Morton Feldman: Composer Profile

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Morton Feldman was born in New York in 1926 and died in 1987. He studied composition with two of the most radical musical minds in American music – Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. In the late 1940s, he met John Cage. They soon became friends and artistic collaborators, and formed the ’New York School’, closely associated with the similarly named group of Abstract Expressionist painters.

In the 1950s, Feldman found a way forward into a new soundworld – more immediate and physical than anything before. When he realised that by allowing sounds to be free he was also putting them at the individual whim of the performer, he returned to precise notation of his intentions, with a minimal amount left to performers’ discretion. During his last two decades his works began to expand to major length, which he explained was as a result of his concern with scale rather than form and the fact that his works were always evolving. Another influence was his interest in Iranian and Anatolian rugs. In their weaving, and their repetitions of colour without systematic design, he saw strong parallels with the way he produced his music.

Like Beethoven in the nineteenth century and Stravinsky in the twentieth, Feldman unpicked the very fabric of sound and discovered new sub-clauses in musical structure. There’s a blurring of the edges between melody and harmony; the subtlest shift in orchestration can feel like a gargantuan musical statement. Much of Feldman’s music has no point of reference outside itself – his musical objects are suspended in space, like fields of colour in abstract expressionist canvases. A darker and more disturbing presence occurs in such pieces as String Quartet and Orchestra or For Samuel Beckett. Feldman spoke about a melancholic tinge relating to his Jewishness and the pain of the Holocaust.

Given Feldman’s present status as one of the most influential post-war composers, it is easy to forget that even ten years ago he was considered a shadowy figure. His music, once described as a precursor to minimalism, is the antithesis of the systems-based music of Steve Reich or Terry Riley. Its fascination is that it hovers above systems, embodying lithe discipline and unaffected refinement.

Martyn BrabbinsIn this Friday’s concert at the Barbican, the BBCSO and Martyn Brabbins play three works.

Violin and Orchestra (1978-9)

During the 1970s Feldman composed a series of substantial works, each for solo instrument(s) and orchestra. They stand in his output rather like a series of concertos would for a more conventional composer, and Feldman did occasionally refer to them as ’concertos’. Yet the traditional elements of bravura are absent from the solo parts, and they eschew any striving between the individual performer and the orchestral collective. What interested Feldman was the different weighting of sound, the shifts and contrasts of colour, between a single and a blended timbre.

Violin and Orchestra is the last and longest of these pieces, with a timing of well over an hour. Yet Feldman effortlessly imposes his own sense of scale: the music seems to pass swiftly – for all that the single huge movement proceeds in the one slow tempo – and certainly eventfully. Most of its events are of a few recurrent types – deliberate, detached repetitions of a single note, chord or harmony, with or without participation from the violin. Twelve-note melodic statements broaden the range of reference in a work that builds up a wide spectrum of sonic invention, setting the final seal on its immense mosaic construction.

Rothko Chapel (1971)

The Rothko Chapel at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas, was founded as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every spiritual belief. The interior of the chapel mimics to some extent the shape of the New York studio of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, who was commissioned to produce a series of paintings that would be integral to the building. These huge, rich yet almost mono-coloured canvasses occupy entire walls, and set up what Rothko intended as a dynamic interaction between paint, architecture and light.

For the chapel’s dedication in 1971, the year after Rothko’s suicide, Feldman was invited to write a piece that would be an aural equivalent of the building. Although Feldman always claimed to want to get away from subjective expression, Rothko Chapel is a very expressive piece. Rothko’s canvasses are monumental and monolithic, and Feldman’s music – though characteristically calm and slow-moving – is eventful by comparison. Towards the middle of the piece, the repetition of static vocal harmonies evokes the hue of the paintings in the chapel. A dream-like inner landscape, meditative and spiritual yet without any religious specificity, is created.

Coptic Light (1986)

In the Graeco-Roman Egypt of late antiquity, the Copts were direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians. Coptic Christianity, established in the first century AD, embraced the Monophysite doctrine, eventually considered heretical. This maintained that Christ’s nature remains altogether divine, even though he assumed a physical human body subject to the cycle of birth, life and death.

A commission from the New York Philharmonic for its 80th anniversary, Coptic Light was Feldman’s last work for full orchestra. He had previously visited the permanent exhibition of Coptic textile fragments at the Louvre in Paris, and was impressed by the way that pieces of cloth, mere parts of much larger designs, seemed to convey a specific atmosphere from the time and culture that produced them. This made him wonder what fragments of music since Monteverdi might convey the atmosphere of Western culture to a listener two thousand years from now. Coptic Light is his impression of the sound of the twentieth-century symphony orchestra, as it might be picked up in the far future. The sound-fabric is subtly interwoven and gives off a quiet, calm glow. There is no sense of conclusion – instead the music breaks off in mid-process, as if some fragment of an altogether vaster design.

  • Morton Feldman Composer Portrait this Friday, 1 February, at 7.30 in the Barbican Hall – BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins with Isabelle Faust (violin) and the BBC Singers. Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Click here to Listen on-line
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  • Photograph of Morton Feldman kindly provided by the Music Library, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.
  • Photograph of Martin Brabbins provided by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

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