Modern music: Feldman

As discussed (below) in 2012, I created this Feldman discussion only some years subsequent to undertaking most of this project (as opposed to many of the composer pages of this section, which actually date to before the web became popular), but I've also maintained an interest & continued to monitor new interpretations: I won't actually be adding new recordings below, however, but I do want to tighten up my list of recommendations (after some years of living with it) & to offer some updated thoughts. And while an "album" format — as I've been using for these writeups for decades — might generally become less practical in today's world of streaming, Feldman's individual works (or at least the "late late" works under consideration here) tend to be as long or longer than traditional albums, thus mitigating further considerations for recommendations, i.e. pairings etc. (In other words, more than in most of this section, a recommendation for a Feldman piece & interpretation is synonymous with a recommendation for an entire album....) So in many ways, this remains a relatively straightforward project.

Moreover, there are a variety of (accumulating) suggestions that Feldman's music was really "made" — perhaps fortuitously, since it certainly does seem that Feldman himself was committed to the traditional concert format — for the recording medium, i.e. individual listening. And indeed, I've not heard any of these pieces in concert myself, so an orientation on listening to recordings is probably important to note: It leaves me relatively unable to assess suggestions that Feldman's music resists concentrated listening in a concert setting, or rather I suppose, that one might feel judged for any lapses there.... Instead, Feldman's music tends to leave us with our private thoughts, and those thoughts don't collectivize in the same ways. It's also interesting that writers from a "classical" orientation might talk in terms of surrender etc., whereas an ambient (or for that matter, perhaps improvisatory) orientation requires no apology: Feldman's music is conducive to selective attention, to tuning in & out. Feldman's music might even thwart concentration more actively? (It also doesn't leave one listening to the background environment in its wake — as some other potent music does.) Maybe that's part of its utility & appeal.

There've also been suggestions that Feldman (& American minimalism more generally, perhaps even encompassing Cage) is only seeking a refuge from boredom, a specifically American (e.g. consumerist) boredom (one imagines): That's ultimately an implication, I suppose, that the span of his works have no purpose beyond passing time. As noted, though, they do provoke an affective response, including via length. And a (musical) environment in which to be alone with one's thoughts doesn't sound so unfavorable either, but Feldman's music also remains, well, musical: In many ways, its typical of its era, with a sort of post-Webern emphasis on concentrated figures & gestural sophistication — those figures then being repeated & varied, in a sort of slow musing, perhaps for hours. In other words, Feldman's late music develops his own sense of variation, specifically without a sense of (other than temporal) progress or resolution. (Beyond Cage, an obvious precedent is Satie.)

That said, particularly when it comes to exemplifying Feldman's imposing sense of "span," my favorite among his works remains For Christian Wolff. For one, it uses perhaps his most characteristic ensemble type — & perhaps one characterizing its era in general, as e.g. Boulez employed similar textures — in juxtaposing flute & tuned percussion (especially piano). To this sound world, then (as discussed in more detail in the prior survey retained below), Feldman brought not only an iterative sense of refinement, but distillation, thus forging For Christian Wolff (1986) as his most stark or severe (or concentrated, despite its length) late work. And this remains an amazing interpretation from both performers (including as part of Stone's impressive legacy):

Feldman: For Christian Wolff
Dorothy Stone / Vicki Ray
Bridge Records 9279 A/C [CDx3]

And whereas my enthusiasm for that set does remain, I also intend to tighten the list of recommendations below, as already noted: Patterns in a Chromatic Field played an important role in my return to Feldman around a decade ago, but has faded in my specific affections.... While For John Cage, my erstwhile first experience with this style, has a new interpretation to note, a second by Darragh Morgan & John Tilbury: Why note it here? Because it appeared first on Bandcamp, and moreover continues to develop a different (more English?) stance toward Feldman, with a smoother & more sinewy sense of polish (& poignancy) — as opposed to the rougher & more assertive playing that I continue to favor here. Still, Feldman continues to be popular with musicians, including those involved in free improvisation, and a trend toward polish does usually follow an original provocation or novelty....

But for readers who'd prefer to start with a piece that fits on a single (traditional) album, another work suggesting a relative apex of similar style (& of a similar time period) continues to be Piano and String Quartet (1985), again in a bright & energetic interpretation from Bridge:

Feldman: Piano and String Quartet
Vicki Ray / Eclipse Quartet
Bridge Records 9369

The liner notes suggest that Piano and String Quartet having no sense of coming or going leaves us free to concentrate on where we are.... (Pace the opening, "where we are" might be in our own heads....) And it's also a generally sunny piece, combining Feldman's longtime focus on piano (as typical of his time & place) with his continuing development of string textures. It's slowly become another favorite, even as it doesn't have striking characteristics... or maybe because of that. In contrast, I've cooled on Violin and String Quartet, which is more distinctive in omitting piano, but didn't end up holding up for me versus (contemporaneous) developments of purely string material by Cage & others. (Or maybe I just need a new interpretation, as it hasn't had a very recent recording....) In particular, the solo violin can seem too thin to balance the quartet... or maybe Feldman's late style really calls out for a more percussive aspect.

And regarding more transitional late works such as For Philip Guston, its doubled development (& audible striving to refine its contours) remains unique, but the sort of figural smearing one sometimes hears, as the trio articulations haven't been rendered as starkly yet as the duo on For Christian Wolff, seems to return in Feldman's last two instrumental chamber pieces.... While For Bunita Marcus continues to seem so sparse with only piano, more Satie-like to be sure, but somehow both emotionally distant & annoyingly persistent... or maybe just (too) pianistic (for me). In any of these late pieces, though, Feldman uses length or span so as to allow such extended works to forge their own contexts, i.e. as a quasi-encyclopedic collections of figures (albeit gathered much less systematically than e.g. by Cage) varied "intuitively" over extended periods. There's thus a sort of "working through" but without a particular sense of direction. And then they simply end — as is typical for Feldman.

Such a general interrogation of the nexus of (musical) tapestry & auditory use comes to yield a variety of idioms, though (or maybe sub-idioms), with Feldman reaching a couple of pinnacles in the works featured above.... But after For Christian Wolff, as anticipated in the prior discussion (as retained below), Feldman moved past a sense of juxtaposing two musical forces, i.e. focusing on a sort of front & back orientation to varying musical figures (again, not so far from Satie), with a couple of other extended instrumental pieces showing further developments of style: Neither has quite the sense of "perfection" (perhaps a strange word for such capricious music) achieved at times above, but new (& newly available) interpretations of Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (1987) did cause me to add some comments to this page in mid-2015, including so as to recommend the following version:

Feldman: Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello
Karis / Macomber / Farina / Finckel
Bridge Records 9446

(There've actually now been four recordings of Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello since I wrote the prior discussion in early 2012.) So this piece really does seem to bring a four-way (rather than two-way) musical sense, and even suggests notions of "development" or "conclusion" toward the end. It can also seem strangely cyclical (more so than the above). Still, whereas Feldman may have refined this style had he lived, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello basically remains a singular work & increasingly a favorite. Of course, that's yet another recommendation from the Bridge label, so I do want to acknowledge my relative lack of interpretive variety here: All I can say is that each of these are the interpretations that I've preferred, in a very broad sense due to their relatively blunt physicality — as seeming to suit Feldman.

But there were already some shorter "late late" works too, that I'd largely ignored in the prior discussion: Coptic Light (1985) is under thirty minutes for large orchestra, producing a sort of glittering & pulsing organ-esque sound, very approachable (relatively) & tonal, even with a telescoping sense of drama. For Stefan Wolpe (1986) is actually a choral piece (& so even more distinct) alternating with two vibraphones as those textures start to merge, likewise around a half hour in length & a piece without a clear comparison.... Still, neither adopts the spans of Feldman's more typical late music, and both are generally much more approachable, not only on account of that, but for their simpler material. (They thus have less need to establish their own contexts.) And the same can be said of Palais de Mari (1986) for solo piano, which seems to be quite popular with pianists & so is available on many recordings (as also noted here in the brief comments from 2015) — a rather wistful, even romantic piece.

And while those shorter works might have gone on to herald (other) new development of style, For Samuel Beckett (1987) manages to adopt an intermediate length (at under an hour), but without the sunny or romantic emotional quality, here in another organ-esque interpretation (finally) on a different label:

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

Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello is more often cited as Feldman's last work, but I'm ending this new survey with For Samuel Beckett (for chamber orchestra), which also proceeds according to four sets of instruments (thus paralleling the former), and so comes to offer more (geometric?) perspectives on its figural variations: One might hear e.g. "smears" in both pieces, as noted above around For Philip Guston (as sometime trio), and there's even a sense of (medium-term) linear continuity: Rather than keeping figural statements separate, they start to bleed into each other.... (And do note that four-part writing had basically been the standard for e.g. classical symphonic music, so it's something of a canonical move.) The darkness of Beckett's writing comes through in this late piece, too, almost as a polar opposite to Piano and String Quartet, presumably leading to more musical ideas that never came to fruition... but which do continue to interrogate various awarenesses of listening per se. (In that sense, these last two pieces also seem more tentative at times, or perhaps simply more exploratory again....) And Feldman wrote Samuel Beckett, Words and Music (1987) around the same time as well, illustrating & further interrogating his broad feelings of artistic kinship... long having moved beyond the confines of music per se for inspiration.

And finally, why am I pushing up against the very end of Feldman's output in an attempt to survey some favorites? Quite simply, because like most of his peers (i.e. that particular generation of composers), Feldman was developing a new style from scratch. And the longer he had to work on it, the more developed & distinctive it became....


[ Now writing eight & a half years earlier.... ]

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.

[ And continuing with the same 2012 perspective.... ]

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
Original: 2 February 2012
New intro: 31 July 2020