I’ve listened to lots of records I’ve liked over the last 10 years, but the recording the Kronos Quartet made of this piece is probably my favorite. It seems remarkable that such a strange thing of beauty could be recorded at Skywalker Sound, George Lucas’s compound in Northern California. Morton Feldman spent the first half of his life (1926-1987) working full time in his family’s garment factory in Brooklyn, (long before it became a hipster mecca,) until his music career hit the big time when he became the Eugene Varese professor of music at SUNY Buffalo. Neither of these locations make one think of a ranch in Marin County, but then again, Feldman’s impressive visage does have something of Yoda’s gnarled wisdom about it, so maybe it is a fitting setting after all.
This piece was composed in 1985, toward the end of Feldman’s life. It belongs to a later period in which Feldman devoted himself to very long pieces. While this is not the longest piece from that era – ’83’s String Quartet II clocked in at over 6 hours – it does take its own sweet time, clocking in at 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 39 seconds. Long songs make me think of prog rock monstrosities by Yes that come off as bombastic and tiresome, but the thing about this piece is it just Is, without proclaiming what it is. It feels at ease in its own skin and at no point sounds tiresome or bloated. It reminds me more of a very large boulder baking under a hot sun, playing the generous host to various kinds of insects that scuttle across its craggy surface. What I like about listening to it is that it slows me down from running after whatever clay pigeon I’m obsessing over in a given moment, and leads me to try and approximate the vibrant stasis of a boulder. Not much else in the musical realm does that.
Feldman was a contemporary and associate of the more widely known John Cage, whom he met in the lobby during an intermission that followed a performance the New York Philharmonic gave of Anthony Webern’s Symphony op. 21 in 1950. (For a statistical look at their relationship over the years, check out Cage’s biography of his friend, which has little to say about Feldman’s life outside of their relationship.) Feldman was upset by the crowd’s disquiet during Webern’s piece, and was looking for someone to grouse with about the uncouth bourgeoise, finding a sympathetic ear in Mr. Cage. It must have been an interesting sight to see them standing together. As artistic compatriots with similar ideas and interests, they cut remarkable different figures. (You can listen to the two of them talking here. The introduction to that on-air conversation notes that Feldman’s most important work was yet to come. Since he was 41 at the time, this marks him as a serious entrant in the Top 40 over 40 record of achievement.)
Cage was a WASP whose roots in this country go back to the colonial times, while Feldman was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants from Kiev. Cage was charismatic, gay, and handsome, and a bit of a P.T. Barnum style showman. Feldman had the countenance of a gargoyle and was reputed to meet with little success in repeated awkward attempts to hit on young women. Cage’s work embraced indeterminacy as an idea that could be pitched as a charming soundbite on a conceptual level, as evidenced by this appearance on an Italian television show: Feldman’s work took longer to wrap your head around, and did not seep out into the lexicon of mainstream culture as a reference point.
For all of Cage’s anti-cognitive derivations from Zen Buddhism, a piece like 4’33” remains an idea first, and a piece of music second. I adore his Sonatas for Prepared Piano, which stands apart for me from most of his work because I find the compositions – yes, compositions – achingly beautiful. The comment section of the following YouTube link points out that they were influenced by Baliese Gamelan music:
What I love about Feldman’s music is that it uses some of the same principles that were floating around Cage and the avant garde of his day to make work that can’t be reduced to an idea or a cognitive stance. It hits the compositional heights of Cage’s Sonatas on a consistent basis. His decision or inability to gift wrap his works in a rhetorical posture meant that he and his work did not then and do not now circulate as widely as John Cage’s figure and music did. It would be hard to think of Stereolab writing a song called “Morton Feldman Bubblegum.”
His passages are repetitive but not redundant like those of Steve Reich, another composer popular in indie-dom who I like to listen to but not like I love Feldman. Reich’s repetitions are more easily duplicated. I was once listening to Music for 18 Musicians and my (much) younger brother walked by and said, “Is that Sufjan Stevens.”
Feldman’s pieces are too idiosyncratic for that kind of imprint. The repetitions of this piece involve several different motifs that wind in and out of each other, rather than an overarching pattern, and they are each gorgeous. I like Music For 18 Musicians, but it telegraphs a certain kind of mind state as its goal right from the start in a way that makes me think of what I don’t like about New Age music. The coercion into a single minded “concentratedness” and alterity doesn’t really happen in Feldman’s work. I couldn’t put my finger on what it evokes or feels like. But his compositional skill is serious enough that it takes you to more than one place, without letting you hang a label on what any of those places are. What can I say, the guy has serious compositional chops, without the grandiose maestro-ness of the big time classical composers I tend to associate such skill, (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven). Those symphonies, as Pierre Laurent-Aimard has noted, belonged to the centuries when European master narratives of conquest could survey large swathes of the globe where their flag was planted. Feldman’s work sees a similarly expansive territory without subjugating it via the mastery of either an organized 17th-18th century opus or a single minded 20th century hippie-Orientalist stereotype of “meditative/stoner” serenity. I like to picture him at a piano in Buffalo – I wonder how long it took him to write these blue whale compositions?
I think I’m gonna go try and make it through the six plus hours of String Quartet II next: