Let It Linger: The Music of Morton Feldman
[Philip] Guston once said to me that at a certain point of involvement, the time it takes to touch his brush to the palette, pick up some paint and bring it back to the canvas, is too long for him. Years ago there were procedures, questions of what you were going to put in and what you were going to leave out. Today there is no ritualistic way to "get there." It has to happen. It's the immediacy that counts. Whether that immediacy takes ten minutes or ten years is irrelevant.
There is a lot of Feldman in the paragraph above: the significance of painting and painters, particularly the abstract expressionists, in his life; the importance of touch to his art; and his love of telling stories. Most of all, there is an interrogation of time—the canvas on which music is painted, the ocean in which it swims.
There is often a lot of Feldman in his music, too. In the late 1970s and continuing until his death in 1987 he began composing pieces of immense size: a 90-minute piano solo (For Bunita Marcus, 1985), a two-hour duo for cello and piano (Patterns in a Chromatic Field, 1981), a fivehour string quartet (String Quartet II, 1983). Triadic Memories for piano, composed in 1981 and lasting an unbroken 70 minutes—and the basis for Pedja Muzijevic and Cesc Gelabert's Framing Time, part of this year's White Light Festival—certainly belongs in this group.
Yet these vast spans of time are characterized not by how heavy Feldman makes them feel, but how light. Feldman-time is certainly slow, yet it is full of details of touch and resonance that bring it sharply into the present. The "immediacy" he sought manifests in an almost erotic physicality, as the pianist John Tilbury describes: "Extreme sensitivity of touch is of the essence in a performance of Feldman's music. In the piano pieces the depressed key is gently eased back to position to minimize the obtrusive sound of the key mechanism, time is allowed for the minutest of harmonics to resound, and at the end of the phrases fingers steal away from the keys noiselessly."
Feldman-time is certainly slow, yet it is full of details of touch and resonance that bring it sharply into the present.
Those qualities of touch seem to apply also to Feldman's sounds, and how they press themselves on memory: softly, but purposefully, holding for a moment, before withdrawing once more. The extent of their trace depends on their weight, and their place on the delicate balance of register, dynamic, and timbre. Schubert, a composer to whom Feldman felt close, achieved something similar, as much capable of writing staggering profundity into a single chord as trivially spinning out a single motif for bars at a time.
To an extent all music is about time, but few composers have made it such a theme of their work as Feldman. Time passes, or seems to, at different speeds according to degrees of activity and anticipation ("time flies when you're having fun"). The late, long pieces by Feldman play with this perception, building passages of tension and activity only for them to arrive nowhere. Or, providing points of arrival without constructing a clear path towards them. The music's apparently eternal self-similarity—built of short motifs that repeat, or almost repeat, as though seeking both of those Schubertian sides at once—tricks our memories, making a mental survey of what has passed, and for how long, impossible.
Feldman's particular approach to time, as a perpetual ebb-and-flow, an endless deferral of climax, often draws comparisons with another great artist of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett. The two men met for the first time in 1976, and despite Beckett professing to hate having his words set to music, and Feldman admitting that he never used texts in his vocal pieces, they talked themselves into creating the "opera" (or anti-opera) Neither: a 60-minute setting for soprano and orchestra of 16 lines that Beckett began sketching that day and sent completed to the composer a week or so later, remarkably without ever having heard a note of Feldman's music. The occasion seems to have been especially significant for Feldman, as it is with Neither that his late style of unbroken spans and almost-repetitions begins. (Ten years later, he would also write a score for Beckett's play Words and Music, as well as a work for large ensemble dedicated to the playwright.)
To an extent all music is about time, but few composers have made it such a theme of their work as Feldman.
While there are certainly similarities between the two men's aesthetics, just as instructive are the differences. Beckett, for all his radicalism, was always attuned to the dramatic necessity of action and consequence: Winnie sinking deeper into the sand in Happy Days, the expletive against life at the end of Rockaby. Waiting for Godot is full of such moments: The tree grows leaves, Estragon finds his boots, the carrots run out. Feldman, however, was principally concerned with extension, creating cantilevers into time rather than bridges between this and that. Perhaps this is one interpretation of his often-quoted maxim that "Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour-and-a-half it's scale."
The only question that remains is when to stop. In his 1967 essay After Modernism, with which we began, Feldman continues:
Guston tells us he does not finish a painting but "abandons it." ...Completion is not in tying things up, not in "giving one's feelings," or "telling a truth." Completion is simply the perennial death of the artist. Isn't any masterpiece a death scene? Isn't that why we want to remember it, because the artist is looking back on something when it's too late, when it's all over, when we see it finally, as something we have lost?
Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). He lives in London.