Words and Music
For Samuel Beckett
Morton Feldman (1926-1987)
No other musician on these pages can stake a claim for primary Beckett-related importance more than Morton Feldman, the iconoclastic American composer. Not only are Feldman's timeless, repetitive compositions often evocative of Beckett's minimalist prose, but a meeting in Berlin, 1976, lead to a warm relationship between the composer and the writer, one that bore fruit in several projects and collaborations.
Born in New York in 1926, Morton Feldman studied music and piano privately with several teachers before becoming the pupil of Stefan Wolpe after graduating high school in 1944. Spending much of this time "arguing about music," Feldman absorbed his lessons in academic atonality, but found himself still struggling to find his own voice. (He also absorbed some of his teacher's fondness for the visual arts.) In 1950 he met John Cage at a New York performance of Webern's Opus 21, quickly falling into a relationship that had a profound impact on his artistic development. Encouraging the younger composer to follow his instincts, to open his music to indeterminacy, and to challenge all forms of received tradition, John Cage became a mentor and even something of a father-figure, and their friendship lasted the rest of their lives.
The 1950s were a vital period for Feldman, as they were for American composition in general. Part of a circle of New York artists and composers that included not only John Cage but Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Robert Rauschenberg, Feldman charted his own artistic course that was every bit as idiosyncratic and revolutionary as the abstract expressionists, from which he drew much inspiration. He wanted his music to be more direct, immediate, a "physical sound-world" that grew from "vertical" explorations of sound color derived from the material properties of instruments themselves. His goal was to divest his own personality from his music, to make "anonymous" pieces which "project sounds into time" rather than manifest a composer's intellectual or romantic sensibilities. He rejected standard notation and developed his own system of "graph notation," a highly visual system of scoring that allows the performers some input in the overall form of the piece. In various compositions musicians could select their notes from a given register, play set notes at their own determined duration, or improvise pitch and rhythm within specific parameters of timbre or chord density. The result was a series of ground-breaking works, often considered controversial, particularly in regard to their inaccessibility to the general public. Feldman, however, grew dissatisfied for a different reason -- he was unhappy with the amount of improvisation allowed the musicians, and in the late Sixties he returned to more precise forms of notation, usually permitting indeterminacy to occur only with respect to duration. Regardless, the works of this period remain quite striking. It has often been remarked that these early pieces are almost visual in character, or as Alan Rich put it, "a kind of gray continuum filled with small points of color." Indeed, metaphors derived from the visual arts are frequently applied to Feldman's work, which is perhaps natural to the composer of Rothko Chapel, Why Patterns?, and For Philip Guston. Of course, it has also been frequently remarked that for a composer who wished to create anonymous works, he forged quite a characteristic and immediately recognizable style! But contradictions have always been part of the Feldman mythos.
Despite his (partial) rejection of graph notation and aleatory music, Feldman's work of the Seventies and Eighties was to prove just as revolutionary and controversial. His compositions grew longer, his obsessions turning to the passage of time and the movement of blocks of sound through musical space. Often called "timeless" by his admirers and "boring" by his detractors, his compositions have no melody, harmony, or rhythm in the traditional sense. Although labelled a "Minimalist" by some, Feldman's droning works are very distant from the comparatively Baroque music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and carry much of the same fascination of lapping water or moiling embers -- a captivating series of endless variations, emerging and returning from the same basic material. Or to shift the metaphor, like the Oriental rugs he so admired, Feldman's work uses the repetition of individual elements to create a vast field of shimmering colors and textures. Underpinning these great tapestries of sound are often deep structures of arcane mathematics and theory; though he disdained discussion of his music along purely technical lines, his scores are filled with subtle puzzles and "eye music," and are frequently viewed as works of art in of themselves. Even more so than their sonic quality, many of his works became notorious for their sheer length; his infrequently played String Quartet No. 2 has the potential to last up to six hours, with no breaks for the performers. While some laud his work for its Zen-like patience and subtle beauty, just as many find his monotonous compositions to be nearly unendurable. Indeed, a Feldman work "takes no prisoners," it demands appreciation on its own ground, its muted instruments and flat tones often just bordering the threshold of irritation, its quiet sonorities rewarding only to the patient and the willing.
Feldman and Beckett
Morton Feldman accepted the Edgard Varèse chair at the University of New York at Buffalo in 1973, a position he held until his death. In 1976 he met Samuel Beckett in Berlin, at the Schiller-Theater, where Beckett was overseeing rehearsals of Footfalls and That Time. Coming in from the sunlight into the dark theatre, the already terribly myopic Feldman could barely see Beckett, and literally tripped on the stage after "shaking his thumb." Inviting the author to lunch, and armed with a score for part of Film, Feldman attempted to get the embarrassed writer to provide text for a composition intended for the Rome Opera. The two discussed their mutual disdain for traditional opera, groping around each other for a possible middle ground -- Feldman didn't want to use any existing text, and Beckett wasn't exactly fond of having his words set to music. Eventually, Beckett agreed to elaborate on some words he called "the theme of his life," the result being Neither, mailed to the composer a few weeks later -- before Beckett had ever heard a note of Feldman's music! Coincidentally, the very week he mailed the poem, he heard Feldman's Orchestra on the BBC. Perhaps sensing similarities in their artistic vision, Beckett approved of his music and continued their friendship, though the younger man remained somewhat in awe of Beckett for the rest of his life. In 1985 Beckett suggested Feldman as the composer for a new version of Words and Music being produced for American radio. Putting aside his other work, Feldman completed the score, following it with a long piece dedicated to his friend, For Samuel Beckett, in 1986. It was the last thing he finished composing; he died a year later, before starting a score for Beckett's Cascando.
Neither -- (1977) Generally called an "opera," Neither is a work for soprano and orchestra, with a "libretto" penned by Beckett.
Words and Music -- (1987) Feldman's "new" score for the American version of the 1959 radio play.
For Samuel Beckett -- (1987) Morton Feldman's final piece is a fifty-minute chamber work dedicated to Samuel Beckett.
You can read more about Feldman on the excellent Morton Feldman Page, maintained by Chris Villar. It contains a complete discography, dozens of archived interviews and articles, photographs, Feldman homages in art and music, MP3s of Feldman speaking, and numerous links. The best Feldman site on the Web, it includes these Beckett-related articles in its archives:
Feldman Meets Beckett -- By James Knowlson, excerpted from his biography, Damned to Fame. Details the Berlin meeting between the composer and writer, and the subsequent genesis of Neither. (Source of my information in the above introduction.)
Beckett as Librettist -- By Howard Skempton, from the May 1977 Music and Musicians. A discussion of Neither.
Morton Feldman writes an "Opera" -- By Tom Johnson, from the December 11, 1978 Village Voice. A review of Neither.
The Note Man and the Word Man -- Producer Everett C. Frost's interview with Feldman about Beckett and his setting of Words and Music.
Isn't Morton Beckett . . . Samuel Feldman? -- Hans-Peter Jahn's liner notes for the Klangforum Wien release of For Samuel Beckett. A frank and refreshingly cranky discussion of Feldman as an American composer and his presumed relationship to Samuel Beckett.
The Music Library of the University at Buffalo has a wonderful Feldman site, with a database of materials, lecture transcripts, and an online image gallery.
Jon Kandell runs a small Feldman site, with a nice biography.
Morton Feldman/Samuel Beckett -- By A. Lockwood, from the August 1999 Brooklyn Rail. An overview of Feldman's Beckettian works.
Feldman's essays and other writings are collected in a book edited by B.H. Friedman:
Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman
Edited by B. H. Friedman, Frank O'Hara (Afterword); Paperback -- Our Price: $12.76
A lot of Feldman's music has been released on the now-troubled German label, HatArt. Their US distributor is Cadence, where you can search their database and buy their CDs at very fair prices.
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase Feldman CDs online from Amazon.com, AllClassicalMusic.com, or Cadence below:
Feldman: Neither /Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfürt
Morton Feldman / HatArt CD / Released 1998
Feldman: Neither / Bavarian Radio Symphony
Morton Feldman / Col Legno CD / Released 2000
Feldman/Beckett: Words and Music / Ensemble Recherche
Morton Feldman / Naive-Montaigne CD / Released 1997
Feldman: For Samuel Beckett / Klangforum Wein
Morton Feldman / Kairos CD / Released 2000
Feldman: For Samuel Beckett / Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin
Morton Feldman / CPO CD / Released 2000
Feldman: For Samuel Beckett / Ensemble Modern
Morton Feldman / HatArt CD / Released 1991