January 12, 1926 - September 03, 1987
Morton Feldman was an American composer, a pioneer of experimental music, associated with the controversial school of composers that includes John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown, and characterized by extreme duration of compositions, nonstandard notation techniques and unique, at times even disturbing, use of harmonies.
Morton Feldman – The Misunderstood Genius
Morton Feldman was born in Brooklyn, New York City to a Russian-Jewish family that had immigrated to America from Kiev, Ukraine, then a Soviet republic.
As a child, he started studying piano with Vera Press, who focused not on his techniques, but on the boy's general musicality and on developing the inborn abilities of her charge – an attitude that would define Morton's later musical career! Another great influence in his creative development were his first composition teachers, Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe, followers of the new European school of the first half of the XX century, that experimented with new systems of tones and methods of composition.
A key moment of his life was early 1950, when Feldman went to hear the New York Philharmonic orchestra playing Anton Webern's Symphony Op. 21. Upon witnessing the disrespectful reaction of the audience to the highly unorthodox and often misunderstood piece, he stormed out of the concert hall in anger and ran into John Cage, another composer, who had just left the performance as well!
The musicians found a lot in common and started creative cooperation that would later grow into a new, American, school of avant-garde chamber music.
Encouraged by Cage and a company of other musicians in their circle, Morton began experimenting with new ways of writing music, including specifying just how many notes are to be played in a piano chord without specifying which notes are to be played!
The members of the school went even further: Cage created an orchestra composition The Music of Changes, that instructed performers to play a certain set of notes that should be determined by the Chinese geomancy book I-Ching...
In 1961 Feldman was contracted by Jack Garfein to create the music score for his new film, Something Wild. A widely publicized scandal ensued... The opening part of the movie included a scene with the rape of the main female character, played, incidentally, by Jack Garfein's wife Carroll. After hearing Feldman's music that accompanied the rape scene, the director was so horrified and outraged, that he promptly recalled the contract, screaming at Feldman: "My wife is being raped and you write celesta music?!" Celesta, the musical instrument, is characterized by very melodic, soft and high-pitched sounds, best demonstrated by the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.
Later, Feldman began experimenting with his signature compositions, consisting of extremely slow and quiet movements, lasting upwards of half an hour. The culmination of these experiments was his String Quartet II (1983), a piece that lasts more than six hours without interruptions!
Through most part of his career, Feldman earned his living working at his parents' thriving clothing factory – his father used to be a maker of children clothes back in Russia, and started a successful business in his new homeland.
The composer was married only once, to the well known Canadian musician Barbara Monk. Unfortunately, the happy family life lasted just a few short years: in 1987 Feldman died of pancreatic cancer, within only three months after the diagnosis, leaving behind a legacy of innovation in one of the most conservative areas of music.
Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. Ed. B. H. Friedman. Cambridge: Exact Change, 2000
Vigeland, Nils. "Morton Feldman: The Viola in my Life". Liner note essay. New World Records.
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