Modern music: Feldman

The first recording of an extended late work by Feldman that I heard was For John Cage (1982) by Paul Zukofsky & Marianne Schroeder, recorded in 1984, and released in 1991 (I think). It was interesting, but not compelling, and I resisted solicitations to write a discussion of Feldman and recordings of his music at that time. I thought of Feldman's music as slow & long & quiet, which was OK at the time, but I eventually thought it had no particular place in my increasingly hectic & loud life. A little over twenty years later, here I am to write this page.

There were two nearly simultaneous events that involved revisiting my judgment on the utility or enjoyment of Feldman's music. It was referenced as an influence in various jazz music I was enjoying, and I heard Belgian cellist Arne Deforce's recording of Xenakis. I was quite amazed by Deforce's handling of Xenakis' music. I had somehow missed his earlier recording of Scelsi, which is also excellent. Well, as of this writing, Deforce has done three recordings for the Aeon label, and the middle one is devoted to Feldman:

Feldman: Patterns in a Chromatic Field
Arne Deforce / Yutaka Oya
Aeon 0977 (2 CDs)

I decided to take the plunge, and was surprised by how much I heard in the music. Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981) is not exactly classic late Feldman (or late-late Feldman as I saw his output periodized elsewhere). However, this piece was a lot more interesting than I was anticipating, and Deforce's technique on cello is again stunning (and Oya's articulation & sonority on piano are superb), exemplifying much of Feldman's approach on the small scale of sound, the precision, the timing, the intonation, the timbre. Even if it's not quite epic Feldman, I continue to value this recording.

I knew I needed to write this page after listening to For Christian Wolff (1986) a few times. Now, this is epic Feldman... one of his late-late works, and his third longest, at around three hours duration. At one point, I enjoyed this recording so much, I immediately listened to it again, without a break:

Feldman: For Christian Wolff
Dorothy Stone / Vicki Ray
Bridge 9279 A/C (3 CDs)

This is a good place to begin to transition to a different perspective for this discussion. One crucial aspect for the reader is that Feldman's late-late music has an enjoyable sound. It is enjoyable & pleasant to hear. If you are not getting that part, that basic glory in the fundamental aspects of sound, and basically a sense of fun, you are definitely not getting it. That's not to say that Feldman's style is a joke, of course. In fact, it is quite sophisticated, and took decades to forge. It draws in the willing listener.


Feldman's late music, starting with the first String Quartet (1979), deals with very long durations. His early music is often quite short, although concerns itself with the same kind of precision exemplified in the small spaces of the larger works. I did not actually seek out to hear most of the earlier works, although I've heard a smattering, including the famous Rothko Chapel (1970) and others back in the day. Likewise, I did not hear all of the interpretations of the pieces below. Many were unavailable by the time I started this project, and some I listened to in excerpts and/or read commentary. So unlike the Scelsi or Xenakis pages, I did not keep up with the evolving Feldman discography in order to write this page from that perspective. This project was started in December of 2011, and I do intend to monitor new recordings of these pieces now. It seems clear that understanding & command of this music continue to improve, and so updated interpretations are definitely welcome. I will make some modest notes about the interpretations in the CD files themselves.

Although Feldman's earlier works have not attracted my interest, it's also clear that the early works — and the exploration of sound combinations implied in them — set the stage for his later, now characteristic music. In complete distinction to his long late works, Feldman wrote a lot of very short pieces. These are very concentrated pieces, inspired in part by Webern, and showing a scrupulous attention to detail. Feldman's late music likewise has a scrupulous attention to detail, with every aspect notated, and no real freedom for the performers even in a multi-hour score. Feldman's late works essentially involve taking the minute gestures of his early works and placing them one after another, generating an immense piece of individual instances. The other significant aspect of Feldman's early music is an exploration of sonority, and his late music is full of the results, manifested in many interesting & novel timbral combinations.

So a long piece of individual instances.... Feldman's music is often described as "floating" as in a sound figure suspended in time. The late-late works vary a sound figure slowly, but not systematically, throughout. Each statement is set into a different time stream largely by virtue of constantly shifting time signatures, making each statement seem independent of the others. Rhythm in this music is internal to the statement of each figure or instance, but does not link them. The mind does not really perceive the flow of time between the sequential, slowly-stated figures, because they are not linked by a pulse. The difference between the so-called late works and the late-late works is in the way the different sound figures are ordered. In his early set of long works, there is no particular order to the figures. For instance, if someone were to reveal that the order of sonic figures in Feldman's longest work, the 5- or 6-hour String Quartet II (1983) was determined at random (as in e.g. John Cage's I Ching works), it would come as no surprise. (And Patterns in a Chromatic Field shows large changes from one "pattern" to the next.) As he developed his style, however, Feldman's late-late works take on a perceptible order, as there are threads of continuity running through the pieces, where different aspects of a sonic figure are varied — usually gradually — from one statement to the next. One can perceive this sense of order come together in For Philip Guston (1984), Feldman's second longest work at around 4 hours:

Feldman: For Philip Guston
Elmar Schrammel / Julia Breuer / Matthias Engler
Wergo 6701 2 (4 CDs)

One thing that's amazing about Feldman is how prolific he was in his late period. Years like 1983 or 1985 for Feldman can be compared to e.g. Schubert's 1827. The composers also share a similar glory in the raw power of sound in extended form. It's entirely possible that the fact that For Philip Guston is Feldman's only major piece from 1984, after three in 1983 and before four in 1985, is coincidence. However it does seem to be something of a turning point, with the works following it showing elements of continuity through their duration. This is not a systematic method, but rather intuitive, with plenty of capriciousness — but it does not seem arbitrary. If anything, Feldman seems to have relaxed, and let his intuition take over, instead of trying to obscure his logic. I have seen some writers name For Bunita Marcus (1985) for solo piano as Feldman's first late-late work. This is understandable, as his long-form style seems to be discovered in the course of For Philip Guston, more than established from the start. Indeed, For Philip Guston is evidently in two distinct halves, the second repeating the first in modified form, so that the logic recrystallizes more coherently (and "crystalline" is an apt adjective for the sound world of the piece). The later works have a single sweep, but as in For Philip Guston, they simply end. There is no climax or resolution, and there is no sense that particular sounds need to "resolve" to any others. They vary however they vary, and end whenever they end. There's continuity, but no particular sense of anticipation or destination.

Although it is apparently quite popular with pianists, given the discography, I have not found Feldman's solo piano music to be especially compelling. Although ringing tones are characteristic of Feldman's use of the piano there and elsewhere, the other instrument combinations provide a chance to create composite timbre, and particularly to vary the way instrument sounds align. In keeping with the music's "floating" quality, different parts of a sonic figure will come more to the foreground or move to the background. This has to do with notes or rhythms shifting between instruments, dynamics, intonation, and also attack & articulation (where one instrument might attack just before another, or together, or just after, etc.). And moreover, the set of notes & rhythms in a figure can also change over time, so that there is a sense of distortion of the original materials. Feldman used the imagery of Turkish carpets to discuss his late music, and this analogy has often been repeated. The extension of patterns over a longer duration, but with subtle changes and variation (maybe a different dye lot) as things go, is clearly fitting. This sort of imagery might suggest a two-dimensional canvas, but Feldman's music has a subtle three-dimensional quality derived from these background/foreground shifts (and of course, carpets are actually three-dimensional too, with threads coming from back to front, etc.).

The other significant aspect of Feldman's late music is the matter of scale. In the carpet analogy, one can stand back and perceive the entire pattern of the carpet, or one can look very closely at individual knots. Feldman's music rewards both views, with the carefully crafted individual sound figures, and the broad view of the figures evolving over the course of the piece. This is where I've found that Feldman's music does fit nicely into my life today. It does reward close attention, but if something else arises in its long duration, and I need to take my attention elsewhere, I can come back to the piece, find an element of familiarity, and take up the flow once again. These late works create their own sound world, and they make a nice place to live for a while. Some writers suggest that the listener needs to surrender to Feldman's pieces, but I am finding them quite enjoyable, and not oppressive at all. For the performers, of course, there is no taking a break, and so these pieces require very strict technique, great attention to detail, and superior stamina. Even by themselves, all the meter shifts used to create the "floating" feel and layered separation between & within sound figures are a challenge for interpreters. The music also benefits from very clearly articulated notes, with careful attack & alignment of timbre, not only in fundamentals but in harmonics & overtones. So this is a tangible reason that performers improve in this music with practice.

So 1985 was a good year for Feldman, and besides For Bunita Marcus, he wrote two of my favorite pieces (as well as the shorter commissioned orchestral piece, Coptic Light):

Feldman: Violin and String Quartet
Christina Fong / Rangzen Quartet
Ogre Ogress Productions 2001 (2 CDs)
Feldman: Piano and String Quartet
Vicki Ray / Eclipse Quartet
Bridge 9369

Although they fit the description above, these two works create very different individual sound worlds. String writing was obviously of some significance to Feldman, given that his two string quartets were his first very long work and then his longest, although neither shows the long-range form of his late-late style. If he had lived longer, perhaps a third quartet would have been another consummation for him. In the absence of that, Violin and String Quartet is his one late-late all-string piece. The solo violin acts as a soloist, with the quartet treated almost more as a sound unit. Although the string sound has a natural continuity, there is a fragility to the sonic combinations here that is different from the percussive pieces. There is a wide range of chords, timbres, and harmonics out of the strings, and Violin and String Quartet is probably my second favorite piece.

In some contrast, Piano and String Quartet might be the most cheerfully accessible work listed here. It mixes a frequently percussive quality from the piano with a bit more distinction amongst the quartet parts, still creating a bit of a two-fold juxtaposition. Especially since it's usually squeezed onto a single CD, this is probably the best place for an unfamiliar listener to start.

For whatever reason, the sound world of flute with tuned metallic percussion (including piano) was one to which Feldman regularly returned, and is not coincidentally perhaps his most compelling. This type of ensemble is found in three of his most significant transitional works, Why Patterns? (1978), Crippled Symmetry (1983), and of course For Philip Guston. (His interesting Clarinet and String Quartet is his other major piece from 1983.) It's also found, pared down to a duo, in For Christian Wolff, probably my favorite Feldman piece:

Feldman: For Christian Wolff
Dorothy Stone / Vicki Ray
Bridge 9279 A/C (3 CDs)

In the earlier three works in this sound world, the various percussion instruments blur together (it is often unclear what is what, and that includes between the percussionist per se & pianist), and even For Christian Wolff retains the use of celesta by the pianist at times. In this case, the piece is strictly a duo, and I find the greater concentration worthwhile. Of course, this is also the one true late-late work in this sound world, even if For Philip Guston is on the verge, and so singularly worthwhile in that sense. One also finds some longer threads of continuity at times in For Christian Wolff, whereas particularly at the beginning, the sound figures in For Philip Guston can feel isolated & tentative. Although the "creation" of a style in For Philip Guston has a certain exhilaration to it, the consummation of mastery of this sound world in For Christian Wolff makes it Feldman's most characteristic & sophisticated piece.

The previous three pieces have a clear duo conception, even in the case of more performers, as indicated by the "and" — indeed one sees the word "and" often in Feldman's output, particularly in his series of concerto-like pieces that closely predated the start of his late style, but also elsewhere. As noted, there is a bit of "front & back" to his music, and duos (conceptual or literal) seem to really suit him, in part because of the possibility of a close concentration on individual sound & timbre. However, in his last year (1987), Feldman wrote For Samuel Beckett for 23 instruments:

Feldman: For Samuel Beckett
Klangforum Wien - Sylvain Cambreling
Kairos Music 1201

This is, in many ways, a fairly dark piece (and I don't think that has anything to do with Feldman's health, but rather the nature of Beckett's writing). It's also interesting to hear Feldman try to combine & respect so many different instrumental sonorities. The piece certainly does create its own sound world, although the level of detail doesn't shine through to the same degree as the more intimate settings, and there is less overall dynamic range & silence. It has more of a "pulsating" character. It's also the shortest piece on this list, more the scale of an ambitious classical symphony, and a worthwhile development of Feldman's late-late style.

Among the major late works, I have not yet been able to hear the piece Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (1987), so it's possible I might add it to this list of favorites. I can only speculate based on the title (i.e. there's no "and"), but it seems quite possible that the piece moves farther away from a duo juxtaposition and treats the four instruments more individually.

Of course, because of his early death, we do not get to learn how Feldman would have continued to develop his style, but considering how much it evolved over a handful of years in the 1980s, it's safe to believe that various developments would have occurred. These days, his influence seems especially significant in avant garde jazz, where his fairly capricious ideas on variation segue naturally into improvisation, and his precise attention to timbre & articulation fits many players well.


To Morton Feldman discography by Chris Villars.

Back to Modern music page.

Todd M. McComb
2 February 2012