Bunita Marcus Lectures on Morton Feldman

Over the past decade, Morton Feldman's music has been steadily recorded (an iTunes search brings up 89 results) and performed. Two collections of his essays and interviews, Give My Regards to Eighth Street and Morton Feldman Says, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Still, there is much to learn about his compositional technique, a topic that Bunita Marcus recently addressed in two lectures.

Marcus met Feldman in 1976 and was a student and close associate until his death in 1987. Over the course of those years, she absorbed Feldman's unique compositional approach, particularly his use of grids.

Prior to elucidating the specifics of the grid, Marcus traced Feldman's notational evolution from the early graph pieces, to works in which pitch and orchestration were indicated but durations were free, to his eventual return to precisely marking all parameters. She emphasized that regardless of notational approach, Feldman always injected a profound ambiguity into the sound, disguising exact timbres and even pitch. This is clear throughout his oeuvre, but was nicely illustrated during the lectures when Marcus played what is perhaps the only recording (not commercially available!) of The Swallows of Salangan for chorus and chamber ensemble. The performance was conducted by none other than Mauricio Kagel.

In conjunction with his return to standard notation, Feldman began to experiment with composing on a grid. Using vellum manuscript paper, he would divide the page into a set number of measures (usually between 9 and 13) that would constitute the grid. Each measure was drawn to be equal in size (width) regardless of meter, tempo or general pitch activity. According to Marcus, most grids were one page in length and the exact number of bars was determined only after Feldman had heard the sounds and sketched out the ordering. The sound would further dictate how Feldman distributed meters across the grid. Thus, the duration of each grid (or page) varies depending upon meters and tempi.

Marcus showed examples of grids in a number of Feldman works including Flute and Orchestra, Violin and Orchestra, Neither and the First String Quartet. It is striking how some of the grids are reminiscent of traditional phrases. One can often see and hear a beginning, middle and end. Speaking from her own experience, Marcus talked about how, in addition to generating structure, the grid approach slows down the overall process of writing, enhancing the composer's ability to track the progress and pacing of a piece.

Feldman's use of the grid seems to have even impacted his text setting. Marcus recalled that upon receiving Samuel Beckett's two-stanza text for Neither, Feldman immediately covered all but the first line. After setting the first line, he moved the paper down to the reveal the second line. This line by line technique clearly parallels the process of constructing an instrumental work grid by grid.

In addition to examining formal concerns both local and global, Marcus made a number of interesting observations about surface details in Feldman's music. He often creates a sense of rubato via the careful deployment of polyrhythms. His use of slurs results in irregular rhythmic articulations. Similar out of synch moments occur when he assigns a percussive roll to multiple instruments rather than just one. One of my favorite slides from the lectures showed a sketch containing a series of pitches, each with a number written above. The numbers represented how many instruments Feldman planned to assign a given pitch. As Marcus pointed out, this careful distribution of forces is an effective way to naturally generate extreme dynamic subtlety without relying on dynamic markings alone.

Feldman's capacity to cleverly extract nuanced sounds from players is a virtue that Marcus continually extolled throughout her lectures. She talked at length about how complexity in Feldman results not from the individual part (horizontal), but rather from the vertical alignment of all parts. Furthermore, Marcus emphasized the fact that Feldman's scores rarely include sounds that a traditionally trained Classical musician cannot execute. This last point seems a bit misleading. While it may be true in the sense that Feldman generally avoided extended techniques and utilized fairly clear notation, his works nonetheless require unprecedented physical and mental endurance. As someone who has performed Piano and String Quartet, I can attest to the fact that Feldman's fondness for pulseless, shifting meters makes ensemble coordination quite challenging. I agree that composers must often find work-around solutions to seamlessly render dense passages. This is especially true given the fact that we are are rarely afforded the luxury of endless rehearsal time and patient, willing performers. While Feldman's notation may not be nearly as prohibitive as that of other contemporary composers, considerable demands lurk.

Marcus wrapped up her lectures by encouraging more scholarly investigations of Feldman's music. Indeed, the grid technique alone strikes me as the perfect subject for a book or thesis. Marcus stated that scholars must consult the original vellums because the measures in the printed editions are redistributed, thus eliminating one's ability to clearly see the grid. While it seems unlikely that publishers would be willing to print new editions in accordance with the grids, I hope that some of the vellums might be reproduced in a special volume. 

If over the course of her lectures Marcus occasionally took on an evangelical tone, it was understandable. In addition to knowing Feldman personally, I can imagine that she feels a certain frustration with the lack of attention given to his music in the United States, especially on the part of mainstream orchestras, ensembles, scholars and pedagogues. What many fail to realize is that Feldman was not merely "experimental." There is a profound dialogue with the past that permeates his sound world. All composers must contend with this inescapable continuum, a fact that I am reminded of every day when I walk out of my apartment in Woodside, Queens - the same place where Feldman grew up. While Roosevelt Avenue may not be the Rue Fürstemberg, I can clearly see Feldman walking down this loud, steel-roofed street much as he saw Heine while wandering the Left Bank.

Nothing had changed in the street. And I saw Heine up at the corner, walking toward me. He almost reached me...What I feel the most is not in respect to the public, or even to myself. I have the feeling that I cannot betray this continuity, this thing I carry with me. The burden of history.