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The Auditive Memory and its function in the late works of Morton Feldman

by Bryn Harrison

In the essay Crippled Symmetry, Feldman writes:
The reciprocity inherent in scale ... has made me realise that musical forms and related processes are essentially only methods of arranging material and serve no other function than to aid one's memory. [1]

How do we perceive form in music, and how is this related to our sense of memory? In order to discuss these issues it is necessary first to consider how duration relates to human experience. Mary Warnock writes:
Memory and personal identity are inextricably linked, neither concept being prior to nor separable from the other. The sense of personal identity that each of us has is a sense of continuity through time. [2]

The composer George Rochberg offers us the following comments in his 1960 essay Duration in Music:
We live between memory and anticipation, between the past and the future ... We live in time and through time. We are both of it and immersed in it. The present is therefore more than the moment of physical existence in which we feel pain or joy ... The present is destined to join the vast accumulation of all other lived moments of life ... everything, consciously or unconsciously becomes a part of memory. [3]

He goes on to say that although all our experiences are retained we use our powers of deduction to impose an order of some kind onto our affective memory in order to see meaning in our existence.

It could be considered to be this same reliance on memory and unconscious sense of ordering within the brain that has given rise to the development of form in Western music. As Rochberg states:

The power of return in music serves much more than a purely formal function about which we have heard so much in the past from theorists and aestheticians: ideas of unity in variety, repetition and return ... etc. It does not account for the sheer power of return, nor does it account for the enormous satisfaction gained when the meaning of a work is suddenly crystallised by the arrival at ideas, stated earlier in the work, emerging on a new plane. Return in music has something of the force of the past suddenly illuminating the felt present as a real element in the present. [4]

Whilst composers and listeners alike have intuitively or formally adhered to these traditional methods of construction there have been others who have treated such approaches with suspicion. For Morton Feldman, these methods were simply too primitive. Whilst he accepted that a construction such as A B A form "works beautifully" [5] he felt that such forms had become taken for granted, clichéd and overused:
What Western musical forms have become is a paraphrase of memory. [6]

These observations led Feldman to consider that memory could operate in a different way through a conscious attempt at "formalising a disorientation of memory". [7] However, as Jean-Luc Fafchamps has observed:
... it is not easy to dismantle form. It supposes a profound evaluation of the auditive memory; for the smallest recurrence or the slightest accidental alteration of a leading note will revive our structural expectations, creating an impression of dynamic forethought, short-circuiting that free-fall within the instant crucial to our perception of a music of free association. [8]

Feldman's aesthetic, therefore, had to "avoid any acoustical anecdote likely to orient the auditive memory." [9]

His first major exploration into this technique came in the work Triadic Memories, written in 1981. What Feldman discovered was that, as new material was introduced and successively repeated, he would forget the previous material.

Therefore, whilst memory acts as a point of orientation in most Western music, for Feldman it became a point of disorientation. This teasing quality is enhanced by placing absolute attention on the minutest of details, such as subtly altering the rhythmic framing of a repeated bar or by carefully displacing notes by an octave.

I am interested in music where the variation is so discrete. I would have the same thing come back again, but I would just add one note. [10]

By employing such devices in his compositional methods and by making disorientation one of his main concerns, Feldman intentionally confuses our 'living memory', our sense of auditory retention and protention. In much music this confusion does not occur to such a great extent since less attention is placed on detail. As David Clarke pointed out:
The role of memory in hearing a piece is somewhat like the role of memory in listening to a conversation. To understand present utterances or events, one needs to have a notion of the gist of what went before but need not be able to recall literally all that was said. Usually, one comes away from a conversation with a knowledge of its overall meaning but with little exact recollection of details. [11]

In a piece by Feldman, however, the detail is the material. If we are to see the music in a similar sense to a conversation, then we may turn to the babbled utterances of a Beckett monologue in which each individual word takes on its own existence, where sentences are repeated with only the slightest changes, and where the same thought is constantly repeated but in different ways. As in a large scale work by Feldman, when we reach the end of a Beckett play we feel like we have undertaken an epic journey without really having gone anywhere.

Our appreciation of the work, therefore, is antithetical to the quotation from David Clarke: one comes away from a piece by Feldman or a work by Beckett with a sense of detail that isn't governed by a concern for cohesive meaning. As Christopher Fox has remarked "as in the work of Morton Feldman, at the end of a Beckett play the characters simply lie down again and die of old age." [12] What we are left to speculate on are the intricate fragments of an uncertain design; it is through a conscious attempt at the disorientation of memory that the composer is able to direct the listener towards a more abstract, intangible experience.

1.Morton Feldman, 'Crippled Symmetry', Essays, ed. Walter Zimmerman (Kerpen: Beginner Press, 1985)
2.Mary Warnock, Memory
3.George Rochberg, 'Duration in music', The Aesthetics of Survival
5.Morton Feldman, 'Crippled Symmetry', Essays, ed. Walter Zimmerman (Kerpen: Beginner Press, 1985)
8.Jean-Luc Fafchamps, 'Triadic Memories' (sleeve notes)
10.Morton Feldman, 'Anecdotes and Drawings', Essays, ed. Walter Zimmerman (Kerpen: Beginner Press, 1985)
11.David Clarke, Music, Mind and Structure
12.Christopher Fox, 'Time not passing' (Lecture in Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, 23.11.95)

© Bryn Harrison 1996/1999

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