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This article first appeared in the Tower Records classical music magazine Pulse! (December 1997, Issue 166) as a contribution to their Classical 101 series of articles on composers.
IN THE EARLY 1950s, Morton Feldman -- with John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and David Tudor -- was a charter member of the "New York School" of composition. Like all such labels, it can be misleading (if there was a school involved, it was Black Mountain College in North Carolina), and each of these artists would follow distinct compositional as well as geographical trajectories -- but in Feldman's case it is apt. His art was consciously related to the New York School of painting pursued by his contemporaries Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, et al. And Feldman was large, loud and from the Bronx.
Which is not to say his music was akin to his physical presence. Feldman's music was delicate, contemplative and unabashedly beautiful. Of all his generation of experimentalists, Feldman was uniquely unwilling to sacrifice beauty for any other compositional idea or technique. In some ways, his work is the least theoretically engaged of all the New York School, though together with the others he did pioneer the use of compositional indeterminacy and graphic notation. But ideas always remain subordinate to the effect of Feldman's music -- his principal interests never seemed to stray very far from romantic notions of tone color and emotional power. The radical innovations introduced by his and Brown's graphic scores, Cage's aleatory composition, Wolff's indeterminate instructions -- these did not add up, for Feldman, to a wild, unpredictable freedom. "Freedom is best understood by someone like Rothko," Feldman once said, "who was free to do only one thing -- to make a Rothko -- and did so over and over again."
As for "a Feldman," it is most clearly defined by his late work. Very slow, very long, and very, very quiet, Feldman's pieces from the late 1970s until his death in 1987 are written each for a single grouping of instruments, often solo or in duet, which play shifting chromatic harmonies in a single tempo and at a uniform dynamic. Detractors find them monotonous, but their monotony is also a key to their grandeur and drama: They do seem like the aural equivalent of his friend Mark Rothko's paintings. Second String Quartet can take five or six hours to complete, and at a recent festival the Kronos Quartet had to cancel a performance after discovering in rehearsal that they were not physically capable of it! When a work is that long, Feldman pointed out, "different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy -- just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece -- it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they're like evolving things."
Listening to such monumental pieces as Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981), For John Cage (1982) and Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (1987) is a different kind of experience than listening to most any other music, although it has often been compared to minimalism. But Feldman referred to Philip Glass and Steve Reich as "show business," and indeed his brooding, melancholic works share little with those younger composers' rhythmic, repetitive playfulness. Feldman's late pieces are more profitably compared to examples drawn from outside music, like Rothko or Samuel Beckett. It is Beckett's and Rothko's "heightened concentration," the type that makes you feel like you may have died while experiencing it but you may have also seen God, that Feldman was after. Not music for airports.
Feldman's middle period work is less of all these things -- less long, less slow, and less monotonous -- so it can be more easily absorbed, and many of his most popular pieces come from the late '60s to mid-'70s. In The Viola in My Life (1970), and I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg (1971), the lyricism and nostalgia of the titles are reflected by a lighter mood -- silences interrupted by episodic events make these more poignant than the unrelenting, meditative longer works. Often in this period, Feldman's topic seems to be memory, or remembrance, as in For Frank O'Hara (1973), written after the poet's death, or Rothko Chapel (1971), after the painter's suicide. This last, which incorporates melodies Feldman wrote as a youth and, by his own description, "have the ring of the synagogue," is a moving, elegiac tribute that makes clear the emotional basis of Feldman's work.
But even in his earliest pieces, Feldman was only free "to make a Feldman." There is an anecdote that when Feldman visited Darmstadt, the annual modernist music conference, Stockhausen demanded of him: "What's your system?" But as Christian Wolff once explained, "There's no system. He works just by sheer intuition, I think." No wonder Feldman had difficulty teaching (although he was a professor the last 15 years of his life). He once said in an interview, "I want everybody to get out of music. It's too difficult. It requires immense talent for ideas, when not to use ideas. And a feeling for instruments, and a feeling for sound, and a natural feeling for proportion ... It's very, very difficult ... Music is very, very difficult. I don't even think it should be taught in universities anymore."
Copyright © 1997 MTS, Inc., Pulse! Magazine
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