Did Modernism Fail Morton Feldman?




Molly Paccione and Paul Paccione




Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety,

in art we must pursue it.  This is difficult.


                                                                Boris Pasternak


We want the Exact and the Vast;  we want our Dreams,

and our Mathematics.


                                                            Ralph Waldo Emerson


                    At the time of composer Morton Feldman's death in September, 1987, his music had ceased to compel the attention of the latest generation of young composers and listeners.  Feldman's restless, highly personal struggles with the very meaning of composing are basically at odds with the prevailing attitudes and conditions of a populist postmodernism of reaction against modernist principles.  The premises of late modernism to which Feldman subscribed - compositional self criticism and continual questioning of materials and methods - are not the concerns of our time.  Where modernism is self-critical, postmodernism is self-referential;  where modernism doubts as a means of achieving closer contact with a work, postmodernism's textual model and a priori skepticism serve as a means of distancing. Regarding the relationship of the modern to the postmodern and the differentiation of types of postmodernism, art critic Hal Foster has asserted:

In cultural politics today, a basic opposition exists between a postmodernism which seeks to deconstruct modernism and resist the status quo and a postmodernism which repudiates the former to celebrate the latter: a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction.[1]

Viewed as an extension of late-modernist principles, Feldman's late work reflects the intersection of a postmodernism of resistance, which has its basis in both structuralist and poststructuralist discourse, with the later years of his creative life.  This is but one layer among many, however, in a complex texture of the personal and the historical.  Just as importantly, we also find Feldman connected in interesting ways to a long line of seekers of the transcendent - that which Feldman often referred to as the "abstract experience."  Further, there is the crucial matter of Feldman's convictions about failure, about the ways in which failure is intrinsically bound to the creative act and to the search for expression.  Feldman often reprised painter Philip Guston's remark that, "for a work of art to succeed its creator must fail"[2] and he shared with contemporaries Guston and playwright Samuel Beckett the modernist sense of the ultimate impossibility of art.  It is Feldman's self-doubt, his constant questioning - of and by his methods, theories, and aesthetics - that is the portion of his legacy with the most urgency for us in the present time.  An examination of Feldman's work also provides an important specific opportunity to explore and evaluate the critical potential of postmodernism.


                    Any consideration of Feldman's music must acknowledge, if not begin with, his debt to the visual world.  Feldman, to an unusual degree, articulated his musical concerns in the terms of another medium.  His ability to illuminate some of the most subjective corners of an aesthetic experience was honed in his close association with the Abstract Expresssionist painters of the New York School, particularly in his long friendship with Philip Guston.  He was preoccupied with charting the territory between music and other art forms, delineating their intrinsic qualities and deriving in the process a stimulus for composition.  For Feldman:

          Music's tragedy is that it begins with perfection.


         There is noting in music, for example, to compare with certain drawings of Mondrian, where we still

         see the contours and rhythms that have been erased while another alternative has been drawn on

        top of them.[3]

Feldman's lifework as a composer might be described as finding ways to pose the problem of truth to himself.  Viewing literature, painting and music as a problematic activity is essentially a modernist position.  Philip Guston frequently expressed his own concerns about painting in a similar fashion:


I think the original problems, that were posed after the war period (W.W.II) in painting were to my way of thinking, the most revolutionary posed and still are. ...as if the act of painting was not making a picture - it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible.[4]


                    While Feldman's link with the aesthetics of the Abstract Expressionist painters has been well documented, other associations with the visual arts are operative as well.  In Feldman's concern for quietude, for scale, for subtle gradations of orchestral color, for transcendence of the material, and, in the late works, for notational quantification, he demonstrates an interesting consistency with the aesthetics of yet another indigenous American painterly tradition: luminism.  Unlike Feldman's connection to Abstract Expressionism, this relationship is less a matter of direct influence than a reflection of shared attitudes toward conceptualization and transcendence.  The luminists sought a synthesis of the real and the ideal in a process true to the deepest roots of American Transcendentalism.  Barbara Novak, in her excellent study, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, discusses the essentially conceptual basis of American art and points out the relationship of luminism to the American folk art tradition.[5]  Perhaps not surprisingly, a stimulus to composition existed for Feldman in the study of the folk art rugs of archaic cultures.  Feldman's work, too, reflects the primacy of the concept, particularly in the area of notation.


          I am mostly drawn to special examples of nomadic rugs from Anatolia.  What the choice 19th-century Yoruk has that is unique is mood...[6] Rugs have made me question notions I previously held on what is symmetrical and what is not.  In the Anatolian village and nomadic rugs, there appears to be considerably less concern with the accuracy of the mirror image than in most other     rug producing areas.  The detail of the Anatoilan, symmetrical image was never mechanical, as I had expected, but idiomatically drawn... Rugs have prompted me in my recent music to think of a disproportionate symmetry, in which symmetrically staggered rhythmic series is used:  4:3, 6:5,      8:7, etc. as a point of departure... What I'm after is somewhat like Mondrian not wanting to paint bouquets but a single flower at a time.[7]


                    Musical notation, for Feldman, was not simply a matter of visual representation of musical convention, but rather s lifelong experimental ground where concepts could be tested.  Feldman's graphic scores ultimately dissatisfied him because of the intrusion they permitted the performer into a "totally abstract sonic adventure."[8]  Feldman was concerned with "liberating sound," not with the art of improvisation, and graphic music quickly evidenced its limitation in this regard.

Many composers and theorists will disagree with the almost hierarchical prominence I attribute to the notation's effect on composition.  They would argue that new musical concepts, resulting in innovative systems, necessitated changes in notation.[9]

The prominence Feldman attaches to notation, over that of musical concepts and methodologies, and its ultimate effect on musical ideas, parallels the emphasis linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, an important influence on structuralism and poststructuralism criticism, attaches to the dependence of ideas upon the language that expresses them.  "The thought itself is dependent on language and that concepts do not precede the terms that articulate them."[10]

Without language, thought is a vague uncharted nebula.  There are no preexisting ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.[11]

                     Even more important is the inherent problem contained in the relationship or lack of relationship that exists between what Saussure terms the "signifier" and the "signified":  "That there is no inherent connection between words (sounds) and the concepts with which they are associated." Rather than forming an inherent connection, it is Saussure's conviction that the relating of "signifier" and "signified" is established by culture.  Feldman's interest in arcane weavings and early coptic textiles reflects an intuitive understanding:

          What struck me about these fragments of colored cloth was how they conveyed an essential atmosphere of their civilization..... For me the analogue would be one of the instrumental imagery of Western Music[12]


The relating of "signifier" and "signified" is one of the sources of the ultimate impossibility of art, an impossibility which cuts across disciplines and has been acknowledged in many different ways.  Feldman wrote:


Like the tailor, the composer everywhere is always busy with the yardstick.  He doesn't have the problem of truth.  What I mean is he doesn't work with the impossibility of ever reaching it, like the painter, or the poet.  For the composer, the truth is always the process, the system.[13]

The "problem of truth" is posed in painting through representation and the relationship between the image and object.  Sculptor Alberto Giacometti felt: "You never copy the glass on the table; you copy the residue of a vision...."[14].  Wasily Kandinsky wrote:

The impossibility and, in art, the uselessness, of attempting to copy exactly, the desire to give the object full expression are the impulses which drive the artist away from "literal" coloring to purely   artistic aims.  And that brings us to the question of composition[15]

In literature and poetry the problem of truth is what Ezra Pound referred to as "true meaning," the capacity or incapacity of language to describe and to make the reader feel, as Gustav Flaubert wrote, "almost physically the things he reproduces." [16]  Critic Patrizia Lombardo has noted that "Between words and things, between reality and language, lies the abyss... an abyss which can only be bridged painfully by modernity."[17]


                    For Feldman, representation in music is not established by way of innovative systems, resulting in new forms, but through notation and orchestration. Barbara Feldman writes:

In late Feldman, a possible question that arises is whether or not the instrumental imagery has become disassociated from the conventional understanding of its relation to form.  Another question that presents itself concerns the role of notation and its influence on the composition[18]

Feldman himself stresses:

Ideas are given, concepts are given, everything is given.  How do you orchestrate it?  That's not given .... We must make that decision.  And orchestration is notation.[19]

            How could a process that did not reveal itself be meaningful at a time when process is how we have     come to understand art?  What is the intelligence behind such a work that can make the leap (without the need of organizational principle) into the a successful orchestration of a work of art?[20]


For Feldman, the limitations of modernism in music stemmed from the continued reliance on preconceived processes of construction.  This reliance on process relegated the role of orchestration to the articulation of a methodology, system or formal principle.  In Webern's serial music, for example, the orchestration is to a great extent the result of the process:  it articulates the row and gives definition to what if often some type of ABA or sonata form.  In Feldman, the orchestration is the work.  With no underlying "structure" to articulate, there is virtually no distance between the compositional material and the composer's intuition.


                    Given the essentially abstract concerns of Feldman's music, it quickly becomes apparent that it is principally in the area of notation that the working-out of the conceptual can take place - and this was surely true for Feldman.  In writing on his early works, poet Frank O'Hara noted: "Feldman has created a work without reference outside itself."[21]  The self-referential characteristics of the early works become increasingly more extreme, in the late works, they dominate the work itself.  Perhaps the greatest consistency running through Feldman's creative life is this:  for Feldman, what begins as a search for a means of approaching his material quickly becomes a matter of transcendence. 


                    Feldman gradually attached less and less importance to the actual realization of that which he notated.  With a rueful sort of swagger, he asserted, "not only do I not care if they listen, I don't care if they play."[22]  The late works in particular, represent Feldman's exploration and structuring of the language of signs that is notation..  It is through what Feldman called "notational imagery" that the problems of artistic representation are expressed.  Separate and isolated, these "notational images" represent sound as pure abstraction, without the need for realization. In some senses, the patterns of the late works exist purely as "notational images" - as isolated from the world of sound as the arcane rug patternings that so influenced Feldman are from our own (post)modern civilization.


        My notational concerns have begun to move away from any preoccupation with how the music functions in performance.[23]

        I think my tendency now toward longer and longer pieces is actually a tendency away from a piece geared for performance.[24]


It is possible that Feldman's late works exist in their purest state without realization. And that the notation itself is the clearest "representation" of the privacy of the sound world Feldman was exploring.


                    In her preface to the English translation of Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero, Susan Sontag's observation applies as well to Feldman's late works:

As Modern literature is the history of alienated "writing" or personal utterance, literature aims inexorably at its own self-transcendence - at abolition of literature.[25]  

To what degree Feldman's late works represent a reactions to the changed climate of responsiveness to modernist ideals, and to what degree a carrying of the concept of transcending materials along the road of logical conclusion - we can never completely know.  Feldman's late works stand at the juncture of late-modernist sensibility and postmodernist self-reference.  Feldman was, by conviction, prepared to accept failure as part of the creative process.  In an article titled After Modernism, Feldman noted that, "modernity reveals itself slowly - there is a stutter within its ironies.  It is as fearful of success as it is of failure."[26] But the relationship, and the distinction, between failure and self-transcendence is something that must constantly be weighed in consideration of the late works.


                    A postmodernist critique alone will not help us to evaluate these issues, since, if language is truly all, the conceptual space into which Feldman sought to project his sounds cannot exist.  It is true that Feldman faced the exhaustion of the modernist project; the burden carried by modernism was that of attempted perfectibility - of art and ultimately life.  Feldman's critical impulses, however, continued until the end to point his way as a composer.  German critic Andreas Huyssen identifies the postmodernist position of the most relevance to the present investigation:  "It is a postmodernism that works itself out not as a rejection of modernism but rather as a retrospective reading, which, in some cases, is fully aware of modernism's limitations ...."[27]


                     Indeed, the critical potential of an enlightened postmodernism is perhaps its most valuable aspect.  Feldman's work has always been resistant to conventional analysis -view from the postmodern "expanded field"[28] provides new ways to explore his work in a sufficiently broad cultural context.  Postmodernism can call attention to the limitations of dichotomous thinking with regard to the critical task, for example: music "vs." visual art, abstraction "vs." representation, notation "vs." realization.  The art critic Clement Greenberg once wrote that modernism includes "almost all that is truly alive in our culture."[29]  We now must view Feldman's work in a context in which the continuing current of modernism can be felt, and the critical potential of postmodernism acknowledged and explored.


Painting        - representation - image/object

Poetry          - representation - naming/object

Music            - representation - orchestration/system-form

Feldman        - representation - notation/orchestration






                            Example 1: Morton Feldman, Spring of Chosroes (1978) violin and piano, UE 16530L, m.1-7, 12-18.




                                        Example 2: Morton Feldman, PIano (1977), solo piano, UE 12516,  pg.25.





          Example 2: Morton Feldman, Triadic Memories (1981), solo piano, UE 17326,  pg.10.





















































Example 3: Morton Feldman, Spring of Chosroes (1978) violin and piano, UE 16530L, m.1-7, 12-18.


     [1] Hal Foster, "Postmodernism: A Preface,"  The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays On Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), xi-xii.

     [2] Morton Feldman. "After Modernism," in exhibition catalogue: Six Painters (Houston: University of Saint Thomas Art Department, 1968), 14-22.

     [3] Morton Feldman, "Some Elementary Questions,"  Art News, April 1967: 54.

     [4] Henry T. Hopkins, "Selecting Works for the Exhibition," in exhibition catalogue:  Philip Guston (New York: George Braziller, Inc., in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1969), 99-103.

     [5] Barbar Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century:  Realism, Idealism and the American Experience (New York, Washington, London: Praeger Publishers, 1985), 117.

     [6] Morton Feldman, "Essay," Morton Feldman Essays, ed. Walter Zimmerman (Santa Fe: Beginner Press, 1985) 117.

     [7] Morton Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry," Morton Feldman Essays, 124.

     [8] Morton Feldman, "Autobiography," 38.

     [9] Morton Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry" 133.

     [10] Silvio Gaggi, Modern/Postmodern: A Study in Twentieth-Century Arts and Ideas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).

     [11] Ferdinand De Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bailly and Albert Sechehave, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger, trans. Wadel Baskin (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966), 112.

     [12] Morton Feldman, Coptic Light.

     [13] Morton Feldman, "Conversations Without Stravinsky," 60.

     [14] David Sylvester, "The Residue of a Vision," in exhibition catalogue: Alberto Giacometti (London: Tate Gallery, 1967), 12.

     [15] Wasily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977), 30.

     [16] Gustav Flaubert, The Letters of Gustav Flaubert (1830-1857), selected and edited by Francis Steegmuller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 154.

     [17] Patrizia Lombardo,  The Three Paradoxes of Roland Barthes (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1989.), 87.

     [18] Barbara Feldman, program note to For Samuel Beckett, by Morton Feldman (1987), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, April 1989.

     [19] Morton Feldman, "Anecdotes and Drawings," Morton Feldman Essays, 176.

     [20] Morton Feldman, After Modernism," 17.

     [21] Frank O'Hara. "New Directions in Music - About the Early Work," 25.

     [22] Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, N.J. and London:  The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982), 166.

     [23] Morton Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry," 133.

     [24] Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces, 171.

     [25] Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Clone Smith, preface by Susan Sontag (New York: Farrar, Straus and Birous, 1968), xxvii.

     [26] Morton Feldman, "After Modernism," 15.

     [27] Andreas Huyssen After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, ed, Teresa de Lauretis (Bloominton and Indinapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 209.

     [28] Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, 31-42.

     [29] Clement Greenberg, "Modernist Painting," The New Art, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: EP. Dutton Inc., 1973), 66.