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Panic or Paradise: American Abstract Expressionism and the music of Morton Feldman

by Wilfrid Mellers

This article was originally published in Modern Painters (Vol 12 No 2, Summer 1999) pp 68-73.

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silk threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.

Henry James

Abstract Expressionism is the name given to the most radically innovative idiom in the visual arts around the middle of the twentieth century. Presaged by the variously abstract European techniques known as Cubism (Picasso), Mechanism (Léger), grid-geometry (Mondrian) and many artists' brands of surrealism, it found its far from cosy home in the New World, where it flourished during the '40s and '50s and on, in declension, into the '60s and '70s. The name is itself a paradox, for the adjective implies some abstraction from 'real' life, while the noun signifies that there is something human (sensations, feelings, even thoughts) to be expressed. That the techniques offered a parable, almost a morality, about living in our beleaguered century is evident in that they involved a dichotomy between human expressivity and communication, and the mathematical precision of a machine. As industrialism irresistibly advanced, the number and efficiency of machines increased: until what most distinguished the New from the Old World was that its rampant mechanisations triumphed with alarming alacrity, probably because the American wilderness was a tabula rasa with few traditions strong enough to subvert Progress. In Europe, Picasso's Cubism threatened but did not sunder contact with the visible world; Mondrian's geometric grids envisaged a spiritual Utopia of 'pure' abstraction; while Kandinsky's embryonic shapes were as much anthropomorphic as dehumanising. In 1916, in the middle of the First World War, during which the basic dichotomy between expressionism and abstraction (and between men and machines) erupted in violence, a great painter and designer (Picasso), an oddly extraordinary composer (Satie), a brilliantly theatrical poet-impresario (Cocteau), and an inspired choreographer (Massine), together devised a ballet (Parade) centred precisely on the tussle between men and machines - about which I wrote in an essay published in Modern Painters, Autumn 1997. The situation mythologised in Parade is itself paradoxical, for the logic of geometry and machines was at once a threat to 'expressive' humanity and an escape from human fragmentation into a mathematical quasi-paradisal perfection. Nor was it an accident that 20 to 30 years later there emerged in America's New World a clown-saint-priest-composer-calligrapher-author-philosopher who gradually abandoned expression for Number and ultimately for Silence - aurally the tabula rasa itself. He was John Cage, about whom I wrote in an essay for Modern Painters, Spring 1996.

The leading figures among the American Abstract Expressionists are usually reckoned to be Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Willem de Kooning (1904-98), and Mark Rothko (1903-70), buttressed by a second team of Clyfford Still (1904-80), Barnett Newman (1903-70), Franz Kline (1910-52), Robert Motherwell (1915-91), and Philip Guston (1913-80), with the sculptor David Smith (1906-65), and the photographer Aaron Siskind (1903-91). They mostly grew up in conditions of indigence and/or instability, and suffered from neurotic disorders of varying degrees of virulence, rooted in that basic dichotomy between men and machines, aggravated by the cataclysm of the First World War and the economic depressions and moral duplicities that followed in its wake. Although some of these artists survived longer than their biblically allotted span, many of them were seriously alcoholic and most displayed symptoms of nervous instability; a few had suicidal tendencies, sometimes carried to a fatal conclusion, whether in deliberate acts of violence, or through criminal negligence. Those who precariously survived to attain some kind of artistic 'career' were engulfed by a Second World War which, bringing with it the Beastly Bomb, carried the possibility, which then seemed an imminent prospect, of annihilation. Both courage and genius were needed if such a situation were to be confronted, and perhaps three of these artists were thus equipped: Jackson Pollock, an archetypically instinctual artist who splashed and sprayed (and trod on) paint with a paradoxically random precision; Willem de Kooning who, especially in the series of paintings entitled Women and Excavations, dating from the early '50s, presented images of powerfully human import in what he called a 'no-environment'; and Mark Rothko who, having begun with images of mythic and legendary significance, gradually drained his canvases of ritualistic or expressive meaning, until the pictures, growing ever larger and emptier, were paradoxically reduced, in the process of being enlarged, to 'fields' of a single colour, or of all-white or all-black. Belatedly, those omnipotent icons of the '20s, T S Eliot's Waste Land (1922) and Hollow Men (1925), had found visual equivalents, while at a lower level the Jewish Dangling Man of Saul Bellows's 1944 novel provided a new literary prototype for the Abstract Expressionist painters, many of whom were both Wanderers and Jews.

In 1945, the year in which the Second World War was said to have ended, Mark Rothko remarked that 'if previous abstractions parallel the scientific and objective preoccupations of our times, ours are a pictorial equivalent for man's new knowledge and consciousness of his inner self' (New York Times, July 1945). This is a distinctly 'cool' way of referring to the 'tableau vivant of incommunication' created by the chthonic forces let loose in the world; and the statement's unwonted calm may be justified by the fact that Rothko's latest, emptiest, most abstract canvases are those that most potently affect the viewer. It is not fortuitous that Rothko's ultimate masterpiece was a chapel, commissioned by the Roman Catholic Dominique and John de Menil, and designed by Philip Johnson in consultation with Rothko, since the practical purpose of the building was to house his immense canvases. The austere temple is indeed a sanctuary in the urban technocracy of Houston; but, although attempts have been made to detect Christian symbolism in, for instance, the raised panels that have been said to 'represent' resurrection, or even The Resurrection, it would be extravagant to call the chapel Christian, or even inter-denominationally religious, since it is surely dedicated to Rothko's last-ditch Gospel of Art. And in context, the 'emptiness' of the paintings proves to be not empty at all, for their 'weightlessness', in a heavily industrialised community, becomes a kind of bliss, within the opalescent glimmerings of which we sense, to recall John Cage's words, 'the movement with the wind of the Orient, and the movement against the wind of the Occident', as they 'meet in America, and produce a movement upwards into the air - the space, the silence, the nothing that supports it' (Silence, Wesleyan, 1961). This, as the poet Robert Creeley put it, is

the poem supreme, addressed to
emptiness - this is the courage
necessary. This is something
quite different.[1]
Being quite different, it may be, as well as awe-inspiring, terrifying.

A frisson of terror may be expected to accompany an act of rebirth which, springing from its bleak-black acceptance of death, the Rothko Chapel entails. In a sense, death won, since although Rothko completed his gigantic murals by 1967, the building was still unfinished when, in 1970, he killed himself. Even so, we must remember that between 1929 and 1952 Rothko taught children in the Jewish Brooklyn Centre at a progressive school run on John Dewey principles. He enjoyed the job, maintaining that children's art was closer to his own than was that of most professional painters, who were trained to 'imitate' a model, whereas he encouraged the children not 'to do so and so', but to 'find out what would you like to express and how clearly can you express it. The result is a constant creative activity in which the child creates an entire child-like cosmology which expresses the infinitely varied and exciting world of a child's fancies and experience' (sketchbook statement, late 1980s).

This sounds very close to the way in which the American composer Morton Feldman functioned. Born in New York City in 1926, Feldman was a Brooklyn Jew whose earliest recollection of music was of his mother holding one of his fingers and picking out 'Eli Eli' on the piano. His introduction to music as an art and craft was by way of a Madame Maurina-Press, an aristocrat exiled after the Russian Revolution in the Big Apple, who did not approve of methodical discipline, but combined (in Feldman's words) 'the ability and brilliance of the "pro" with an inspired dilettantism' (sleeve-note to a recording of Durations, 1962). Meeting up with the composers Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe, both urban Jews of part-European and part-American extraction, Feldman took desultory lessons with them, but spent more time talking and arguing than in acquiring a conventional craft. The decisive event in his education (in the basic sense of a leading out) was his meeting with John Cage in 1949: not only because Cage's Zen-like laissez faire suited the large, lethargic Morton, but specifically because, through Cage, Feldman met the Abstract Expressionist painters, especially Philip Guston, a close friend through many years, and Mark Rothko, with whose genius Feldman recognised a kinship. In confessing that he'd learned more from these painters about musical composition than he had from any musician, Feldman was duplicating, twenty years on, what Satie had said about his own relationship to French painters of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, Satie was one of the few 'orthodox' composers with whom Feldman (like Cage) empathised, though he admired the astonishingly unorthodox music made by the Frenchman Edgard Varèse in the dozen years after he settled in New York in 1916, the middle-of-the-war year in which Parade had been launched. Varèse created a music of men and machines, 'constructed' on principles derived from mechanical engineering (in which he had been trained), but also mirroring natural phenomena such as crystal-formation. Yet while Feldman welcomed such a (Cage-like) release from will and ego, he found the violence of Varèse's music unsympathetic. He'd probably rejected the music of Riegger and Wolpe for similar reasons - though he was grateful to them for introducing him to the music of Webern, most economical of the Viennese serialists, whose exquisitely attenuated art gave equal weight to the music's minimal sounds and silences. In the 'weightlessness' of Webern's music Feldman found a complement to the weightlessness he admired in Abstract Expressionist painting; and in the '50s he began consciously to emulate Webern, effecting, in the Extensions for violin and piano of 1951, a complete serialisation not only of pitches but also of rhythms, dynamics, and even of a succession of metronomic tempi. The expressive if fragmented Viennese lyricism of Webern evaporates, leaving the stillness of isolated tones deployed with the logic of geometry, if not quite the precision of a machine. The effect is closer to that of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946-8) than to European Webern.

And indeed a perversion of European serialism was not what Feldman was after in his search for that 'something different' that 'arose' from a Cagean meeting of the winds of East and West. Moving from the '50s into the '60s, he increasingly conceived his music in visual terms, often calling the pieces 'Structures' - a spatial rather than temporal term, although music is of its nature a temporal art. The four Structures for string quartet, for instance, have no connection with serialism, but neither do they employ any of the classical formulations of European music. Notated single tones, diads, triads, pitch-clusters and metrical patterns are played mostly pizzicato and non-vibrato (and therefore without 'expression'), the tones being repeated many times, softly and hypnotically. How many times the tones are repeated is a spatial as well as temporal calculation, as Feldman carries to its ultimate the liberation of the tone that Webern had initiated, in succession to Debussy's liberation of the chord. The effect of isolation and alienation that accrues would seem to be an aspect of the Jewishness that Feldman shares with several Abstract Expressionist painters, as well as with his composition teachers. Although he was socially gregarious, even jolly, he often said that the distinctive characteristic of his music was its lonesomeness.

Having rejected serial determinacy, Feldman sought, if not for a new creed, for new directions: expressed, in Cagean terms, when he announced that 'my desire is not to 'compose', but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric' (sleeve-note, as above). 'Projection' was the term he used to describe the pieces that, in the late '50s and the '60s, followed the Structures. In these works he admitted that although (Webernian) determinacy had been a valuable release from will and ego, from the tug of memory and the pull of desire, and therefore from a temporal past and future, indeterminacy might be an even more radical liberation. So for his Projections Feldman used a notation wherein a graph indicates whether the players are to produce a high, middle or low registered tone, without specifying a pitch; while other signs indicate the approximate durations of the tones, and the relative lengths of the silences between them. Since the choice of pitches and their durations are on any given occasion determined by the players, no two performances will be identical or even, necessarily, very similar. Again, the hushed tranquillity of the tones comes from their isolation. In the Three Pieces for string quartet the tones are longer sustained than in the Structures, and all three movements are almost motionless, with no hint of the spectral noises of the external world such as intrude into the last movement of Cage's unique String Quartet of 1950. The visual aspect of this phase of Feldman's work is inherent in the fact that he often 'hung' his graph pieces in his studio, as though they were exhibits in an art gallery, to be looked at as well as, or even rather than, to be heard. (They are often visually pleasing.)

Although the graphs had served their purpose, Feldman admitted, in 1962, that

after several years of writing graph music I began to discover its most important flaw. I was not only allowing the sounds to be free - I was also liberating the performers. I had never thought of the graph as an art of improvisation, but more a totally abstract sonic adventure. This realisation was important because I now understood that if the performers sounded bad it was less because of their lapses of taste than because I was still involved with passages and continuity that allowed their presence to be felt. (Sleeve-note, as above)

Feldman's solution of his problem was to become, for the time being, his own 'maker', evolving his 'mature' idiom through the agency of a piano, a one-man band through which his huge fingers, subtle senses and mercurial mind could speak intuitively. During these years he usually composed at the piano, and composition became almost a seismographic process. The keyboard was a sound-source in his control, with minimal reference to ego and will. A friend of his - I think it was John Cage - suggested to me that, since Morton was extravagantly myopic, he had to listen to the sounds he produced from the piano with extreme concentration, and then to notate them very slowly, on large sheets of paper, in very large calligraphy: so the music he transcribed was bound to be very slow, and likely to be very soft! This we may hear in the remarkable Piece for four pianos, in which all the players read from the same score, at first playing simultaneously a notated sonority, usually gently concordant. 'The repeated notes', Feldman explained, 'are not musical pointillism, as in Webern, but they are where the mind rests on an image. The beginning of the piece is like a re-cognition - not a motive - and by virtue of the repetitions it conditions the mind to listen' (liner-notes for CD of Words and Music). As we listen, time-responses gradually coordinate, until they and the mind are at peace. Feldman's partiality for the neutral noun 'piece' to describe his works may be a suppressed pun, for the goal of the piece is always peace. In order to play the music slowly and quietly enough the players need to enter a state of trance - in which the audience must join, making its own actively inactive contribution.

What I've called Feldman's 'seismographic' pieces - notably the Piece for four pianos - provided the impetus for his music over the rest of his life, though time and space became increasingly elided as the pieces grew longer and longer. We may observe how this begins to happen on a disc called Clarinet and String Quartet, which places together the brief Two Pieces for clarinet and string quartet of 1961 with the single movement Clarinet and String Quartet of 1983, which lasts 41 minutes. The two tiny pieces of the earlier work have an effect faintly similar to the tiny pieces Webern wrote in his 'free' atonal vein: whereas the empty spaces of the single-movement work seem closer to Abstract Expressionist painters' 'fields' of a single colour (with an occasional volatile dab of yellow clarinet), rather than to a specifically aural idiom. That Feldman's music marks an end to what he called 'musical rhetoric' seems clear, though he wouldn't have agreed with Barnett Newman that 'field' paintings (or Feldman's music) spelt the end of acquisitive capitalism and presaged the possibility of an 'open society'. That, admittedly, was one way of putting it; but Feldman was totally non-political, and mistrusted even Cage's anarchic 'social intentions'. He may even have been uneasy about the religious overtones to Rothko's chapel in the industrial metropolis of Houston, though he shared Rothko's Gospel of Art, and composed a beautiful and very peaceful piece explicitly called Rothko Chapel. Things that go bump in the night intrude into Feldman's intuitively sequential sounds-in-silence very rarely, whereas they are frequent, and often alarming, in the instinctive paintings of Jackson Pollock, facetiously known as Jack the Dripper, and are not uncommon in the paintings of Newman, in the sculpture of David Smith, and even in some of Rothko's early work. Although Rothko's verbal pronouncements and written statements about his art are often contradictory (which may be why he gave up making them), it would seem that on the whole he believed his images to be 'abstracted' from external events but directly produced by, and productive of, 'cosmic and tragic' (his words) human emotions. I suspect he agreed with Robert Motherwell's statement that 'the pure red of which some abstractionists speak is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters' caps, and a thousand concrete things'.

Similarly, Feldman's pieces of the '60s, especially the series he called Durations, apply the instinctive techniques of the piano pieces to varied collocations of instruments, with varied colorations that may hint remotely at 'expressive' implications, if not intentions. The first set of 1960-61 uses a group of flute, tuba, piano, vibraphone, violin and cello, each with its own 'voice', though all play from the same part and all (except occasionally the piano) sound single pitches. So the instruments, in shifting combinations, set up a complex 'reverberation' from a single source. The tones are always isolated, immensely slow, and (almost) infinitely soft. When the instruments play together because their durations overlap, the simultaneous sounds tend to be unisonal or consonant. An eternal-seeming drone on muted tuba, or a major third on string harmonics, sound as though the players are discovering the tones in, or even inventing them out of, silence, and we are born afresh in hearing them. However 'lonesome' the sound, it presents the American obsession with emptiness absolved from fear, and thereby anticipates the visionary effect of Rothko's Chapel - both the painter's artefacts, and Feldman's later musical composition 'inspired' by them.

During the '60s Feldman's pilgrimage towards Rothko's timeless visuality produced two works explicitly dedicated to the painters Kline and de Kooning. The former reflects, in Feldman's words, the artist's 'brusque, black brushstrokes on a white ground', while the latter more elusively reflects the palpably human sensuousness, aerated by a weightless upward movement, evident in the famous painting Pink Angels. Since this painting is said to contain an oblique reference to Titian's Diana Surprised by Actaeon, it might even be that in this picture John Cage's contrary winds of the Orient and Occident mate serenity with violence. However speculative that may be, we may legitimately trace affinities between Feldman's music and verbal meaning in the two works triggered by, without actually 'setting', words by Samuel Beckett, a great writer from moribund 'old' Ireland who was dedicated to the Lessness, the Nothing, that became an insidious obsession in the 'new' world of the dubiously United States.

The Beckett piece called Words and Music was written for radio in 1961. The music provided for it - by John Beckett, Sam's cousin - was, however, deemed unsatisfactory, so when, in 1987, Feldman approached Beckett with collaboration in mind, the writer handed him the 1961 text, confident that the association would work. It does - though Feldman doesn't 'set' the minimal words which, essentially Beckettian, concern ageing, dying and 'the face in the ashes / that old starlight / on the earth again' - using two voices, one an androgynous singing-speaking part, the other a (wordless) Croaker. The instrumental ensemble typically consists of flute, vibraphone, piano, violin, viola and cello, with a solo flute (Feldman's favourite, 'pure' instrument) as partner to the singer-speaker. In a recorded interview Feldman explained how difficult he'd found it to deal with Beckett's 'unattainability', though he was confident that his music had attained the unattainable: 'the closer you get, the more tragic it becomes, and the more compelling ... And the more distant you get, the more tragic it becomes, and the more compelling'.

The other Beckett text, Neither, was especially written for Feldman in 1977, and was described by the author as 'an opera', though the libretto has only 87 words sung by just one singer who, for considerable stretches, ignores the words and vocalises, often on a single tone. The work might be called a cantata, or simply 'voice and orchestra', on analogy with several works written during the '70s for a soloist with an ensemble. But if Neither doesn't set the words, it enacts their progression, or non-progression, from 'impenetrable self to impenetrable unself, beckoned back and forth, and turned away: unspeakable home'. Spelling out Beckett's lessness and homelessness seems to have been a means whereby Feldman moved into the rarefied world of his final phase, wherein sounds succeed one another in space and silence, and inevitably in time - if without antecedence and consequence apart from the fact that the current sound mysteriously seems to be 'right' and is never tedious, though it's 'determined' merely by instinct and the inner ear. This, to return to the quotation from Creeley, is indeed 'the courage / necessary ... something / quite different'. Feldman seems to have harboured no doubts that he had that courage, even hazarding that he might be 'the first great Jewish composer'! One suspects that he was beginning to see himself as a counterpart to 'late' Rothko's 'sublimity', after he'd purged his work of the 'materiality' he disapproved of in Picasso, and had 'spiritualised' the vividly sensuous colours of Matisse, which had so delighted, and influenced, him in his youth. Rothko ended up saying that he was 'the opposite of an action painter' like Pollock, since he believed that 'the familiar identity of things has to be pulverised in order to destroy their finite associations'.[2] Feldman's attempt to mimic in sound late Rothko's monumentality and 'cosmic tragedy' was a no less bold undertaking, and was possibly misguided. For the length of a musical composition cannot really be equated with the size of a painting, since a gigantic picture, though it needs time for absorption and digestion, can be momently taken in in a photographic flash, whereas a musical composition that lasts several hours, with a minimum of events in time and a barely perceptible psychological evolution, can hardly be apprehensible 'in process', even by an entranced audience. I haven't myself experienced these vast pieces - the Second String Quartet and other pieces are reported to occupy four or five hours! - but I have found that the Trio of 1980 - scored for the conventional violin, cello and piano, used, however, simply as sound-sources - commanded its 76 minutes duration without flagging, and produced in me a sensation comparable with that of the bleakly but luminously lonesome urban scenes of Edward Hopper. These wonderful paintings seem to me 'tragic' in the rather special sense the word is used by Rothko (and, in emulation, by Feldman), indicating that every moment is 'at once timeless and immediate' - a notion we can understand better since the invention of photography, as was pointed out as long ago as 1923 by the suicidal poet Hart Crane (much admired by the Abstract Expressionists), when he remarked that 'speed is at the bottom of it all, the hundredth of a second caught so precisely that the motion is continued indefinitely from the picture: the moment made eternal'. The lonesomeness of Hopper's naturalistic scenes and the emptiness of Rothko's 'fields' share this 'tragic sense': which is occasionally echoed in Feldman's disembodied sounds.

The size of Rothko's late canvases and the length of Feldman's last compositions are related in that both weaken, and sometimes obliterate, the sense of a 'local habitation and a name'. The repeated tones in Feldman's music are usually pulseless and, even if mensurated, act like the undeviating beat in so many so-called primitive musics, or in today's or yesterday's industrialised permutations known as Heavy Metal. But Feldman's reiterative music is never loud, let alone industrialised, and the way in which his repetitiveness dissolves temporal progression is revealed in another visual analogy he has drawn: that between his late music and the oriental rugs and carpets he has collected over many years and has become an authority on. Not all the last pieces are of enormous length, though half an hour for a single movement is a minimal norm. This is the duration of a piece called Why Patterns?, which, scored for flute, piano and percussion, answers the question in that the cautious repetition of isolated tones seems as inevitable as the pattern in a carpet, yet is at the same time subject to human vulnerability when warp and weft get tangled. Another piece of the '80s, Crippled Symmetry, turns precisely on this asymmetry. Apparently the release from ego and will may admit to Nature's imperfections, which may (who knows?) be part of a divine, if not of a man-made, pattern. One of the best, or at least clearest, examples of this 'carpet' technique is provided by the 1983 Clarinet and String Quartet previously referred to: in which the strings provide a continuously reiterated warp of two, or occasionally three, alternating chords, into which the clarinet weaves a single line meandering around a nodal point, oblivious of the chords.

But the best-known of Feldman's late 'carpet' pieces functions on a different tack which would seem, on the evidence of the numerous performances it receives and of the several recordings currently available, to be tellingly communicative. Although still repetitious, the textures in Coptic Light are also, for Feldman, unwontedly continuous, embracing in 'layers' of sound his Jewish loneliness, along with vestiges of ancient Christianity and of Turkish and Egyptian antiquity: all 'textilely' coordinated in 'fragments of coloured cloth which mysteriously convey', in Feldman's words, 'an essential quality of their civilisation'. He goes on to enquire 'what aspects of music since Monteverdi might determine the atmosphere of this piece, were it to be heard two thousand years hence' (notes accompanying CD of Coptic Light). Feldman's pronouncements about his art are apt to be, like Rothko's, impenetrable; but one gets the general point that Time is only a European notion, and recognises that many composers of America's New World - not only Feldman, but also Cage, sometimes Cowell, and a few more traditional figures like Lou Harrison and Alan Hovahness have also been disabused of 'Western' temporality, perhaps because they have been, in their urban surroundings, so roughly harried by the thud of the years and the constrictions of their 'mortal coil'.

In any case we may observe with hindsight that although Feldman did not seem to be very close to Pollock in his role as Jack the Dripper, there is often a startling resemblance between Feldman's oriental carpets and rugs and his carpet-inspired late compositions on the one hand, and on the other hand Pollock's mid-twentieth century dribblings and doodlings, such as the wondrous Lavender Mist. The quotation from Henry James that stands as epigraph to this essay makes a valid comment both on Pollock's Lavender Mist and on Feldman's Coptic Light, in which Feldman's usually isolated tones merge into an ancient carpet's repetitious flow. The sounds are unbroken, if beatless: sustained drones and clusters on wind and strings, normally very soft, with no harmony (at least in the grammatical sense), no melody, no preordained form, only a sometimes flawed pattern in an aural carpet that, being at once 'timeless and immediate', is for that reason, in Rothko's sense, 'tragic'. A carpet, like a Rothko 'field', goes on because there is no 'Western' reason why it should ever stop - at least until it, in passive insentience, wears out, as a sentient creature must eventually die. This is why, when Coptic Light finally ceases, it does not end; as in all Feldman's music, 'one perception must lead directly and immediately to a further perception', even if that perception be momentarily a silence. The justification for calling this concept 'tragic' may be that a carpet's repetitious warp and weft enables us to get by, like the wryly noble Samuel Beckett, without promise, without expectation, without even hope. The significance of Feldman's sounds and silences is that they may reveal that, once in a while, perilous panic and paradise may be identified in a single moment, at once inside and outside Time.

On and off during the '60s and '70s, I knew Morton Feldman reasonably well. We met both in New York and in old York, where I was head of the music department in the University of York, newly founded in 1963. Morton several times visited the department for performances of his music, or to take 'classes'. Rather to my surprise, since he was not conventionally articulate, he was a considerable success with the students, not only in talking about his own work but in speaking of, say, the early romantic Schumann, whose concern with childhood, and whose incipient lunacy, were more nervily pertinent to Morton than one might have expected. On the whole, I thought of Feldman as a beatific character, certainly not a turbulently troubled one like Jackson Pollock, nor a melancholically suicidal one like Rothko. Even so, his still waters ran very deep, and although he loved wine, women and (his kind of) song, he was a man of mystery, as were most good artists of the middle years of our battered century. He died in 1987, at the age of 61 - prematurely, if not exactly young.

  1. Robert Creeley, from the volume For love, 1950, reprinted in Collected Poems 1945-75, California 1982.
  2. Mark Rothko, 'The Romantics were prompted', essay published in Possibilities 1, Winter 1947-8.
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