Some people like to think that music is always somehow about something… usually them.  My bad love affair, the world will never understand me, much less remember me.  And lots of music — from the troubadours with their songs of courtly love  to the meditations and dramas of the romantics to the skitterings and upheavals of the New Vienna School — have been a kind of narrative of this beleaguered self, or if you will, the audience’s identification with the composer’s ups and downs. But the New York School  of Earle Brown (1926-2002), Christian Wolff (1936-  ),  John Cage (1912 -1992), and Morton Feldman (1926-1987) threw  this book out the window. Like the abstract expressionist painters with whom they were friendly, they believed in the concept of art as abstraction, not a representation of something external.  They wanted their listeners to experience music as sound unmoored from any story frame, an event in and of itself. Morton Feldman made a career out this approach and his focus on the specifics of sound was his calling card.

FOR JOHN CAGE (1982), which violinist Graeme Jennings, late of the Arditti Quartet, and and Christopher Jones performed here in mid-September as part of the sfSound Series, has all the stylistic hallmarks of his late work. It’s ultra soft – down to ppp – has an evenness of color, and its duration –78 miniutes– is roughly the same as a Bruckner or Mahler symphony, or the Beethoven 9th. But what happens in that time frame is an entirely different  story.

Feldman isn’t after a logical dialectical continuity but an ahistorical present, and this can make his music, with its fragmentary gestures, seem odd, or even empty. But Jennings and Jones made that lack of “content “ convincing,  and urgent. A slow steady sequence of quietly inflected piano chords sounded as if they were going somewhere, and Jenning’s playing of Feldman’s circumscribed violin gestures — cells, simple, spaced chords, harmonics -– was equally acute. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the composer achieved a kind of Brechtian alienation effect/affect by having the violinist use a leather mute, and the pianist play with the damper pedal half depressed so that the music appeared to disappear as it was being heard.

Classic masters like Brahms meditated on the past in the solo movements of his violin sonatas, but that past existed within a kind of narrative frame, whereas here only a present  past survived. Feldman’s music is both annoying –- when will it change, and where will it end ? –- and transcendent, and Jennings and Jones came down squarely on the side of the latter. And  the music seemed to gain much of its poetry from the place where it was played. A big mirrored dance rehearsal studio, with a spic and span Steinway grand where each sound had its tenuous, and all too fleeting life.

6 Responses to “Being, Nothingness and Morton Feldman”
  1. Thanks Michael and zeno! I must check out more Feldman.

    I like the ‘in media res’ reference – so Feldman’s work can be conceptualised as a non-narrative sort of ‘in media res’; however, one that remains ‘in media’!

  2. Pleased to see my piece on Feldman has caused something of a stir.

    Feldman was apparently against the dialectical approach / form of the classic masters — thesis, antitthesis.. –and in favor of something not unlike Stockhausen’s Momentform, which I was going to bring up in my piece. Feldman’s stubborn insistence on his pieces not going anywhere, or at least not going anywhere we expect or want them to, can validate Virgil Thomson’s remark that some of Cage’s pieces were ” all middle. ”

    Shakespeare’s plays always start in the middle of things ( in media res ), but they’re always intent on telling you something — and — going somewhere, Not a criticiism, but a description of two disparate ways of making art.

    And by ahistorical I meant that Feldman apparently meant his pieces to be experienced as if nothing came before them — other composers, and the history attached to them — and nothing came after.

    And yes Feldman doesn’t really work any way but live. I re-played the vinyl Rothko Chapel, which didn’t sound anything like whatI heard when I heard the SF Contemporary Music Players do it live in the big white rotunda of SF MOMA, in its old Van Ness digs. And met the charming composer after.

  3. zeno says:

    Fascinating post and comments. Thank you.

    Having heard Graeme Jennings performing solo at Hertz Hall fairly recently, I’m sure that I too would very much have enjoyed this live duo concert.

    As to Mr Baker’s postscript, while not what he is exactly looking for, violinist and conductor Paul Zukofsky’s letter to Morty at about the time of Feldman’s passing is — I believe — highly intriguing (for those who haven’t seen it before –Perhaps it can be read at the same time as one (re) reads Stockhausen’s Momentform essay):



    [Mr Zukofsky has paired, on CP2, a recent chamber recording of Feldman and Babbitt; if not Feldman and Stockhausen.]

  4. davidcoll says:

    This was an incredible concert, one of the best I’ve attended in a long time. Not only were the musicians clearly interpreting feldman, but they and the audience were very much connected.

    I think one big reason is because of the nights simplicity- it was just one piece, and the audience had an idea of what they were going to get- and yet it became clear quite quickly that hearing this music live is the only true experience of it.

  5. Robert A. Baker says:

    I love the paradox in the opening comment (I should say, not an error on the part of the writer):
    1. “Feldman isn’t after a logical dialectical continuity but an ahistorical present” – this reminds me of Stockhausen’s ideas on Moment Form and ‘vertical cuts’ in time, exploding a moment into infinity (from his article Momentform) and therefore embracing the discontinuous musical expression.
    … and then, 2.
    “But Jennings and Jones made that lack of “content “ convincing, and urgent. A slow steady sequence of quietly inflected piano chords sounded as if they were going somewhere, …” – suggesting a sense (for that listener) of continuity and directionality, despite not being “after a logical dialectical continuity”. Of course, Stockhauen did say that each of his ‘moments’ may or may not have a sense of goal orientation themselves, but that the overall form was discontinuous.

    It’s the sort of multiplicity that is the foundation of Kramer’s book, The Time of Music; the idea that the music-temporal experience is always multiple, a beautiful paradoxical combination of continuity and discontinuity, directedness and non-directedness.

    I must stop, but lastly, the use of the word ‘ahistorical’ is lovely! This of course is extremely rich in temporal implication! Can a present moment be without history? Is Feldman in fact (as the above comment says) “extremely historically aware and he is making an ironic statement on the futility of a prescribed form …”
    I don’t know that I’m convinced of this … although he is certainly employing a ‘non-prescribed form.’

    Nice post!

    p.s. Does anyone know of any articles/writings that relate Feldman and Stockhausen?

  6. Brian Vlasak says:

    Perhaps it was a statement on the fleeting nature of the present. Isn’t that the cool thing about Feldman: the fact that he doesn’t necessarily repeat himself, but rather, he changes the context in which we hear an object — just as when we ask someone to repeat a phrase to us that perhaps we didn’t hear correctly the first time, it’s different because the context in which it is repeated has changed.

    I would contend that, viewing his work in this light, Feldman is actually extremely historically aware and he is making an ironic statement on the futility of a prescribed form that perhaps Mahler or Beethoven would have used.