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Feldman Explains Himself

by Peter Dickinson

The following article was first published in Music and Musicians (July 1966) pp 22-23.

Mystery has surrounded the personality of Morton Feldman, whose importance is close to that of Cage in American new music. Now in his early forties, he is known for a large number of very quiet compositions where the music quivers delicately on the borderline between sound and silence, and for some original types of notation which operate between the player and the notes he plays. Feldman was born in New York, where he has spent most of his life, and as a child was taught to play the piano by Madame Maurina-Press who had known Scriabin and Busoni and who introduced him to their work. Later Feldman studied with Wallingford Riegger and Stephan Wolpe, both 12-tone composers although the former was more permissive than the latter, with whom Feldman came into sharp conflict. He never found any real agreement with his aims until he met Cage in 1950. Ironically, both composers were leaving a New York Philharmonic concert after hearing Webern's Symphony. The work had not been well received, which dismayed them, and they naturally wanted to leave the hall before the next item on the programme, which was by Rachmaninov. From this time onwards Cage and Feldman met almost daily and their circle soon included David Tudor, the outstanding pianist for new music of various persuasions, Christian Wolff and Earl Brown. In this atmosphere composers and painters lived at the frontiers of a new world. Feldman developed his graph notation and Cage was introduced to the ancient Chinese Book of Changes and its charts for obtaining oracles which he used in composing.

Many of the new ideas found their way to Europe under the banner of indeterminacy, and Boulez and Stockhausen were sufficiently impressed to explore these possibilities in their own works. Since that time Feldman and Cage have diverged. The older composer has been involved in demonstrating that anything, under certain conditions, can be regarded as music - a music which is as natural as a landscape or the noise of a city.[1] Feldman is neither so dogmatic nor so extreme. All his work involves conventional instruments, in some cases conventional notation, and he is not tempted to tamper with the audio-visual aspects of musical theatre.

Exactly what Feldman does stand for became clearer during his recent visit to London. He is in Europe for the first time at the start of a year to be spent on a Guggenheim Fellowship and gave a lecture for the American Recorded Music Society on April 29, and a public rehearsal and interview after a recital of his chamber music at the College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea, on May 1. On the first occasion Feldman read three lectures, all written within the last two years, in which he tried, sometimes painfully, to articulate his aesthetic.

Feldman feels that Boulez ends a long tradition of composers whose main interest is in how the music is made. He deplored the so-called attitude of progress and the obsession with systems and justifications. For Feldman the work of Varèse provided an answer. In Ionisation (1931) the music seems to be writing itself, walking a tightrope, and above all the composer is interested in how it sounds. Feldman finds Stockhausen's attitude towards music too all-inclusive. The past is overwhelming and Feldman's own reaction has been to refine or reject those elements which do not correspond to his own vision.

Feldman referred to the old alliance between beauty and logic. In music of the past precise technical means produced indeterminate emotions, but he has felt that the sounds themselves ought to be freed. As Kline found colour an intrusion into his painting so Feldman, in a way which is difficult to explain and which caused some discussion, finds the instruments get in the way of the sounds, robbing them of their immediacy. He does not desire the resources of electronic music, and does not follow Cage's complete emancipation of sound itself, but he recognises that the composer's powers of ordering are limited. The composer may have plans, as he put it, but music others.

In the longest of Feldman's three lectures, 'The Anxiety of Art', he referred to the devastation caused by the revolution in Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. This is easily seen in life but has not always been recognised in art. And it is within this crisis that Feldman has worked. For 10 years he was committed neither to the past nor the future but to sound itself, convinced that the composer's craft, as traditionally understood, was obsolete. He commented on the strange reversal of values by which the new music was considered amateurish and the academic composer regarded as a professional. Feldman's verdict is that everything we use to make art kills it. His humility in renouncing the grandiose is comparable to Webern or Satie[2], and he learns from the painter who is not afflicted with the composer's vested interest in his craft. Feldman approves of self-effacement but not Cage's abolition of himself. On the subject of his own techniques he referred to his involvement with decaying sounds and expressed his method as rearranging the same furniture in the same room. He was reticent about his motivations as a composer, but in spite of occasional confusions he described his own narrow territory somewhere between Cage's desire to regard everything as music and the insistence of others upon justification by system.

Feldman's second appearance was at the College of St Mark and St John, where some chamber works were played by John Tilbury (piano), Paul Collins (violin), and John White (tuba). The piano piece (1963), To Philip Guston, is marked 'extremely soft' and is a procession of rich chords, some held with isolated notes in various registers. The composer uses note heads, not crotchets, to avoid the feel of regular pulse. The chords have resemblances rather than repetitions, with a tendency towards filled-in minor second inversions. Played loudly they might suggest Messiaen, but the grace notes at the extremes of the piano are dropped into a pool of sound which shows that even in 1963 Feldman's early Scriabin studies are not forgotten.

Extensions I for violin and piano (1951) is in a spare post-Webern manner, conventionally notated. Dynamics are f or p, and the violin writing is based on single notes bowed, played pizzicato or as harmonics. In performance the work sounded clean and mechanical, a striking contrast to the sostenuto of the piano piece, and ascetic by comparison with Intersection II, a loud piano piece written in graph notation with opportunities for vicious tone-clusters. Durations III for violin, tuba and piano, with movements slow-very slow-slow-fast, is in what is called racecourse design. The three players start their material together but proceed at their own pace. All are given a score to play from and must be aware of their progress.[3] The first movement was evocative of mists, muted fog-horns, great distances, and the enchantment remained. But the later movements were also slow and quiet and it was not easy for the listener to accept this unless the original hypnosis had lasted.

Feldman rehearsed students of the College in Projection II (1951) for violin, cello, flute, trumpet and piano. The score is written in the form of a graph with space equal to time. (Each player has a copy of this so he can realise his own part and notice the others.) In effect the piece is in bars of four beats, and the players are told when to play, exactly how many notes to use, but their choice of pitches is restricted only by division into high, middle and low. At first Feldman asked for the sound to be 'sourceless' and demanded a perfection of tone once the chosen note had been achieved. He did not object to the players working out their parts in advance but emphasised listening. The pianist was rebuked for playing a close-position minor triad in the middle register, although there are of course no written instructions to the contrary.

It became clear that Feldman is working within common practice stemming from Webern where intervals of the ninth, seventh or tritone dominate, and a suggestion of tonal relations would obviously be out of place. Nevertheless he does use octave doubling (in Extensions I, for example), and any intervals can occur in the ensemble pieces written as graphs or racecourse designs.

The value of the open rehearsal was to bring the audience into direct touch with what the composer wanted and his remarks were most instructive. They showed how limited traditional ideas are in the approach to his music, and how it is possible to be both musical and sensitive in reacting to the notation he has developed.

At both Feldman occasions tapes were played of Out of Last Pieces, for orchestra, and The Swallows of Salangan for large chorus and an ensemble of seven cellos, four flutes, alto flute, five trumpets, two tubas, two vibraphones, and two pianos. The choral work, based on a myth related in Pasternak's autobiography, was very remarkable, with a heavy dense texture trembling on the edge of audibility and finally petering out. A BBC programme of Feldman has been recorded for subsequent transmission and more are planned. Lectures, with performances, are being given by Feldman in various parts of the country. It seems likely that British audiences can look forward to a wider experience of his work.


  1. An arbitrary distinction between noise and music, as offered by John Waterhouse in Music and Musicians last December, is not particularly relevant. The choice of the sounds, or the conditions which govern them, is still made by the composer who also decides on his sources.
  2. Feldman particularly admires Satie's Socrate as a kind of white music, and regrets that the work is more discussed than performed.
  3. See, Perspectives of New Music, Spring-Summer 1965, for an analysis by David Behrman of a recorded performance.

Copyright © 1966 Peter Dickinson

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