Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman

Feldman, Morton, 1926-87, American modernist composer, b. New York City. An associate of John Cage and other experimental composers, Feldman was part of the so-called New York school. He was also a friend of many of the major painters involved in abstract expressionism, and the directness, immediacy, and elements of chance that characterize his work were heavily influenced by their philosophy and work. Among compositions directly inspired by these artists are Rothko Chapel (1971) and For Philip Guston (1984). Also influenced by the visual arts was the new system of graph musical notation Feldman developed in the early 1950s and used until 1960. It employed symbols to indicate such elements as register, interval, and texture and allowed for improvisation. Among his works using graph notation are Projection (1950) and Atlantis (1958). Feldman often concentrated on sound rather than form, and is especially known for his delicate, extremely muted and moody minimalist compositions. During the 1970s his works became much longer in duration, with his String Quartet II (1983) lasting up to six hours. Feldman wrote compositions for orchestra, chorus, solo voices and instruments, and chamber ensembles.

See his collected writings (ed. by B. H. Friedman, 2001) and Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987 (ed. by C. Villars, 2006); T. Delio, ed., The Music of Morton Feldman (1996); S. Johnson, ed., The New York Schools of Music and the Visual Arts (2001).

Morton Feldman (January 12, 1926 – September 3, 1987) was an American composer, born in New York City.

A major figure in 20th-century music, Feldman went through several compositional phases. He was a pioneer in aleatoric music and indeterminate music, and in music requiring improvisation. His works are characterized by quietness, slowness, and often by their extreme length, especially in his later music.


Feldman studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, and later composition with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. He did not agree with many of the views of these composition teachers, and he spent much of his time simply arguing with them. He was composing at this time, but in a style very different from that with which he would later be associated.

In 1950, Feldman went to hear the New York Philharmonic give a performance of Anton Webern's Symphony. At the concert, he met John Cage. The two became good friends, with Feldman moving into the apartment downstairs from Cage. Under Cage's influence, Feldman began to write pieces which had no relation to compositional systems of the past, such as the constraints of traditional harmony or the serial technique. He experimented with non-standard systems of musical notation, often using grids in his scores, and specifying how many notes should be played at a certain time, but not which ones. Feldman's experiments with the use of chance in his composition in turn inspired John Cage to write pieces like the Music of Changes, where the notes to be played are determined by consulting the I Ching.

Through Cage, Feldman met many other prominent figures in the New York arts scene, among them Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Frank O'Hara. He found inspiration in the paintings of the abstract expressionists, and throughout the 1970s wrote a number of pieces around twenty-minutes in length, including Rothko Chapel (1971, written for the building of the same name which houses paintings by Mark Rothko) and For Frank O'Hara (1973). In 1977, he wrote the opera Neither with words by Samuel Beckett.

In 1973, at the age of 47, Feldman became the Edgard Varese Professor (a title of his own devising) at the University at Buffalo. Prior to that time, Feldman had earned his living as a full time employee at the family textile business in New York's garment district.

Later, he began to produce his very long works, often in one continuous movement, rarely shorter than half an hour in length and often much longer. These works include Violin and String Quartet (1985, around 2 hours), For Philip Guston (1984, around four hours) and, most extreme, the String Quartet II (1983), which is over five hours long without a break. It was given its first complete performance at Cooper Union, New York City in 1999 by the FLUX Quartet, who issued a recording in 2003 (at 6 hours and 7 minutes). Typically, these pieces maintain a very slow developmental pace (if not static) and tend to be made up of mostly very quiet sounds. Feldman said himself that quiet sounds had begun to be the only ones that interested him. In a 1982 lecture, Feldman noted: "Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?"

Feldman married the composer Barbara Monk shortly before his death. He died from pancreatic cancer in 1987 at his home in Buffalo, New York, after fighting for his life for two years.

Partial list of works

  • 1948 Two Pieces Cello, Piano
  • 1949 Episode Orchestra
  • 1949 Lost Love Voice, Piano
  • 195? For Cynthia Piano
  • 1950 Three Dances, for Piano
  • 1950 Projection 1 for solo cello
  • 1950 Two Intermissions
  • 1950 [Composition] 2 Pianos, Cello
  • 1950 Piece for Violin and Piano
  • 1951 Nature Pieces Piano
  • 1951 Intermission 3 Piano
  • 1951 Projection 2 Flute, Trumpet, Piano, Violin, Cello
  • 1951 Projection 3 2 Pianos EP 6961
  • 1951 Projection 4 Violin, Piano EP 6913
  • 1951 Projection 5 3 Flutes, Trumpet, 2 Pianos, 3 Cellos
  • 1951 Intersection 1 Large Orchestra
  • 1951 Three Ghostlike Songs and Interlude Voice, Trombone, Viola, Piano
  • 1951 Structures String Quartet
  • 1951 [Composition] Cello, Piano
  • 1951 Variations Piano
  • 1951 Music for the Film "Jackson Pollock" 2 Cellos
  • 1951 Marginal Intersection Large Orchestra
  • 1951 Intersection 2 Piano
  • 1951 Extensions 1 Violin, Piano
  • 1952 Intermission 4 Piano
  • 1952 Intermission 5 Piano
  • 1952 Extensions 3 Piano
  • 1952 Piano Piece 1952 Piano
  • 1953 Intersection for Magnetic Tape Eight Track Tape EP 6947R
  • 1953 Intersection + Piano
  • 1953 Extensions 5 2 Cellos
  • 1953 Intersection 3 Piano
  • 1953 Extensions 4 3 Pianos
  • 1953 Intermission 6 1 or 2 Pianos
  • 1953 Intersection 4 Cello
  • 1953 Eleven Instruments Chamber Ensemble

Notable works

  • 1950-51 Projections 1-5
  • 1951-53 Extensions 1-5
  • 1960-61 Durations 1-5
  • 1963 Piano Piece (to Philip Guston)
  • 1964 The King of Denmark
  • 1968 False Relationships and the Extended Ending
  • 1970-71 The Viola in My Life 1-4
  • 1971 Rothko Chapel
  • 1975 Piano and Orchestra
  • 1977 Piano
  • 1977 Spring of Chosroes
  • 1978 Flute and Orchestra
  • 1979 String Quartet

  • 1981 Triadic Memories
  • 1982 For John Cage (violin and piano)
  • 1982 Three Voices
  • 1983 Crippled Symmetry
  • 1983 String Quartet (II)- Duration up to 6 hours
  • 1984 For Philip Guston (flute, percussion and piano)- Duration 4 hours
  • 1985 For Bunita Marcus (solo piano)
  • 1985 Piano and String Quartet
  • 1986 For Christian Wolff
  • 1986 Palais de Mari (solo piano)
  • 1987 For Samuel Beckett (chamber ensemble)
  • 1987 Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello

Notable students

Further reading

  • Feldman, Morton. ''Morton Feldman Says.' Chris Villars, ed. Hyphen Press, 2008.
  • Feldman, Morton. Give my regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. B.H. Friedman, ed. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000.
  • Gareau, Philip. La musique de Morton Feldman ou le temps en liberté. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2006.
  • Hirata, Catherin (Winter 1996). "The Sounds of the Sounds Themselves: Analyzing the Early Music of Morton Feldman", Perspectives of New Music 34, no.1, 6-27.
  • Lunberry, Clark. “Departing Landscapes: Morton Feldman's String Quartet II and Triadic Memories.” SubStance 110: Vol. 35, Number 2 (Summer 2006): 17-50. (Available at [#105 on the list])

External links


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