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Isn't Morton Beckett...Samuel Feldman...?

A tentative assumption by Hans-Peter Jahn

[English translation by Rita Koch & Team]

It is with a certain degree of stubbornness that musicology insists that Samuel Beckett's uniqueness is not so unique after all but reflected in the music of Morton Feldman. The evidence is well known, stagnant almost like a pond, laughing and stinking, Feldman's music, it is alleged, is without being anything. A music without beginning or end, without intention, tied up in its own textures and patterns, in the tissue of irrational, minutely changing pitches and rhythms. A music whose immobility seems to be dissolved in constant movement, which is doomed to stasis without raging and yet seems to be shot through with flashes of lightning.
It is quite right, it is argued, that the esoteric gleam of this music surrenders itself to a circle of exegetes - just as the contrary is true as well: wildly gesticulating know-alls whose enmity Feldman in his life countered with thundering laughter and the mise-en-scène of his rather effective arrogance. He knew little and cared less about Europe's attitudes to music; and so he poured his undifferentiated and sometimes denigrating contempt on all compositions created in the countries of that continent, thus becoming a vulnerable attacker who attracted sympathy and antipathy alike. Perhaps his own übervater John Cage was too great a human being for Feldman to permit him to try and embody greatness in Europe all over again. Feldman had to lash out whenever he met European musical tradition. And there's something else. The installation of silence made him a saint, a wanderer in the desert. Whoever followed him on bare feet burned his soles in the permanent silence that Feldman - inspired by Webern - claimed for himself. This was his considerable misunderstanding - and that of his many apologists. Webern's silence was derived from the dialectics of contrast. It holds its own because its environment is almost always throbbing with brief fortissimi. Webern's syntax is totally and entirely Europeanized, while Feldman's music is totally and entirely American in its non-tradition. In silence, with silence, it annihilates the attractiveness of time and thus searches to find a refuge for "boredom".

Despite the thorough study of such relative superficialities in Morton Feldman's oeuvre, one thing, perhaps the essence of his music, is left out of consideration ... its effect on the individual listener. There is hardly any other type of music that lends itself so little to collective listening, let alone evaluation. The listener is isolated in this music, sometimes at its mercy, sometimes sensing his own awkwardness if patience falters during especially long pieces and exhaustion sets in disturbingly in the midst of the other concentrated listeners. Antipathy versus Feldman's music instantly generates sympathy in others, including his adversaries. It is almost like a law of nature. Whoever attacks this music does not only encounter adversaries but stigmatizes his own intellectual-musical tastes.
What is the effect of Morton Feldman's music?
Maybe it lies in the fascinating way he orchestrates his works, in the maturely developed sound determined by the carefully selected pitch of the instruments, the mixture of - sometimes identical - carriers of tone colour (e.g. in the string quartet), which release a sound that formerly simply did not exist on this earth. A light-flooded glitter of sound ... contemplative sadness cast in beauty ... consonantal intervals combined with dissonances arranged in a way that generates jingling and buzzing in the overtone spectrum ... everything in motion without ever freezing despite the constantly repetitive variation patterns ... permanent, unobtrusive change according to illogical, even irrational decisions ... a steady flow whose random waves release glittering, shimmering, glowing reflections that rise from a deep bottom ... perhaps like the surface of a body of water offering no resistance to its natural breathing? ... Perhaps an oasis for the sensitive individual able to amass his own, inner wealth, to guide him into a realm of purity devoid of intention? Feldman's music demands a concentration born of listening. A kind of free fall into the primordial districts of mental activity as distinct from intellectual presence or rational understanding of the musical events set in the river of time.

It would be easy to continue our contemplations on, and descriptions of, the effects of Morton Feldman's music; linguistic tricks could be invoked to articulate impressions that yet would only be clumsy translations of an acoustic phenomenon.
Feldman's attempts to approach literature as an art form, to ascribe something to it that essentially is not related to literature, are amongst his most impressive puzzles.
It was very rarely that Morton Feldman composed scores based on texts. There are only nine such examples: Louis Ferdinand Céline ("Journey to the End of the Night", 1947), Rainer Maria Rilke ("Only", 1947), Edward Estlin Cummings ("Four Songs", 1951), Morton Feldman ("Intervals", 1961), Frank O'Hara ("The O'Hara Songs", 1962, and "Three Voices", 1982) and Samuel Beckett ("Neither", 1976/77, and "Words and Music", 1987). His reluctance to set texts to music distinguishes Feldman from other composers; his way of assigning the text to his music is incommensurable. His compositions do not make texts which originally take an authentic, original form appear as a totally dissolved linguistic work written for several voices and cut up into many individual elements, only to put them together again in a new, different, changed way forming a novel whole with sounds and notes. While in the field of literature there have been only a few absurd attempts to force music to conform to language, there are hardly any composers who have left literature intact. Feldman is one of these few.
The yearning to set literary masterpieces to music is not only an oddity of art history. It is also indicative of the suspicion with which composers regard the all-embracing expressiveness of music. Expression without content, content without semantics are not sufficient for most composers. They want to speak like authors, their colleagues-in-art, they want to say what their music cannot say of its own, and ... thus they tend to occupy what moves them in the guise of literature. In a way, they talk with a forked tongue: their composing belly imitates others' thoughts while their head speaks the language of sound. It does not matter whether the manner in which composers impose their composing methods on literature is subtle or crass: in any case, they feel the service they render literature to be truly infinite, namely to help it cross its linguistic borders, the idea being that music thus illustrates, imitates, reflects what poetry wanted to say but should not say without music.
Morton Feldman was fully aware of this institutionalized stupidity, and this is why his belated approach to Samuel Beckett's oeuvre was so difficult. He claimed that there existed a relationship between himself and the Irishman in their ways of "positioning", i.e. the "positioning" - as Wolfgang Rihm would say - of linguistic and musical building blocks.
Although a more intensive analysis of the structure of Beckett's texts shows clearly that while the reduction to a specific verbal material and the permutations and repetitions of this material in diverse variations are similar to Feldman's pattern compositions, minimal sound becomes massive content in Beckett's verbal rituals. This continuous circling of the narrowest space in which invented stage characters get lost without being able to reflect why does not indicate musicality or literature set to music but rather stands for the darkest light in pitch-black night. Conscious colourlessness, rhythms created by repetitive procedures. This is the result of literary technique and an extremely sophisticated treatment of language.
In Beckett's early plays, in Lucky's ("Waiting for Godot") autistic-brilliant logorrhoea, when the mere shells of thoughts are repeated, the result is not music, no tapestry of interwoven patterns, but a pure, unadulterated comic effect derived from a human being becoming a machine. Winnie ("Happy Days") is fairly bursting with fun and humour although there is nothing to laugh about since her prison is all too obvious. Or the voice in "Cascando". Reduced verbal material repeated according to irrational rules does not evoke music (which Beckett uses as a separate quality) but a horrific mechanism hid behind a gaudy mask. Even in the later works, e.g. in "Not I", when there is only a woman's mouth left as an aperture for undigested verbal trash trying to analyze itself in a ceremonial, compulsory rite, what happens is the creation of literature and, for the listener, an encouragement to engage in desperate, cheerful, rebellious associations. Here a human being is reduced to her mouth, and this mouth is reduced to speech controlled by a nonexistent brain. This speech, in the manner decreed by Beckett, is both a flow of sounds and the expression of a tragic, selt-reproducing existence frozen in words. A heroine who speaks from a hell of her own making.

Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett.
They confront each other with their respective autonomy while the effects of their artificial mechanical mechanisms are diametrically opposed.
Attempts at joining these two incomparable personalities are a result of numerous statements by Morton Feldman on the similarity between his and Beckett's working methods. However, I consider the conjecture that Feldman's music tackles Beckett's texts in congenial fashion and in a way even musicalizes them to be an extremely rash supposition or rather a misunderstanding.

The methods applied in composing on the one hand and in the writing of literature on the other hand produce different results and hence different effects. Repeating a musical phrase may stem from the wish "to hear it again", and probably no musical technique is more effective to transform listening individuals into mass creatures lost in passionate self-expression.
Contrary to repeating musical notes, the effect of repeating words or sentences depends on the significance of the respective words and sentences. In the continuum, i.e. in the space of immutable permanence with small variations, what is revealed is not language or the author positioning language, but the speaking character as a protagonist of fictitious reality. In the continuum of identical musical phrases with small variations within patterns, i.e. in elaborated minimal music, what is revealed is not the performer, but, seen from a European angle of deliberate reaction, the American composer.

Where Beckett rams words like "desolation", "despair", "shattered", "isolation" into the undefined soil of language as marginal corner-stones describing his works, the words used by Feldman concerning his music, such as "contemplation", "delicacy", "tensionless tension", "beauty", contradict the widespread assumption of a symbiotic unity of the two artists' oeuvres.
In other words: embers can be compared to the shimmer of light only if we remember where they come from. Apart from that, embers and light have only one thing in common: they are able to spread over large areas. Perhaps the only common denominator here is the irreconcilable contrast between two works of art in music and literature that possibly were created along the same working methods. Morton Beckett and Samuel Feldman would certainly have felt at ease with this paradox.

Morton Feldman's last composition, written in 1987 over a longer period of time, bears the title "For Samuel Beckett". But it could also have been "For Franz Schubert". Since here we have a composer who, drawing on his last ounce of strength, once more lovingly uses his own working methods, dedicating the result to a person he admires, the work in the sense of a speculation about the person to whom it is dedicated remains incidental.
The main point about Feldman's composition, which runs slightly under 55 minutes, is the listener's surrendering to the creeping change of musical events within time. This is an issue about which nothing of universal validity can be said. And the non-universally valid is in fact Morton Feldman's legacy.

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