Morton Feldman’s “Orchestra”

Notes by TŌN violinist Linda Duan

A Chance Meeting
In 1950, Morton Feldman attended a performance of Anton Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 at Carnegie Hall. Upon witnessing the audience’s dispassionate response to the music, he left before the next work, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a work that Feldman considered regressive and undesirable in its indulgence of Romantic expressiveness. In the lobby he ran into John Cage, and introduced himself with the remark, “Wasn’t that beautiful?” Thus began a friendship that would greatly influence and shape Feldman’s work, perspective, and philosophy of composition. In his own words, Feldman said that “the main influence from Cage was a green light, it was permission, the freedom to do what I wanted.” They, along with several other composers, formed the New York School, a group of composers who rejected traditional forms and ideas of music composition, emphasizing instinctual individuality and free expression.

Inspiration from Painters
Feldman collected many works by American abstract expressionist painters, and was deeply ensconced in their aesthetic. The immediacy of their works as well as the freedom of assimilation in their materials further inspired Feldman to craft his own unique soundworld, utilizing the medium of sound as paint. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Feldman experimented with creating washes of sound through graphic notation and other various techniques. He also wrote several works centered on the works and lives of his artist friends, including Rothko Chapel (1971) and For Frank O’Hara (1973).

Between Categories
The music of Morton Feldman is characterized by a few distinct features: a dynamic range that rarely goes above piano, an emphasis on each sound as its own entity, a disconnect between musical patterns and events, and a slowly evolving pacing interspersed with recurring asymmetric patterns. In his later works, Feldman also experimented with musical length, composing String Quartet II in 1983, which spans over 6 hours! Feldman considered his compositions as “time canvasses,” which he primed with a hue of music, that existed between categories: “between time and space, between painting and music, between the music’s construction and its surface.” In this space between, Feldman sought to invoke an abstract experience on a sensory rather than philosophical level.

The Music
When Feldman composed Orchestra (1976), he was writing several works all focused on the orchestra as an ensemble, while also featuring certain instruments. This work, in particular, takes the listener on a walk through the musical landscape of the orchestra. The changing timbres, shifting patterns, dissonances resolving to surprising consonances, and tensions between sound and silence are all part of the composer’s style. However, instances of extremely loud dynamics provide a contrast to the usual quietness of Feldman’s music. As the music progresses, the two pianos trade chords back and forth as clusters occur in the strings and winds, resulting in a slow fade-away into silence.

Feldman, in his usual gifted way with words, had this to say about the music:

“One of the compositional quirks I’m most lucky about is the almost total state of amnesia immediately after completing a composition. There is not one of which I could sit down and recall a note of . . . Like Don Juan, whose involvement with women was only because he was on the run from them, my involvement with compositions comes about the same way: avenue of escape FROM it. As a friend used to say at a dull part, “Where’s the escape hatch?” Art is no different. It’s a boring party. The thing is to know when to leave and write something like . . . Orchestra.”

Written for the concert Abstraction in Music & Art, performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sun, May 19, 2019.