Morton Feldman in the mainstream?

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, the International Herald Tribune, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 21.07.2013

The late American composer Morton Feldman, an influential underground figure who was spurned by mainstream musicians in his lifetime, is enjoying a welcome, if belated, renaissance in the US and Europe.

Contemporary music festivals have begun to feature him, instrumentalists are discovering his voluminous chamber and solo works, and orchestral conductors are staging his long, quiet creations. 

Feldman’s works can be challenging for the unprepared listener but the experience is not quickly forgotten. German violinist Carolin Widmann, a Feldman performer and admirer, praises him for his “unique language” and his “everlasting relevance”.

Morton Feldman in 1976 (Wikipedia)

Quietude is a Feldman hallmark. Some of his compositions require dynamics ranging from piano to pianissimo and back to piano. Large passages of his Violin and Orchestra, just released on CD, remind me of nothing so much as breathing. 

New York critic and writer Kyle Gann calls him “quite possibly the greatest composer of the late 20th century.” New Yorker music writer Alex Ross credits him with “vast, quiet, agonizingly beautiful worlds of sound”.

Unlike traditional composers from 19th century Europe, Feldman takes his time to cast a spell. He leads you by the hand into a sound world of his own creation. By turns, he can be unsettling or restful, always ready to spring a sharp change of mood. 

Violinist Widmann says that for her, he suspends time. “Sometimes when I listen to Feldman I’m unsure if a few minutes or half an eternity has passed… You stop thinking about where this music has come from and where it is headed and you become part of it.”

Widmann has the violin part on the new CD, recorded by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (ECM New Series 2283) under Emilio Pomarico.  The work is a long, single-movement piece in which the violin seems to be embedded in the orchestra. She teases new textures and colors from her muted Guadagnini instrument – effects that were unimagined in the 18th century. 

Feldman (1926-1987) composed this piece in 1979, the same year he wrote his 100-minute-long first string quartet. Later the same year he produced his second string quartet, written to last six hours. One writer recommended thinking of a Feldman opus “the way you live with a painting on your wall, slowly acclimatizing yourself to its implied universe”.

Violin and Orchestra calls for a the largest ensemble Feldman conceived for his work, quadruple and triple winds and brass, four percussionists, two harps, two pianos and extended string sections. But at no point does it become overpowering. Conductor Pomarico masterfully manipulates the colors that Feldman invented. 

Feldman was close to the most innovative artists and composers in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, even drawing inspiration from the paintings of his friends Rauschenberg, Rothko and Pollock, and trading musical ideas with John Cage, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown. Whatever he picked up from his pals, he made his own.

What legacy did Feldman leave behind? One obituary from 1987 calls it “the Feldman touch”, defined as “a careful, ear-determined weighting of intervals and timbres”. Feldman taught young composers and gave generously of his ideas and techniques. “Through his students, the obituary said, “Feldman has bent, however gently, the future of music in his direction, and created the taste needed to enjoy him.”

Please click here for a Youtube clip of Feldman's work.

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