Feldman, Painter of Pages

There is an obvious issue in Morton Feldman’s compositional technique that I have never seen anyone write about – though I can’t be the only one to notice it, and perhaps some discussion of it has escaped my reading.

Feldman.gifThrough some passages of Feldman’s late works, it is remarkable – too remarkable for mere coincidence – how often his textures change at the end of a page. It doesn’t seem true at the beginnings of pieces, which will often be seamless. But at some point in a work, he will begin to settle into a rhythm. A texture or pitch set will be consistent for a page, and then the next page will have a different texture and pitch set, and the next page a different one still, and so on. It is almost as though he treated the page visually, as a whole, and every time he turned to a new page, thought, “Now for something new.”

For instance: in Crippled Symmetry there are no particular texture changes at page turns until page 5. The flute spends most of pages 5 and 6 on a motive in sevenths, Eb – Db – C – D, which ends when page 7 begins. Then:

– On page 9 the flutist plays only long, low notes on E, F, and Gb, and the percussionist plays only slow chords on the vibraphone alternating with single notes on the glockenspiel.

– On page 10, the flutist switches to angular motives on the regular flute, and the percussionist to the Eb – Db – C – D motive.

– On page 11, the flutist plays only reiterated Bbs above the treble clef, while the vibraphone is limited to a motive G – F# – B – A.

– On page 12, the flute takes up a different four-note motive, and the percussion is now limited to a reiterated Bb.

And so on, with changes of texture, pitch set, notation, and even number of staves occurring regularly with the turn of each new page. This is all the more peculiar in Crippled Symmetry, of course, because the three parts (flute, piano, percussion) aren’t synchronized. Presumably, Feldman doesn’t want such changes in texture and motive happening simultaneously, and thus waits until several pages into the piece before implementing them.

For Samuel Beckett for orchestra demonstrates an analogous relation to the page in a synchronized score. On pages 6, 8, 12, and 13, the last four or five measures are encapsulated in repeat signs. On pages 14, 15, and 16, each entire individual page is repeated. On pages 17, 18, and 19, the page is broken into two passages, each in repeat signs. Later we have a long passage in which, on each new page, repeat signs encompass every measure except the first and last. Neither here nor in Crippled Symmetry does any passage within repeat signs cross from one page to another. (Not every late piece is structured this way. I find no such changes in For Christian Wolff, and only a few, more inconclusively, in Clarinet and String Quartet.)

It is difficult to escape the impression that sometimes Feldman planned out each page individually, as an artist would. Sometimes in For Samuel Beckett the page is planned out symmetrically, making a contained and visible palindrome. Luckily, the Universal editions of these scores are copies of Feldman’s manuscript, because if you engraved them, the pagination would likely change and obscure the relationship (as may have happened in the engraved piano works, like Triadic Memories and Piano). Evidence suggests that he composed the music on these pages – or, at least, when recopying, took care to maintain the same pagination.

It’s an odd thought because, of course, a page is not a unit of musical time. We don’t hear a page go by, or, usually, know from listening when one ends. But Feldman’s music is often devoid of striking temporal landmarks, and the sense of experienced time becomes vague and immeasurable. For him, I suppose any long unit of time was as good as another. He loved exploring notation’s psychological effect on the performer, and apparently he gave free rein to its psychological effect on himself too. A page became just the right length for a section of music, and, sitting in his study, each time he turned the page, it was time for something new.

Photo by Peter Gena


  1. Anon says

    This was Walter Zimmermann’s observation at Darmstadt in 1984. He created a carpet-like graphic of the second quartet with each page of a similar texture assigned the same simple graphic. This is shown on pages 22-23 of Morton Feldman Essays (Beginner Press, 1985).

  2. says

    Feldman’s concern with page layout is obvious even in some of the early piano pieces. In particular, there’s a piece called “Variations” (written for Merce Cunningham, I think) in which one of the main motives is a grace-note chord in the midst of bars and bars of rests–and on the page, the grace notes line up in beautiful verticals. (The new Peters edition of the early works goes to some trouble to reproduce the page layout of Feldman’s original manuscripts, and it’s enlightening, to say the least.)
    I remember reading Feldman describing his working process as writing the next section in his head while he copied out the current section–the pagination you point out certainly makes sense in that light.

  3. says

    I remember Lucky Mosko making a similar comment in one of his classes…Feldman’s second string quartet does the same thing, too.

  4. says

    Feldman himself said something about the secrets of many composers being in the notation. I always liked that he picked something so simple as page turns.
    I haven’t seen many of his scores, but John Luther Adams’s Strange and Sacred Noise definitely follows this approach. With the first movement, you can really follow his compositional process in visual terms.

  5. Eugene Leung says

    The late works are full of these examples, and Patterns in a Chromatic Field is probably the most exemplary (as can be guessed from the title!). Sometimes a line instead of a page is used as a texture-changing unit, and so there’s the confusion of how to break the piece down into sections – for the performer/score-reader, the “unitary-hierarchy” is constantly disrupted – if the previous (say) 2-3 pages had the same texture, but the next page the 3 systems each have a different texture, am I supposed to make a bigger section (a “page-unit) out of these three unrelated lines? It’s like putting the micro and macroscopic levels of perception side by side and being told that they are of the same scale. Very confusing but then keeps the musician alert!
    The Variations (from 1952) that Matthew mentioned is a very peculiar case – its the only instance in early Feldman that anything like the visual patterns in the late works are used, and no such thing have been seen in Feldman’s work since then until the 80s. Wonder what he did with that idea?

  6. says

    A few separate thoughts.
    First, is it possible that the appearance of structural pagination (to coin a phrase) is caused by layout which is actually driven by convenience for the performer? i.e. might he have massaged the notation in the way an engraver would (although using different criteria than an engraver would) so as to put page turns in a place that’s convenient for performance, or else as an illustration of structure for the performer? I haven’t seen the scores in question, so I don’t know if this is at all plausible. Do the page-units tend to cover the same amount of musical time? Does the note spacing expand and contract depending on the page, or is it pretty consistent?
    It also seems like in Feldman a page might well be a noticable unit of time in live performance. The music tends to be so quiet and sparse that the audience might hear the page turn, and would certainly see the performer turn the page — I wonder if this pagination is more for the performer, or for the physical beauty of the score, or actually for the audience.
    I also wonder if perhaps using the page as a unit of musical time was a strategy employed to avoid falling into the traps of other more directly musical units. Feldman probably wouldn’t get stuck into 4 and 8 bar phrases in the way an amateur would, but there may have been analogous pitfalls that he was trying to avoid.
    In a way I find this reminiscent of 12-tone technique. The 12-tone row is not generally a musical unit in terms of how the piece is heard or played (in fact, one might argue that treating iterations of the row in a picket-fence style is a good way to write lousy music) but it exists as an underlying structural element that provides a framework for the composer to hang his musical ideas on while he composes.
    KG replies: The pages are roughly equivalent in length, and there’s no conceivable quasi-engraved convenience for the performer. Take a look at the scores, it’ll be pretty obvious: sometimes each page looks like a different soundworld.

  7. Arthur Jarvinen says

    I performed and recorded Why Patterns?, Crippled Symmetry, and For Philip Guston with the California E.A.R. Unit. Why Patterns? was particularly problematic because the three parts become synchronous at page 14, but we were never close to being together, and it was usually almost impossible to track each other to tell if we were even on the same page, let alone the same system.
    So, in an effort to find a solution I sat down and added up all the rhythms in each part. They don’t match, not even close. I don’t remember which part is which, but between the part with the most material and that with the least, there is about a five minute discrepancy if everyone plays at the indicated tempo. So the only way to get to page 14 together is for one player to play a little faster than 63, and the player with less material to play slower. I did the math, but I don’t have my notes handy. But anyway, it worked.
    Feldman fixed that problem in the other pieces by giving all three players the same group of time signatures for each system, just shuffled around. So even though there is no way to use the barlines as guides – between any two barlines each player is actually in a different meter! – at least you know you all have the same number of total beats, and it’s actually pretty easy to follow the rest of the group.

  8. Arthur Jarvinen says

    Another observation. It’s fun to listen to “Guston” on fast forward (scan on your CD player). I dumped the whole thing onto CD that way. You can actually hear structural stuff that is only perceived subliminally at normal speed.
    Some of your readers might not like the short attention span implied by this comment, but the first time I performed “Guston” Feldman was sitting ten feet from me – asleep.

  9. says

    > It’s an odd thought because, of course, a page is not a unit of musical time.

    Feldman’s Coptic Light, for orchestra, is a clear example of the page being the basis for formal design, but not musical time per se. Each page, in effect, frames a textile-inspired pattern that cuts across many of the instruments, created by measures containing notes or rests. The non-empty measures of one page, for example, might appear to make a large “X”.
    As I recall (it’s been a while since I’ve see the score), the number of measures on each page is the same, but there are repeats irregularly positioned throughout. As a result, the visual patterns which are based on the page don’t correspond to actual musical time.

  10. Robin Engelman says

    I’ve played “For Philip Guston” and “Crippled Symmetry” and noticed the material changing at page turns.
    However, Barbara Monk Feldman told me that Morton enjoyed the musical results when players succombed to the tendancy to drift apart, even quite far apart.
    In performance, this drifting dramatically affects, even negates, the sense of change at the beginning of each page.

  11. Paul H. Muller says

    I am not familiar with Feldman’s works, but this conversation reminds me of a discussion of Bach’s St. John Passion wherein one observer noted that after Jesus is convicted by Pilate, the score is written such that the key signiature (having lots of sharps) looks like a cross.
    Knowing Bach, it just might have been true.
    Perhaps Feldman was also “multitasking”.

  12. says

    I have been lecturing on this subject since 1986. It is a Lecture/Demonstration that traces the whole history of Feldman’s notation and ends up demonstrating the concept of the Grid (a single page) which Feldman used as a compositional and formal device. The Lecture has not been published because it relies
    on hearing musical examples as part of the experience. Interested parties may contact me for more information. This Lecture is based on the seven years Morty and I composed together and he wrote his mature pieces.

  13. says

    There’s a London-based researcher called Tom Hall who has done some work on the visual aspects Christopher Adler mentions – I heard him give a paper on his findings in 2003 (unfortunately I don’t have much more info than this). I do remember him talking of the problems Feldman had with publishers who insisted on breaking the evenly spaced grids of his barlines to make the pages more conventionally readable.

  14. Patrick Gardner says

    I find this a very interesting discussion.
    I’m really looking for help on 2 other things: performing techniques in Feldman’s piano music(like what to do about repeats), and possible misprints or anomalies in the score of Triadic Memories. Could anyone direct me to a useful resource/site/contact?