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Morton Feldman:
Music for the film Jackson Pollock (1951)

by Olivia Mattis

The following essay was originally published in Settling New Scores: Music Manuscripts from the Paul Sacher Foundation, Felix Meyer, editor (Mainz: Schott, 1998) pp 165-167. This was the catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, May 13 - August 30, 1998. The original publication includes a full page reproduction, not included here, of page 1 of Feldman's score.

In June of 1951, Jackson Pollock wrote a letter to a couple of friends concerning the short film that Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg had made about him: "I'm anxious to see it and hear the music young Feldman (a friend of Cage's) has done - think it might be great."[1] The film in question, Jackson Pollock, is a ten-minute full-color profile of the artist's life and work. Feldman's music, scored for two cellos and written in conventional notation,[2] reflects the abstract artistic gestures depicted on screen without precisely imitating them. The film presents Pollock painting a huge canvas on the ground outside his home; it also portrays him painting two works on glass, a medium he used for the first and last time in this film. There is spoken narration, with Pollock himself providing the commentary.

Feldman's score, never published, is dated May 1951, and is to be found in two complete versions in the Morton Feldman Collection that arrived at the Paul Sacher Foundation in October of 1997: one on transparencies, and an earlier one in a bound sketchbook. The collection also includes a page that presents one of the six sections (section 5) in "da capo" form. In addition, the Namuth family holds a page of manuscript that contains the score to the second "glass sequence" (section 6). In the film, the two cello lines are presented slightly out of synchronization, and thus the soundtrack does not correspond exactly to any of the scores. Furthermore, there are elements in the film that are not to be found in any of the above versions.

The visual image in Jackson Pollock begins before the soundtrack does. The viewer sees a hand signing "Jackson Pollock, 51." As the signature reaches "Pollock," the music begins; this direction is precisely indicated in the score. Feldman recalled his working method for this project: "I watched the film, got the exact span of time for each of the sequences - the shots of the studio and the Springs property, the painting on canvas, the two on glass - and then wrote the score as if I were writing music for choreography."[3] Feldman's music makes extensive use of harmonics, and includes short, repetitive, undulating patterns. The tempo is quick and energetic, and the tremendous dynamic range given in the score (ppppp-ff) is quite a bit wider than the actual range performed in the film's soundtrack.

According to John Cage's biographer, Feldman received the commission almost as a hand-me-down from Cage: "The directors [...] had thought to use Balinese music, but Pollock wanted something more American; his wife, Lee Krasner, approached Cage. [...] Cage refused Krasner's request but referred her to Feldman, who accepted it in return for an ink drawing."[4] Feldman himself remembered the story somewhat differently: "Soon after meeting Rauschenberg I met Jackson Pollock, who asked me to write music for a film about him that had just been completed. I was very pleased about this since it was just the very beginning of my career."[5] At the time the film was made, Jackson Pollock, age thirty-nine, was extremely well-known. In 1949 Life magazine had published a feature story on him, provocatively titled "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?"[6] By contrast, Morton Feldman, age twenty-five, had barely begun his professional career and was not a known quantity. This commission, therefore, was a major coup in the young composer's career.

Feldman was one of a handful of composers who were stimulated at least as much by painting as by music. In New York from the late 1940s to the spring of 1962, the Abstract Expressionists held frequent gatherings at a bar called the Cedar Tavern and a studio space on Eighth Street known as The Club. Feldman was part of a small nucleus of composers - Cage, Varèse, and Wolpe being the others - who attended Club gatherings on a regular basis. The Pollock score was the first in a long line of compositions Feldman produced in homage to his painter friends, including For Franz Kline (1962), De Kooning (1963, another Namuth film score), Piano Piece (to Philip Guston) (1963), and Rothko Chapel (1972). The Feldman scholar Steven Johnson highlights the aesthetic principles the composer learned from these artists: "a dislike of intellectual systems and compositional rhetoric; a hostility to past forms of expression; a preference for abstract gestures set in flat, 'all-over' planes of time; an obsession for the physical materials of his art; a belief in handmade methods; and a trust in psychic automatic instinct."[7]

Feldman's "music for choreography" (as he described the Pollock score) does not try to precisely mimic the visual action. Rather, the relationship resembles the type of collaboration that existed between Cage and Cunningham, in which the music did not have to support the dance, nor would the dance need to illustrate the music. The two artistic expressions simply exist side by side. This approach remains startling and even unnerving - so much so that when a full-length documentary was finally made about Pollock in the late 1980s,[8] Feldman's music was replaced by that of a much more illustrative and narrative composer - Aaron Copland.


  1. Jackson Pollock, letter to Alfonso Ossorio and Edward Dragon, June 7, 1951; B.H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible (New York, 1972; repr. 1995), p. 174.
  2. The score was written for the cellist Daniel Stern, who played both parts.
  3. Morton Feldman, quoted in B.H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock (see note 1), p. 173.
  4. David Revill, The Roaring Silence. John Cage: A Life (New York and London, 1992), p. 141.
  5. Morton Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry," Morton Feldman Essays, ed. Walter Zimmermann (Cologne, 1985), p. 136.
  6. Life 27 (August 8, 1949): 42-45.
  7. Steven Johnson, "Morton Feldman," Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 7th edn., forthcoming. I am grateful to Steven Johnson for sharing a typescript of his Feldman entry.
  8. Jackson Pollock: Portrait of an Artist, produced and directed by Kim Evans (London, 1987).

© Olivia Mattis 1998

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