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!