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Introducing the Mavericks: Morton Feldman—Painter in Sound

In the second of his series on American maverick composers, Andrew Byrne—Carnegie Hall's manager of festivals and special projects—introduces Morton Feldman, whose music Byrne describes as "almost never rising above a whisper."

About Morton Feldman

In a time when modern music competed for the title of the noisiest, the most aggressive, or the most emotionally overwrought, Morton Feldman's works inhabited an alternate universe. Feldman conjured up a quiet, vast, luminous, and transcendental sound world. His music almost never rises above a whisper. Random processions of notes and chords float by framed with silence. The pace is glacial. Stillness reigns. Drama and conflict are entirely absent.

In Feldman's musical development, it was a chance meeting with John Cage at Carnegie Hall in 1950 that proved to be pivotal. Cage, already a leading figure in the American avant-garde, encouraged the 24-year-old Feldman to follow his instincts and to challenge orthodoxy. As Feldman later said, "The main influence of Cage was the green light. It was the permission, the freedom to do what I wanted." Through his friendship with Cage, Feldman was also introduced to leading figures in the New York arts scene. It was to be his close association with New York's abstract expressionist painters that was to have a lasting inspiration on him. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Philip Guston stimulated Feldman to imagine a sound world unlike any he had ever heard.

In the last 10 years of his life, Feldman became obsessed with time in music. His works expanded to become truly cathedral-like in scale: Violin and String Quartet (1985) clocks in at two hours, For Philip Guston (1984) at four hours, and String Quartet II (1983) is the longest at more than six hours without a break. Creating quiet, agonizingly beautiful sound worlds that seem to stretch to infinity was part of Feldman's uncompromising aesthetic. For him, the aim was to transport the audience, making the experience of listening to his late pieces a truly life-changing one.

Suggested Playlist

In Piano and Orchestra (1975), the influence of Feldman's beloved abstract expressionist painter friends can be found in the "flat surface" of the music. Feldman said that in this piece, he was "interested in an anti-hero stance." Here, the conventional concerto rhetoric of conflict is absent; delicate bell-like sounds from the piano instead mingle with the ever-changing kaleidoscope of orchestral color.

Rothko Chapel (1971), a tribute to his friend Mark Rothko, was written to be performed in a space alongside Rothko's painting. The chapel, as described by Feldman, was "a place for contemplation where men and women of all faiths, or of none, may meditate in silence, in solitude or celebration together." With hushed timpani rolls on the edge of audibility, choral utterances with no words, and brittle flashes of color from the celesta, Feldman's music evokes a contemplative and spiritual sound world—the musical equivalent to Rothko's paintings.

Dig Deeper

Audio interviews with Morton Feldman > 

Pollock Painting (1951): A short film about Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth with music by Morton Feldman.

"I realize now how much the musical ideas I had in 1951 paralleled his mode of working. Pollock placed his canvas on the ground and painted as he walked around it. I put sheets of graph paper on the wall; each sheet framed the same time duration and was, in effect, a visual rhythmic structure. What resembled Pollock was my 'all-over' approach to the time-canvas." —Morton Feldman


American Mavericks
Break the Rules 

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