Composer Morton Feldman's story about Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The architect is teaching a class. Students are working on their projects while he walks about the room critiquing and lecturing. Mies van der Rohe's delivery is punctuated by electric sharpeners grinding pencils to sawdust.

He stops the class and takes a penknife out of his pocket and begins to sharpen a pencil.

"I just had an idea," he says.
Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was a true, honest-to-goodness 20th Century Music iconoclast. He is responsible for some of the most quiet, slow, vivid music ever written -- an aesthetic totally at odds with his thick glasses, greasy hair, gravelly voice and the thick Brooklyn accent. He started off his musical career doing heavily structured, complex, controlled pieces, but a chance meeting with John Cage changed everything. He changed his whole style, working on pieces that emphasized random acts, group improvisation and structured aleatoric performance. These new works were scored on graph paper, to emphasize the break with old performance styles but as pacing and time became more important, he switched back to regular staff notation. While hanging out with Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, and Mark Rothko, he somehow became fixated on the idea of pulling people close to the music, focusing them on the smallest details -- minute changes in tempo, tiny increments of gestural variation taking place over long spans of time. He was searching for a "flat surface", pulling the listener's attention right up against the fabric of sound. Pieces became longer, more still, even more slowly evolving -- a trend which culminated in his Second String Quartet, written as a commission for the Kronos Quartet, a piece which could last as long as five and a half hours. Nine more of his one-movement compositions break the hour-and-a-half mark.
"My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy - just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece - it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they're like evolving things."

Best introductory pieces:

  • Why Patterns? (for flute, piano and percussion)
  • Rothko Chapel (for Viola, Piano, Cello, Soprano, Alto, Chorus)
  • Piano and String Quartet (there's a great recording by the Kronos Quartet -- blew me away!

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