[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]


by Molly Paccione and Paul Paccione

This essay was originally published in ex tempore: A Journal of Compositional and Theoretical Research in Music, vol. 6/1, Fall 1992, 13-21.

Where in life we do everything we can to avoid
anxiety, in art we must pursue it. This is difficult.
(Boris Pasternak)

We want the Exact and the Vast; we want
our Dreams, and our Mathematics.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

At the time of composer Morton Feldman's death in September, 1987, his music had ceased to compel the attention of the latest generation of young composers and listeners. The present time, however, has seen a resurgence of interest in Feldman's work, along with claims for his membership in various camps. The purpose of the present study is not to hypothesize that Feldman was or was not either a modernist or a postmodernist, and then to prove it. Neither does this article present a survey of generalized characteristics of musical modernism and postmodernism; the light shed by that on the actual work of composing is minimal. Rather, this study explores modernism and postmodernism as currents intersecting in various ways in the unique context of Feldman's work; the interest is in the complex and ambiguous whole. Accretion of significant detail in the shaping of a unique entity is central to the method used, familiar to literary scholars as contextualization. Feldman and his music are particularly well suited to this approach, since a great many things influenced him as a composer, and since he openly acknowledged their importance. Feldman's restless, highly personal struggles with the very meaning of composing are basically at odds with the prevailing attitudes and conditions of a populist postmodernism of reaction against modernist principles. The premises of late modernism to which Feldman subscribed - compositional self-criticism and continual questioning of materials and methods - are not the concerns of our time. Where modernism is self-critical, postmodernism is self-referential; where modernism doubts as a means of achieving closer contact with a work, postmodernism's textual model and a priori skepticism serve as a means of distancing. Regarding the relationship of the modern to the postmodern and the differentiation of types of postmodernism, art critic Hal Foster has asserted, "In cultural politics today, a basic opposition exists between a postmodernism which seeks to deconstruct modernism and resist the status quo and a postmodernism which repudiates the former to celebrate the latter: a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction" (1983, xi-xii).

Viewed as a critique of late-modernist principles, Feldman's late work reflects the intersection of a postmodernism of resistance, which has its basis in both structuralist and poststructuralist discourse, with the later years of his creative life. This is but one layer among many, however, in a complex texture of the personal and the historical. Just as importantly, we also find Feldman connected in interesting ways to a long line of seekers of the transcendent, that which Feldman often referred to as the "abstract experience." Further, there is the crucial matter of Feldman's convictions about failure, about the ways in which failure is intrinsically bound to the creative act and to the search for expression. Feldman often reprised painter Philip Guston's remark that, "for a work of art to succeed its creator must fail" (Feldman 1968, 14), and he shared with contemporaries Guston and playwright Samuel Beckett the modernist sense of the ultimate impossibility of art. It is Feldman's self-doubt, his constant questioning of and by his methods, theories, and aesthetics, that is the portion of his legacy with the most urgency for us in the present time. An examination of Feldman's work also provides an important specific opportunity to explore and evaluate the critical potential of postmodernism.

Any consideration of Feldman's music must acknowledge, if not begin with, his debt to the visual world. Feldman, to an unusual degree, articulated his musical concerns in the terms of another medium. His ability to illuminate some of the most subjective corners of an aesthetic experience was honed in his close association with the abstract expressionist painters of the New York School, particularly in his long friendship with Philip Guston. He was preoccupied with charting the territory between music and other art forms, delineating their intrinsic qualities and deriving in the process a stimulus for composition. For Feldman, "Music's tragedy is that it begins with perfection," and "There is nothing in music, for example, to compare with certain drawings of Mondrian, where we still see the contours and rhythms that have been erased while another alternative has been drawn on top of them" (1967, 54). Feldman's life work as a composer might be described as finding ways to pose the problem of truth to himself. Viewing literature, painting, and music as problematic activities is essentially a modernist position. Philip Guston frequently expressed his own concerns about painting in a similar fashion. "I think the original problems that were posed after the war period (W.W.II) in painting were, to my way of thinking, the most revolutionary posed and still are.... as if the act of painting was not making a picture - it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible" (Hopkins 1969,45).

While Feldman's link with the aesthetics of the abstract expressionist painters has been well documented, other associations with the visual arts are operative as well. In Feldman's concern for quietude, for scale, for subtle gradations of orchestral color, for transcendence of the material, and, in the late works, for notational quantification, he demonstrates an interesting consistency with the aesthetics of yet another indigenous American painterly tradition: luminism. Unlike Feldman's connection to abstract expressionism, this relationship is less a matter of direct influence than a reflection of shared attitudes toward conceptualization and transcendence. The luminists sought a synthesis of the real and the ideal in a process true to the deepest roots of American transcendentalism. Barbara Novak, in her excellent study, discusses the essentially conceptual basis of American art and points out the relationship of luminism to the American folk art tradition (1985, 117). Perhaps not surprisingly, a stimulus to composition existed for Feldman in the study of the folk art rugs of archaic cultures. "I am mostly drawn to special examples of nomadic rugs from Anatolia. What the choice 19th-century Yoruk has that is unique is mood" (1985, 117). "Rugs have made me question notions I previously held on what is symmetrical and what is not. In the Anatolian village and nomadic rugs, there appears to be considerably less concern with the accuracy of the mirror image than in most other rug producing areas. The detail of the Anatolian symmetrical image was never mechanical, as I had expected, but idiomatically drawn.... Rugs have prompted me in my recent music to think of a disproportionate symmetry, in which a symmetrically staggered rhythmic series is used: 4:3, 6:5, 8:7, etc. as a point of departure.... What I'm after is somewhat like Mondrian not wanting to paint bouquets but a single flower at a time" (1985, 124).

Example 1. Morton Feldman, Spring of Chosroes (1978), mm. 1-7
Example 1

Feldman's work, too, reflects the primacy of the concept, particularly in the area of notation. Musical notation, for Feldman, was not simply a matter of visual representation or musical convention, but rather a lifelong experimental ground where concepts could be tested. Feldman's graphic scores ultimately dissatisfied him because of the intrusion they permitted the performer into a "totally abstract sonic adventure" (1985, 38). Feldman was concerned with "liberating sound," not with the art of improvisation, and graphic music quickly evidenced its limitation in this regard. "Many composers and theorists will disagree with the almost hierarchical prominence I attribute to the notation's effect on composition. They would argue that new musical concepts, resulting in innovative systems, necessitated changes in notation" (1985, 133). The prominence Feldman attaches to notation, over musical concepts and methodologies, and its ultimate effect on musical ideas, parallels the emphasis linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, an important influence on structuralism and poststructuralist criticism, attaches to the dependence of ideas upon the language that expresses them: "That thought itself is dependent on language and that concepts do not precede the terms that articulate them" (Gaggi 1989, 162). "Without language, thought is a vague uncharted nebula. There are no preexisting ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language" (Saussure 1966, 112).

Even more important is the inherent problem contained in the relationship or lack of relationship that exists between what Saussure terms the "signifier" and the "signified": "That there is no inherent connection between words (sounds) and the concepts with which they are associated." Rather than forming an inherent connection, it is Saussure's conviction that the relating of signifier and signified is established by culture. Feldman's interest in arcane weavings and early Coptic textiles reflects an intuitive understanding. "What struck me about these fragments of colored cloth was how they conveyed an essential atmosphere of their civilization.... For me the analogue would be one of the instrumental imagery of Western Music" (1986). Saussure's postulation of the arbitrary or conditional nature of the sign is extended in the more radical skepticism of the poststructuralists, particularly in the work of Jacques Derrida, the leading voice of deconstruction. Derrida breaks down the distinction between signifier and signified altogether, postulating that meaning itself is ever in flux. In his critique of Saussure, Of Grammatology, the priority Derrida attaches to writing over speech - that speech is dependent upon writing, as its necessary precondition - is strikingly analogous to the priority Feldman places on notation. In both Feldman and Derrida, notation or writing are not visually apprehended inscriptions on a page but, more crucially, are the scene where the battle of meaning is joined. The relating of signifier and signified is one of the sources of the ultimate impossibility of art, an impossibility which cuts across disciplines and has been acknowledged in many different ways. Feldman wrote, "Like the tailor, the composer everywhere is always busy with the yardstick. He doesn't have the problem of truth. What I mean is he doesn't work with the impossibility of ever reaching it, like the painter, or the poet. For the composer, the truth is always the process, the system" (1985, 60). In music, the relevant questions are often dictated by structuring operations and the need to order and arrange musical materials into a coherent musical form. Feldman, however emphasized that there was no inherent connection between sound and a compositional methodology. "My desire was not to compose, but to project sounds into time, free from compositional rhetoric" (1985, 38). For Feldman, "the problem of truth" in music is not established by way of innovative systems, resulting in new forms, but through notation and orchestration. Barbara Feldman writes, "In late Feldman, a possible question that arises is whether or not the instrumental imagery has become disassociated from the conventional understanding of its relation to form. Another question that presents itself concerns the role of notation and its influence on the composition" (1989). Feldman himself stresses, "Ideas are given, concepts are given, everything is given. How do you orchestrate it? That's not given.... We must make that decision. And orchestration is notation" (1985, 176). For Feldman, the limitations of modernism in music stemmed from the continued reliance on preconceived processes of construction. This reliance on process relegated the role of orchestration to the articulation of a methodology, system, or formal principle. In Feldman, however the orchestration is the work. There is virtually no distance between the compositional material and the composer's intuition.

Given the essentially abstract concerns of Feldman's music, it quickly becomes apparent that it is principally in the area of notation that the working-out of the conceptual can take place. In writing on his early works, poet Frank O'Hara noted, "Feldman has created a work without reference outside itself" (1985, 25). The self-referential characteristics of the early works become increasingly more extreme, until in the late works, they dominate the work itself. Perhaps the greatest consistency running through Feldman's creative life is this: for Feldman, what begins as a search for a means of approaching his material quickly becomes a matter of transcendence.

Feldman gradually attached less and less importance to the actual realization of that which he notated, asserting "not only do I not care if they listen, I don't care if they play" (Gagne and Caras 1982, 166). The late works in particular, represent Feldman's exploration and structuring of the language of signs that is notation. It is through what Feldman called "notational imagery" that the problems of artistic representation are expressed. Separate and isolated, these notational images represent sound as pure abstraction, without the need for realization. In some senses, the patterns of the late works exist purely as notational images, as isolated from the world of sound as the arcane rug patternings that so influenced Feldman are from our own (post)modern civilization. "My notational concerns have begun to move away from any preoccupation with how the music functions in performance" (Feldman 1985, 133). "I think my tendency now toward longer and longer pieces is actually a tendency away from a piece geared for performance" (Gagne and Caras 1982, 171).

Example 2. Morton Feldman, Piano (1976), p. 25
Example 2

Feldman's later works are often concerned with the duration of musical experience itself. (String Quartet no.2, 1983, can last up to four-and-a-half hours.) Unfortunately, it is often the sheer length of these works that is remarked upon, to the exclusion of other aesthetic considerations. The reciprocal relationship between scale and time is also important to much minimalist sculpture, where awareness of scale relates the work and the observer, and where the time necessary to become fully aware of the work's presence is an essential part of the experience. Hal Foster notes that minimalism's implicit theatricality is viewed by some art critics as the beginning of the postmodernist sensibility in art: "a deviation from the late modernist will to purity" (Fried 1968, 123). He goes on to point out that yet others regard minimalism as the ne plus ultra of modernist reduction. "That it should involve such a contradiction - the modernist impulse to the thing itself and the postmodernist impulse toward theatricality or perversity might in fact make minimalism the scene of a shift in sensibility" (Foster 1984, 193). Given the conditions of notation, scale, and time, as well as the enfolding of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics within the context of minimalism, it is possible that Feldman's late works exist in their purest state without realization and that the notation itself is the clearest representation of the privacy of the sound world Feldman was exploring.

Susan Sontag's observation about literature applies as well to Feldman's late works. "As Modern literature is the history of alienated 'writing' or personal utterance, literature aims inexorably at its own self-transcendence - at the abolition of literature" (Sontag 1968, xxvii). To what degree Feldman's late works represent a reaction to the changed climate of responsiveness to modernist ideals, and to what degree a carrying of the concept of transcending materials along the road of logical conclusion, we can never completely know. Feldman's late works stand squarely at the juncture of late-modernist sensibility and postmodernist self-reference. Feldman was never uncomfortable with ambiguity and was, by conviction, prepared to accept failure as part of the creative process. In an article titled "After Modernism," Feldman noted that, "modernity reveals itself slowly - there is a stutter within its ironies. It is as fearful of success as it is of failure" (1968, 15). But the relationship, and the distinction, between failure and self-transcendence is something that must constantly be weighed in consideration of the late works.

Neither a modernist nor a postmodernist critique alone can help us fully to evaluate these issues in all their complexity. If the language of signs is truly all that can be fully available to us, then the realm of the musical imagination and the conceptual space into which Feldman sought to project his sounds cannot exist. But we - composers, performers, listeners - know it does exist. It is true, however, that Feldman faced the exhaustion of the modernist project; the burden carried by modernism was that of attempted perfectibility, of art and, ultimately, of life. Feldman's refusal to relinquish his own personal ideal of beauty - the commitment to the integrity of the composer's purpose - continued until the end to point his way.

German critic Andreas Huyssen has identified a position within postmodernism which perhaps has the greatest relevance for the consideration of Feldman's work. "It is a postmodernism that works itself out not as a rejection of modernism but rather as a retrospective reading, which, in some cases, is fully aware of modernism's limitations" (1986, 209). The critical potential of an enlightened postmodernism is its most valuable aspect. (Jürgen Habermas [1983] has also called our attention to the idea that postmodernism is not necessarily antimodernism.) Feldman's work has always been resistant to conventional analysis: a view from the postmodern "expanded field" provides new ways to explore his work in a sufficiently broad cultural context (Krauss 1983). This study is one such effort. Postmodernism can call attention to the limitations of the dichotomous thinking that preoccupied the modernists as they sought to protect the formal integrity of their disciplines, i.e., music vs. visual art, abstraction vs. representation, notation vs. realization.

Art critic Clement Greenberg once wrote that modernism includes "almost all that is truly alive in our culture" (1966, 66). We now must view Feldman's work in a context in which the continuing current of modernism can be felt, and the critical potential of postmodernism acknowledged and explored.


Feldman, Barbara. 1989. Program note to For Samuel Beckett by Morton Feldman. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (April).

Feldman, Morton. 1967. Some elementary questions. Art News (April) 66/2:54,74.

Feldman, Morton. 1968. After modernism. In exhibition catalogue Six Painters. Houston: Univ. of St. Thomas Art Dept.

Feldman, Morton. 1985. Morton Feldman essays. Edited by W. Zimmerman. Hanover: Frog Peak.

Feldman, Morton. 1986. Coptic light London: Universal Edition.

Fried, Michael. 1968. Art and objecthood. In Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by G. Battcock, 116-47. New York: Dutton.

Foster, Hal. 1983. Postmodernism: A preface. In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays On Postmodern Culture, edited by H. Foster, ix-xvi. Seattle: Bay.

Foster, Hal. 1984. Re: Post. In Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation New York: Museum of Contemporary Art, in association with David Godine Publ., Boston.

Gaggi, Silvico. 1989. Modern/postmodern: A study in twentieth-century arts and ideas. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Gagne, Cole, and Tracy Caras. 1982. Soundpieces: Interviews with American composers. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow.

Greenberg, Clement. 1966. Modernist painting. In The New Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by G. Battcock, 100-110. New York: Dutton.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1983. Modernity - An incomplete project. In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays On Postmodern Culture, edited by H. Foster, 3-15. Seattle: Bay.

Hopkins, Henry T. 1969. Selecting works for the exhibition. In exhibition catalogue Philip Guston. New York: Braziller, in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modem Art.

Huyssen, Andreas. 1986. After the great divide: Modernism, mass culture, postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Krauss, Rosalind. 1983. Sculpture in the expanded field. In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays On Postmodern Culture, edited by H. Foster, 31-42. Seattle: Bay.

Novak, Barbara. 1985. American painting of the nineteenth century: Realism, idealism, and the American experience. New York: Harper & Row.

O'Hara, Frank. 1985. New directions in music: About the early work. In Morton Feldman essays. Edited by W. Zimmerman. Hanover: Frog Peak.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1966. Course in general linguistics. Edited by C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, in collaboration with A. Reidlinger. Translated by W. Baskin. New York: McGraw Hill.

Sontag, Susan. 1968. Preface to Writing degree zero by Roland Barthes. New York: Hill and Wang.

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