Morton Feldman was one of the most significant composers of his generation, considered by many a genius. A truly original voice, he composed music of a still, tranquil quality that never stated itself in the same way twice and contained little melodic movement. “I like that particular type of music that does not push,” Feldman, citing Mozart as one of the composers he most admires, told David Charlton for the student arts magazine Opus 2.
In his early works Feldman, who preferred instinctive methods over traditional compositional “rhetoric,” wrote in graphic notation, using nontraditional symbols to represent rhythm, pitch, and dynamics. This can be seen in his 1951 piece Structures for string quartet. Later, Feldman gave prescribed pitches, but left the rhythm to be determined, such as with The Swallows of Salagan, written in 1960. Feldman, however, is best known for his later works. These were fully notated, predominantly quiet, free from dramatic gestures, and frequently written for unusual groups of instruments. Some were very long in duration, such as the six-hour String Quartet No. 2 from 1983.
Though Feldman’s death spurred a wider interest in his music, the composer himself never sought outside acceptance to validate his work, and unlike other minimalist composers such as Philip Glass or Steve Reich, he refused to court crossover success. “You know,” he once told Marc Shulgold in an interview published in the Los Angeles Times, “most composers buy into the country club, but not me. I invented another game, and I survived through three decades.” Feldman, incidentally, despised the term minimalism, referring to the label as another aspect of middle America.
Born on January 12, 1926, in New York City, Feldman was one of two children born to Irving Feldman and Francis (Breskin) Feldman, who operated a garment business. Feldman, too, would rely upon his family’s trade (until 1967) to make a living, maintaining an unusually casual attitude about his career as composer. “I never pursued composing as a profession. I was in the family business until middle age—children’s wear,” he told Shulgold. “In New York, it’s like growing corn in lowa. The way I see it, that’s one reason I succeeded; I never had to worry about earning a living by it. Really, being in business saved me.” Feldman also believed that deciding not to attend music college aided in his development. As a student, almost all of his learning was accomplished through private instruction.
Feldman’s musical gifts appeared obvious from the start. One of his earliest memories was learning to pick out Jewish folk tunes on the piano, and he started composing his own songs at age eight. At 12 he began studying the piano with Madame Maurina-Press, a former pupil of Ferrucio Busoni. She instilled in Feldman the vibrant sense of musicality that would endure throughout his life. After briefly attending the High School for Music and Arts, Feldman, in 1941, took lessons with 12-tone composer Wallingford Riegger, then, three years later, with Stefan Wolpe. He disagreed with many of their views, however, and despite both men’s international stature and reputation, Feldman reportedly spent most of his time arguing with his instructors.
Up to this point, Feldman wrote in a traditional musical style. But his focus began to shift in 1950 after attending a New York Philharmonic concert of Anton We-bern’s Symphony. At the performance he met fellow composer John Cage, and the two became instant friends. Cage pushed Feldman to follow his own instincts and to concentrate on writing music without using the methods he learned from his teachers. Inspired with this newfound confidence, Feldman abandoned traditional musical concepts, or serial technique (in which the composer specifies almost every aspect of the music: rhythm, melody, harmony, and instrumentation, among others).
Feldman and Cage began to experiment with the idea of “chance” or “indeterminism” in music (leaving rhythm, melody, pitch, etc. unspecified) and the use of nonstandard notion, namely grids. For instance, Cage’s piece entitled Music of Changes called for the played notes to be determined by I Ching (Book of changes), an ancient Chinese system of divination based on a book of Taoist philosophy and expressed in hexagrams chosen at random and interpreted to answer questions and give advice.
For the Record…
Born on January 12, 1926, in New York, NY; died on September 3, 1987, in Buffalo, NY; married composer Barbara Monk, 1987. Education: Studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press and composition with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe.
Began composing at age eight; enrolled in formal training at age 12; met John Cage, who encouraged him to employ chance in his music, 1950; first composition using graph notation appeared with his Projection series, 1950-51; composed his first piece in open form, Intermission VI for one or two pianos, 1953; returned to graph notation for Straits of Magellan, 1961; completed On Time and the Instrumental Factor, returning to precise notation for the remainder of his career, 1969; composed the more traditional Rothko Chapel, 1971; completed his longest piece, String Quartet No. 2, 1983.
Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, 1966; elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1970.
Along with Cage, Feldman developed relationships with like-minded composers Earl Brown, Christian Wolf, and David Tudor. Collectively known as the “New York School,” they rejected traditional musical logic for indeterminacy or chance. Interestingly, these composers discovered their greatest source of inspiration from prominent abstract painters on the New York arts scene, among them Philip Guston (Feldman’s closest friend), Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Jasper Johns. “The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore,” Feldman later wrote, as quoted by John Voigt for Scribner’s Encyclopedia of American Lives.
Feldman’s first example of composing using his new system—graph notation—was the Projection series of 1950 and 1951. Within these indeterminate scores, players select notes from a prescribed register and time structure, and improvise from there. The orchestral graph pieces Intersection I and Marginal Intersection were also completed in 1951. For both, he used his mother’s pots and pans, intending the percussive aspect to sound like noise. But Feldman was soon dissatisfied with the amount of freedom these works gave the performer. Rather than giving freedom to the individual, Feldman instead wanted to find a way to free the music itself. To this end, he completely abandoned graph notation until around the late 1950s, reverting to traditional notation for the 1951 pieces Structures for string quartet and Extensions 1.
During this period, however, Feldman viewed his writing without graphs as too one-dimensional and restrictive. His Intermission VI for one or two pianos, composed in 1953, was his first piece written in “open form.” This framework presented the performer with musical elements from which to choose. After this, Feldman returned to the graph system, producing the orchestral pieces Atlantis (1959) and Out of Last Pieces (1960). In Durations, a series of instrumental works written in 1960 and 1961, Feldman specified both the notes to be played and the tempo, but directed the performers—starting simultaneously—to choose their own durations. He sometimes called this method “race-course” notation.
Feldman’s use of graph or graph-like notation prevailed during the 1960s, resulting in such scores as Straits of Magellan (1961) and In Search of an Orchestration (1967), his last graphically notated work. After completing On Time and the Instrumental Factor in 1969, he returned to precise notation for the remainder of his career. “In these works,” the National Endowment for the Arts concluded in an online biography of Feldman, “he kept his patterns of chords, notes, motives or sounds carefully arranged so that their repetitions would not be recognized as repetitions, their patterns not discernable, the memory disoriented, so that the sounds themselves might always seem new and compelling.”
All of Feldman’s works, regardless of the methods used, contain his signature stillness. Music historians regard Why Patterns? (1978), The Viola in My Life series (1970-71), False Relationships and the Extended Ending (1968), and Rothko Chapel (1971) as his only major pieces that suggest the traditional classical elements of contrast and development. His later works, which Feldman himself admitted were probably not suitable for performance, like String Quartet No. 2 (1983) and For Philip Guston (1984), known for their extreme length. One exception to this focus was one of his last pieces, the 20-minute long Palais de Mari (1986), written for composer Bunita Marcus at her request.
Succumbing to pancreatic cancer, Feldman died on September 3, 1987, at his home in Buffalo, New York, at the age of 61. He had married composer Barbara Monk in June of the same year. Aside from composing, Feldman also dedicated many years to educating aspiring musicians. In 1972 he joined the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo and from 1976 until 1979, served as the director of the school’s Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Formal recognition for Feldman’s work included a 1966 Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, in 1970, and the Koussevitsky Foundation, in 1975,
Projection 1 (cello), 1950.
Two Intermissions (piano), 1950.
Piece for Violin and Piano, 1950.
Nature Pieces (piano), 1951.
Four Songs to e.e. cummings (soprano, piano, cello), 1951.
Intermission 3 (piano), 1951.
Projection 2 (flute, trumpet, piano, violin, cello), 1951.
Projection 3 (two pianos), 1951.
Projection 3 (two pianos), 1951.
Projection 5 (three flutes, trumpet, two pianos, three cellos), 1951.
Intersection 1 (large orchestra), 1951.
Three Ghostlike Songs and Interlude (voice, trombone, viola, piano), 1951.
Structures (string quartet), 1951.
Variations (piano), 1951.
Music for the Film “Jackson Pollock” (two cellos), 1951.
Marginal Intersection (large orchestra), 1951.
Intersection 2 (piano), 1951.
Intermission 4 (piano), 1952.
Intermission 5 (piano), 1952.
Intersection for Magnetic Tape (eight track tape), 1953.
Intersection 3 (piano), 1953.
Intermission 6 (one or two pianos), 1953.
Intersection 4 (cello), 1953.
Music for the Film “Sculpture by Lipton,” 1954.
Piano Three Hands, 1957.
Piano Four Hands, 1958.
Ixion (chamber ensemble), 1958.
Last Pieces (piano), 1959.
Atlantis (chamber ensemble; two versions), 1959.
Durations 1 (alto-flute, piano, violin, cello), 1960.
Durations 2 (cello, piano), 1960.
Something Wild in the City: Mary Ann’s Theme (horn, celesta, string quartet), 1960.
Unfitted Film Music (flute, horn trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion, double-bass), 1960.
The Sin of Jesus (Score for Untitted Film) (flute, horn, trumpet, cello), 1960.
Ixion (2nd version of Ixion, 1958; two pianos), 1960.
The Swallows of Salangan (chorus, chamber ensemble), 1960.
Durations 3 (violin, tuba, piano), 1961.
Durations 4 (vibraphone, violin, cello), 1961.
Durations 5 (horn, vibraphone, harp, piano/celesta, violin, cello), 1961.
Out of Last Pieces (orchestra), 1961.
Intervals (bass-baritone, trombone, percussion, vibraphone, cello), 1961.
The Straits of Magellan (flute, horn, trumpet, harp, electric guitar, piano, double-bass), 1961.
Structures for Orchestra, 1962.
For Franz Kline (soprano, horn, chimes, piano, violin, cello), 1962.
The O’Hara Songs (bass-baritone, chimes, piano, violin, viola, cello), 1962.
Christian Wolff in Cambridge (chorus a cappella), 1963.
Piano Piece (to Philip Guston), 1963.
De Kooning (horn, percussion, piano, violin, cello), 1963.
Vertical Thoughts 1 (two pianos), 1963.
Vertical Thoughts 2 (two pianos), 1963.
Vertical Thoughts 3 (soprano, chamber ensemble), 1963.
Vertical Thoughts 4 (piano), 1963.
Vertical Thoughts 5 (soprano, tuba, percussion, celesta, violin), 1963.
Rabbi Akiba (soprano, chamber ensemble), 1963.
Chorus and Instruments (chorus, chamber ensemble), 1963.
Music for the Film “Willem De Kooning, The Painter,” 1964.
Piano Piece 1964, 1964.
The King of Denmark (percussion), 1964.
Numbers (chamber ensemble), 1964.
The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar, 1966.
Chorus and Instruments II (chorus, tuba, chimes), 1967.
In Search of an Orchestration (orchestra), 1967.
First Principles (chamber ensemble), 1967.
False Relationships and the Extended Ending (trombone, three pianos, chimes, violin, cello), 1968.
Samoa (flute, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, vibraphone, piano, cello), 1968.
Between Categories (two pianos, two chimes, two violins, two cellos), 1969.
On Time and the Instrumental Factor (orchestra), 1969.
Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety (chamber ensemble), 1970.
The Viola in My Life I (viola, flute, violin, cello, piano, percussion), 1970.
The Viola in My Life II (viola, flute, clarinet, percussion, celesta, violin, cello), 1970.
The Viola in My Life III (viola, piano), 1970.
The Viola in My Life IV (viola, orchestra), 1971.
I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg (chamber ensemble), 1971.
Rothko Chapel (viola, percussion, celesta, soprano, alto, chorus), 1971.
Haif a Minute It’s All I’ve Time For (clarinet, trombone, piano, cello), 1972.
Voices and Instruments (chamber ensemble, chorus), 1972.
Chorus and Orchestra II (chorus, orchestra), 1972.
For Frank O’Hara (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, cello), 1973.
Voices and Cello (two female voices, cello), 1973.
Piano and Orchestra, 1975.
Instruments II (chamber ensemble), 1975.
Four Instruments (piano, violin, viola, cello), 1975.
Oboe and Orchestra, 1976.
Voice, Violin and Piano (female voice, violin, piano), 1976.
Elemental Procedures (soprano, chorus, orchestra), 1976.
Routine Investigations (oboe, trumpet, piano, viola, cello, double-bass), 1976.
Neither (Opera in One Act) (soprano, orchestra), 1977.
Spring of Chosroes (violin, piano), 1977.
Why Patterns? (flute, piano, percussion), 1978.
String Quartet, 1979.
The Turfan Fragments (orchestra), 1980.
Principal Sound (organ), 1980.
Patterns in a Chromatic Field (cello, piano), 1981.
Triadic Memories (piano), 1981.
For Aaron Copland (violin), 1981.
For John Cage (violin, piano), 1982.
Crippled Symmetry (flute, piano, percussion), 1983.
String Quartet No. 2, 1983.
For Philip Guston (flute, piano, percussion), 1984.
For Bunita Marcus (piano), 1985.
Violin and String Quartet, 1985.
Piano and String Quartet, 1985.
Coptic Light (orchestra), 1985.
For Christian Wolff (flute, piano), 1986.
For Stefan Wolpe (chorus, two vibraphones), 1986.
Palais de Mari (piano), 1986.
Samuel Beckett, Words and Music (two flutes, vibraphone, piano, violin, viola, cello), 1987.
For Samuel Beckett (chamber ensemble), 1987.
Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, 1987.
For Philip Guston, California EAR, 1984.
Three Voices for Joan La Barbara, New Albion, 1989.
Works for Piano, hatHUT, 1990.
Rothko Chapel, New Albion, 1991.
For Samuel Beckett, hatART, 1991.
Piano and Orchestra, Col Legnio, 1991.
Viola in My Life/False Relationships and the Extended Ending, CRI, 1992.
Principal Sound, Bis, 1992.
For Christian Wolff, hatHUT, 1992.
Piano and String Quartet, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993.
String Quartet, Koch, 1994.
For Bunita Marcus, hatHUT, 1994.
Morton Feldman: Piano Three Hands, Edition RZ, 1994.
Why Patterns?/Crippled Field, hatHUT, 1995.
Why PatternsinaChromatic Field, hatHUT, 1995.
Works for Piano, Vol. 2, hatHUT, 1995.
Coptic Light, Argo, 1995.
Pieces for More Than Two Pianos, Sub Rosa, 1996.
Triadic Memories, Sub Rosa, 1996.
For Franz Kline/The O’Hara Songs, Werfo, 1996.
Morton Feldman 2: Words and Music, Auvidis, 1996.
Aki Takahashi Plays Morton Feldman, Mode, 1996.
Only: Works for Voice and Instruments, New Albion, 1996.
Durations 1-V/Coptic Light, Cpo, 1997.
First Recordings: 1950s, Mode, 1997.
Music of Morton Feldman, CRI, 1997.
Neither, hatHUT, 1997.
Piano and Orchestra/Flute and Orchestra, Cpo, 1997.
Trio, hatART, 1999.
For John Cage, Aim, 1999.
Trio (New Class), hatHUT, 1999.
Crippled Symmetry, Bridge, 1999.
For Stefan Wolpe: The Choral Music of Morton Feldman, New World, 1999.
Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano, Attacca, 1999.
Atlantis, hatHUT, 2000.
All Piano, London Hall, 2000.
Words and Music, Naïve, 2001.
Violin and String Quartet, OgreOgress, 2001.
Indeterminate Music, Mode, 2001.
Piano and String Quartet, hatART, 2002.
String Quartet, hatART, 2002.
Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, Elektra/Nonesuch, 2002.
Routine Investigations, Montaigne, 2002.
For Samuel Beckett (Newport), Newport, 2002.
Caras, Tracy, and Cole Gagne, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, Scarecrow Press, 1982.
Jackson, Kenneth T., editor, Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Vol. 2: 1986-1990, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1999.
American Record Guide, January/February 2001; May/June 2001; September/October 2001; January/February 2002; May/June 2002; July/August 2002.
Canadian Arts, January 1964.
Chicago Tribune, September 5, 1987; November 14, 1993.
Down Beat, January 1992; February 1993; May 1995.
Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1986; September 5, 1987; March 13, 1989; August 6, 1996; January 11, 2002.
Music and Letters, November 1997.
Music and Musicians, July 1966; June 1972; May 1977.
Musical Times, August 1972; Autumn 2001.
New York Times, February 17, 2002.
Opus 2, Spring 1967.
Ossia: A Journal of Contemporary Music, Winter 1989.
Percussive Notes, September 1983.
Perspectives of New Music, Winter 1996.
Pulse!, December 1997.
Studio International, November 1976.
Tempo: A Quarterly Review of Modern Music, December 1998.
TriQuarterly 54, Spring 1982.
Village Voice, June 16, 1980; July 23, 1996; April 29, 1997; February 24, 1998; May 2, 2000.
“Morton Feldman,” National Endowment for the Arts, http://arts.endow.gov (January 2, 2003).
“Morton Feldman,” New Albion Records, http://www.newalbion.com (January 2, 2003)
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Morton Feldman, 1926–87, American modernist composer, b. New York City. An associate of John Cage and other experimental composers, Feldman was part of the so-called New York school. He was also a friend of many of the major painters involved in abstract expressionism, and the directness, immediacy, and elements of chance that characterize his work were heavily influenced by their philosophy and work. Among compositions directly inspired by these artists are Rothko Chapel (1971) and For Philip Guston (1984). Also influenced by the visual arts was the new system of graph musical notation Feldman developed in the early 1950s and used until 1960. It employed symbols to indicate such elements as register, interval, and texture and allowed for improvisation. Among his works using graph notation are Projection (1950) and Atlantis (1958). Feldman often concentrated on sound rather than form, and is especially known for his delicate, extremely muted and moody minimalist compositions. During the 1970s his works became much longer in duration, with his String Quartet II (1983) lasting up to six hours. Feldman wrote compositions for orchestra, chorus, solo voices and instruments, and chamber ensembles.
See his collected writings (ed. by B. H. Friedman, 2001) and Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964–1987 (ed. by C. Villars, 2006); T. Delio, ed., The Music of Morton Feldman (1996); S. Johnson, ed., The New York Schools of Music and the Visual Arts (2001).
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Also vocal and choral works, solo works for vc., perc., and org., and many works for pf. (solo or for 2, 3, 4, or 5 pfs.).
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