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Painter Envy

By Kyle Gann

Morton Feldman Ascends his Pedestal as Softly as Possible

Every Bible-thumping evangelist is certain that he will recognize Christ when the Savior returns. Likewise, every orchestra conductor and music professor is poised to champion the Next Great Composer, if only he or she would appear. They're all so mistaken. If and when Jesus vacations in this dump again, he'll be some radical, bum-befriending left-winger who'll look a lot more like Abbie Hoffman than Ralph Reed, and the preachers will call the cops to kick him off the church steps. And the Next Great Composer is always so deficient in social graces, so oblivious to the mandates of European tradition, that the classical musicians write him off as an amateur. Never fitting the official pattern, genius always takes the world by surprise.

And thus Morton Feldman, ignored by the classical establishment during his life (1926-1987), takes his place at Lincoln Center Festival 96 this August 2 through 4 as quite possibly the greatest composer of the late 20th century. Once known only as John Cage's quiet, heavy sidekick, the composer who made "as soft as possible" his trademark has come into his posthumous moment of glory. Among other works, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will play The Viola in My Life 1 and Why Patterns?, Aki Takahashi will perform the delicately off-balance and 75-minute-long Triadic Memories, Joan LaBarbara will sing Three Voices, the Kronos Quartet will wind through six hours of the Second String Quartet, and John Kennedy will conduct Feldman's late, shimmering masterpiece, For Samuel Beckett. And, in an inspired move, the festival has de facto paired Feldman with Beckett, the playwright whose sense of bleak yet richly-textured motionlessness is so perfectly parallel to Feldman's own. A Downtown composer occupying a Lincoln Center pedestal next to the century's greatest playwright? The times, they are a-changing indeed.

I knew Feldman slightly. I was only a grad student, and while he certainly paid attention to students, he favored the women. The irreverent caricatured him as a frog, with his large bulk, immensely thick glasses, preternaturally low hairline, and long, oily black hair. Convinced of his historical importance, he put people off with his arrogance, and yet he conferred attention on young composers so magnanimously that newcomers spontaneously called him "Uncle Morty" behind his back. He was famous for his bon mots. In one lecture I heard, he stated that it was impossible to teach composition in a university - even though that's what he did, at SUNY at Buffalo. One student became livid (Feldman always infuriated someone) and shouted, "How can you spend your life doing something you don't believe in?" Morty looked perplexed for a moment before replying, in his nasal, curvilinear Brooklynese, "That's a definition of matyoority."

Thanks in part to such maturity, Feldmania has swept college music departments from the students upward, and the academics can no more stem the tide than they can ban nose-piercing. No composer in decades has had such a widespread influence. Long decays and uniform dynamics are in fashion. Youngsters who write 12-tone music now specify pianissimo throughout. The noisy British improv group AMM has taken to soft and sustained playing. Even the music Cage wrote after Feldman died sounds like Feldman.

Perhaps what makes Feldman the composer of the moment is that he's the only Downtowner who beat the academics at their own game, the only one the establishment can embrace without dropping their European expectations. On the surface, his music meets most modernist criteria. It is atonal. It is highly chromatic, rippling with dissonant intervals. It rarely articulates a steady beat. Its rhythms are complexly notated, even if they don't sound complex when played.

What sticks in the classical-music craw is the stasis of Feldman's music, its absence of drama, direction, or virtuosity. What it has instead, and what sparks its influence, is its mood, a subtle and intricately etched melancholy found (as Feldman noted) in Kierkegaard, Van Gogh, Beckett, Rothko - but almost never in music. (When an interviewer traced this moodiness to Feldman's Jewishness and sorrow over Auschwitz, Feldman admitted that "I do think about the fact that I want to be the first great composer who is Jewish." Mendelssohn and Schoenberg, OK, but what about Mahler?) Because his pieces usually have one dynamic marking throughout, Feldman has been called a minimalist, and even, in an implied slap at Glass and Reich, the real minimalist. But how can a work as bristlingly complex, as difficult even follow its score, as For Samuel Beckett be considered minimalist? The idea is absurd. All Feldman's music shares with the minimalists' is its flatness of surface, and his pensive moods, nuanced via reminiscences and slightly varied repetitions, couldn't be more foreign to the mass-produced impersonality of minimalist music and art.

The moods do come from painting, though. Feldman's milieu in the '50s was the art world, hanging out at the Cedar Bar with the abstract expressionists: de Kooning, Pollock, Guston, Kline. And while music was paralyzed at the time by the either/or of Schoenberg versus Stravinsky, painting was exploding in all directions. "There were luminaries," Feldman later said, "but the feeling that I had was that there really weren't issues." Many composers, I think, envy painters and novelists that they aren't held hostage to a highly technical German tradition, and that their arts don't seem split into a pair of artificial dichotomies (serialism vs. minimalism, structure vs. intuition). But only Feldman lived so much among painters that he absorbed a non-composerly attitude. For him, ideas became the enemy of music. Ideas are weapons in the war of careers, and their end result is ideology, not art. "There was a deity in my life," Feldman said, "and that was sound." "Those 88 notes are my Walden." He chided his students for trying to make their music interesting; he wanted to make his beautiful.

For Feldman, the image replaced the idea. The pairs of rocking, chromatic chords in Why Patterns?, the dense and slowly modulating thicket of For Samuel Beckett, the 12-tone row from Webern that makes sporadic appearances in the String Quartet II, the reappearing languorous arpeggio in The Viola in My Life - these irreducible images that can't be analyzed, only listened to, were partly suggested by the slowly shifting shapes in Alexander Calder's mobiles. Other qualities come straight from the canvas: The painterly application of touches of sound to an ineluctably flat aural plane. The length of his late works, two to six hours nonstop, intended to entice you to live with the music the way you live with a painting on your wall, slowly acclimatizing yourself to its implied universe. The obsession with minute choices of tone color, so intense that when Earle Brown once remonstrated, "But Morty, just because you've chosen the instruments, that doesn't mean the piece is finished," Feldman replied, "For me it is."

This isn't to say that Feldman tried to compose like a painter, for the reliance on images also comes from Stravinsky. Even if Feldman resisted taking sides in that debate, he appreciated Stravinsky's receptivity to sound, and he was certainly familiar with Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles (1966), whose muted chords for timpani and quadruple flutes sound stolen from Feldman's late music. Schoenberg concentrated on method, but for Stravinsky, just as for the abstract expressionists, "material reigns supreme," Feldman wrote. "Construction is kept at a minimum. The material is always 'on camera.'"

But we miss Feldman's significance altogether if we don't see that the most important thing he brought back from painting was the artist's attitude of subjective immediacy in an era in which composers had become theorists and technicians. "Music is not painting," he observed, "but it can learn from this more perceptive temperament that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer's vested interest in his craft." What Feldman particularly loved about abstract expressionism was that it wasn't polemical; it was a reaction not to history, but to the direct, in-the-studio experience of manipulating paint. Watching Pollock and Guston on one hand, and his Europe-certified composer colleagues on the other, he came to contrast the dangerous and vulnerable life of the artist with the safe, justifiable career of the professional composer. "The real tradition of twentieth-century America," he wrote, "a tradition evolving from the empiricism of Ives, Varese, and Cage, has been passed over as 'iconoclastic' - another word for unprofessional. In music, when you do something new, something original, you're an amateur. Your imitators - these are the professionals. It is these imitators who are interested not in what the artist did, but the means he used to do it.... The "freedom" of the artist is boring to [the imitator] because in freedom he cannot reenact the role of the artist."

Feldman became the Great One by imprinting young composers with the attitude of the artist, while everyone else was role-playing. As gorgeously seductive as his music is - "sometimes too beautiful," Cage pointed out in Silence - the painterly listening mode it requests can challenge a concert audience. Paradoxically lush and austere at once, For Samuel Beckett contains an overload of detail, but nothing to focus on; hearing Kennedy conduct it at the Spoleto Festival in June was like seeing Monet's Water Lilies from two inches away, scintillating but mystifying. Yet this Lincoln Center retrospective will undoubtedly draw an international audience of Feldman devotees, like pilgrims to Mecca, proving that this contentious "amateur"'s instincts were right all along.
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