[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

The Monochromatic Music of Morton Feldman

by Christian Tarting

[English translation by Delia Morris]

This article was originally published in the liner notes accompanying a CD of Feldman's piano music on the L'Empreinte Digitale label (ED 13137). The CD includes recordings of Piano and Palais de Mari played by Ronnie Lynn Patterson. The article is based on a slightly longer essay by the author published in the journal Sorgue (No 3, October 2001).

Why is Morton Feldman's music so difficult to listen to? One is tempted to paraphrase here the title of Berg's famous article from 1924 on Schoenberg[1] so as to explain how the reproaches usually levelled against the New York composer by those who oppose his very clearly defined aesthetics, miss the point. Such reproaches - that his compositions are boring, far too long, created according to simplistic compositional procedures, always pitched at the lowest possible sound level to the point of obsession, so as to be almost inaudible, as though fascinated by the very poverty of the melodic formulae governing their inner logic etc. etc. - only show a lack of real observation of the universe and guiding principles of this composer and what he has to say. For out of those musicians still linked to Western tradition in spite of everything and to the symbolic weight it implies in matters of composition, here is one who has shown the most intimate understanding of the positions taken up by his close friend and mentor, John Cage.

It is precisely Morton Feldman who, in the quietly unshakeable inevitability of his own position, has pushed some of the deviations from classical writing inherent in John Cage's work to their limit.

He has echoed the silence defined by Cage in the manner of Wittgenstein as "all the sounds coming in", notably with his predilection for tenuity, his use of extremely compact, unassuming dynamics (this is in fact merely a side issue, almost a facile way of covering Cageism), as well as his basic principle denying all self-interest, his refusal to indulge in demonstrative aesthetics, or give voice to originality in complex settings all too close, in his opinion, to the desire for individuality, the wish to leave one's mark on the work - old established rules of the Old World.

To Cage's "resulting" silence, an area of noises, parasitic and otherwise, belonging to the realm of sensitivity where pure accident is the vital ingredient, or to silence as a defined area of receptivity, the unresolved, not subject to any aesthetic, Feldman's reply is that of a logic that encompasses the silence by the absence of all effects, the repetition of the generating cells in a scarcely modulated regular pattern. It amounts to almost nothing, a pianissimo ("My music is inside silence", he used to say) that prompted the following remark in parallel: "I differ from my European colleagues in that I don't require a work of art to be interesting". So we find him thrusting aside even more decisively our well-established categories and patterns as users of the musical element. More than anything else, his approach is closer in feeling to the Chinese notion of insipidness and palour, that places more importance on transparence and duplication than action or the production of something "new", or self-assertion.[2] In reality Feldman suggested somewhat maliciously that his music belonged to the realm of the parable; Cage highlighted the significance of this statement by proposing to call him a hero if he was not given the title of composer. Feldman the Irenist deliberately provokes boredom, which for him constitutes an opening towards consciousness, or to put it more aptly, it is the symptom of consciousness. Giving rise to it could be his most important decisive act - almost the only one, as he himself might have claimed. By jamming irremediably the tape of everything artificial, the loop of little tricks that go to make up what claims to be listening material, but which, as far as music is concerned, only implies a sort of social, superficial acquaintanceship, a backdrop in fact, boredom functions like the blow of the Zen monk's stick, requiring the body to react and enter into a state of concentration. It's what trips up all those who want to advance quickly, be seduced and flattered by diversity, consume difference as a value, a token of culture. If one stumbles and revolts in the presence of boredom, what is potentially a gateway to understanding will shut forever. But if boredom is recognised and acknowledged, experienced and finally accepted, it becomes dynamic, a sure catalyst for meditation, revealing its most fertile ground, that of inner detachment - the opportunity is revealed, slowly unfolded in every detail, illuminated, for a sort of imploded ecstasy, brought about by the gradual dissolution of one's personal agitations, the thrusting aside of all background noise so as to escape all that might weigh one down, starting with the lengthy story of the tensions of the "I". For anyone willing to immerse himself long enough in transparency, the "unspectacular", the poverty attributed to Morton Feldman's music, a new kind of perception emerges, reveals itself to the intelligence, shines forth with real radiance - a serenity experienced in the inner being rather than via external charm, a place for the inner breath, the inner rhythm - found once again in its original, primeval state - not ruled by hypnosis or any kind of order, message or code imposed from outside.

The art of little proper to Feldman, the special emotional charge of his nearly monochromatic state, make particular demands on the performer - an unusual attentiveness is required, situated somewhere between humility and watchfulness. A state of being, where being wholly and utterly open is more important than virtuosic talent, though this is indispensable in music where the expected and the unexpected figure to such a degree.[3] Performers of Feldman's music, who for these very reasons remain few and far between, interpret his music in the most noble and mystical sense of the term. They are readers: friends, heralds of a world they have made their own, giving us the tension of coalescence, the intensity of a spiritual exercise, in the confidence of their interpretation. Like Roger Woodward, Gérard Frémy and Marianne Schroeder, Ronnie Lynn Patterson belongs to that small group of pianists who "with no dependence, no nonsense" live their relationship to the full - a relationship with the man who believed that in the act of composing, concentration is much more important than the organisation of the high points or any other conceptual approach. In order to measure the actual degree of his own concentration, he chose to write his scores directly in ink, and would break off his work at the very first deletion.


  1. "Why is Schoenberg's music so difficult to understand?", in Alban Berg's Ecrits, translated from the German, with a commentary by Henri Pousseur: Monaco, Editions du Rocher, "Domaine musical" collection, 1957, pp. 65-92.
  2. Cf. François Jullien, Eloge de la fadeur (In praise of insipidness). A partir de la pensée et de l'aesthétique de la Chine, Arles, Philippe Picquier, 1991.
  3. This is the case in the (very) great piano score from 1981, Triadic Memories, where the point is to make all the values of suspension audible, so that each has its own nature, its own identity at the heart of a very "rigid" structure lined with figures in quadruplets that in fact they serve to separate. They function within a dynamic state of absolute Jansenism (the intensity of the playing should remain ppp throughout the whole two and a half hours of the work). The differential of silence is thus measured from the crochet rests to the double-crocheted half-rests without any intermediate silence being omitted.

© Christian Tarting 2001

[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]