The power of music, every so often, astonishes me in its capacity to make us transcend reality and pull us into the depths of our souls, our inner world.
I am sure you must have been often enthralled by a song or piece of music that brought you back some good memories from the past or a recent event in your life. Or, perhaps, the music triggered in you a negative experience you had before, and you felt the urge to rush to the controls of your computer or radio, or grab your iPod to turn it off, or switch that song. Such is the power of music. It conjures up spirits and performs magic.
I am here to talk about my experience with Morton Feldman’s music and its intrinsic ability, in my opinion, to carry us along seemingly incongruous musical patterns that make up the musical architecture of his pieces.
Feldman was born in 1926 in Brooklyn. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants from Kiev. He is considered to be one of the pioneers of “indeterminate music”, alongside John Cage, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. Now, indeterminate music is one of those vague terms that open up a field of interpretation. Most everyone has been exposed to this type of music one way or another. The interesting thing is that if this type of music is part of a scene in a movie or theatre play, or maybe a multi-media installation work, most people are actually drawn to its subjective and stylistic freedom and consider it “cool”. However, when approached in isolation for what it is, a lot of people feel put off by it and even question its compositional qualities. Are we somehow pre-determined to be afraid to open up our minds and embrace what steers away from the norm? Are we bound to suffer and accept only what follows a familiar territory, and reject the element of diversion and surprise? We seem to always complain about boredom and repetition, but can we truly embrace and be one with a new experience without reservations and preconceived ideas of what should be instead, according to what we are used to, when faced with something new and fresh?
Indeterminate music, and in this case, Feldman’s work, has the ability to break through our pre-conceived notions and liberate us from static perceptions of reality. In this type of music a specific piece can be performed in different ways according to John Cage. A number of other techniques are used in indeterminate music like polyrhythm, polytonality, aleatoric elements and the list goes on, but it’s really not my interest to investigate these technicalities here. I am solely interested in passing along my experience with Feldman’s music, and maybe, try and motivate others to be open enough to appreciate and enjoy the outstanding quality of his work.
On a more subjective level, Feldman’s music breaks barriers and is able to pierce through our expectations, thus liberating us from static perceptions of reality. It works in the same way that the abstract expressionists did. By offering a proposed motif, Feldman goes on a bit further, playing with our pre-conceived notions of what music should sound like by introducing a series of ambiguous components using repetition, modulation, differences in pitch, ascending and descending scales, timbre, loudness and duration, varying tone quality within a small group of different instruments which display a subtle, unifying theme in the spectrum of colors of his compositions. It all seems random and simplistic to the ear, but it is all ineffably part of a precise and methodic continuum. The character of indeterminacy, however, imbues this kind of music with a fresh and immediate quality. Artists like Feldman, Cage, Brown and others mapped out a musical landscape that enabled experimentation and exploration of psychoacoustics which studies our responses to the perception of sound, thus setting the artists free from the constraints of traditional musical syntax as the only way to make music.
One should experience Feldman as one approaches Rothko, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, Moholy-Nagy, Lajos Kassák, Kadinsky or Pollock, to name just a few names – among many – who broke away with tradition and dared to experiment with new ways of exploring reality; artists who broke the barrier of sound and color, literally.
The spiritual dimension these artists opened up, paved the way for us to be able to see through the illusion of solidity and immutability, and understand the interconnection of all elements. Their work challenges our own perception and understanding of what is real. We find ourselves turning back our heads to look and listen again, a second, third, fourth and many times over. We realize that it’s all moving and changing right before our eyes and ears, just like ourselves, just like our emotions, just like life. Each time reality is deconstructed, and presented in different perspectives, we start again from that first simple note, that first stroke, that first line or dot on a blank canvas.
Music and painting are more intrinsic to each other than some people might think. Colors have sounds and music has images. It provides an ecstatic experience that penetrates the realm of the spirit. It’s up to each one of us to come to terms with our difficulties in accepting something without the need to define it according to a specific model or mold we have been used to before. It’s time we experienced what is for what it’s worth, without labeling or comparing. We are all so lucky these artists are inviting us to experience that again and again – each time we listen, each time we look.
Video and images:
1- Morton Feldman – Piano And String Quartet (1985) (uploaded on YouTube by Ton de Kruyff)
2 – Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist),1950, National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1976.37.1
3 – Lyonel Feininger, Bird Cloud, oil painting 3 x 3.5 cm (1 3/16 x 1 3/8 in.) – Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of T. Lux Feininger – Object number: BRLF.1019.98
4 – Lajos Kassak – Bilderarchitectur Kassak – 19 1/4×141/4″ image (screenprint from portfolio of ten images)
5 – Mark Rothko (“Multiform”)
6 – László Moholy-Nagy – Composition Z VIII – 1924 114×132 cm