[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

Morton Feldman's Early Piano Pieces

by Howard Skempton

The following notes were written to accompany the 4CD set of Feldman's solo piano works played by John Tilbury and released as Morton Feldman: All Piano (1950-1986) on the LondonHALL label (do 13).

Morton Feldman's early piano pieces, neglected for a number of years, have poetic and painterly qualities which place them right at the heart of his extensive output. They are utterly transparent and quite without vanity. Predominantly slow and very quiet, they are also rich, subtle and elegant.

For those who know Feldman's music, the reference to slowness and quietness seems both unnecessary and inadequate. There is usually a pulse (of a sort), and one not far from a heartbeat. Where there is sufficient regularity (as in Last Pieces, for example), notes can be left unstemmed, with grace notes brought into play to effect chords which lie beyond the span of two (large) hands, or to serve as refinements. This gentle syncopation can lend the music a sort of jazz "feel", given the added-note character of much of the chordal material. Where the notation takes more conventional form, a regular three-in-a-bar metre is used. This ensures an easy, completely natural flow to the music. There is no need for a time signature. This metre is so familiar that (like an old suit) it becomes invisible. Indeed, in Piano Piece 1952, the bar-lines are dispensed with, leaving the procession of dotted crochets not stranded, but floating free. The impression is one of waltz-like, if unpredictable, circularity.

There are always exceptions. The most notable are the two "graph" pieces, Intersection 2 and Intersection 3. Feldman viewed the graph pieces as "a totally abstract sonic adventure". Numbers within boxes stipulate the number of notes to be played, but there is no indication of precise pitch. The position of the box indicates register (high, middle or low). Dynamics are free; and there is rhythmic freedom within the confines of the box. In practice, given the pace of both pieces, with each box lasting about a third of a second, this rhythmic freedom allows for little more than occasional displacement.

Piano Piece (1964) is also exceptional. It is a grand and spacious piece. Metric and non-metric passages alternate. There are stemless notes alongside notes of precise duration and grace notes of two types (white and black). The piece is marked by imposing silences. The sounds both speak for themselves and articulate the silences. The changing metres lend the score an air of formality, even a semblance of structure. In this respect it seems to anticipate the grid-based concerns of the long pieces of later years.

No composer's works fall neatly into "periods", and Feldman's have a greater consistency of character than most. There are shifts of emphasis, of course, and the contrasts of scale between, say, the lyrical Piano Piece 1955 (a single page) and For Bunita Marcus (1985) is extraordinary. In the final works, Feldman develops his interest in rhythm and form. The early pieces aspire whole-heartedly to the condition of painting. He once said, "The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore." Many of Feldman's friends were painters and there was a strong temperamental affinity: "Music is not painting, but it can learn from this more perceptive temperament that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer's vested interest in his craft".

Philip Guston was, for many years, one of Morton Feldman's closest friends. Piano Piece (to Philip Guston) and Vertical Thoughts 4 both date from 1963 and suggest a loosening-up, a freer use of the medium, a move away from the fragmentation, delicacy, liveliness and linear leanings of the Two Intermissions of 1950 and the Three Pieces of 1954 towards a fuller sound.

A surprising feature of some of the early piano pieces is the use of loud sounds. In Piano Piece 1956B, they point to the possibilities of touch. In Extensions 3, following a distinctive, stratospheric opening and stretches of repeated notes and repeated figures, they can seem almost dramatic. Intermission 5 dates from the same year as Extensions 3 (1952), and is similar in its use of repetition. The ending is notable for its sense of repose.

Morton Feldman's music celebrates pitch and touch. We cherish it for the character of its pitch material and its lightness of touch. This is composing of a high order. Feldman may have written disparagingly of "the composer's vested interest in his craft", but his own craftsmanship was impeccable. It takes precision and care to float the music over the bar-lines; to acknowledge pulse and yet somehow, through rhythm, to transcend it.

© Howard Skempton October 1996

[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]