Morton Feldman was born in New York in 1926 and died there in 1987. Just like Cage, a close friend, he was an American composer – an American artist – an American in the true sense of the word.
He identified himself by differentiating his views on composition from those of his colleagues in Europe. He was proud to be an American because he was convinced that it enabled him the freedom, unparalleled in Europe, to work unfettered by tradition. (Universal Edition bio)
Morton Feldman was a big, brusque Jewish guy from Woodside, Queens—the son of a manufacturer of children’s coats. He worked in the family business until he was forty-four years old, and he later became a professor of music at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He died in 1987, at the age of sixty-one. To almost everyone’s surprise but his own, he turned out to be one of the major composers of the twentieth century, a sovereign artist who opened up vast, quiet, agonizingly beautiful worlds of sound. He was also one of the greatest talkers in the recent history of New York City, and there is no better way to introduce him than to let him speak for himself:
Earlier in my life there seemed to be unlimited possibilities, but my mind was closed. Now, years later and with an open mind, possibilities no longer interest me. I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room. My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.
Feldman’s compositions don’t impose themselves on you, and they refuse to shout about their meaning or importance – even their length. They also resist your attempts to predict what might happen next. His music is full of repetition, and yet nothing ever repeats. What I mean is that individual chords, textures and rhythmic ideas reoccur, but they are never (or very rarely) the same. Patterns don’t progress in a predictable way, which makes Feldman’s aesthetic radically different from minimalists such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass. You’ll search in vain for an underlying system or structure to explain what’s happening in, say, Crippled Symmetry, another huge piece for flute, percussion and piano. Instead, you should give yourself over to absolute concentration. Notice the surface of the music, the way it changes subtly and slowly as if reacting to your attention. That’s the point about Feldman’s long pieces: they don’t hypnotise or immerse you in a comforting sonic bath, they call for your attention and, through that, change you. Again, Feldman’s words are enlightening; he says that his “patterns are ‘complete’ in themselves and in no need of development – only of extension. My concern is: what is its scale when prolonged, and what is the best method to arrive at it? My past experience was not to ‘meddle’ with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. ‘I don’t push the sounds around.’ Stockhausen mulled this over and asked: ‘Not even a little bit?'” (Tom Service, The Guardian)
The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. More than a dozen pieces last between one and two hours, and “For Philip Guston” and “String Quartet (II)” go on for much longer. In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.” (Ross)
Something strange starts to happen when you listen to Feldman’s long, long – and I mean long – late chamber pieces. I’m talking about the 80-minute Piano and String Quartet, the four and a half hours of For Philip Guston or the biggest of them all, the five-hour Second String Quartet. By the end of these works, composed a few years before Feldman’s death in 1987, I was left wanting more, not less. My sense of time had been altered, so intently focused was I on the way the music changed from note to note and chord to chord. It created a living, breathing network of relationships that extended across its length. You don’t really listen to these pieces, you live through them and with them. By the end of the Second String Quartet, I felt it was living inside me too. (Service)
Feldman put it thus:
“My whole generation was hung up on the 20- to 25-minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20- to 25-minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, 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.” This might suggest there is something epic in Feldman’s music, in its rhetoric or ambition. The reality is just the opposite. His music is intimate, quiet, small and often slow. For Philip Guston is scored for piano, flute and percussion; its gently dissonant chiming never reaches beyond a softly reverberant shimmer. It is music written on the same scale as our ears, composed to fit our brains and bodies.