PRINT February 2001


the writings of Morton Feldman

THERE IS A SPACE BETWEEN the artist and his artwork that has been better mapped by painters than by composers. The painter, after all, has the advantage of standing for hours and hours only inches from his painting as it comes into being. The composer spends those hours in a technical act of notation whose relation to the final work is oblique and not entirely determined; then the musical artwork comes into being in a public arena, without the comforting benefit of creative intimacy. One of the achievements of Morton Feldman (1926–87) is that, perhaps because of his connection to so many painters, he was better able to guide us through that space than any other composer of his century. No other figure of the last thirty years has had such widespread and visceral influence on young composers. His sensuously intuitive works, often uniformly soft in their dynamics, the late ones lasting as long as four, five, six hours, provide an attractive release from the century’s obsession with techniques and methods.

Feldman’s essays provide a whole new level of insight. Like his cohort John Cage, Feldman offered liberation (although he growls in one essay, “I added another link to the chain, and they called it freedom”). He knew, and told us, that the way music is created through notation disconnects us from sonic experience and misleads composers into thinking more about techniques and history than about the true material of music: sound. “Music is not painting,” he writes in “The Anxiety of Art,” “but it can learn from this more perceptive temperament that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer’s vested interest in his craft.”

Few writers on aesthetics have been so finely attuned to the irreducible differences between the arts. Over and over Feldman tells us what painters (especially Guston, Mondrian, Rothko, Cézanne, Piero della Francesca) know that composers don’t: for example, that atmosphere is more important than method, and that “everything we use to make art is precisely what kills it.” Writing in an era in which the music scene was heavily dominated by ivory-tower figures, Feldman also tells us what the “outsider,” like Charles Ives or Harry Partch or himself, knows that the academician doesn’t. The latter’s reliance on past music for models he calls “voodoo tradition”: “If we suck out the blood and the knowledge of the past, we are going to get its strength, it’s what they refer to in Reagan as voodoo economics.” Good existentialist that he is, Feldman is most compelling on the nature of artistic freedom. The academician is not interested in the matter because “in freedom he cannot reenact the role of the artist.” “It is not at all true,” he writes further in the title essay, “that the more one is free, the more things one has to choose from. Actually, it is the academician who has the alternatives. Freedom is best understood by someone like Rothko, who was free to do only one thing—to make a Rothko—and did so over and over again. . . . It is not freedom of choice that is the meaning of the fifties, but the freedom of people to be themselves.”

Like Cage, Feldman aims at no consistent statement, happy to contradict himself, and thus his writings, drawn from liner notes, program notes, and articles from specialist journals, are something of a Rorschach test. There, however, the similarities end. Where Cage is dry, humorous, matter-of-fact, and humble, Feldman wears an air of Talmudic mystery, habitually suggesting without often stating outright. To the extent that the artist’s relation to his work is ultimately ineffable, this is a profitable tactic. In a seminar lecture, he tells us of Duchamp, who asked a student intensely preoccupied with painting what he was doing; when the student replies, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing,” Duchamp pats him on the back and says, “Keep up the good work.” In Feldman’s view, this is a corrective for an entire university culture of musical miseducation.

The composer provides occasional glimpses of his musical thinking, usually bound up with the psychological influence of notation on performance. Elsewhere he can be a little pompous and evasive, hinting at what he could tell us if he chose. Rivals preoccupy him; the names of Boulez and Stockhausen come up over and over again as illustrations of twentieth-century music’s ills. And in some of the collection’s transcribed lectures, he lapses into incomprehensibility. Nevertheless, this edition has cleaned up the plethora of typos and mistranslations that plagued Walter Zimmermann’s 1985 publication of these essays. Virtually everything from that collection reappears here, plus more than a dozen new essays: program notes for compositions but also major statements on Guston and Earle Brown.

Feldman’s amazing music is itself an existential challenge to the listener. One of my favorite moments is in his five-hour For Philip Guston, when, at one point, the music strips down to only four chromatic pitches for a half hour that becomes increasingly unendurable—then suddenly opens up to a gorgeous C major in all registers. The essays reveal the attitude that makes such an extreme gesture possible. “Kierkegaard began to worry,” Feldman writes, “what his answer might be if he were asked in heaven: ‘Did you make things clear?’ . . . Did we make things clear? That is, do we love Music, and not the systems, the rituals, the symbols—the worldly, greedy gymnastics we substitute for it? That is, do we give everything—a total commitment to our own uniqueness?” Feldman had that total commitment, and his essays inspire you to want to have it, too.

Kyle Gann is a composer and new-music critic of the Village Voice.


Give My Regards To Eighth Street: The Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. Edited by B.H. Friedman, afterword by Frank O’Hara. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2001. 256 pages.