Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman, Composer, NYC


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Morton Feldman

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Morton Feldman (January 12, 1926 - September 3, 1987) was an American composer, born in New York City.

A key figure in modern music, Feldman's compositions went through several phases. He was a pioneer of aleatoric music and indeterminate music, and in requiring improvisation. His compositions are characterized by their quietness, slowness, and often by their extreme length, especially in his later music.

Biography

He studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, and later composition with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. He did not agree with many of the views of these composition teachers, and he spent much of his time simply arguing with them. Feldman was composing at this time, but in a style very different from that with which he would later be associated.

In 1950, Feldman went to hear the New York Philharmonic give a performance of Anton Webern's Symphony. At the concert, he met John Cage. The two became good friends, with Feldman moving into the apartment downstairs from Cage. Under Cage's influence, Feldman began to write pieces which had no relation to compositional systems of the past, such as the constraints of traditional harmony or the serial technique. He experimented with non-standard systems of musical notation, often using grids in his scores, and specifying how many notes should be played at a certain time, but not which ones. Feldman's experiments with the use of chance in his composition in turn inspired John Cage to write pieces like the Music of Changes, where the notes to be played are determined by consulting the I Ching. See aleatoric music and indeterminate music.

Through Cage, Feldman met many other prominent figures in the New York arts scene, among them Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Frank O'Hara and Samuel Beckett. He found inspiration in the paintings of the abstract expressionists, and throughout the 1970s wrote a number of pieces around twenty-minutes in length, including Rothko Chapel (1971, written for the building of the same name which houses paintings by Mark Rothko) and For Frank O'Hara (1973). In 1977, he wrote the opera Neither with words by Samuel Beckett.

In 1973, at the age of 47, Feldman became the Edgard Varese Professor at the University at Buffalo. Prior to that time, Feldman had earned his living as a full time employee at the family textile business in New York's garment district.

Later, he began to produce his very long works, often in one continuous movement, rarely shorter than half an hour in length and often much longer. These works include Violin and String Quartet (1985, around 2 hours), For Philip Guston (1984, around four hours) and, most extreme, the String Quartet II (1983), which is over five hours long without a break. It was given its first complete performance at Cooper Union, New York City in 1999 by the FLUX Quartet, who issued a recording in 2003 (at 6 hours and 7 minutes). Typically, these pieces do not change in mood throughout and tend to be made up of mostly very quiet sounds. Feldman said himself that quiet sounds had begun to be the only ones that interested him.

Feldman married the composer Barbara Monk shortly before his death. He died from pancreatic cancer in 1987 at his home in Buffalo, New York, after fighting for his life for two years.



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