Morton Feldman Essays

When I listen to the beginning of one of Feldman’s longer pieces, like For Philip Guston (1984) or the String Quartet No. 2 (1983), I follow the notes one by one at first. The same few notes appear over and over again. I start to notice little changes, like the notes arriving at gently unpredictable moments. I begin to focus on the bloom of each note. The insistent, circular motion of the music makes me feel dazed.

About five minutes into the piece, I start to feel edgy. My mind starts to resist. I develop a nagging feeling that the music isn’t going anywhere. I start to become less focused on the music, and more aware of my restlessness. The tension inside me is clearly coming from the music. The repetitions feel provocative, even hostile. No matter how many times I listen to certain pieces by Feldman, this visceral irritability appears early on. I’ve learned that the feeling is a premonition of emotional release. But it’s still disconcerting.

Feldman continues, ever patient, using the same notes, wearing me down. Then, slowly, I start to forget my feelings. I hear the music again, but now it has a glow to it. My ears and mind have adjusted, and my ego fades into the background. It usually takes ten minutes for this transformation to become complete. I can never identify the exact moment when it happens, because, by definition, I forget myself. The part of my personality that wants to measure things has melted away.

Twelve or thirteen minutes into the piece, I am completely acclimated. My mind is calm. My breathing is slower. My ears feel wide open. The details seem more distinct. Listening to the piece is no longer about “the piece” or about “me” but about a spiritual sense with which I am now in tune. I may be in an uncomfortable chair, or thirsty enough to get up for a drink. But I want the spell to continue, and interruption seems unthinkable. “[W]hen my work arrives at one mood, it’s as if I am praying,” Feldman said.6 The music glides along, and my mind glides with it. After fifteen or sixteen minutes, I feel completely secure. Feldman and I now have a pact. His music is so consistent in mood, and in the musical resources he uses, that I instinctively trust that he won’t do anything to “wake me up.” No abrupt accents, no startling dynamic shifts. Any change is introduced delicately. For the rest of the piece, my consciousness only perks up when Feldman changes the notes or the textures of what he’s repeating. My sense of time disappears. The piece can last one hour, or four hours; I know I’ll follow it to the end.

“I think that hypnotism happens when people listen to music, that is to say very rarely,” Feldman once said, with a laugh. “The experience is so foreign to them!”7

This long, long, 3800-word-plus blog entry is actually the paper on Morton Feldman I presented Sunday morning at the Seattle Art Museum, amid excellent papers by Elena Dubinets and Alex Ross. I could maybe have stuck it in an academic journal where 20 people would see it, and then I’d have a new line on my résumé:


The difficulty of assessing Morton Feldman’s impact is that it is so pervasive. Music has by now been so changed by people who were changed by people who were changed by Feldman that I think it would be difficult to trace the various streams of his influence back to their source. Musically, we live in a post-Feldman age, and I am certainly conscious of being a post-Feldman composer. Things are done now that were not done before Feldman gave us precedents. There is music before and after Monteverdi, and before and after Beethoven, and before and after Stravinsky, and I would not be surprised to find that poeple someday talk about music before and after Feldman.

I attended the first June in Buffalo festival, in 1975, of which Feldman was the director. That first year, the featured composers, besides himself, were his friends John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown. I am old enough to well remember what our collective student impression of Feldman was before that festival. He was Cage’s quirky sidekick. His pieces to that point had been fairly brief. We understood that they were intuitively written, but still they seemed like special instances of Cagean chance composition. Feldman didn’t strictly use chance, but still he scattered his notes here and there with a kind of abandon. Sometimes chance entered into it, as when he wrote on graph paper, and simply indicated the number of pitches to be used in each register. In Cage’s writings, Feldman was always good for a bon mot or two.

But that summer, in June 1975, Feldman changed before our eyes. He played us a recording of a work that to my knowledge has still never been commercially recorded: The Swallows of Salangan. It was for chorus and orchestra, maybe 20 minutes long. It was the first Feldman work I’d heard in which his ideas were extended to a perception-stretching duration and saturation. I wonder how many of us realized, while listening to that recording, that Feldman had entered new territory: all of us, I imagine.

Also, at about that time, the recording of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel had just appeared on Odyssey. Perhaps we first heard the recording at the festival, I can’t remember. The dense tone clusters for chorus, and the fragmentary viola lines, in that piece fit in with the atomized Cagean aesthetic – but not so the repeating four-note motif in the vibraphone at the end, or the Ravellian viola melody that hovered over it. It was the first time any of us had heard Feldman step entirely out of Cage’s world into a new one all his own.

I imagine I speak for many of us at that festival when I say that we went there to see John Cage in person. We left wondering if Morton Feldman had invented a new way to compose.

And this was before Feldman had written any of his superlong pieces. The next time I saw Feldman was around 1978 or ‘9, when he came to Chicago and played Why Patterns? He sat at the piano, side-saddle – I wonder if maybe his stomach wouldn’t conveniently let him reach the keyboard – and meditatively played his notes, one finger at a time. That was a lesson not only in musical continuity, but in a new performance paradigm. In addition, in the closing ostinatos of Rothko Chapel and the startling final pages of Why Patterns?, where the three instruments suddenly fall into a synchronized 3/8 meter, Feldman had created a new way to close a piece: the ending that starkly contradicts the rest of the piece, bracketing the piece’s underlying premises as contingent, and seemingly opening a door for the listener to leave through. Along with the dramatic and unanticipated cessation of an early Philip Glass piece, it was one of the two great, seductive framing concepts that the late 20th century came up with.


Out of this quiet, speciously modest music that we so underestimated at first came a number of remarkable changes that slowly shook the music world.

One change Feldman initiated was achieved simply by putting the words “as soft as possible” on a score, with no other dynamic markings following it. It takes an effort at this point to remember the extent to which the ’60s and ’70s were the era of having to do everything in every piece. One showed one’s ambition by the range of one’s music, and lack of ambition was the unforgivable sin. The operative model for the time was Stockhausen, and Stockhausen’s serial technique was designed to reach every extreme within every work. Serial technique itself was a “mediation” between extremes, and the extremes had to be there. John Cage had a slightly different model according to which music was like life, inclusive of everything. Music was noisy back then. The easiest way to get applause was loud brass climaxes, and everyone who could afford them had them.

Then along came Feldman writing pieces with only one dynamic level. Until that summer in 1975, it seemed like a humorous affectation, a Satie-esque forfeiture of the ambition we were all assumed to share. Later we would come to reinterpret it as a trademark, and as a potential survival strategy in a world overcrowded with composers. When everybody does everything in every piece, when every symphony contains an entire universe as Mahler prescribed, then all music sounds more or less alike. Like Van Gogh, who quietly boasted that he had made the sunflower his own, Feldman had marked off pianissimo as his territory.

It is such a simple progression that one could miss the connection, but soon afterward composers started setting limits to their territory. The minimalists, who were very aware of Feldman, stripped down to just a few pitches. Lois Vierk and Mary Jane Leach started making pieces that were all one timbre: five guitars, or eight bass clarinets. John Luther Adams made pieces that were all C-major scale. Glenn Branca wrote music for guitar orchestras. One composer worked with computerized speech sounds, one with multicultural collage, one with bowed piano, one with the sounds of bicycles, and so on. It was almost humorous the extent to which, in the 1980s, composers in New York cultivated their niches and avoided stepping on each others’ toes. To make a piece that only explored one aspect of music was a logical extension of minimalism, but the variety of types of limitations people came up with reveals that Feldman was often the more profound impetus. Feldman didn’t so much inspire minimalism as he inspired postminimalism. Perhaps it was partly a response to the difficulty of creating an artistic identity in the crowded Manhattan scene, but it was partly OK because Feldman had done it.

Stockhausen once told Feldman, “Your music could be a moment in my music,” but it was Feldman who had the last laugh. His monochrome music relegated Stockhausen’s panoramas to an earlier historical era.

Second contribution: Where Feldman eventually compensated for his lack of volume, of course, was in his excess of length. By writing works that were 90 minutes long, four hours long, six hours long (as I’ve written elsewhere),

he reclaimed for the disspirited modern composer a sustainable measure of magnificent ambition, a pride in occupying an audience’s time. Quietly but vehemently he asserted for all of us that new music is worth sitting still for, practicalities be damned.

I was just in Brussels visiting Charlemagne Palestine, and Charlemagne credits the minimalists as having inspired the length of Feldman’s late works. Charlemagne played a role in bringing minimalism to Feldman’s attention in the ’60s, and he notes that it was after the all-night concerts that he and Terry Riley performed, and the three- and four-hour pieces of Philip Glass, that the length of Feldman’s pieces started to expand.

This sounds entirely plausible. But the length had a different effect in Feldman’s music. The four-hour minimalist performances were loud and could be walked in and out of without missing much. There was a pop music aspect to them that later turned into ambient music. Feldman’s quiet, intense music with its hesitant momentum did not allow one to turn away, or to go get a drink, or make comments to one’s neighbor. It demanded hours of careful attentiveness, and even worse, of a careful stillness that wouldn’t disturb the music. That kind of audacity impresses people. It has often been noted now, that listeners are more willing to be generous to a long piece than to a short one, and to more easily assume that the long piece is more profound.

Luckily, not many young composers have imitated Feldman in the area of length, but that doesn’t matter. His gesture alone increased the prestige of our artform in despondent times. Just when it seemed least possible, he gave music its Monet Water Lilies, its Diego Rivera murals.

Third contribution: Feldman reintroduced intuition into the compositional discourse, and restored its respectability. In the 1950s and ’60s, aleatory techniques, serial techniques, and the gradual processes of minimalism were all objective methods meant to grant some new kind of validity to the music of the 1950s and ’60s. To this extent, Cage, Babbitt, and Reich were on the same track, and Feldman on a very different track, one which eventually liberated hundreds of us. One of the most important stories in 20th-century music is the famous one in which Cage asked the young Feldman how one of his pieces was written. Feldman weakly replied that he didn’t know how it was written, and Cage jumped up and down squealing like a monkey and shouting, “Isn’t that wonderful! It’s so beautiful, and he doesn’t know how he did it.” That story alone is enough to mark the private onset of a new historical era.

It was not simply the return of intuition in the middle of a period of formalist structuralism. For centuries before the 20th century, music had been an exercise of intuition within the framework of a tonal system that was crafted and guaranteed to restrain its excesses. There followed a brief period of completely unfettered intuition, and by all accounts – including Alex Ross’s in The Rest Is Noise – it was apparently pretty scary: the period of free atonality in the 1910s that climaxed in Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Schoenberg came up with the 12-tone row, Scriabin came up with his own harmonic system, Bartok came up with the axis system and golden sections, Stravinsky reinhabited old tonal structures, Hindemith rediscovered the harmonic series, and everyone rushed to fill the void opened up by this frightening new freedom.

In the midst of all this, Feldman recreated the paradigm within which intuition could be given full sway without going berserk. Within the quasi-minimalism of “as soft as possible” and only one type of rhythm per piece, the composer’s intuition could go wild without getting out of bounds or wandering too far from the guiding spirit of the piece. The change sounds like a simple one, but its consequences were profound. The thinking went from, “Your intuition is limited by the musical system within which you’re working,” to, “Your intuition is limited by the range of materials you’ve agreed to work within.” For me, this is virtually a definition of postminimalism, which should possibly be called post-Feldmanism, though I think it inherited tedencies from both minimalism and Feldman, along with other styles. For the first time, an enormous range of composers, from atonalists to tonalists, instrumental improvisers to laptop performers, feel free to work outside the idea of a particular musical language and to do so by intuition and feel. In a way Feldman completed what one might call the aborted musical revolution of the 1910s free-atonal years, granting us freedom from syntax or system and showing us how to use it, how to husband our resources in an open environment.

One of my favorite stories Feldman liked to tell was of Marcel Duchamp visiting an art class in San Francisco, where he saw a young man wildly painting away. Duchamp went over and asked, “What are you doing?” The young man said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!” And Duchamp patted him on the back and said, “Keep up the good work.” In music, it was Feldman, more than anyone else, who gave us permission not to know what the fuck we were doing.

Fourth contribution: The last area I want to mention is that of notation, in which Feldman’s contribution was a little more insidious. In his notation, Feldman rammed with his full force against one of the great sacred cows of the late 20th-century composing world: professionalism. Many, many composers today, and especially those who teach or who get orchestral performances, are obsessed with the notion of professionalism. The imparting of professionalism is how a composition professor justifies his or her position in academia alongside the more easily validated fields of the sciences and social sciences. And the essence of compositional professionalism is notation. Composers in academia, myself included, constantly harp on students to make their notation as simple and clear as possible, to line the notes up right, to avoid ambiguities and complexities that have no effect on the sound.

Within this atmosphere, the peculiar and ambiguous notation of Feldman’s late music constitutes a deliberate act of civil disobedience. Take a look at this opening passage of Crippled Symmetry: the three instruments measures are lined up as though this were a conventional score, yet neither the meters nor even the repeat signs are aligned:

If you read down to the end of the page, the length of the flute part in whole notes is 22.3125; the length of the vibraphone part is 32.8125; and that of the piano part is 54.75, so that these three parts can’t stay on the same page or be even remotely synchronized. This inequality continues to the end of the piece. There are basically three different pieces here, of different lengths, to be played at the same time. There are also measures notated with ever-so-slightly different rhythms that would be nearly impossible to differentiate in performance.

An even more aggravating example is Why Patterns?:

For long passages in this piece, the flute part is notated with every note beginning just before a bar line – even though the three instruments are not synchronized, nor is there any audible pulse against which these anacruses can be heard. One is struck by an ever-changing rhythmic complexity that goes on inside the performer’s head, with an imperceptible downbeat in the middle of each note, though all the listener hears is basically whole notes separated by rests. Also notice one of Feldman’s favorite rhythms in this piece: two dotted half notes in a 5/4 measure with a “2” over it, notated more irrationally than it needs to be.

Feldman liked to talk about the psychological effect that notation had on a performer. By notating those almost identical rhythms differently, or by adding a tied-over 16th-note in a context with no pulse to hear it against, he altered what the performer was thinking while playing, in order (one has to argue) to elicit a certain hesitant quality of nuance that the notation, strictly speaking, does not exactly mandate. I don’t know of a composition teacher, including myself, who wouldn’t throw a fit if a student brought in a piece notated this way. It flouts every professional orthodoxy of notating music, which is supposed to aim for maximum simplicity and consistency, make the notation fit the sound as closely as possible, and avoid complications that don’t affect the result. Quite the contrary, Feldman’s notation distances the performer from the notated page, and doesn’t allow for the kind of facile sight-reading that is the core paradigm of classical music-making. Any composition teacher, faced with such a page, would immediately protest, “You can’t do that.” But Feldman did it, and it resulted in music too beautiful to argue with.

Feldman’s notational style flouts two sacred principles of compositional pedagogy: professionalism and efficiency, which are closely related. Notation is supposed to be efficient, so as not to waste the performer’s time. The underlying conceit is that time equals money, there are a lot of other composers waiting to be played, and you must get across your intentions to the performer in the quickest possible manner, so that they can get your piece out of the way and get on to the next rehearsal.

But I love what the author John Ralston Saul says about efficiency. We consider efficiency an automatically good thing in this society, but in reality, efficiency is only appropriate to things that are ultimately unimportant. We want our garbage taken out efficiently, we want our drivers’ licenses renewed efficiently, but someone who advocated efficient child-rearing – eliciting maximum good behavior for a minimum of parental care – would be a beast. In the same way, Feldman’s notation drives home a principle that we forget at our peril: that, however necessary the evil may sometimes be, efficiency in the pursuit of music-making is no virtue. Feldman’s notation requires more care to decipher than would seem to be necessary. His passages of repetition continue without adding any new information. The very length of his late works, especially in light of the sparse content of some of them, takes its own arrogant time to get its points across.

Some of his greatest effects take an inordinately long time to achieve, a time more like that of real-life experiences than what we think of as musical time: for instance, the eternity in For Philip Guston in which the music strips down to four pitches within a minor third for a solid 25 minutes, and then suddenly spreads across the entire range of the keyboard in glorious C major. Similarly, when I heard the Flux Quartet play Feldman’s String Quartet II, a mysterious kind of hush fell over the audience around 10:30, four and a half hours into the performance, and the last hour and a half of the performance seemed a kind of collective ecstasy. A more efficient composer might have skipped the first four and a half hours and given us only the ecstatic part, but it wouldn’t have worked. Feldman knew that in order to enter the highest altitudes of artistic experience requires a surfeit of care and attention unjustifiable in ordinary terms.

Thus in his music and even more explicitly in his writing, Feldman drew our focus to something most of us try to avoid noticing: the dual and contradictory nature of the composer in modern society, as both artist and professional. A professional learns his craft, applies what he has been taught, conforms to the standards of the profession, knows how to work to order, and can guarantee in advance a satisfactory result. An artist scorns what can be taught, tries things that have never been done before and seem impossible, takes risks that may very well fail, but revivifies society by enlarging and rearranging our perspective.

Every composer who successfully brings a piece to performance might be called a professional, and every composer who creates something that didn’t exist before might be called an artist. But on the long continuum from John Williams to Harry Partch, it seems undeniable that there are some composers more professional than artist, and others more artist than professional. Feldman sometimes writes as though the two are mutually exclusive. But the professional part of being a composer is pretty much the part that can be taught, and thus Feldman was a crucial counterforce to the hurricane wind of our music pedagogy that sometimes pushes young composers so hard to become professionals that they forget, or never learn, that the job requires hysterical off-the-wall creativity as well. In one interview Feldman candidly admitted,

You know, there’s not one thing that I ever learned in the past that I could actually apply to my music. Nobody ever helped me. Any insight I had in the past does not reflect on anything I’m trying to do. I have no models to use. What I have to use is another tradition: how to notate.

In a more famous article, he wrote,

In music, when you do something new, something original, you’re an amateur. Your imitators: these are the professionals. It is these imitators who are interested not in what the artist did, but the means he used to do it. The freedom of the artist is boring to [the imitator] because in freedom he cannot reenact the role of the artist.

At the same time, it is pleasantly inconsistent to note that Feldman liked passing out the occasional bit of professional advice. I remember him saying that a composer should write pieces for a variety of solo, duo, quartet, quintet, and so on, combinations, to build up a varied portfolio so as to be ready for a wide range of performance opportunities – a piece of advice that would have done little artistically for Chopin or Harry Partch. But Feldman also had a standing offer to his students that he would buy dinner each semester for the student who could come up with the worst orchestration. No one ever won, he said, because the worse orchestrations they tried to think of, the more creative they got. In other words, the more they failed professionally, the more they succeeded artistically.

All this makes Feldman a deliciously dangerous role model. Practically any advice a teacher gives a student about notation, the latter can pull out a Feldman score and say, “But look at this….” It was delightful witnessing the inevitable rise of Feldman’s reputation after he died. In the 80s and 90s I visited school after school where the students were obsessed with Feldman, where the music faculty fiercely resisted taking Feldman seriously, but eventually had to surrender because the student interest was just too universal and fanatical. Feldmania was a flood tide that washed across the country, all the more irresistible because there was no central principle to it, no theory, nothing one could disprove. Feldman’s musical results, and only his musical results, spoke for themselves.

Feldman changed what composers think, how we feel about what we think, and how we are allowed to defend our choices. He gave us a sword with which to shatter the thick shields of rationalism, professionalism, and conventional wisdom. But he also taught us that the worst enemies of creativity lie not only outside, but within us. One of his favorite assignments for student composers was, “Write a piece that goes against everything you believe.” Many a young composer, fulfilling that assignment, realized with chagrin that he had just completed his best work.

Filed Under: main


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *