Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman biography

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. And, he was an American also in what may have been a slight inferiority complex in the face of cultural traditions in Europe, something he proudly rejected and secretly admired.

Like any true artist, Feldman was endowed with a sensitivity for impressions of a wide variety of sources, literature and painting in particular. His affinity to Samuel Beckett has enriched music literature by a unique music theatre piece, Neither, and two ensemble works. His friendship with abstract impressionist painters gave birth to a range of masterpieces, Rothko Chapel in particular. But even the knotting of oriental rugs gave Feldman musical ideas (The Turfan Fragments).

To the question as to why he preferred soft dynamic levels, he replied:

“- Because when it’s loud, you can’t hear the sound. You hear its attack. Then you don’t hear the sound, only in its decay. And I think that’s essentially what impressed Boulez . That he heard a sound, not an attack, emerging and disappearing without attack and decay, almost like an electronic medium.

Also, you have to remember that loud and soft is an aspect of differentiation. And my music is more like a kind of monologue that does not need exclamation point, colon, it does not need…”

Feldman also had an intriguing reply up his sleeve when it came to answering the question why he composed in the first place:

“You know that marvellous remark of Disraeli’s? Unfortunately, he was not a good writer, but if he was a great writer, it would have been a wonderful remark. They asked him why
did he begin to write novels. He said because there was nothing to read. (laughs). I felt very much like that in terms of contemporary music. I was not really happy with it. It became like a Rohrschach test”.

More than twenty years since his death, Morton Feldman’s music is as alive as ever.

Works by Morton Feldman in the UE

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About the music

Morton Feldman was born in New York on January 12th 1926. At the age of twelve he studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, who had been a pupil of Busoni, and it was she who instilled in Feldman a vibrant musicality. At the time he was composing short Scriabinesque pieces, until in 1941 he began to study composition with Wallingford Riegger. Three years later Stefan Wolpe became his teacher, though they spent much of their time together simply arguing about music.

Then in 1949 the most significant meeting up to that time took place - Feldman met John Cage, commencing an artistic association of crucial importance to music in America in the 1950s. Cage was instrumental in encouraging Feldman to have confidence in his instincts, which resulted in totally intuitive compositions. He never worked with any systems that anyone has been able to identify, working from moment to moment, from one sound to the next. His friends during the 1950s in New York included the composers, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, the painters, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg and the pianist, David Tudor. The painters in particular influenced Feldman to search for his own sound world, one that was more immediate and more physical than had existed before. This resulted in his experimentation with graphic notation, Projection 2 being one of his earliest scores in this idiom. In these scores the players select their notes from within a given register and time structure.

Because these works relied so heavily on improvisation Feldman was not happy with the freedom permitted to the performer, and so abandoned graphic notation between 1953 and 1958. However, the precise notation he used instead during this period he found too one dimensional and so returned to the graph with two orchestral works: Atlantis (1958) and Out of Last Pieces (1960). Soon after these a series of instrumental works appeared called Durations in which the notes to be played are precisely written but the performers, beginning simultaneously, are free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo.

1967 saw the start of Feldman’s association with Universal Edition with the publication of his last graphically notated score, In Search of an Orchestration. Then followed On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969) in which he once more returned to precise notation. From then on, with the exception of two works in the early 1970s, he maintained control over pitch, rhythm, dynamics and duration.

In 1973 the University of New York at Buffalo asked Feldman to become the Edgard Varèse Professor, a post which he was to hold for the rest of his life.

From the late 1970s his compositions expanded in length to such a degree that the second string quartet can last for up to five and a half hours. The scale of these works in particular has often been the cause for the controversy surrounding his works, but he would always be happy to attempt to explain his reasoning behind them:

„My whole generation was hung up on the 20-25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about the 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 envolving things.“

Nine one-movement compositions by Feldman last for over one and a half hours each.

One of his last works, Palais de Mari from 1986, is unusual for a late composition in that it is only twenty minutes long. This came about from a request from Bunita Marcus, for whom it was written, for Feldman to sum up everything he was doing in the very long pieces and to condense that into a smaller piece. Knowing his sense of time, she asked for a ten minute work, knowing that it would probably be twice that length.

On September 3rd 1987 Morton Feldman died at his home in Buffalo aged 61.

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