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Precision and Anarchy in Feldman's Work

by Chico Mello

[English translation by Vicente Blanes]

The following article was first published in Spanish in the magazine of the Instituto Superior de Música of the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (No. 4, December 1995).

When we talk about musical analysis, or any other kind of analysis, we assume a coherent given whole, and, as analysts, we start the task of deciphering that coherence. In order to know how it works, we start a long process of translation and classification of the sounding events in different analytical categories, like structure, form, hierarchy, system, to reach a so-called understanding of the object.

But by reading texts about the works of Morton Feldman, it is surprising to see how difficult it is to use those traditional criteria. Feldman himself thought his music was inaccessible by the traditional ways of musicology: he considered having learnt more from plastic artists than from composers.

Nevertheless, in his pieces there are always traditional elements, but in a way dislocated from their conventional function: they are as if lighted from another angle.

The contact in the fifties with musicians like John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and David Tudor, and with the abstract expressionism of plastic artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston was of the highest importance in his development of a more elemental contact with the perception of the sound material.

Like Cage's, Feldman's music shows a tendency to move in a kind of "metaphysical place", in Frank O'Hara's words[1]. The transcendence is to be found in the perception's intensification of the here and now in the acoustical phenomenon. In order to liberate the sounds from the composer's authoritarian control, both Feldman and Cage came to wonder about their compositional methods: Cage by consulting the I-Ching, and Feldman, first, through graphic notation, where the performer is requested to play sounds in a non-virtuoso way, having silence as a starting point. There is no question here of any improvisation catharsis, but of a special space suggested by the notation, in which the performer can let the sounds occur in all their autonomy. Between 1952 and 1958 Feldman abandons graphic notation and comes back to the use of traditional notation, which could nevertheless maintain the abstraction and absence of control of indeterminate music. He is not interested in a system, but in a work method. Some of the features of it are, for example; writing in ink, as a possibility of observing his own attention while working, writing all his ideas in the score, mixing the sounds directly on the canvas - in order to be able afterwards to dislocate the material in any direction; silence as a substitution for counterpoint - "I'm interested in counterpoint [...] in the way that Mozart was, that is, as orchestration"[2] -; use of patterns, discontinuous and modular disposition of the material.

Here there is place for an observation about the concept of "lessness", a term referring to the translation of the title of Samuel Beckett's text Sans. Martin Erdmann uses this term - Losigkeit in German - in reference to Feldman's work[3], in opposition to Zusammenhang, a notion defined by him as a "hierarchic system of acoustical materials, which have to be ordered by the categories of temporal continuity and acoustical homogeneity". This need for Zusammenhang or coherence, link, comes from the idea that music is a language like any another. So, to be understood, it has to show relationships of inner subordination capable of being translated to a verbal, mathematical or scientific language. Cage has been the main composer to write a music free of this kind of subordination, having forerunners in Duchamp and Satie. So, trying to free the sounds from the decisions of the composer's ego, he would also free them from the pressure of any system where syntax is hierarchically more important than the sound material itself. Finally, the composer's ego is also an entity generated by a linguistic need, where the subject, the "I", has a more important position than the object, the sound. In order to transcend this basic dualism, Cage uses chance, as a line of flight that can escape from the ego's authoritarian control. Lines of flight, multiplicity, layers, segmentations, intensities, machinic assemblages, terms that Deleuze and Guattari[4] developed to clarify the model of thinking called rhizomatic, anarchic or schizoid in opposition to traditional Western analytic thought (root or tree - thinking) in which the dichotomy of the binary rule that says that "One becomes two" is trying to reduce everything to a unity, an organism, a main root, and that, trying to imitate nature, actually denies it because it comes from a basic dualism between subject and object, book and world, art and nature. As principles of the rhizomatic model, they establish:

1 and 2: principles of connection and heterogeneity (any point of the rhizome can be connected to anything other; a universal homogeneous language does not exist).

3: principle of multiplicity (a multiplicity does not have any subject [no signifier] nor any object [nothing signified], it is defined only by determinations, magnitudes and dimensions that do not grow without an automatic transformation, they are defined by abstract lines, lines of flight and deterritorialisation).

4: principle of interruption, cut, asignifying rupture: against the oversignifying breaks separating structures or cutting across a single structure. A rhizome can be interrupted or broken anywhere.

5 and 6: principles of cartography and decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model. It is not a copy, a hierarchical reproduction, as in the tree logic, but a map, that is a performance, where every type of assemblage is possible[5].

In Feldman's music, we can establish a parallel between the principles of the rhizomatic thinking proposed by Deleuze and Guattari and the oscillation between the presence and absence of formal coherence, i.e. Feldman's wondering about the traditional idea of coherence. Let us take as example some features of his piece For John Cage, for violin and piano, from 1982.

1) The dialogic aspect fills the whole piece: the instruments rarely "accompany" one another; the principle of alternation is taken to its extreme point, turning the alternation into simultaneity, and not into hierarchical counterpoint. The independence of each instrument is also reinforced by the difference between natural (violin) and tempered tuning (piano) - (Principle of connection or heterogeneity).

2) The difference between literal and apparent repetitions is obscured and difficult to notice in listening - repetition inside of the non repetition, where time is perceived in its linearity; while the perception of present and past disappears: the irregular repetitions produce imprecision and can almost deactivate memory - (Principle of multiplicity, or principle of cartography).

3) Melodic gestures that, reduced to the minimum, are like metaphors of melodies - (Principle of multiplicity).

4) The piece is kept in movement by variation. In spite of the use of traditional procedures such as inversion, augmentation and diminution, the variation does not appear in its traditional rhetorical function: it is called in question in the sense that it is not linked to a linearity, but to the creation and maintenance of an "atmosphere" generated by the tendency of the sounds - (Proportions, scales - Principle of multiplicity).

5) The fragmentation and constant reordering of the material is decisive for this non-linearity, giving permutation and combination a major role - the identity of the elements is diffuse, the relationship between the substance and the form disappears, and also the difference between original and copy - (Principle of interruption, cut, asignifying rupture).

6) Intervals are treated as timbre: Feldman tries to give them time to be heard, to free themselves of any syntax, mainly by inversions and transpositions - (Deterritorialisation).

The anarchic precision of Feldman's work, his reflections on the daily relationship between sound and listener, object and subject, make difficult the differentiation between material, producer, production and musical product: it is the maximal differentiation in the undifferentiated. The preponderance of binary, dualistic thinking is, as in Deleuze and Guattari, called in question as much in his work as in his working method - here, composition and analysis, as an attempt to reduce everything to a syntactic and coherent trunk, are not only inadequate but they also inhibit the attention to the material. The thing to be observed is the observer-object field - to the extent that it almost disappears, but without generating a feeling of non-understanding. In Feldman's words, "I want you to feel stupid just as I want myself to feel stupid. I had a friend, a very great painter. He used to say that a picture that he could understand bored him, totally bored him. But as musicians, we don't have this feeling. What we don't understand bores us. We should consider it a real feast to deal with music that we don't understand."[6].

VIII - 1992


  1. Frank O'Hara, "New directions in music. About the early work", in Morton Feldman Essays, Walter Zimmermann, editor (Kerpen: Beginner Press, 1985) pp 24-29.
  2. Morton Feldman, Middelburg Lecture, 2.7.1985, Middelburg, Netherlands. German translation published in Musik-Konzepte, Vol 48/49 (Munich: Edition Text + Kritik, 1986) pp 3-63. Quotation from p5.
  3. Martin Erdmann, "Zusammenhang und Losigkeit. Zu Morton Feldmans Kompositionen zwischen 1950 und 1956," Musik-Konzepte, Vol 48/49 (Munich: Edition Text + Kritik, 1986) pp 67-94.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Rhizome, 1976. Modified and reprinted as the introduction to Mille Plateaux (1980). The latter is available in an English translation by Brian Massumi as A Thousand Plateaus (London: The Athlone Press, 1988).
  5. Idem.
  6. Ref. 2 above, p27.

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