Friday, April 3, 2009

Morton Feldman


This is a random post today, talking about the great composer Morton Feldman, and how I came to find out about his work.  He is a 20th century composer known for his work with graphic notation, indeterminacy (but not chance), and aleatoric techniques, with music usually sounding very quiet, with long durations of sound.  He came about as a textile worker in New York, and his pieces sometimes reflect the patterns of turkish rugs, or of the art of his many painter friends in New York, i.e. Rothko, Philip Guston, Pollock, Willem De Kooning.  I first heard about the composer at the end of my stay at JMU in Virginia, after seeing John Zorn releasing some of his music on his Tzadik label.

My first memory of really listening to it however, was a later written piece by his, "For Samuel Beckett" written for a small chamber ensemble.  I put the album on, and sat in my living room with a few roomates of mine, and for the most part listened in awe and silence to the almost 80 minute long piece.  There were beautiful sounds of broken piano chords, augmented ninths, eerie strings, and subtle repetitions happening throughout it.  Samuel Beckett by the way is considered the first minimalist, an irish writer after James Joyce.  Whereas James Joyce would add more and more ideas on top of his work, Beckett would subtract things down to the barest thoughts.  I have noticed many references to Beckett in composers Kurtag, Philip Glass, as well as New York musicians such as Trevor Dunn.  

Back to Morton Feldman....I apologize for the going all over the place, but it seems that my mind works that way, so if interested keep reading...  Morton Feldman got his start as a composer, by meeting with John Cage, and eventually living in the apartment below him hanging around with him all day.  The book, "Give my regards to eighth street" is a great collection of writings by Morton Feldman, and he documents the relationship quite well.  I myself think of Feldman's music to use Cage's ideas, but more for the sake of the music/sound, than for the sake of the processes.  I bring up this article today by the way, because I just got a beautiful sounding record in the mail of his piece "the viola in my life" written and performed for violist Karen Philips.

So I move out to Colorado, and start checking out more of his works, eventually finding a several gigabyte file on a bit torrent with recordings of almost everything Feldman has written, and multiple versions of some of the pieces.  This led me to take out two nights over last summer, and listen to his Second String Quartet, performed by the Fluxus group.  The piece is a 5-6 hour long composition of non-stop playing.  I broke up up into two nights, and sat their with my melodica and a notebook writing down ideas I heard, and transcribing fragments of the piece.  Eventually I want to write a piece based on my notes, after not hearing the piece itself for a long time, and see what comes of it....  I noticed while listening I could flip back in my notebook and find references to things that were going on 2 hours into the piece, that the group playing verbatim an hour earlier, so there was the great repetition of ideas, separated by a very long duration of time.

The next project for me was being in a musical scholarship class at school, and having to pick out music to write program notes for.  Naturally I checked out some scores of Morton Feldman's piano music, to familiarize myself more with the composer, and found two very interesting pieces, that I am blanking out currently on their names.  One is Intermission, and the other one is Intersection...they are followed by a specific number, but I forget the number of them.  One of the pieces was written for John Cage pianist David Tudor, that was one of the main players in 20th century music, debuting a number of a great compositions, from Cage, to Boulez, to Stockhausen, to Feldman, and more. This David Tudor composition was written with three lines, each line representing the low, middle or high register of the piano.  These lines had numbers written on them, from 1 to 11, specifying the number of notes for each chord, but no information on what pitches to play.  The other piano piece features of a page of chords all over the place, and it is to be played by starting and ending on any chord listed, letting the performed pick the amount of chords played and the order in which they are played.  I re-transcribed that piece and recorded it on two electric basses, since the piece is written for one or two pianos.

After reading "Give me regards to eight street," I became more interested in artists and painters in the abstract expressionist New York school of the 50s, and starting looking up their works online.  I found the first page of the score to his tribute to Willem De Kooning, which is can be looked at here.  A video link to a performance of it is here.  This influenced me to mess around with that style of composition, and I wrote a short quartet piece using that idea mixed with free improvisation, and recorded it last christmas turned out well as a new and different way to employ graphic notation, and reference the style of painting in which the piece is dedicated to.  I am also excited that the university I am currently attending is putting on a contemporary music festival, and I will be taking part by helping to sing Morton Feldman's choir and small chamber piece "Rothko Chapel" written for the opening of Mark Rothko's chapel, featuring some of his paintings.  The piece was written to be performed in that space, so it has a very intimate feel to it...a picture of the interior of the chapel is here.

I'll end this rambling blog post with a final story about Morton Feldman, and a quote that I particularly enjoy.  Morton Feldman was talking to an artist friend of his about his music.  The friend was trying to explain to Morton that he thought his music was good, but that it did not express the feeling of the "common man."  To demonstrate, this artist pointed to a man walking across the street, and said, "there, you need to be writing music for people like that!"  Unbeknownst to this artist, the person crossing the street at the moment was Jackson Pollock.

"I never understood what rules I was supposed to learn, and what rules I was supposed to break"  -Morton Feldman

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