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Writings & Commentary

Morton Feldman's Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano (1994)

Rodney Sharman

Feldman Program Note

 

by Rodney Sharman

Notes written for a performance of Morton Feldman'Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, Vancouver, Canada, on September 17th 1994. 

 

Morton Feldman's music is based in subtlety, perception and an intimacy with the materials of music. His definition of composition sets a standard for music: "the right note on the right instrument in the right register at the right time." A born orchestrator, he allows sounds to speak for themselves, revealing their inherent qualities of depth and beauty.

Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was in the vanguard of the New York art world in the 1950s. His warmth and humour made many friends, and his candour inspired both admirers and critics to passionate discussion. Among his most influential associations were his friendships with composer John Cage and the abstract expressionist painters Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Feldman moved to Buffalo, New York in 1971, where he taught composition and orchestration until his death in 1987.

In 1979, he began writing a number of long works lasting more than one hour. Perhaps the most important of these is his Second String Quartet (1984), commissioned by New Music Concerts, Toronto, for the Kronos Quartet, a work of transcendental beauty and himmlische Länge (heavenly length), over four and a half hours in one movement. It is a listening experience which surpasses the conventional notion of chamber music, more akin to Tristan und Isolde than the Classical string quartet.

Patterns in a Chromatic Field - Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano

In the twelve years before Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano was written, Morton Feldman produced sixteen orchestral works, beginning with On Time and the Instrumental Factor and ending with The Turfan Fragments. In the next six years he wrote only one orchestral work, Coptic Light (1986). Following the composition of his one movement String Quartet (1979), his first long work lasting a little over an hour and a half, Feldman seems to have hesitated, subsequently composing three works of more or less conventional length. It was only after the success of the first West Coast performance of his String Quartet in February, 1981, that he returned to explore the long piece with the composition of Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano.

The piece was completed May 13,1981. In Feldman's notebooks, it appears that he considered the title Patterns in a Chromatic Field, later settling on the title Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano. The return to the more poetic title was undertaken by Feldman's publishers after his death. (The same publishers prevented him from giving his work for violin and orchestra the title Why Webern?!!! Ironically, to please them, Feldman changed the title to Violin and Orchestra.) Morton Feldman was unhappy with the first performances of Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano, it is said that he lost confidence in the piece. By 1986, however, he referred to the work with affection and pride, probably as the result of better performances.

Feldman's harmonic language in the late seventies and early eighties was chromatic, influenced partly by his admiration for the music of Anton Webern. Feldman does not follow strict serial procedures for ordering the chromatic scale, rather he starts with a chromatic subset which he uses as his basic material. In Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano he begins with four notes: G, G#, A, Bb, which he presents in many guises through aspects of orchestration, registration or rhythmic patterning. These result in identifiable musical modules which are brought back at various times in the course of the work. With each return, the material is altered. In Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano the modules are frequently joined into a continuum in which the cello line is brought into chromatic relief by changes in the piano part. This modular form of construction owes an obvious debt to Stravinsky, but also to his own graphic scores from the 1950's which are composed on a grid.

Characteristic of the sound world of Feldman's last scores are the overall soft dynamic level and a preference for instruments with simple overtone structures, such as flute, celesta and vibraphone. In string writing, he often uses the mute as a way of thinning the sound. In Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano he calls for the use of the mute throughout. The frequent use of harmonics also results in a simpler and more veiled timbre.

© Rodney Sharman, 1994