman, Conversations With Artists (New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1957), 93.

[29] Feldman, "After Modernism," p. 108.

[30] Elena Tzareva, Rugs And Carpets From Central Asia (New York: Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 1984), 69. Beautiful examples of all the effects mentioned here can be found in this source.

[31] London: Universal Edition, 1987.

[32] As Basho said of a good poem, it "is one in which the form of the verse and the joining of its parts seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed." Lucien Stryk, "Modern Japanese Haiku," in American Poetry Review 23/4 (July/August 1994): 19.

[33] Shiki (1867-1902) thought that in sequential composition careful modulation and arrangement of parts gave the work greater breadth and complexity, a vision more complete. Ibid., 21.

[34] Feldman, "Autobiography," 38.

[35] Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry," 126.

[36] Ibid., 137. Jackson Pollock also agonized over size. Working on his smaller 1950/51 black-and-whites, he often did several on one large strip of canvas and then cut them. The artist Lee Krasner (Pollock's wife) said, "Sometimes he'd ask, "should I cut it here? Should this be the bottom?" He'd have long sessions of cutting and editing... Working around the canvas -- in "the arena" as he called it -- there really was no absolute top or bottom. And leaving space between paintings, there was no absolute "frame" the way there is working on a pre-stretched canvas. Those were difficult sessions... he'd have last-minute thoughts and doubts." Jackson Pollock: Black and White, (New York: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, 1969), 10.

[37] Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry," 127.

[38] Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (New York: Schirmer, 1974), 48. Earle Brown made this statement.

[39] Ibid., 12.

[40] Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard (New York: Delacorte Press 1987), 294.

[41] Stryk, "Modern Japanese Haiku," p. 17.

[42] Quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., Twentieth-Century Artists on Art (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 6.

[43] A. R. Ammons, "Poetry Is Action," American Poetry Review 23/4 (July/August 1994): 13.

[44] Stryk, "Modern Japanese Haiku," 18.

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