As I come to value a feeling of peace and timelessness more and more in music, I worry that I’ll end up listening to nothing but Morton Feldman.
In the last decade or so of his life, Feldman (1926–1987) took to composing very long pieces made up of very spare, very quiet tapestries of notes, with generous doses of silence. The sounds are constantly changing, but the texture is nearly uniform within a piece.
Commentators on Feldman love to point out the paradox: Feldman himself was big, a six-foot-tall New Yorker who weighed almost 300 pounds, loved company, and talked constantly, loudly and brilliantly whenever he was with a sympathetic group of people. Yet he produced music distinguished by its delicacy, its spareness, and its lack of accountability to any musical tradition.
This piece from the New Yorker I think describes him and his work very well. I love one anecdote from it, which seems to me to capture the tension between Feldman the personality and Feldman the artist:
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 f***in’ loud, and it’s too f***in’ fast.”
Alone among contemporary composers, Feldman drew his inspiration less from other composers’ works than from the visual arts: first, from abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko; later, from the design of Oriental carpets, of which he was a collector and student. A painting or a carpet is a defined region filled with design; the viewer can study its patterns in any order, or stand back to view the whole work at once. Feldman’s pieces, being music, have to be experienced in sequence. But I suspect that he would have been happy if we were able to unstick ourselves in time, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, and explore his pieces freely, or somehow step back to experience them all at once.
Why are his best pieces so long? Part of the answer might be found in This review of one of the very rare performances of Feldman’s Second String Quartet, six hours long without breaks. The writer describes how, somewhere around the fourth hour of the performance, the audience became quieter, more focused on the music, and an intensely “gathered” experience dominated the end of the performance. He writes:
If I could have the magical experience of that final two hours without going through the first four, I would, but how would that be possible? The music’s effect is cumulative, creeping into your soul as it hardly deigns to notice you exist. And by the time those final chords come, filling you with an unexpected panic that the music is about to end, the sonic images you remember have become – almost too beautiful… almost too beautiful.
Each of Feldman’s works generates a unique world, embodying a version of what he called “vibrating stasis.” The works demand a kind of internal stasis from their listeners, one that isn’t easily arrived at. Seldom shorter than an hour, they allow us time to still ourselves to the point where we can enter into their quiet, subtle intricacies.
As introductions to Feldman, I like Rothko Chapel and The Viola in My Life. Both are beautiful and perhaps more like music as we usually think of it than some of his works. If you find these to your liking, try Triadic Memories (for unaccompanied piano) and Piano and String Quartet.
If we listen to Feldman with anything like the attention that he asks of us, I think we’ll find that we’ve been taught and changed, that our ability to sit and listen, so lacking in so many of us, will be subtly altered for the better.