Feldman, Morton

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was born in New York on 12 January 1926. At the age of twelve he studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, a pupil of Busoni, and it was she who instilled in Feldman a vibrant musicality. At the time he was composing short Scriabinesque pieces, until in 1941 he began to study composition with Wallingford Riegger. Three years later Stefan Wolpe became his teacher, though they spent much of their time together simply arguing about music. Then in 1949 the hitherto most significant meeting took place: Feldman met John Cage, commencing an artistic association of crucial importance to music in America in the 1950s. Cage was instrumental in encouraging Feldman to have confidence in his instincts, which resulted in totally intuitive compositions. He never worked with any systems that anyone has been able to identify, working from moment to moment, from one sound to the next. His friends during the 1950s in New York included the composers Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, the painters Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg, and the pianist David Tudor. The painters in particular influenced Feldman to search for his own sound world, one that was more immediate and more physical than had existed before. is resulted in his experimentation with graphic notation, Projection 2 being one of his earliest scores in this idiom. In these scores the players select their notes from within a given register and time structure. 

Because these works relied so heavily on improvisation Feldman was not happy with the freedom permitted to the performer, and so abandoned graphic notation between 1953 and 1958. However, the precise notation he used instead during this period he found too one dimensional and so returned to the graph with two orchestral works: Atlantis (1958) and Out of Last Pieces (1960). Soon after these a series of instrumental works appeared called Durations in which the notes to be played are precisely written but the performers, beginning simultaneously, are free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo. 

1967 saw the start of Feldman’s association with Universal Edition with the publication of his last graphically notated score, In Search of an Orchestration. Then followed On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969) in which he once more returned to precise notation. From then on, with the exception of two works in the early 1970s, he maintained control over pitch, rhythm, dynamics and duration. His compositions are characterised by their so dynamic levels. “When it’s loud, you can’t hear the sound. You hear its attack. Then you don’t hear the sound, only its decay,” he explained. From the late 1970s his compositions expanded in length to such a degree that the second string quartet can last for up to five and a half hours. The scale of these works in particular has often been the cause for the controversy surrounding his works, but he would always be happy to attempt to explain his reasoning behind them: “My whole generation was hung up on the 20–25 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 the form, but after an hour and a half it is 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 envolving things.” 

He identified himself by differentiating his views on composition from those of his colleagues in Europe. He was proud to be an American because he was convinced that it enabled him the freedom, unparalleled in Europe, to work unfettered by tradition. He spoke about these issues notably at a lecture at Darmstadt in 1984. 

In 1973 the University of New York at Buffalo asked Feldman to become the Edgard Varèse Professor, a post which he was to hold for the rest of his life. He le brilliant essays, anecdotes, and drawings.

Selected works (from 1960): Four Instruments for violin, cello, bells and piano (1965), First Principles for orchestra (1967), Chorus and Instruments II for mixed choir, bells and tuba (1967), In Search of an Orchestration for orchestra (1967), False Relationships and the Extended Ending for violin, cello, trombone and bells (1968), Between Categories for two pianos, two bells, two violins and two cellos (1969), On Time and the Instrumental Factor for orchestra (1969), Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety for large instrumental ensemble (1970), The Viola in My Life I for solo viola, flute, percussion, piano, violin, viola and cello (1970; also a version with no cello), The Viola in My Life III for viola and piano (1970), Chorus and Orchestra (1971), I Met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg for large instrumental ensemble and voice (1971), Rothko Chapel for viola and orchestra (1971), Cello and Orchestra (1972), Chorus and Orchestra II (1972), Pianos and Voices I for five pianos (1972), Voice and Instruments I for soprano and orchestra (1972), Voices and Instruments I for mixed choir and instruments (1972), Voices and Instruments II for three voices, flute, two cellos and double bass (1972), For Frank O’Hara for large instrumental ensemble (1973), String Quartet and Orchestra (1973),Voices and Cello for cello and two voices (1973), Instruments I for alto flute, oboe, trombone, percussion and cello (1974), Voice and Instruments II for voice, clarinet, cello and double bass (1974), Four Instruments for piano, violin, viola and cello (1975), Instruments II for ensemble (1975), Piano and Orchestra (1975), Elemental Procedures for orchestra and choir (1976), Oboe and Orchestra (1976), Routine Investigations for instrumental ensemble (1976), Flute and OrchestraInstruments III for flute, oboe and percussion (1977), Neither, opera in one act after Samuel Beckett for soprano and orchestra (1977), Spring of Chosroes for violin and piano (1978), Why Patterns? for flute, piano and percussion (1978), String Quartet (1979), Violin and Orchestra (1979), Principle Sounds for organ (1980), The Turfan Fragments for orchestra (1980), Trio for violin, cello and piano (1980), Triadic Memories for piano (1981), Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano (1981), For John Cage for violin and piano (1982), Three Voices for three soprano or voice and tape (1982), Crippled Symmetry for six instruments (1983), String Quartet no. 2 (1983), Clarinet & String Quartet (1983), For Bunita Marcus for piano (1985), For Philip Guston for flute / alto and flute, piano / celesta and percussion (1984), Palais de Mari for piano (1986).