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Feldman, Morton

(b New York, 12 Jan 1926; d Buffalo, NY, 3 Sept 1987). American composer. Influenced by abstract painting, his music often employs alternative notational and organizational systems that contribute to a compositional style centred on gestural, timbral and non-metric relationships.

1. Life.

2. Works.





Feldman, Morton

1. Life.

He studied composition with Riegger and Wolpe, but especially admired Varèse’s music. Early in his career he distanced himself from traditional academic training, earning his living by working in his family’s business. Later he served as dean of the New York Studio School (1969–71). A residency in Berlin (1971–2) generated commissions from European orchestras and radio organizations, gaining him wider attention and leading to compositions for larger ensembles. From 1973 until his death, he taught composition as the Edgard Varèse Professor of Music at SUNY, Buffalo.

Feldman’s aesthetic crystallized in the early 1950s when he became associated with John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and David Tudor. His strongest influence, however, came from New York abstract expressionist painters. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and especially Philip Guston stimulated Feldman to imagine a sound world unlike any he had ever heard. Throughout his career, he adhered with remarkable consistency to a few tenets learned from them: a dislike of intellectual system and compositional rhetoric; a hostility to past forms of expression; a preference for abstract gestures set in flat ‘all-over’ planes of time; an obsession with the physical materials of art; a belief in handmade methods; and a trust in instinct. He defended this aesthetic in a number of essays written over the course of his career. Some of these are autobiographical, even nostalgic (‘Give My Regards to Eighth Street’), while others involve polemical attacks on system-conscious European composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen (‘The Anxiety of Art’). In ‘Crippled Symmetry’ he wrote straightforwardly about his compositional methods and his inspiration from the visual arts.

Feldman, Morton

2. Works.

Feldman found his voice early with Two Intermissions (1950), a conventionally notated pair of short, quiet pieces for the piano. Both project isolated, non-systematically chosen tones and chords into what might be called ‘open time’, musical space in which metrical divisions are absent aurally even though they may exist notationally. Seeking a more complete expulsion of traditional rhetoric, however, he soon began to explore new notational strategies.

His first graphic scores, the five Projections (1950–51), use horizontal rows of connected boxes to delineate units of time. In Projection 1 for solo cello three rows specify either harmonics, plucked (P) or bowed (A) timbres (fig.2). Inside the time boxes Feldman drew smaller squares and rectangles to represent sound events. He suggested the general register of the sounds by setting the squares and rectangles either at the top, middle or bottom of the time box. The sounds’ temporal placement was also communicated spatially, based on the square’s position from left to right. In Projections for other instruments, numbers inside the squares specify chords, corresponding, for example, to the number of pitches to be attacked simultaneously.

While the graphic scores leave pitch choice to the performer and suggest only approximate durations, they clearly define density, timbre, areas of differing rhythmic activity and the overall shape of the sound. Relatively distinct sections, therefore, do appear in this music. Passages in Intersection 2 (1951) for the piano are distinguished by thick or thin textures, or by variances in the frequency of events; some passages are hectically diverse, while others maintain a more consistent level of activity. When performed with atonal materials, as Feldman intended, the scores produce abstract fields of quiet, slow-moving events, floating free of metric emphasis and purified of references to the past. After 1953, however, discouraged by a lapse of appreciation by some performers, he abandoned graphic notation as a main technique, returning to it only occasionally in such works as Atlantis (1959), Out of ‘Last Pieces’ (1961), The King of Denmark (1964) and In Search of an Orchestration (1967).

In the later 1950s and during the 1960s Feldman began writing pieces that specified pitch but left duration indeterminate. This method took several forms. The Piece for Four Pianos (1957) introduced a technique that can be described as non-synchronous time. The work’s one-page score presents a series of atonal chords and a few isolated tones placed on staves without barlines (ex.1). The four pianists read the same part, beginning the piece together but each progressing at their own pace. Feldman described the result as ‘reverberations from an identical sound source’. The music divides into segments defined by density, registral position, or the repetition of a single event or small group of events. Its sectional character helps the listener hear the irregular echoes of one player against another.

While Feldman returned repeatedly to this method, in later pieces, such as Piano Four Hands (1958), Durations I–V (1960–61) and For Franz Kline (1962), each performer plays his or her own part. Thus, as Feldman conceived it, ‘each instrument [lives] out its own individual life in its own individual sound world’. In many other works of the 1960s (e.g., Vertical Thoughts, DeKooning, First Principles), Feldman exerted greater control over the order and alignment of events while leaving durations indeterminate. The events in DeKooning, for example, usually proceed in notationally open time, but dotted lines from one event to another specify the desired sequence of events and vertical lines designate simultaneities (ex.2). Interspersed sporadically throughout these scores are short (often one-bar) segments in a conventional metre. Since these almost always present either silence or a single sustained event, however, they do not create conventional rhythmic patterns, but rather show periodic attempts to regulate the space between events.

The various notational strategies of the 1950s and 60s had a minimal effect on the sound of Feldman’s music. When he returned to fully conventional notation around 1970, however, there was a slight yet perceptible change. The first works of this period, the first three Viola in My Life pieces (1970), introduced a conspicuous new lyricism. Short bursts of viola melody appear amidst the familiar sparse textures and quiet atonal sonorities of the work. Because he had so consistently avoided melody in the past, these bursts sound almost tuneful, even though they remain fragmentary by conventional standards. Frequent use of crescendo and decrescendo, largely absent from both earlier and later compositions, give the music an uncustomary expressivity. In some passages, such as the end of Viola II, consonant pitch collections heighten the lyricism.

Rothko Chapel (1971), commissioned as a tribute to the Houston chapel and its painter, who had killed himself the year before, culminated this intense but short-lived lyrical period. The close bond between Feldman and Rothko inspired the composer to build abundant extramusical references into the piece, some of which he specified. The uncharacteristic sectionalism reflected his physical impression of the chapel, certain passages stood for the chapel paintings and some intervals invoked the atmosphere of a synagogue. The music combines viola lyricism with melodic fragments for soprano and stationary atonal choral chords. The piece concludes with a nostalgic, long-breathed viola melody in E and A minor, written when Feldman was 15.

Most of Feldman’s music of the 1970s, however, exhibits his customary abstract language. He considered his For Frank O’Hara (1973) typical of his style, with its ‘flat’ minimally contrasting surface. Yet the music actually falls into relatively discrete sections, distinguished by the position of events in pitch space, use of distinctive timbral combinations and textural variation. Some sections are unified by the repetition of harmonies, which may return literally or in spatially varied forms. Many constructions use all-adjacent pitch classes (or pitch class clusters), a technique favoured by Feldman throughout his career.

Feldman’s late style combined the ingredients of his earlier music – atonality, low volume levels, austere textures and open time – with several new elements. First, the size of individual sound events increased slightly. Whereas events in earlier music consisted mainly of single attacks without rhythmic identity and metric context, those in the late music frequently involve brief one- or two-bar gestures. These often appear as separate sound blocks with distinct rhythmic motives, and may consist of melodic fragments, short chord progressions, or single harmonies rendered in broken chords (ex.3).

Second, Feldman embraced minimalist repetition. In his early works he occasionally built long passages with repeated single tones, chords, or short figures (e.g., the conventionally notated Intermission V and Extensions III, both from 1952). Now, he began using literal as well as varied repetition. Individual motifs or small groups of gestures repeat consecutively as many as 12 or 13 times. This helped Feldman achieve his goal of disorienting the listener’s memory, emphasizing the stationary character of individual gestures and de-emphasizing patterns that might arise from progressions of different gestures. He compared himself to Mondrian in this way, an artist who did not want to paint ‘bouquets, but a single flower at a time’.

The use of bigger gestures and constant repetition led to a third important characteristic: the tendency to compose pieces of enormous length. Many of the late works (Patterns in a Chromatic Field, For Bunita Marcus) run continuously for over an hour, some for four or five (For Philip Guston, String Quartet II). This reflects Feldman’s preoccupation with scale over form and his interest in enveloping environments, in which listeners experience music from ‘inside’ a composition.

In some late works Feldman returned to the non-synchronous technique he had used since the late 1950s. In Why Patterns? (1978), for example, the three players (flute, piano, glockenspiel) move at their own pace through their parts, which divide into fairly distinct segments. Each segment is relatively consistent in its use of material, employing the kind of systematic methods Feldman had long derided. A few compositions include aurally undetectable isorhythms and another uses a 12-note serial procedure in combination with an elaborate rotation scheme, producing a long, undifferentiated sequence of whole-tone dyads. Such music reveals a new ironic attitude towards system, in which Feldman conceals highly ordered patterns with banal material. This interest derived in part from his attraction to the woven patterns in Anatolian rugs and to Jasper John’s crosshatch paintings, which feature a sly balance of hidden regulation and mundane repetition. Other textile-inspired works include Crippled Symmetry (1983), which resembles Why Patterns? in its material, instrumentation and non-synchronized score; and Coptic Light (1986), Feldman’s last orchestral work. The latter piece, inspired by the early Coptic textiles at the Louvre, has an inordinately dense, undulating texture. Its opening passage superimposes over 20 different layers, each repeating a simple pattern.

Other late pieces, using conventional synchronized notation, focus on a single gesture at a time. In many passages the connection between gestures seems random, a product of Feldman’s aimless, psycho-automatic mind. But in others, gestures evolve one into another in a manner approaching organic development. The opening broken chord of Triadic Memories, for example, yields after about four minutes, first to one, then another, broken chord, each of which relates rhythmically and harmonically to the initial event.

These compositions typically alternate, albeit irregularly, between passages that concentrate exclusively on one gesture and those that group together many different ones. In passages of the first kind, Feldman often alters an aspect of a gesture continually, even while keeping most of its elements intact. The harmony and rhythms of the opening gesture of Triadic Memories remain constant, for instance, but its sonic character steadily changes as its upper and lower elements gradually exchange registers. In passages of the second kind, Feldman habitually shuffles and re-shuffles the order of gestures. According to the composer, such modular construction allowed him to avoid the occurrence of predictable patterns while preserving the self-contained, inorganic character of his musical gestures.

Feldman, Morton



Ixion (Summerspace) (ballet), 10 insts, 1958 [rev. for 2 pf, 1965]; Neither (op, 1, S. Beckett), S, orch, 1977, Rome Opera, 13 May 1977; Samuel Beckett, Words and Music (incid music for radio play), 1987


Intersection I, 1951; Marginal Intersection, 1951; Atlantis, 1959; Out of ‘Last Pieces’, 1961; Structures, 1962; First Principles, chbr orch, 1967; In Search of an Orchestration, 1967; On Time and the Inst Factor, 1969; The Viola in my Life [IV], va, orch, 1971; Vc and Orch, 1972; Str Qt and Orch, 1973; Pf and Orch, 1975; Ob and Orch, 1976; Orch, 1976; Fl and Orch, 1978; Vn and Orch, 1979; The Turfan Frags., 1980; Coptic Light, 1986; For Samuel Beckett, chbr orch, 1987


Choral: The Swallows of Salangan, SATB, 4 fl, a fl, 5 tpt, 2 tuba, 2 vib, 2 pf, 7 vc, 1960; Chorus and Insts, SATB, hn, perc, cel, vn, vc, db, 1963; Christian Wolff in Cambridge, SATB, 1963; Chorus and Insts II, SATB, tuba, tubular bells, 1967; Chorus and Orch, 1971; Rothko Chapel, S, A, chorus, perc, cel, va, 1971; Chorus and Orch II, S, chorus, orch, 1972; Pf and Voices (Pf and Voices II), vv, 5 pf, 1972; Voices and Insts, chorus, 2 fl, eng hn, cl, bn, hn, perc, pf, db, 1972; Elemental Procedures, S, chorus, orch, 1976; For Stepan Wolpe, chorus, vib, 1986

Solo: Only, 1946; Journey to the End of the Night (after L.-F. Céliné), S, fl, cl, b cl, bn, 1949; 4 Songs (e e cummings), S, pf, vc, 1951; Intervals, B-Bar, trbn, vc, vib, perc, 1961; For Franz Kline, S, vn, hn, vc, tubular bells, pf, 1962; The O’Hara Songs (F. O’Hara), B-Bar, vn, va, vc, tubular bells, pf, 1962; Rabbi Akiba, S, fl, eng hn, hn, tpt, trbn, tuba, perc, pf, 1963; Vertical Thoughts III, S, fl, hn, tpt, trbn, tuba, perc, cel + pf, 1963; Vertical Thoughts V, S, vn, tuba, perc, cel, 1963; I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg, Mez, fl + pic, cl + b cl, perc, pf, vn, vc, 1971; 5 Pf (Pf and Voices), 5 S, 5 pf, 1972; Voice and Insts, S, orch, 1972; Voices and Insts II, 3 high vv, fl, 2 vc, db, 1973; Voices and Vc, 2 high vv, vc, 1973; Voice and Insts II, 1v, cl, vc, db, 1974; Voice, Vn, Pf, 1976; 3 Voices (O’Hara), 1/3 S, tape, 1982


5 or more insts: Projection II, fl, tpt, vn, vc, pf, 1951; Projection V, 3 fl, tpt, 2 pf, 3 vc, 1951; 11 Insts, fl, a fl, hn, tpt, b tpt, trbn, tuba, vib, pf, vn, vc, 1953; 2 Pieces, fl, a fl, hn, tpt, vn, vc, 1956; Durations V, hn, vib, cel + pf, vn, vc, 1961; 2 Pieces, cl, str qt, 1961; The Straits of Magellan, fl, hn, tpt, pf, amp gui, hp, db, 1961; DeKooning, hn, vn, vc, perc, pf, 1963; Numbers, fl, hn, trbn, tuba, perc, cel, pf, vn, db, 1964; False Relationships and the Extended Ending, trbn, tubular bells, 3 pf, vn, vc, 1968; Between Categories, 2 vn, 2 vc, 2 tubular bells, 2 pf, 1969; Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, 2 fl, brass, tubular bells, cel, vc, 2 db, 1970; The Viola in My Life [I], fl, vn, va, vc, perc, 1970; The Viola in My Life [II], fl, cl, pf, perc, vn, va, vc, 1970; 3 Cl, Vc and Pf, 1971; For Frank O’Hara, fl + pic + a fl, cl, perc, pf, vn, vc, 1973; Insts I, a fl + pic, ob + eng hn, trbn, perc, vc, 1974; Insts II, a fl + fl + pic, ob + eng hn, cl + b cl, tpt, trbn, perc, hp, pf, db, 1975; Routine Investigations, ob, tpt, pf, va, vc, db, 1976; Cl and Str Qt, 1983; Crippled Symmetry, fl + b fl, glock + vib, perc, pf + cel, 1983; For Philip Guston, pic + fl + a fl, perc, pf + cel, 1984; Pf and Str Qt, 1985; Vn and Str Qt, 1985

1–4 insts: Piece, vn, pf, 1950; Projection I, vc, 1950; Extensions I, vn, pf, 1951; Intersection, tape, 1951; Projection IV, vn, pf, 1951; Structures, str qt, 1951; Intersection IV, vc, 1953; 3 Pieces, str qt, 1956; 2 Insts, hn, vc, 1958; Durations I, vn, a fl, vc, pf, 1960; Durations II, vc, pf, 1960; Durations III, vn, tuba, pf, 1961; Durations IV, vn, vc, vib, 1961; Vertical Thoughts II, vn, pf, 1963; The King of Denmark, perc, 1964; 4 Insts, vn, vc, tubular bells, pf, 1965; The Viola in My Life [III], va, pf, 1970; 4 Insts, vn, va, vc, pf, 1975; Insts III, fl, ob, perc, 1977; Spring of Chosroes, vn, pf, 1978; Why Patterns?, fl + b fl, glock, pf, 1978; Str Qt, 1979; Trio, vn, vc, pf, 1980; B Cl and Perc, 1981; Patterns in a Chromatic Field (Untitled Composition), vc, pf, 1981; For John Cage, vn, pf, 1982; Str Qt II, 1983; For Christian Wolff, fl, pf + cel, 1986; Pf, Vn, Va, Vc, 1987


Ens: Projection III, 2 pf, 1951; Extensions IV, 3 pf, 1952; 2 Pieces, 2 pf, 1954; Piece, 4 pf, 1957; 2 Pf, 1957; Pf, pf 3 hands, 1957; Pf, pf 4 hands, 1958; Vertical Thoughts I, 2 pf, 1963; 2 Pieces, 3 pf, 1966

Solo (pf, unless otherwise stated): Illusions, 1950; 2 Intermissions, 1950; Intersection II, 1951; Extensions III, 1952; Intermission V, 1952; Pf Piece, 1952; Intermission VI, 1/2 pf, 1953; Intersection III, 1953; 3 Pieces, 1954; Pf Piece, 1955; Pf Piece a, 1956; Pf Piece b, 1956; Last Pieces, 1959; Pf Piece, 1963; Pf Piece, 1964; Vertical Thoughts IV, 1964; Pf, 1977; Principle Sound, org, 1980; Triadic Memories, 1981; For Bunita Marcus, 1985; Palais de Mari, 1986

MSS in CH-Bps

Principal publishers: Peters, Universal

Feldman, Morton


Essays, ed. W. Zimmermann (Kerpen, 1985)

with J. Cage: Radio Happenings I-V, trans. G. Gronemeyer (Cologne, 1993)

Feldman, Morton


GroveA (W. Bland/K. Porter, J. Wierzbicki) [incl. further bibliography]; KdG (S. Claren)

H. Cowell: ‘Current Chronicle’, MQ, xxxviii (1952), 131–6

P. Davis: ‘Feldman and Brown’, Musical America, lxxxiii/11 (1963), 33–4

P. Dickinson: ‘Morton Feldman Explains Himself’, Music and Musicians, xiv/11 (1965–6), 22–3

W. Zimmermann: ‘Morton Feldman’, Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians (Vancouver, 1976), 1–20

T. Caras and C.Gagne: ‘Morton Feldman’, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, NJ, 1982), 163–77

P. Gena: ‘H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody)’, A John Cage Reader (New York, 1982), 51–73 [interview]

W. Baldridge: ‘Morton Feldman: One whose Reality is Acoustic’, PNM, xxi (1982–3), 112–13

J. Williams: ‘An Interview with Morton Feldman’, Percussive Notes, xxi/6 (1982–3), 4–14

T. Moore: ‘We Must Pursue Anxiety’, Sonus, iv/2 (1984), 14–19

R. Ashley: ‘Morton Feldman’, Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, ed. B. Childs and E. Schwartz (New York, 1987), 362–6 [interview]

R. Wood Massi: ‘Captain Cook’s First Voyage’, Cum Notis Variorum, no.131/April (1989), 7–12 [interview]

M. and P. Paccione: ‘Did Modernism Fail Morton Feldman?’, Ex tempore, vi/1 (1992), 13–21

S. Johnson: ‘Rothko Chapel and Rothko’s Chapel’, PNM, xxxii/2 (1994), 6–53

T. DeLio, ed.: The Music of Morton Feldman (Westport, CT, 1996)

M. Kimmelman: ‘The Abstract Expressionist of Music’, New York Times (28 July 1996)

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