Morton Feldman

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Morton Feldman (1976)

Morton Feldman (born January 12, 1926 in New York City , † September 3, 1987 in Buffalo ) was an American composer . He is considered one of the pioneers of graphic notation . Because this left the interpreter too much freedom, he rejected it again in 1969 and returned to precise notation.


Morton Feldman was born into a Russian-Jewish family from Kiev and grew up in Brooklyn . He received his first music lessons at the age of twelve from his piano teacher Madame Maurina-Press. In 1941 he began to study composition ; In 1944 he became a student of Stefan Wolpe . From 1971 to 1972 Feldman lived in Berlin for a year as a guest of the DAAD's Berlin artist program . In 1973 he received a request from the University of New York in Buffalo to take on the professorship named after Edgard Varèse . Until then he had worked in the family's own tailoring shop for children's clothing. He then taught and composed until his death in 1987.

Encounter with John Cage

On January 26, 1950, during a break from a concert by the New York Philharmonic, the meeting between Feldman and John Cage , arguably the most decisive for American music of the 20th century, took place. By meeting and exchanging ideas with Cage (the two lived in the same house for a while) Feldman got more confidence in his own ideas and developed his first compositions, which became known in the transcript of John Cages.


Morton Feldman's friends in New York also included the composers Christian Wolff and Earle Brown as well as the painters Jackson Pollock , Mark Rothko , Philip Guston , Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg . Based on the visual artists, the rather loose grouping of Cage, Feldman, Brown and Wolff was also called the New York School of Music .

Artistic creation and meaning

With sometimes radical lengths, Feldman tried to oppose the traditional concert business. One of his shorter works, Palais de Mari (1986), was commissioned by Bunita Marcus. She commissioned him to write a work that should bring together all the elements and properties of the long pieces in a summarized form. The original performance was a ten-minute work, the result is between a little over 22 and over 29 minutes game length.

Feldman's early work contains important suggestions for new music : in his chamber music Projections 1–5 (1950/51), the precise execution of the graphically notated score is left to the musicians for the first time. Similar approaches can also be found in other works by Feldman from the 1950s. They are possibly to be understood as a replica of the discussions he had with his numerous New York painter friends. To what extent he influenced or even initiated similar developments in Europe (for example in Karlheinz Stockhausen's work ) is controversial. With the piece The Viola In my Life I , Feldman returned forever to precise notation in the 1970s .

Morton Feldman's oeuvre - in particular his late chamber music work from the 1980s - is occasionally counted as minimal music because it apparently works with repetitions. A similarity with works by Terry Riley , Steve Reich or Philip Glass , the main exponents of this direction, can only be seen to a rudimentary degree: While the exponents of minimalism are predominantly oriented towards, in part deliberately trivial, tonal structures, Feldman's interest is open Function-free sounds, so to speak, which are presented in constant modification, especially in his later work, as if he wanted to give the listener time to contemplatively absorb these sounds in a way that a picture can be viewed. Feldman has often emphasized his affinity for visual representation - also as an inspiration for his compositions - particularly noteworthy in his choral work Rothko Chapel (1971) or his orchestral composition Coptic Light (1985). The patterns and techniques of Anatolian carpet weavers ( Yürüks ) also influenced him. Feldman also worked more with flows of sounds, on the piano a lot with pedals , with an eye on the belonging of the sounds to dissonances. “The sounds should stand on their own - like sculptures in a room - without referring to anything or depicting anything other than themselves.” In this sense, the procedure can often be described as playing with the tension arcs of interval positions. A chord progression in the sense of a scale progression is missing. Each sound is determined by long-lasting, superordinate surface designs in layers or layers. The intervals relate to the neighboring intervals as if they were juxtaposed, but still stand as sounds on their own.

In addition to his chamber music works with sometimes extreme playing times (up to four hours), Feldman also wrote more compact orchestral works. In addition to the Coptic Light mentioned, five pieces each for a solo instrument (cello, violin, piano, oboe, flute) and orchestra. He particularly emphasized the viola - there is a four-part cycle called The Viola in My Life I – IV , of which No. IV is worked out as an orchestral work. In the aforementioned Rothko Chapel , the viola acts as a solo instrument alongside the choir. The reduction of compositional and instrumental material became typical of Feldman's work early on. Feldman's music doesn't want to express anything in particular: it is the opposite of German Romanticism and avoids any expression of sentiment. The otherwise predominant idea of ​​a musical development is largely overridden. The relative simplicity of the score usually belies the complex internal structure. In other cases, Feldman equips an essentially simple melody line with a complex musical notation, actually noting the same notes in different instrumental parts differently, probably to sensitize his interpreters. The duration of his pieces and the slight change in their melodic, rhythmic or dynamic values ​​are decisive for the effect of Feldman's sound world. His pieces seldom go beyond a mezzoforte and usually move in a calm, flowing tempo. Sometimes Feldman's work was and is misunderstood as "meditation music". In any case, the statements of the composer in his essays do not allow any other conclusion than that he was committed to the principle of " l'art pour l'art " and achieved it in a perhaps unique way - in the sense of a quasi Schopenhauerian non-will. That makes him an exception in the music of the 20th century, maybe music in general.

Reception in film and in the theater

Feldman's music was used in a number of films during his lifetime. He composed the music for the documentary about the Vietnam War Time of the Locust (director: Peter Gessner, 1966). Mort is a one-person play and was staged in New York City in 2006. The film artist Bady Minck shot the eight-minute short film Schein Sein in 2007 as a visual interpretation of Feldman's composition Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety (1970). This film had its international premiere at the Venice Biennale . 10 minutes from Feldman's Rothko Chapel was used in Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island (2010).

Works (selection)

  • Only (1947) for soprano
  • Piece for Violin and Piano (1950) for violin and piano
  • Projection 1 (1950) for violoncello
  • Projection 2 (1951) for flute, trumpet, piano, violin, violoncello
  • Projection 3 (1951) for 2 pianos
  • Projection 4 (1951) for violin and piano
  • Projection 5 (1951) for 3 flutes, trumpet, 2 pianos, 3 cellos
  • Intersection 1 (1951) for tape
  • Intersection 2 (1951) for piano
  • Intersection 3 (1953) for piano
  • Intersection 4 (1953) for violoncello
  • Piano Three Hands (1957) for piano
  • Durations 1 (1960) for alto flute, piano, violin and violoncello
  • Durations 2 (1960) for violoncello and piano
  • Durations 3 (1961) for violin, tuba and piano
  • Durations 4 (1961) for vibraphone, violin and violoncello
  • Durations 5 (1961) for horn, vibraphone, harp, piano, celesta, violin and violoncello
  • The O'Hara Songs (1962) for baritone, percussion, piano, violin and violoncello
  • Vertical Thoughts 1 (1963) for 2 pianos
  • Vertical Thoughts 2 (1963) for violin and piano
  • Vertical Thoughts 3 (1963) for soprano, flute, harp, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, celesta, 2 percussion sets, violin, cello and double bass
  • Vertical Thoughts 4 (1963) for piano
  • Vertical Thoughts 5 (1963) for soprano, tuba, percussion, celesta and violin
  • Piano Piece (1964) for piano
  • The King of Denmark (1964) for drums
  • The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar (1966) for electric guitar
  • In Search of an Orchestration (1969) for orchestra
  • On Time and the Instrumental Factor (1969) for orchestra
  • Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety (1970) for 12 instruments
  • Rothko Chapel (1971) for soprano, alto, choir, percussion, celesta and viola
  • The Viola in My Life 1 (1970) for viola, flute, percussion, piano, violin and violoncello
  • The Viola in My Life 2 (1970) for viola, flute, clarinet, percussion, celesta, violin and violoncello
  • The Viola in My Life 3 (1970) for viola and piano
  • The Viola in My Life 4 (1971) for viola and orchestra
  • Cello and Orchestra (1972) for violoncello and orchestra
  • Pianos and Voices (1972) for 5 voices and 5 pianos
  • Trio (1973) for 3 flutes
  • String Quartet and Orchestra (1973) for string quartet and orchestra
  • Piano and Orchestra (1975) for piano and orchestra
  • Oboe and Orchestra (1976) for oboe and orchestra
  • Orchestra (1976) for orchestra
  • Routine Investigations (1976) for oboe, trumpet, viola, cello, double bass and piano
  • Voice, Violin and Piano (1976) for voice, violin and piano
  • Neither (1977) opera in one act for soprano and orchestra (world premiere: Teatro dell'Opera Rome), libretto: Samuel Beckett
  • Piano (1977) for piano
  • Spring of Chosroes (1977) for violin and piano
  • Flute and Orchestra (1978) for flute and orchestra
  • Why Patterns? (1978) for flute, glockenspiel and piano
  • String Quartet (1979) for string quartet
  • Violin and Orchestra (1979) for violin and orchestra
  • Principal Sound (1980) for organ
  • Trio (1980) for violin, violoncello and piano
  • The Turfan Fragments (1980) for 28 instruments
  • Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981) for bass clarinet and drums
  • For Aaron Copland (1981) for violin
  • Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981) for violoncello and piano
  • Triadic Memories (1981) for piano
  • For John Cage (1982) for violin and piano
  • Clarinet and String Quartet (1983) for clarinet and string quartet
  • Crippled Symmetry (1983) for flute (s), percussion, piano (also celesta)
  • String Quartet II (1983) for string quartet
  • For Philip Guston (1984) for flute (s), percussion, piano (also celesta)
  • For Bunita Marcus (1985) for piano
  • Piano and String Quartet (1985) for piano and string quartet
  • Violin and String Quartet (1985) for violin and string quartet
  • Coptic Light (1986) for large orchestra
  • For Christian Wolff (1986) for flute, piano and celesta
  • For Stefan Wolpe (1986) for choir and 2 vibraphones
  • Palais de Mari (1986) for piano
  • For Samuel Beckett (1987) for 23 instruments
  • Piano, violin, viola, cello (1987) for piano, violin, viola and violoncello
  • Samuel Beckett: Words and Music (1987) for 2 flutes, vibraphone, piano, violin, viola and violoncello


  • 2014: Lists profoundly. Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon



  • Conversation with Morton Feldman, John Cage: Nov. 19/83. A conversation between John Cage, Morton Feldman, Francesco Pellizzi and Bunita Marcus , in: MusikTexte 5, July 1984, 21-27.
  • "I don't compose, I assemble". Morton Feldman in conversation about “Crippled Symmetry” with Gisela Gronemeyer and Reinhard Oehlschlägel, in: MusikTexte 66, November 1996, 33–36.
  • The note person and the word person. Morton Feldman on the composition of Samuel Beckett's radio piece “Words and Music” in conversation with Everett Frost, in: MusikTexte 66, November 1996, 44–50.
  • Cultural Olympics at Leopoldstrasse. Conversation in Munich, 1972 between Morton Feldman, Agathe Kaehr, Gordon Mumma and Frederic Rzewski, in: MusikTexte 133, May 2012, 63–74.


Individual evidence

  1. See David Nicholls: Getting rid of the glue: the music of the New York School. In: Journal of American Studies, 27 (1993), pp. 335-353, and David Nicholls: Getting rid of the glue: the music of the New York School. In: Steven Johnson (Ed.): The New York Schools of Music and the Visual Arts. Routledge, 2001, pp. 17-56.
  2. Feldman counted his quarters in the spectrum between 63 and 66 beats. This creates a certain calm that is inherent in almost all of his works. Many conductors recommend that their musicians count a meter of 30 instead of counting to 60 , in order to be able to reproduce the unrestrained spontaneity of Feldman's compositions more in the sense of the composer.
  3. See detailed discussion of Feldman's work in the music talk on SWR2 on January 17, 2007, 8:00 p.m.
  4. ^ Karlheinz Essl - Morton Feldman Project (1994) [1] at
  5. See also Gerhard R. Koch - review (undated) [2] press reviews at Universal Edition , accessed on October 1, 2016.
  9. Museum page on the exhibition , accessed on September 27, 2016.

Web links