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The Sounds of the Sounds Themselves:
Analyzing the Early Music of Morton Feldman

by Catherine Costello Hirata

This essay was originally published in Perspectives of New Music, Vol 34 No 1 (Winter 1996).

I wonder what they would say if they were here.(1) If Feldman were here. If his fans were here. (I expect some of you are here.) What would they be talking about? What would they want to talk about, with a music analyst? I imagined. They were going on about how Feldman's music sounds. About how beautiful it sounds. About the sounds sounding beautiful - sonically beautiful.(2) I was a bit bewildered. And they were still going on. About how Feldman's music is about sound, rather than construction (according to Feldman).(3) About Feldman's desire for sounds "more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that existed heretofore."(4) About "the sounds themselves." Ah, yes. "The sounds themselves." It was a fantastic idea. That if the composer were careful, careful about how he or she put the sounds into the composition, we might hear those sounds just as we would hear them if they were not in the composition.(5) We might hear, in other words, "the sounds themselves." If the composer were careful, as Feldman once put it, to "free" those sounds from "compositional rhetoric."(6) Yes, it did take care - to create such a strange effect. Or, as Feldman described it, such a "mysterious" effect "whereby each sound as if almost erases in one's memory what happened before," whereby the listener is "very fresh into the moment and does not relate it."(7)

I entered into the conversation. "Yes, it was a fantastic idea. But of course we never really hear 'the sounds themselves,'" I pointed out. "We never really hear a sound in a composition just as we hear it out of the composition. 'What happened before' is never really erased from memory." Can you imagine if it were? Can you imagine, for example, hearing the succession of chords that makes up the first movement of Feldman's Last Pieces for piano in this way (opening, given as Example 1)?(8) Each chord's sounding just as it would, had we never heard the chord before it, nor the chord before that, and so on. Each chord's sounding, in other words, just as it sounds when heard on its own. Sounding as thin - or if I may borrow from J. K. Randall, as "skinnythin"-as it sounds when heard on its own.(9) No chord "thickened" by the chord before it, nor the chord before that, and so on. As if the chord before it, and the chord before that, simply never were.

Slow. Soft. Durations are free
Example 1
© 1963 by C F Peters Corporation.
Reproduced on behalf of the Publishers by kind permission of Peters Edition Limited, London.

I was overdoing it. Trying to make look silly anyone who thought we could actually hear "the sounds themselves." I was nervous. For can you imagine, if I were called upon to speak to an experience in which what happened before was really erased from memory? Supposing, for example, I were called upon to speak to the sound of the second F2 in the first movement of Last Pieces. What would I say? What could I say? I suppose I might find a word or two. That F2 does have a particular timbre, after all. But still. Can you imagine just not being able to relate that F, not to the chord before it, nor to any of the chords after it, because those relations were just not part of your experience? Because you'd be hearing that F just as you hear it on its own? I'd be stuck - with just whatever it is that we have on the sound of F2 on the piano, which as far as I know is not much.

Yes, I wanted to introduce the fact that "what happened before" cannot possibly be erased from memory into the conversation fast. So that when I was called upon to speak to the sound of that F, I could speak, as analysts always do, to how that F sounds in context.(10)

I began by looking to the first chord. Looking first to the first chord's C#3, since, of all of the pitches in the first chord, it's closest to the F. I said something about the interval between the C#3 and the F2, about the different ways of naming it: perhaps as an 8, perhaps as a 4, or perhaps in some other way. After looking to the C#3, I looked to the other pitches of the first chord, and to the distances between them and the F2. And I also gave some attention to the intervals between the notes of the first chord itself. Comparing all of these intervals, I then pointed out that two of them are related in a rather special way: I explained that the interval of a 5, between the G4 and C5 of the first chord, and the interval of a 31 between that C5 and the F2, belong to the same interval class (both are interval class 5s; I've indicated the similarity in Example 2). And I tried to make something of this similarity: I interpreted it as giving a certain "edge" or "force" to the interval between the first chord's C and the F, in the sense that this interval somehow continues an interval already present in the first chord, from the G to the C. And having so interpreted this interval between the C and the F as having such a "force," I also tried to make something of the fact that this is not the smallest interval between the first chord and the F (the smallest interval, obviously, is from the C# to the F). I suggested a kind of "conflict" or "tension" between the two intervals. I even took the leap of positing a voice-leading tension, between the sense that the C# moves to the F and the sense that the C moves to the F.

Example 2


And I was just about to turn to the chord which follows the F - where I would find another intervallic similarity, which when considered alongside the one just mentioned, might really make the beginnings of a little story about this F - when someone interrupted. When someone said, "Yes, but you're relating the F." And I responded "But of course. Didn't I already establish that the F doesn't sound just as it does heard on its own? That the first chord isn't really erased from memory? I'm speaking to how the F sounds in context." And she replied, "I wasn't suggesting that the F does sound just as it does heard on its own. Of course it sounds as it sounds in context. But was that, all that talk of the intervals between the F and the first chord, supposed to be a description of how the F sounds in context?" And before I could again mutter, "but of course," she elaborated a little. She said, "That wasn't about how the F sounds in context, that was about the sound of the F and the context." And she insisted: "Speak to me about how the F - how just the F - sounds in context."

"She wants me to speak to how the F sounds in context, but she doesn't want me to speak about the context?" I became confused, flustered. And so did a few others. But not her. She was tenacious. "Why do you so insist on talking about what you hear between the first chord and the F?" she asked. She even challenged me. "Do you know how the F sounds in context?" And I said, "That's what I was trying to explain to you. If you want to know about how the F sounds in context, you have to take a look at the context." But still she insisted that I was explaining the sound of the F and the context. I found it so strange. It was almost as if she envisioned that I could extract that F from its context, yet - miraculously - it still would be sounding as it sounds in context.

In the hopes of reasoning with her, I suggested that we consider another sound: the G5 in Feldman's Intermission 6 for one or two pianos.(11) Since this is a piece in which the performer(s) is given a number of sounds - some of them single notes, others chords - which she is free to order herself, I thought it might serve as a good example of the (obvious) fact that the way in which a sound sounds in context depends upon just what that context is.(12) I went to the piano and played the beginnings of two different renditions of Intermission 6 (Given as Examples 3a and 3b), demonstrating how, if the G falls here, it sounds one way, and if it falls here, it sounds another way. But as I was demonstrating, I found myself slipping into thought. And I found myself playing what I had just played again - saying what I had just said again. Here the G sounds one way, here the G sounds another way. The Gs sound different. And as I was repeating myself, I found myself wanting to play and listen to the sound of yet another G: G, as it sounds, heard on its own.

Example 3a Example 3b
© 1963 by C F Peters Corporation.
Reproduced on behalf of the Publishers by kind permission of Peters Edition Limited, London.

I was beginning to get a strange feeling. A feeling of . . . I wasn't sure any more. Was I perhaps hearing how the Gs, how just the Gs sound in context? ("Speak to me about how the F sounds in context," she said. "About what you hear, not between the first chord and the F, but in just the F.") But I resisted this strange feeling. And feigning confidence, I said, simply, "See. The Gs sound different." And she whispered. "Yes, different. But not only different. Special." I agreed. "But of course special. After all there's music in these Gs (at least some music). We wouldn't expect these Gs to sound like ordinary Gs - like just what you get by depressing the G key on the piano." And smiling, she said: "Yes, of course there's music in these Gs. That's what I was trying to get you to speak to - about what all those relations between the first chord and that F do for the sound of the F, about what you hear in the F - not about what they do for the sound of the first chord and the F." And elaborating, she said, "That's how the relations function when they're not doing the usual compositional rhetoric job, when they're not providing the usual patterns and progressions for which we make the effort of taking in sounds together. The relations assure that there's something to be heard - some "music" to be heard - taking the sounds in one at a time. The relations enrich the individual sounds - just like Feldman's piano teacher, Madame Press, enriched individual sounds." She then proceeded to relate to me the story of Madame Press's "touch." (In Feldman's words): "The way that she would put her finger down, in a Russian way of just the finger. The liveliness of the finger. And produce a 'b' flat. And you wanted to faint."(13)

Could Madame Press give us a way to think about our F? Could this be how the F sounds in context? As if, not just anyone played it, but Madame Press played it? I was beginning to sense a new meaning in that expression "the sounds themselves." No, not an issue of that F's sounding in the composition just as it would if it were not in the composition, not an issue of its sounding just as it would on its own. Rather an issue, just, of that F's having a sound all on its own - even after it is in the composition.(14) Of its having a certain integrity. Of being able to focus on the F - in such a way that everything going on between the first chord and the F is somehow projected onto the F, is experienced as part of the sound of the F. And with such a focus, hearing in that F, not a bunch of intervals - you can't hear an interval in a single sound - rather some special quality. As if that tension between the force of the interval from the C# to the F, and the force of the interval from the C to the F somehow infuses the sound of the F. "Yes, it does sound as if Madame Press were playing it," I thought. That's what the context does for the F - confers upon it some special quality, transforms it, from the sound of an ordinary F to a sound which, like Madame Press's Bb, is expressive. A sound which, like Madame Press's Bb, has a special "touch."(15)

* * *

It's one of those music-to-music metaphors, where an effect known in association with one musical situation is attributed to another musical situation (like when a consonant chord is heard as passing).(16) Only here the two situations belong to different musical domains: one is the situation of a performer, of Madame Press infusing a single note with a certain touch, with a certain richness, by way of the "liveliness" of her finger. The other is the situation of a composer: of Feldman's infusing a single sound with a certain touch, a certain richness, by way of the context in which he embeds that sound, by way of the relations between that sound and the sounds of its context.

* * *

Could each of the entire succession of sounds that makes up the first movement of Last Pieces have a special "touch"? That is, could we decide to regard each of the sounds in this way - as having a special sound, more than it could by itself, yet that seems to belong to it, like a "touch," even though it must come from its relations with other sounds? Was this the idea? That a composer might put sounds together, one after another in succession, yet not much be interested in how they sound together? That succession might be the means largely - or even, only - of conferring qualities on each of the individual elements of the succession?(17) So that everything normally experienced as relations between sounds is experienced as qualities of each of the individual sounds, as qualities inherent in those sounds, just as is inherent each of those sound's timbres? So that we might experience such a sound "very fresh into the moment and without relating it" yet still be moved?

* * *

"Each sound as if almost erases in one's memory what happened before": That was how Feldman described it. As if almost erasing from memory. Yes, exactly what happens to each sound after we hear it is a hard question. Exactly what we do with each sound after we hear it is a hard question. For what must characterize an experience of such discontinuity, an experience in which everything between the sounds gets projected onto each of the individual sounds, must be the sensation of each sound's, after we hear it, becoming strikingly absent. The sensation of its not being with us. The sensation of our having somehow let go of it. Yet each sound, after we hear it, must be with us - somehow. Almost as if it's there, but somehow we can't access it.(18) Or almost as if not the sound is with us, but something left over from that sound is with us.(19) Perhaps a "remnant."(20) Or an impression. An impression which, just like those in everyday life, might leave us in a particular "frame of mind," thereby influencing the way the next sound seems to us.(21) Could that be it? Can we imagine that that first chord might leave us in a particular "frame of mind" such that when the F comes along it just seems special? It seems as if infused with some special quality, just as Madame Press's Bb is infused with such a quality. Indeed, a quality so infused, that we might even be deluded into thinking that what we're hearing is just the sound F has, heard on its own.(22) (Have you ever had that experience listening to early Feldman? Where you'd swear that what you're hearing is the sounds as they sound heard on their own; yet what's so disorienting is that you are so moved? That you find yourself in the position of Feldman listening to Madame Press's Bb?)

* * *

Do we know what it's like to let a sound go?(23) Do we know what it is like to sense a sound moving through what Feldman once described as "The Departing Landscape"? "The Departing Landscape." "This expresses where the sound exists in our hearing," he said, "leaving us rather than coming towards us."(24) It's a different way of listening, I think. Of letting a sound go such that an impression might be left - rather than holding onto a sound in order to "track" its relations with the following sounds.(25) Rather than holding on for some story.

* * *

"Speak to me about how the F sounds in context," she said. And, assuming the sideways gaze of familiar analytic methodologies, I began to speak to the passage including the first chord and the F. Assuming a division of attention between the first chord and the F, assuming that only with my attention so divided would I begin to sense the "music" in the first chord and the F, would I begin to sense the beginnings of a musical shape that stretches across the first chord and the F - and of course, beyond. But if our attention is not so divided, if in these sounds "free of compositional rhetoric" we begin to sense music, not stretched across sounds, but very much adhering within individual sounds, if it is these individual sounds that becomes the locus of the music's expressivity . . . . Can we still adopt that sideways gaze in the name of understanding the music in each of these individual sounds, in the name of understanding each individual sound's particular "touch"? It would be an unfamiliar way of using the relations between sounds.

* * *

Let me illustrate with some sounds in the third movement of Last Pieces (opening given as Example 4). Consider, for example, chord 12, that E3-G5 dyad. That's not a chord about which we could find much to say, if heard out of context. A widely spaced consonance, sitting quite squarely in the middle of the piano. But in context, this chord begins to acquire character. Consider even how it sounds in the context of the previous A1-B3 dyad. It's the spacing of the two dyads which is rather peculiar: the fact that the distance from the one dyad's upper pitch, B3, to the other dyad's lower pitch, E3, is that much smaller than the other distances - that is, between the A1 and the E3, or the B3 and the G5. It's almost as if this spacing effects a behind-the-scenes voice-leading situation: almost as if the B3 goes to the E3, and the G5 just comes in from elsewhere, like the entrance of a new "voice" (as I've indicated in Example 5a). Thus, even this much context can create a subtle change in our sense of the space between the E and the G. The G now seems somehow less tied down to the E, as if it's floating up there. It's an effect which is intensified when the E-G dyad is heard in more of its context. For analysis suggests that the interval from the B to the E gains strength, not only from of its relatively small size, but also from its adding one more to a pile of interval-class 5s which has been accumulating throughout the immediately preceding chords (diagrammed in Example 5b). At the bottom of the pile is the interval between the Ab2 of chord 8 and the Db2 of chord 9 - an interval which, as the foundation for the pile, gains some support from the other interval-class 5 in chords 8 and 9: namely, that between the F4 and Bb3. In the middle of the pile is the interval between the Db2 of chord 9 and the octave Gbs of chord 10, as well as the interval between those octave Gbs and the B3 of chord 11. And at the same time the context works to reinforce the continuity between chord 11's B and chord 12's E, it also reinforces the discontinuity between chord 11 and chord 12's G. For not only does this G (obviously) not add to the pile of interval class 5s, it also does not add to the other pile which has been accumulating during the immediately preceding chords: namely that of interval-class 4s. This pile - also diagrammed in Example 5b - forms from the turning over of pitch classes Db/C#, F, and A: C#6 in chord 7, F4 in chord 8, A4 and Db2 in chord 9, Db3 and F3 in chord 10, and A1 in chord 11. Thus that behind-the-scenes voice-leading effect - of the B going to the E and the G coming in from elsewhere - is reinforced by the intervallic context in which is heard the succession of chords 11 to 12. Perhaps I should stress "behind-the-scenes": I do not mean to suggest that we actually hear the B going to the E; just that these pitch relations might give rise to what we do hear: namely, that chord 12 comes along, or more precisely, the G5 of chord 12 comes along, with a peculiar shine to it. Maybe even a sense, not only of the space opening up between the E and G, but of that G5's somehow carving its own space. And, then, having carved that space, staying there for a while. Sitting in that space for the next few chords (that is, chords 13 and 14).

Very slow. Soft. Durations are free
Example 4a

Example 4b
© 1963 by C F Peters Corporation.
Reproduced on behalf of the Publishers by kind permission of Peters Edition Limited, London.

a) Behind-the-scenes voice leading b) Interval class 4s and 5s
Example 5a Example 5b

And then in chord 15, up to the G an octave higher. And then chord 16 comes along, with the lower D5. Yet, this D5 also seeming to float - above the G#2. Again, I think it's the workings of behind-the-scenes voice leading. Only this time it's not a matter of that D5 seeming like the entrance of a new voice, rather a matter of its seeming to "come from" a pitch in a different register, namely, the D#3 of the previous chord. In other words, a sense that that D#3 goes to the D5; and that the D5 is a two-octave displacement (see Example 6). Thus, like the G5 of chord 12, this D5 also is somehow shining. The D5 seems to come from the D#3, perhaps in part because the D#3 itself seems to come from the preceding Gb3 (that is, of chord 14); and this Gb3 itself seems to come from the E3 of chord 12. In other words, almost as if woven through these chords were the beginnings of a little tenor "melody" - extending from E3 to, not D3, but D5. A melody which gets its start ever so secretly, with the move from the E3 to the Gb3 (chords 12 to 14) shadowed by chord 13's Ab2. Shadowed, that is, by a pitch which then seems as if pulled along in the move from the E3 to the Gb3: the Ab2 moving in parallel, up two semitones to chord 14's A#2. And as chord 12's E3 moves up two semitones, chord 12's G5 is joined by a pitch down two (plus an octave). That is, G5 is joined by F4. Perhaps even some small sense of, on the one hand, G joined by F, and on the other hand, E going - in a roundabout way - to D. In other words, as if G's being joined by F helps to pull E to D. And that first move of the tenor "melody" from E3 to Gb3 (chords 12 to 14) shadowed by the same pitch which shadows the move from chord 15's D#3 to chord 16's D5 - though in this latter instance, this pitch (now spelled G#2) sneaks in simultaneously with D5 (in chord 16), whereas earlier (when it was spelled Ab2 in chord 13), it sneaked in before the Gb3. All this: barely there, just enough to assure that when chord 16's D5 comes along, it's got that shine to it. But also sounding a little different than the G5 of chord 12. A different sense of space. Almost as if a small bell were ringing, suspended above the G#2 - which itself seems suspended.

Example 6


* * *

It's fun to go behind the scenes, fun to uncover the inner workings of the music. But I also worry about it a little. I worry that everything behind the scenes might gradually drift in front of the scenes, that everything in the position of providing some explanation for the objects of our perception, will actually become the objects of our perception. That's a concern which others have voiced.(26) In this particular case, it's a worry about continuity, about forever pushing our listening experience one more notch in that direction, about forever stretching our ears between the sounds - instead of savoring the moment of each individual sound. And then there is the ease with which we can point to the relations - leaving aside, for the moment, the problem of the sheer number of them. Too easy to think that if we know the relations behind the "touch" of an individual sound, we know the "touch." Or to think that, by way of these relations, we can communicate that "touch" - by asking the listener to do the trick of paying attention to a relation between some sounds, without actually having one's ears straddled between those sounds. Even if the "touch" of an individual sound can to a certain extent be communicated in this way, does it not remain an issue as to why we would choose to communicate it this way? It's not only an issue of ineffability, I think. It's also an issue of intimacy. Of the desire - and fear - to know a sound this closely.(27) Of the meaning of nearing - if I may borrow a phrase of Boretz - "absolute music-ontological bedrock."(28)

* * *

The "touch" of that F; the sound of that F: there's a distinction - or at least we could draw one. "Touch," as I've been trying to use it - although perhaps I have not been entirely consistent - is meant to refer to the qualities that are conferred on that F by its context. But of course that F also has qualities all on its own - qualities for which we're indebted to none but the tradition of great piano making. Hence, its seeming useful to keep around the image of Madame Press playing the F. To ask of how the F sounds in context, thus, is to ask of the combination - of the qualities that the F has all on its own (that is, just what anyone gets by depressing an F key on the piano) and the qualities that are conferred on the F by its context. I'm being fussy, I know. But Feldman forces it on you. Indeed I think it's precisely herein that his genius lies. This is what he had such an ear for: what would happen when those qualities were combined. The magic of the combination.

And so perhaps we should not too quickly shy away from just what anyone gets by depressing the F2 key on the piano. Its rumbling, yet still somewhat focused, timbre. (Not like the more diffuse roar of, say, the F an octave lower). Is this not perhaps just the "right" rumble for the qualities conferred on that F by way of its relations with the first chord, by way of that "tension" between the interval from the C# to the F, and the interval from the C to the F? Is it not almost as if, so enriched, that F rumbles a little more? Almost as if Madame Press were playing it with the most subtle vibrato?

Or consider, as one final example, the F#1-A3 dyad that occurs around the middle of the third movement of Last Pieces (Example 7). It's chord number 25. That's a sound which, even when heard on its own, seems distinctive. The resonance of the low F# as if enveloping the sound of the A3. And quite clearly it's a sound with which Feldman knew how to work. Again the peculiar spacing of this dyad and the immediately preceding dyad, B3-G#5. Here as if the B3 goes to the A3, and thus as if the F#1 comes in - somehow - from below (Example 7a). Almost as if, even in just this context, the A3 begins to nest in the sound of the F#1. Yes, a warmth and softness to the sound. Perhaps enhanced by the fact that the B3 seems to slip to that A3, slipping back to A3 after only having just left an A3, in chord 22. In other words, as if the beginnings of another tenor "melody"; and the first repeated pitch of the passage (as shown in Example 7b). The warmth and softness perhaps also enhanced by the fact that, by inverting the preceding dyad, B3-G#5, the F#1-A3 dyad also completes a larger inversion: namely, of the pair of dyads that precede that four-note chord: chords 21 and 22, Bb1-G4, and A3-C6. As is indicated in Example 7c, this pair of dyads is inverted through the center of inversion around which the pitch classes of that four-note chord invert themselves. But also another pattern of inversion running through this passage (indicated in Example 7d): the interval from chord 21's Bb1 to chord 23's Db2 mirrored by the interval from chord 22's A3 to chord 23's Gb3. And the mirror continuing into chord 24 - though displaced up two octaves. That is, Gb3 up two octaves, plus two semitones, to G#5; and Db, up two octaves, minus two semitones, to B3. Thus some sense of dropping back, in chord 25, to A3, plus, not Bb1, but the even lower F#1. Perhaps this pattern of inversion embellishing the other pattern just enough to assure that that F#1 does not seem too placed. Just enough to assure a "bed" of sound into which can be slipped that A3.

a) b)
Example 7a Example 7b
c) d)
Example 7c Example 7d

* * *

To imagine Madame Press playing that F. Again, it's to use the "touch" of Madame Press as a metaphor - to compare the richness she can confer on her Bb, with the richness conferred on that F by way of its context. But what if we were to rescue Madame Press from her metaphorical status, to imagine, not only that she is playing that F metaphorically, but that she is really playing it? To imagine, in other words, that on top of the "touch" conferred on that F by way of its context, there was another "touch," the "touch" of a performer? What's interesting is that Feldman seemed not to want Madame Press to really play that F. He seemed not to want that the "touch" conferred on a sound by way of its context would be compounded by the "touch" of a performer. At least, this is how I interpret his so frequently instructing performers, especially in his early music, to play "very soft" "with a minimum of attack" and "without vibrato." It was as if he didn't want their touch to get in the way of his "touch." As if he were appropriating the performer's touch for himself - his controlling, by way of the context in which he embeds a sound, its precise timbre, volume, attack, vibrato, and so on.

* * *

"A mysterious effect," Feldman said. There is a lot of mystery. When relations like intervals seem to be what you're hearing about as much as the magician's secret doors seem to be what you're seeing. When relations like intervals seem so much to miss the point. What's been unusual about this paper, perhaps, is my not working much at revealing those secret doors. There's not been much of how Feldman does it. I don't want to know quite yet. The magic itself: first, I need to assure that it is not missed.

To some of you it may seem that I've worked too hard at this, that I've belabored describing an experience that you've known for so long. But I knew this experience too. The trouble came in getting at it. Getting at it in the way that you do when you find a word - a metaphor - that speaks to it.(29) To conceive of a sound as having a "touch": it's given me a way of acknowledging that strange effect - when an individual sound has a special sound, that must come from its relations with other sounds, yet that seems to belong to it, that seems inherent in it, just as is inherent its timbre. A way of acknowledging that there is something there to be heard in those individual sounds, something to which we're responding.

John Cage spoke of "tenderness" in Feldman's music.(30) I often think of this. Of how right this word seems. Of course, there is a lot in "tenderness": delicacy, softness, sensitivity, gentleness. Is this not what we feel when "the music" does not stretch across the sounds of a composition, does not thereby pull those sounds together into compositional rhetoric, but instead gels within each individual sound of the composition? When "the music" adheres to each of those sounds - rather than making the sounds adhere to one another? When "the music" can transform even so simple a sound as an F2 on the piano, into a sound, which like Madame Press's Bb, is expressive?(31)

1.This is an annotated and slightly revised version of a text read at the 1995 joint convention of the Society for Music Theory, the American Musicological Society, and the Center for Black Music Research in New York. My intent was not only to present an analysis of some of Feldman's early music, but to communicate something of what my search for an appropriate analytic method had been like. It was partly for the purpose of such communication, as well as in deference to the oral mode of presentation, that I found myself adopting such a nonacademic tone. By choosing not to alter this tone here, I hope to capture some of the atmosphere of the original oral presentation.
2. Such strange emphasis on the sound of Feldman's music permeates virtually the entire discourse about it. This attribution of, not just any beauty, but a "sonic" beauty, to the sounds, or more precisely, to "the sounds themselves," is all the more striking for its occurring in the writing of one of the most meticulous of critics, Benjamin Boretz. See his review of Durations 4 (1961) in "Music Unbound: John Cage and Others," in Music Columns from The Nation: 1962-1968 by Benjamin Boretz, ed. Elaine Barkin (New York: Open Space, 1991), 4.
3. Feldman, "Predeterminate/Indeterminate," in Morton Feldman Essays, ed. Walter Zimmermann (Cologne: Beginner Press, 1985), 47-49. (All of Feldman's essays subsequently referred to are drawn from this volume, unless otherwise noted). Feldman was also fond of the distinction between surface and construction, which he elaborates in "Between Categories," Contemporary Music Review 2 (1988): 4. (Originally published as "Mellan kategorierna," in Nutida Musik 12/4, (1968-69): 25-27. First English translation in The Composer 1/2 (1969): 73-77).
4. "Autobiography," 38.
5. This idea of "the sounds themselves" is of course associated not only with the music of Feldman, but especially with that of John Cage. Cage, borrowing an image of Henry Cowell, wrote of getting "rid of the glue so that sounds would be themselves." See "History of Experimental Music in the United States," in Silence (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 71. Feldman spoke of "'unfixing' the elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music" so that the sounds could "exist in themselves - not as symbols, or memories, which were memories of other music to begin with." See "Predeterminate/Indeterminate," 49. But I should point out that, though when invoked in reference to the music of Cage and Feldman, "the sounds themselves" usually seems to refer to this idea of hearing sounds in a composition just as we would hear them were they not in the composition, the expression does not carry a single meaning. Indeed, rather frustrating about the expression is its seeming, through such free usage, to have accumulated such a loose meaning. Another sense of the expression draws attention to creative energy vested in the actual "makeup" of the sounds that go into a composition. Feldman might be thought rather unusual among his generation of composers for his relative disinterest in this sense of "the sounds themselves." He never once dabbled in electronic music, nor even in the possibilities arising from traditional instruments being played in untraditional ways. Indeed, Feldman was reverent about instruments whose sounds had reaped the benefits of time, writing large amounts of music, for example, for piano and violin, and raving about these instruments' "perfection." See "Anecdotes and Drawings," 177.
6. It was in the hopes of attaining such freedom from compositional rhetoric that Feldman made the radical move, in works such as his Projections of 1950-51, to a notation indeterminate with regard to pitch. (Utilizing a graphic notation, he indicated only whether a sound was to be played in the high, medium, or low register of the instrument). He reasoned this move as follows: "My desire was not to 'compose,' but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here. In order not to involve the performer (i.e. myself) in memory (relationships), and because the sounds no longer had an inherent symbolic shape, I allowed for indeterminacies in regard to pitch." See "Autobiography," 38. Curiously, within months of adopting this indeterminate notation, Feldman began to shy away from it - but not because he lost interest in sounds "free from a compositional rhetoric." On the contrary, it seems that, in his view, the downfall of indeterminate notation was its not eradicating compositional rhetoric fully enough. "If the performer's sounded bad," he wrote, "it was less because of their lapses of taste than because I was still involved with passages and continuity that allowed their presence to be felt." See "Autobiography," 38. For a comparison between the differently notated works of Feldman's early period, see Martin Erdmann, "Zusammenhang und Losigkeit: Zu Morton Feldmans Kompositionen zwischen 1950 und 1956," Musik-Konzepte 48/49 (1986): 67-94.
7. Feldman, "Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmermann," 230.
8. 1959; C. F. Peters 6941, 1963.
9. See the first of Randall's wonderfully suggestive "Soundscrolls," Perspectives of New Music 13, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1975): 127-28.
10. The issue of the interaction between sounds and their contexts (of other sounds), while present in virtually all analytic work, is brought into focus in a few recent articles. For example, David Lewin addresses the way in which various contexts make of one sound many different sounds in his "Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes of Perception," Music Perception 3, no. 4 (Summer 1986): 327-92. Robert Snarrenberg emphasizes the way in which contexts thicken events in his "Zen and the Way of Soundscroll," Perspectives of New Music 30/1 (Winter 1992): 222-237. And Joseph Dubiel emphasizes the reciprocal nature of the relation between a sound and its context, as well as the continuity between the two, in his "Composer, Theorist, Composer/Theorist," in Rethinking Music, ed. Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
11. Composed 1953; New York: C. F. Peters, 1963. Edition no. 6928. A one-piano version is recorded by Steffen Schleiermacher on Works for Piano #2, Hat Art CD 6143. A two-piano version is recorded by Le Bureau des Pianistes on Morton Feldman: Pieces for More than Two Hands, Sub Rosa, Sub CD 018-41.
12. The instructions to the performer(s) read as follows: Composition begins with any sound and proceeds to any other. With a minimum of attack, hold each sound until barely audible. Grace notes are not played too quickly. All sounds are to be played as soft as possible. This 'Intermission' may be played with either one or two pianos."
13. It was Madame Press in whose honor Feldman wrote Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, and whom he credited for instilling in him "a sort of vibrant musicality." See "Darmstadt-Lecture," 194.
14. That individual sounds might be experienced with such integrity is reflected in their occasionally becoming the objects of critics' discussions. For example, Art Lange writes of how, "depending on context, a Bb can suggest anxiety, melancholy, heroism, exaltation." See the program book to the Hildegard Kleeb recording of For Bunita Marcus, Hat Art CD 6067. And Daniel Franke elaborates the subtle difference between the sounds of even the first two notes of For Bunita Marcus for piano (a C#5 played with the right hand, followed by a C#5 played with the left hand), emphasizing here, and with respect to other sounds, just how difficult it is to describe these sounds. See "Analytische Contemplation des Feldmanschen Klavierstuckes For Bunita Marcus," Musik-Konzepte 48/49 (1986): 135-147.
15. Feldman occasionally spoke of "touch" in his music, though exactly what he had in mind is difficult to ascertain. For example, he once used the word to describe "the last vestige of control," "where one can call the work one's own." And, in the next breath, was speaking of the "ephemeral feel of the pencil in [his] hand when [he] work[s]." See "Anxiety of Art," 94.
16. Of course, it was Schenker who attributed the effect of passing to configurations other than second-species passing tones. For a lengthy discussion of the nature of this attribution, which includes the point about Schenker's drawing a comparison between one musical thing and another, see Joseph Dubiel, "'When You are a Beethoven': Kinds of Rules in Schenker's Counterpoint," Journal of Music Theory 34, no. 2 (1990): 291-340.
17. That succession might be the means only of conferring qualities on each of the individual elements of the succession: it is difficult to imagine such an experience. To imagine it is to imagine the "now" and "then" of each sound beginning to ontologically entangle with the sounds that occur "now" and "then." In other words, it is to imagine that a sound can not be, not "now," but "then." Thus, it is to find the conceiving of those two renditions of Intermission 6 as reorderings of the same sounds a terrible strain. For in a situation of such discontinuity, to locate a note or chord in a succession is to engage in the very act of creating a sound, making a sound, by virtue of conferring on that note or chord some special qualities via its relations with the other notes in the succession. Thus, to relocate a note or chord in the succession is to engage in the very act of creating a different sound, by conferring on the note or chord some different special qualities via its different relations with the notes of the succession. A different sound - rather than the same sound in a different place. Thus, in the hands of a performer of Intermission 6, is not just the "now" and "then" of each sound, but very much what those sounds are that occur "now" and "then."
18. Feldman's music's demanding subtle distinctions between different kinds of retention brings to mind distinctions made in cognitive psychology, such as that between "explicit" and "implicit" memory. The latter term is used to characterize instances in which "prior experience is reflected in current thought or behavior, but this transfer brings with it no trace of conscious recollection." For this definition, as well as for a recent review of the experimental work on implicit memory, see Henry L. Roediger III, "Implicit Memory: Retention without Remembering," American Psychologist 45 (1990): 1043-1056.
19. This sense that only something left over from a previous sound is with us as we experience each of a succession of sounds seems precisely what is captured in Randall's image of a sound "rolled up." Randall asks of a sound, "Will it have been?" and answers, "(if it was)/:, like it Was (/) rolled/up." See "a Soundscroll," Perspectives of New Music 13, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1975): 127-28.
20. For this image of a "remnant" of a sound I am indebted to Stefan Wolpe, who describes Feldman as being interested "in the remnants of shapes that can barely be heard at a distance." See Wolpe's "On New (and Not-So-New) Music in America," trans. Austin Clarkson, Journal of Music Theory 28, no.1 (Spring 1984): 25.
21. The possibility of a sound exerting influence over others by way of the "frame of mind" in which it leaves us is illustrated by way of a splendid analysis of the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in Joseph Dubiel's unpublished essay, "Hearing, Remembering, Cold Storage, Purism, Evidence, and Attitude Adjustment."
22. An analogy might be drawn with an effect that obtains in color perception - where a color appears differently when seen against the background of another color than when seen against a white background.
23. If letting go of sounds seems unfamiliar, then perhaps it is partly due to the prevalence of Schenker's theory which, from a certain perspective, is all about not letting sounds go. This perspective - also explored in Dubiel's "When You are a Beethoven," (see footnote 16) - makes much of Schenker's conceiving of the passing tone as an essentially rhythmic effect.
24. "The Anxiety of Art," 89.
25. The image of letting go of sounds might be thought to go hand in hand with one of being unusually on top of each sound while we've got it. As such, it brings to mind Feldman's characterization of the experience of listening to the music of Varese: "we began to hear closer in time and especially we began to hear without the necessity of relationships." See John Cage, Morton Feldman, Radio Happenings I-V (Cologne: MusikTexte, 1993), 111.
26. Benjamin Boretz, for example, has expressed his dismay at the thought of our teaching ourselves to actually hear the "abstract ontology of qualities" which we "invent" to talk about music. See "Text for the Society for Music Theory Oakland, California 9 November 1990: On 'J. K. Randall's Writings During the 1970s,'" Perspectives of New Music 30, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 256. The distinction between, roughly, "objects of our perception" and "explanations for the objects of our perception," as it pertains to musical analysis, has recently been addressed in several articles. See, for example, Mark DeBellis, "Conceptions of Musical Structure," in Midwest Studies in Philosophy: Volume XVI, Philosophy and the Arts (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1991), 378-393; Kendall Walton, "Understanding Humor and Understanding Music," Journal of Musicology 11, no. 1 (1993): 32-44; and Marion Guck, "Taking Notice: A Response to Kendall Walton," Journal of Musicology 11, no. 1 (1993): 45-51.
27. Boretz speaks of the fear of the "transcendence" of musical experience, and suggests that it is in response to such fear that people "seek objectivity in and about their music." See, again, "Text for the Society for Music Theory." The cry for an acknowledgement of the subjectivity of our musical experience, while audible for some time now (especially in the writings of Marion Guck), has recently become particularly resonant in the writings of scholars who share concerns with those of feminist critics. See, for example, the collection of papers published under the title "Toward a Feminist Music Theory," Perspectives of New Music 32, no.1 (1994). Guck's contribution, "A Woman's (Theoretical ) Work," traces her embracing of the subjective musical experience throughout her career.
28. Benjamin Boretz, "Experiences with No Names," Perspectives of New Music 30, no.1 (Winter 1992): 273.
29. In "Understanding Humor and Understanding Music," and "Taking Notice: A Response to Kendall Walton" (see footnote 26), Walton and Guck consider the "recognition or acknowledgment, and articulation" of the content of one's musical experience as integral to the process of understanding that experience (or as, itself, one kind of understanding). For a discussion of the demands made by new music on our powers of description, see David Lewin, Musical Form and Transformation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 53-67. Also pertinent are Guck's discussions of the ways in which different aspects of our musical experiences are reflected in the differences among the languages we choose to speak about those experiences. See, for example, her "Musical Images as Musical Thoughts: The contribution of Metaphor to Analysis," In Theory Only 5, no. 5 (June 1981): 29-43; and "Analytical Fictions," Music Theory Spectrum 16, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 217-30.
30. "Lecture on Something," in Silence (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 128.
31. I am grateful to Joseph Dubiel for his many helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, in particular for his suggestion that the distinction I was driving at might be framed in terms of "in context" versus "and context."
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