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Morton Feldman and Abstract Expressionism Time and sound construction in his piano miniatures of the 1950s and 1960s

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This essay was first published in Italian in Itinerari della musica americana, edited by Gianmario Borio and Gabrio Taglietti, Lucca, Lim 1996, pp. 119-134. An earlier version appeared as a chapter in Borio’s PhD dissertation Musikalische Avantgarde um 1960. Entwurf einer Theorie der informellen Musik, Laaber Verlag, Laaber 1993, pp. 146-167.
Transcript  1 Morton Feldman and Abstract Expressionism Time and sound construction in his piano miniatures of the 1950s and 1960s by Gianmario Borio (English translation by Francesco Sani) This essay was first published in Italian in Itinerari della musica americana, edited by Gianmario Borio and Gabrio Taglietti, Lucca,  Lim 1996, pp. 119-134.    An earlier version appeared as a chapter in  Borio’s PhD dissertation Musikalische Avantgarde um 1960. Entwurf einer Theorie der informellen Musik   , Laaber Verlag, Laaber 1993,  pp. 146-167. The circle of musicians gathering around John Cage towards the latter  part of the 1940s – Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, David Tudor and Christian Wolff – expressed a strong interest in the visual arts. Cage, right from the time of his studies with Arnold Schoenberg in 1935, had taken an interest in abstract painting – Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian – and had himself begun painting. The most fruitful encounter for him was with Mark Tobey at the Cornish School of Art in Seattle; the latter’s white paintings suggested to Cage the idea of non-representational and radically abstract art[1]. Perhaps it was after meeting Cage in 1941 that Tobey began studying  piano and composition. His fascination with music concerned especially rhythmic and contrapuntal aspects, the subject of his  paintings – stars, swarming lights, crowds and urban landscapes – executed through several interacting lines giving life to an experience characterised by an overall rhythmic pulse[2]. Tobey worked in the West Coast, an area that more than any other in the US was influenced by Asian philosophy and religion. This cultural background helps understanding the intellectual affinity felt  2  by Cage when confronted with Tobey’s work. The core of the informal American painters was in New York: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, to name but a few. Of all the composers in the circle around Cage – who, between 1948 and 1951, held several lectures at the Subjects of the Artist   experimental school and at the Club [3] – Feldman was, without a doubt, the one who remained most faithful throughout his life to the abstract expressionist aesthetic. Some of Feldman’s works bear titles that openly pay homage to some of the above artists, for example,  For Franz Kline, De Kooning   and, in 1971,  Rothko Chapel  , written for the octagonal space in Houston for which Rothko had been commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil to paint what were to become some of his last paintings [4]. Feldman accompanied his compositional activity with a series of essays, many of which dealt with the link between music and  painting. In one of these essays, “Between Categories” [5], he defined his music as “surface” art, distancing himself from thinking about composition as linking sounds in time:  My obsession with surface is the subject of my music. In that  sense, my compositions are really not “compositions” at all. One might call them time canvasses in which I more or less  prime the canvas with an overall hue of the music. I have learned that the more one composes or constructs, the more one prevents Time Undisturbed from becoming the controlling metaphor of the music.  Both these terms - Space, Time - have come to be used in music and the visual arts as well as in mathematics, literature, philosophy and science. [...]    I prefer to think of my work as:  between categories.  Between Time and Space. Between painting and music. Between the music’s construction, and its surface  [6]. Composing between categories also means allowing the emergence of an emotion which cannot be grasped by means of philosophical categories. Such emotion is born of the “abstract experience”, a term with which Feldman defined his work, but which also defined the quintessence of Abstract Expressionism, the late 1940s artistic  3 movement based in New York. The abstract in “abstract experience” does not mean the opposite of real or concrete, but rather it means  belonging to a sphere that cannot be represented in a painting, albeit having an effect on us at a sensory level. Like the New York artists, Feldman believed that, to obtain visibility (which however can be captured only as the ‘atmosphere’ of the painting), one needs above all to provide experiences of transition and dissolution. The dominant categories of art music, such as beginning and end, lose any meaning in this atmospheric conception of the work. Compositions begin with a leap that “is more like going to another place where the time changes” [7] and end simply by being abandoned, without a speech-like gesture of closure. In his piano miniatures of the 1950s, Feldman pursued an asymmetric and decentralised logic, far removed from the structuralism developed around the same time by Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono. The time configuration is not  previously determined    but issues forth with immediacy from the sound object; also, figurativeness is excluded or neutralised by a compositional effort that is chiefly concerned with harmonic fields and their sonorities. In a conference held in 1956 at the  Internationale  Ferienkurse für Neue Musik   in Darmstadt, Stefan Wolpe – the only composer other than Cage whom Feldman considered as something of a teacher to him – brought Wolff’s and Feldman’s short piano  pieces into the arena of an art of the “extreme” spearheaded by Edgard Varèse: The motion, which in Varèse is already slowed down and held back, comes to a standstill in Christian Wolff - at least apparently to a standstill. Probably the tendency is so to isolate every event that it appears suspended in space and isolated in its own motion. [...] [Feldman] is interested in  surfaces that are as spare as possible and in the remnants of  shapes that can barely be heard at a distance [8]  4 Edition Peters No. 6935 © 1962 by C F Peters Corporation, New York Reproduced by kind permission  Musical excerpt 1:  Intermission 5  (bb. 1-12) We begin our examination of Feldman’s solo piano pieces with  Intermission 5  and  Extensions 3 , both from 1952. These compositions are characterised by the predominantly vertical arrangement of sounds, the sudden juxtapositions of pianissimo and fortissimo dynamics, and the use of repetitive patterns. In  Intermission 5 , navigating through the piece is aided by four  fff   chords (one of which is at the start of the piece) functioning as goalposts in a sound universe that, as Wolpe noted, unfolds and defines itself mainly through a spatial dimension. Since the pianist holds down both pedals for the entire duration of the piece, these chords break into the music like explosions, absorbing into their resonance the succeeding  ppp sounds. Entrance points for the  fff chords are structured according to simple proportions, namely multiples of 6. The piece is 72 bars long; since the meter is 3/8, it makes 216 quavers – which is equal to 6 3 . And the time interval between the  fff chords, which can be considered as markers of the musical time, is always a multiple of 6.
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