[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

Feldman CD Liner Notes

by Peter Niklas Wilson


In Search of Plasticity of Sound
[English translation by Steven Lindberg]
CD: Morton Feldman - Chamber Music, Ensemble Avantgarde (WERGO 286 273-2).

Durations I-V / Coptic Light
[English translation by Susan Marie Praeder]
CD: Morton Feldman: Durations I-V / Coptic Light, Ensemble Avantgarde / Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Michael Morgan (CPO 999 189-2).

In Search of Plasticity of Sound

I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important. What the American painter Franz Kline (1910-62) said about his paintings - brusque, black brush gestures on a white background - can be applied equally to Morton Feldman's compositions. Composition means defining sound space, and this is done just as much with the "black" of the notes as, ex negativo, with the "white" silence, the absence of sound. In its reduction of sound elements, its new balance of sound and not-sound, Feldman's music attains the magical, floating quality that the composer admired in the early - nonfigurative - paintings of his painter-friend Philip Guston (1913-80): the complete absence of gravity of a painting that is not confined to a painting space but rather existing somewhere in the space between the canvas and ourselves, as Feldman once wrote. Again and again, Feldman noted that the illusion of stasis in his scores could only be understood in the context of his intensive engagement with the visual arts: Stasis, as it is utilized in painting, is not traditionally part of the apparatus of music. [...] The degrees of stasis found in a [Mark] Rothko or Guston were perhaps the most significant elements that I brought to my music from painting.

Feldman had long struggled for a conclusive notational codification of this floating, transparent sound space, repeatedly passing through the region between the poles of determinacy and indeterminacy. The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore, said Feldman about the musical ideas to which he was inspired by his first meeting with the new work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston around 1950. The utopian ideal not to "compose" but to project sounds into time led Feldman - even before Cage and Earle Brown - to experiment with graphic notation. But: 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 performer. And since any form of subjective expressionism was diametrically opposed to Feldman's ideal of pure sound presence, he returned to traditional, precise methods of notation - temporarily. But precision did not work for me either. It was too one-dimensional, Feldman soon found out - and he once again clarified it with a metaphor from painting. It was like painting a picture where at some place there is always a horizon. Working precisely, one always had to "generate" the movement - there was still not enough "plasticity" for me. In search of exactly this "plasticity," Feldman worked in the early '60s (beginning with the Durations pieces from 1960/61) largely with techniques that held the decision between determinacy and indeterminacy in suspense, in a sound world whose coordinates are staked out by extremely reduced dynamics, "glassy" timbres (piano, tubular bells, string harmonics), slow tempos and minimal density of events. Thus, unlike the graph pieces, the intervals in the sextet For Franz Kline are precisely determined, though the coordination of the sounds is not: The duration of each sound is chosen by the performer, as it says in the foreword to the score. The orientation points on this floating sound canvas are given by recurring phenomena like an unchanging violoncello arpeggio and the b-f#''' interval that is struck seven times by the piano. If in this piece the uncoordinated simultaneity of sounds is the focus, then in De Kooning (1963) - yet another acoustic homage to a painter - and in Four Instruments (1965), which has similar instrumentation, Feldman is working with the contrast of simultaneous and successive sound events - coordinated chords and loose chains of isolated events. In the case of the latter, a performer is supposed to choose his entrance such that the previous note has not yet faded out: the temporal canvas shouldn't have any rips in it. Feldman's balancing act between determinacy and indeterminacy becomes apparent in the seemingly hairsplitting details of the notation: in De Kooning rhythmically free, unbarred passages containing successions of sounds and simultaneous events are interposed with measures of rests with precise indications of tempo (!) - the white is no less important than the black (to return to Franz Kline) and is more precisely structured than the "application of the paint". In Four Instruments, there are, in addition to these precisely defined empty spaces, held notes of equally precise durations. The fact that Feldman notates the highest tone of the piano, though its function is for long stretches tonally identical, sometimes as d#'' and sometimes as e flat'' can be taken as another indication that Feldman views his scores as artifacts with specific, often amusingly paradoxical, qualities, which are never fully exploited by their realization in sound.

And if the human voice in For Franz Kline is present only in the form of (no more closely specified) soprano vocalise, then in the O'Hara Songs (1962) it is the bearer of the poem Wind by the poet of whom Feldman said: ... it may be Frank O'Hara's poems that survive when all we now consider "epic" is shot full of holes, nothing remaining of it but its propaganda. Strictly speaking, they are not three songs, but rather three perspectives of one setting of a poem; perspectives that Feldman defines by means of the varied instrumentation (the first song is accompanied by violin and violoncello, the second by piano and a singular tubular bell in g', while in the third the voice is contrasted with the viola alone). Though the middle, briefest song sets only the first line of Wind (patterned as a falling series of six notes repeated five times), each of the two songs that frame it offers the complete text and a song melody that is in essence the same. Feldman only violates the melodic identity in that in the third song he shifts the first part of the melody a half tone downward, and in the final part a half tone upward, while the middle part remains the same. As in For Franz Kline, Feldman leaves decisions about the duration (and hence the coordination) of sounds up to the performers, though in this case he does specify outside limits of 66 and 84 as metronome settings. In Piano Piece (to Philip Guston) (1963), the tempo limits are similarly fixed (between MM 66 and 88), though the numerous fermatas serve to obscure them again. This miniature work for piano serves to remind us that throughout this series of ensemble pieces Morton Feldman's tonal aesthetic is pianistic at heart. When Feldman wrote for other instruments, he gave them the colorings of, as it were, imaginary piano sounds, always retaining their relative rigidity and purity in his ear, rigorously excluding the conventional clichés of movement and expressivity of strings, winds, or percussion: no cantilenas in the strings, no flute arabesques or oboe pastorals, no trumpet fanfares or thundering percussion.

In For Frank O'Hara (1973) Feldman returned to traditional, metrically concrete notation (which he then proceeded in his late works to undermine with many notational paradoxes). In other dimensions, too, (neo-)traditional characteristics are operating: for example, the rudiments of a restitution of melody in the flute part, the play with symmetrical interval constructions (most of which are not, however, very strongly present), and not least the hints of drama, or even a program, in the fff rolls of two tenor drums that so suddenly explode the dynamic framework in the last third of the piece, just as Frank O'Hara's life was ended by a bizarre accident in the summer of 1966.

Durations I-V / Coptic Light

Durations I-V (1960-61)

The titles of Morton Feldman's compositions are simple but have special meanings behind them. Duration is indeed the topic of the Durations, but what is meant here is not the composition of time values but the removal of the tone lengths from the composer's controlling grasp. Feldman composed the five pieces forming his Durations between February 1960 and May 1961. In his short introduction to Durations II, the first piece of the five pieces in chronological order of composition, he defined the character of the entire work group: the first sound emitted by the two instruments was to be simultaneous, the instrumentalists were to determine the duration of each tone, the pulse was to be slow, all the tones were to be executed with a minimum of attack, and the dynamics were to be very quiet. He regarded Durations as marking his attainment to more of a complex style in which each instrument lives out its own individual life in its own individual sound world. This is not the sort of complexity, however, that produces a riddling or indecipherable score. To the contrary, the scores of the Durations, with their economical and uncoordinated tone points without set rhythm and meter, seem to be at the same time extraordinarily simple and strikingly similar. Both impressions are misleading. The actual complexity of the coordinated sound effort is a consequence of "playing rules" allowing each instrumentalist to chose her or his own tempo. This means that the harmony and rhythm of the pieces cannot be precisely defined and are never the same in any two performances: ensemble music as mobile. As in many other of his compositions from the 1960s, Feldman, the master of reduction, resorted to what was for him a practicable compromise between traditional precise notation (which he found, after a number of attempts, to be too one-dimensional) and the opennes of "graph notation". He himself complained that graph notation, a system of his own invention with which he had worked on a number of occasions, not only freed the sounds but also left too much up to the subjective expressive will of the instrumentalists. The impression of visual similarity created by the five Durations scores is just as misleading as the seeming simplicity of the notation. The very specific tone-color palette in each piece is one factor in the real diversity and variety within the framework of self-imposed limits. It is to this factor that we owe such delightful and eccentric ensembles as the violin, tuba and piano trio in Durations III or the violin, violoncello, and vibraphone trio in Durations IV and the very distinctive sextet or septet (the pianist also plays the celesta) in Durations V. Feldman's approach to these different timbre constellations is also very nuanced. In Durations I, as he himself stated, the quality of the ensemble of the specific instruments suggests a kaleidoscope of sounds. In order to attain this, he wrote each part separately, selecting intervals that seem to blot or rub out each tone as soon as we hear the next. The weight of the instrument in the Durations with the tuba led him to employ it as a unit. He wrote all the sounds simultaneously because he knew that no instrument would ever be all that much ahead of or behind the other. In Durations IV he sees a combination of the two. Here he exercised greater precision by indicating metronome markings. In addition, he allowed the instruments more freedom with respect to their own individual colors. It is only in Durations IV that one finds nuanced playing instructions such as "ponticello" or "vibrato". This piece also stands out from the rest of the Durations series in its progression from short lengths at the beginning (here Feldman notates, by way of exception, sixteenths and eighths for the vibraphone) to quiet held tones at the conclusion. It is thus more processual than static. Feldman also works with the repetition factor in different ways in these pieces. Tone repetitions and repeated two-tone units occur at various places in the Durations I score. The third movement of Durations III begins with repeated F sharp-G-A flat clusters in the three instrumental parts. The clusters are spread out over extreme ranges and submitted to changing registration. Other pitch levels only gradually join these tones before a short tuba solo leads to the conclusion. Durations III stands out from the other pieces not only for its more than one movement but also for the explicit indication of tempo so atypical of Feldman ("fast") in the last of these miniatures. Its series of movements may be an ironic allusion to the tradition, and the rather ungentle relegation of the tuba to its role as an instrumental foundation may be seen as the same. Its only tone in the whole movement is a contra A.

Coptic Light (1985)

The first measures of Coptic Light, Feldman's last work for large orchestra, create a completely different impression than the transparency of the Durations and the general reduction in his late chamber oeuvre and something of a shock as well. The polytonal and polyrhythmic fullness intoned simultaneously by all the rich instrumental forces of the orchestra (fourfold woodwinds and brass instruments, four vibraphones or marimbaphones, two harps, and two pianos) almost seems chaotic. It is only in the course of the numerous, subtly varied repetitions of the finely structured pattern that the fog clears, and that the patterns take on clear contours. This commissioned work for the New York Philharmonic is almost half an hour in length - which makes it relatively short for Feldman's late work. Paradoxically enough, the composer regarded this as justification for the density of his textures. He was of the opinion that the longer the piece, the less material was necessary for it. His Crippled Symmetry for flute, percussion, and piano of 1983 was one such long work; it is ninety minutes in length but operates with a mere four tones. Although Coptic Light is relatively short, it works with the complete twelve-tone chromatic total right from the very first measure. On a closer hearing and reading of the gigantic score, however, it soon becomes clear that the chromatic total in Coptic Light follows a very carefully formulated plan. The roles of the four representatives of each instrumental subensemble (e.g., four flutes or the four high string groups) are initially organised in such a way that two members of each group have the same tones but play them in the inversion of the motion direction and with rhythmic staggering. The microstructures in these double pairs produce a wonderfully shimmering weave (all the orchestral groups are in action throughout the whole piece!). This is not to say that this weave is without its characteristic "primary colors": fifths and ninths and their complementary intervals, namely fourths and sevenths. The A-E fifth not only makes itself abundantly heard in the violins and flutes (identical in intervals, staggered in rhythm) at the beginning of the composition but also plays an important role toward the end - a recapitulation effect of a surprisingly traditional quality. If the fullness of the motion patterns may be said to produce a brilliant shimmering of tone colors at the beginning, then the musical process gradually goes on to calm down to the superposition of what are mostly quieter sound cells or chords. The conclusion, with its pointed wind contractions, brings sharper contours into play.

If here we have spoken of Feldman's orchestral music not in the traditional language of motifs, chords and rhythms but rather with textural and coloristic terms, then this has a solid basis in his musical thought. He was a composer whose thought was influenced by visual impressions, who owed important compositional ideas to painting and to the carpet patterns of Turkish nomads. In his introduction to the score of Coptic Light, Feldman traced the title of the work back to his keen interest in rare textiles of the Middle East. Just prior to its composition he had seen impressive examples of early Coptic textiles in the permanent exhibition at the Louvre. What interested him in those fragments of cloth was how they conveyed an atmosphere very much a part of their civilization. When he transferred these thoughts to another field, namely that of music, he spent some time thinking about what aspects of music since Monteverdi might speak for the atmosphere in which they had arisen if one were to hear them two thousand years from now. For him the analogy would have involved one of the instrumental symbol systems of Western music. These were some of the metaphors with which he occupied himself while composing Coptic Light. Another important source of inspiration for the composition of Feldman's unique weave of instrumental patterns, his fascinating dramaturgy of instrumental light and color effects, may be traced back to an analogy that at first glance seems to be music-immanent but then takes us back to the terminology of the light effects of the fine arts. Feldman regarded Sibelius' observation that the main difference between the orchestra and the piano is that the former does not have a pedal as the source for an important technical aspect of the composition. Feldman set out to create an orchestral pedal, a pedal changing constantly amid fine nuances. He viewed this "chiaroscuro" as the compositional and instrumental focus of his Coptic Light.
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