Born on January 12, 1926, in New York, NY; died on September 3, 1987, in Buffalo, NY; married composer Barbara Monk, 1987. Education: Studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press and composition with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe.

Morton Feldman was one of the most significant composers of his generation, considered by many a genius. A truly original voice, he composed music of a still, tranquil quality that never stated itself in the same way twice and contained little melodic movement. "I like that particular type of music that does not push," Feldman, citing Mozart as one of the composers he most admires, told David Charlton for the student arts magazine Opus 2.

In his early works Feldman, who preferred instinctive methods over traditional compositional "rhetoric," wrote in graphic notation, using nontraditional symbols to represent rhythm, pitch, and dynamics. This can be seen in his 1951 piece Structures for string quartet. Later, Feldman gave prescribed pitches, but left the rhythm to be determined, such as with The Swallows of Salagan, written in 1960. Feldman, however, is best known for his later works. These were fully notated, predominantly quiet, free from dramatic gestures, and frequently written for unusual groups of instruments. Some were very long in duration, such as the six-hour String Quartet No. 2 from 1983.

Though Feldman's death spurred a wider interest in his music, the composer himself never sought outside acceptance to validate his work, and unlike other minimalist composers such as Philip Glass or Steve Reich, he refused to court crossover success. "You know," he once told Marc Shulgold in an interview published in the Los Angeles Times, "most composers buy into the country club, but not me. I invented another game, and I survived through three decades." Feldman, incidentally, despised the term minimalism, referring to the label as another aspect of middle America.

Born on January 12, 1926, in New York City, Feldman was one of two children born to Irving Feldman and Francis (Breskin) Feldman, who operated a garment business. Feldman, too, would rely upon his family's trade (until 1967) to make a living, maintaining an unusually casual attitude about his career as composer. "I never pursued composing as a profession. I was in the family business until middle age--children's wear," he told Shulgold. "In New York, it's like growing corn in Iowa. The way I see it, that's one reason I succeeded; I never had to worry about earning a living by it. Really, being in business saved me." Feldman also believed that deciding not to attend music college aided in his development. As a student, almost all of his learning was accomplished through private instruction.

Musical Gifts Discovered Early

Feldman's musical gifts appeared obvious from the start. One of his earliest memories was learning to pick out Jewish folk tunes on the piano, and he started composing his own songs at age eight. At 12 he began studying the piano with Madame Maurina-Press, a former pupil of Ferrucio Busoni. She instilled in Feldman the vibrant sense of musicality that would endure throughout his life. After briefly attending the High School for Music and Arts, Feldman, in 1941, took lessons with 12-tone composer Wallingford Riegger, then, three years later, with Stefan Wolpe. He disagreed with many of their views, however, and despite both men's international stature and reputation, Feldman reportedly spent most of his time arguing with his instructors.

Up to this point, Feldman wrote in a traditional musical style. But his focus began to shift in 1950 after attending a New York Philharmonic concert of Anton Webern's Symphony. At the performance he met fellow composer John Cage, and the two became instant friends. Cage pushed Feldman to follow his own instincts and to concentrate on writing music without using the methods he learned from his teachers. Inspired with this newfound confidence, Feldman abandoned traditional musical concepts, or serial technique (in which the composer specifies almost every aspect of the music: rhythm, melody, harmony, and instrumentation, among others).

Feldman and Cage began to experiment with the idea of "chance" or "indeterminism" in music (leaving rhythm, melody, pitch, etc. unspecified) and the use of nonstandard notion, namely grids. For instance, Cage's piece entitled Music of Changes called for the played notes to be determined by I Ching (Book of changes), an ancient Chinese system of divination based on a book of Taoist philosophy and expressed in hexagrams chosen at random and interpreted to answer questions and give advice.

Along with Cage, Feldman developed relationships with like-minded composers Earl Brown, Christian Wolf, and David Tudor. Collectively known as the "New York School," they rejected traditional musical logic for indeterminacy or chance. Interestingly, these composers discovered their greatest source of inspiration from prominent abstract painters on the New York arts scene, among them Philip Guston (Feldman's closest friend), Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Jasper Johns. "The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore," Feldman later wrote, as quoted by John Voigt for Scribner's Encyclopedia of American Lives.

Began Using Graph Notation

Feldman's first example of composing using his new system--graph notation--was the Projection series of 1950 and 1951. Within these indeterminate scores, players select notes from a prescribed register and time structure, and improvise from there. The orchestral graph pieces Intersection I and Marginal Intersection were also completed in 1951. For both, he used his mother's pots and pans, intending the percussive aspect to sound like noise. But Feldman was soon dissatisfied with the amount of freedom these works gave the performer. Rather than giving freedom to the individual, Feldman instead wanted to find a way to free the music itself. To this end, he completely abandoned graph notation until around the late 1950s, reverting to traditional notation for the 1951 pieces Structures for string quartet and Extensions 1.

During this period, however, Feldman viewed his writing without graphs as too one-dimensional and restrictive. His Intermission VI for one or two pianos, composed in 1953, was his first piece written in "open form." This framework presented the performer with musical elements from which to choose. After this, Feldman returned to the graph system, producing the orchestral pieces Atlantis (1959) and Out of Last Pieces (1960). In Durations, a series of instrumental works written in 1960 and 1961, Feldman specified both the notes to be played and the tempo, but directed the performers--starting simultaneously--to choose their own durations. He sometimes called this method "race-course" notation.

Feldman's use of graph or graph-like notation prevailed during the 1960s, resulting in such scores as Straits of Magellan (1961) and In Search of an Orchestration (1967), his last graphically notated work. After completing On Time and the Instrumental Factor in 1969, he returned to precise notation for the remainder of his career. "In these works," the National Endowment for the Arts concluded in an online biography of Feldman, "he kept his patterns of chords, notes, motives or sounds carefully arranged so that their repetitions would not be recognized as repetitions, their patterns not discernable, the memory disoriented, so that the sounds themselves might always seem new and compelling."

Works Known for a Signature Stillness

All of Feldman's works, regardless of the methods used, contain his signature stillness. Music historians regard Why Patterns? (1978), The Viola in My Life series (1970-71), False Relationships and the Extended Ending (1968), and Rothko Chapel (1971) as his only major pieces that suggest the traditional classical elements of contrast and development. His later works, which Feldman himself admitted were probably not suitable for performance, like String Quartet No. 2 (1983) and For Philip Guston (1984), known for their extreme length. One exception to this focus was one of his last pieces, the 20-minute long Palais de Mari (1986), written for composer Bunita Marcus at her request.

Succumbing to pancreatic cancer, Feldman died on September 3, 1987, at his home in Buffalo, New York, at the age of 61. He had married composer Barbara Monk in June of the same year. Aside from composing, Feldman also dedicated many years to educating aspiring musicians. In 1972 he joined the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo and from 1976 until 1979, served as the director of the school's Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Formal recognition for Feldman's work included a 1966 Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, in 1970, and the Koussevitsky Foundation, in 1975.

by Laura Hightower

Morton Feldman's Career

Began composing at age eight; enrolled in formal training at age 12; met John Cage, who encouraged him to employ chance in his music, 1950; first composition using graph notation appeared with his Projection series, 1950-51; composed his first piece in open form, Intermission VI for one or two pianos, 1953; returned to graph notation for Straits of Magellan, 1961; completed On Time and the Instrumental Factor, returning to precise notation for the remainder of his career, 1969; composed the more traditional Rothko Chapel, 1971; completed his longest piece, String Quartet No. 2, 1983.

Morton Feldman's Awards

Guggenheim Fellowship, 1966; elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1970.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 15 years ago

Reading biographical material about Morty Feldman, one would believe that he married only once, shortly before he died. I remember his first wife (whose name I forget, but who was a lovely woman), and certainly knew his second wife, Cynthia Ochshorn, a cousin of Gabriel and Ezra Laderman and a friend of my own. Cynthia bought a house with the proceeds of the sale of a Guston painting. She was quite relieved to divorce Morty, who was a singularly difficult person.