Profiles: Morton Feldman

Morton FeldmanMorton Feldman (1926-1987) has often been referred to as a colorist for his sensitivity to timbre. For this, though generally associated with the New York School composers John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff; Feldman may seem more strongly related rather to his contemporaries in the visual arts, specifically Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko and the early works of Philip Guston.

Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety (1970)

Composed around the time of his now oft-regarded Rothko Chapel and The Viola In My Life series, the brief Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety (1970) reflects much of Feldman’s aesthetic – gentle sounds, a preponderance of space, and an emphasis on decay – all of which he would expound in his late work where pieces could last multiple hours in a kind of geologic musical time.

A pair of birds in mourning, two flutes sigh as the world revolves beneath them.  This is not a relationship of melody and harmony in a traditional sense, but rather stable figures in a shifting landscape.  In this greater context, Feldman found a way to distract our ears from the duality of tension and resolution and instead let us perceive the sounds free as themselves, and doing so without overt romantic musical gestures such as dynamic swells or metronomic pushing and pulling.

I think about having a blog.  I write words and share images but I really just like to share the music, let people listen.  I think about writing.  I see other people’s words.  I wonder about getting in the way.  Music achieves a feeling that is difficult to translate.

I had been struggling all night to find material for this post.  I leafed through a collection of modern poetry.  I skimmed Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I walked on the boardwalk to blow off some steam.  While lying in bed I thought of those old camera-like toys, View-Masters.  You know, the ones with the paper discs with slides around the edges.  And you would look into the scopes and click on the side and it would change the image.  I thought about the sound of the clicks.  There was the first click that would move the frame and then it would click again when it aligned the next frame.  And as I thought about these clicks I started to hear the flutes in place of them.  I imagined Morton Feldman looking at his pictures, cycling through them over and over.  I don’t see what he sees.  Just the click and a mere shading of what he feels.

Music credit: Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety as performed by The Orchestra of St. Luke’s; John Adams, conductor; from American Elegies [Nonesuch, 1991]

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