This is my write-up of the research I did at the Paul Sacher Stiftung back in ’08. It’s been twice rejected by academic publications and at this point I’m too lazy to submit it to anyone else. Posting it here on the very off chance someone finds it useful. Enjoy!

Wilhoite_Feldman FJC

(Bridge 9420)

I was recently the lucky winner of a Morton Feldman-related Twitter quiz given by Merkin Concert Hall, which has made me the proud owner of Aleck Karis’ 2013 Bridge Records release, Aleck Karis: Weber, Wolpe & Feldman. File this under unexpected-perk-of-being-a-Feldman-scholar.

As is evident by his pithy CD liner notes, Karis understands the inner workings of these pieces, and this knowledge clearly informs his performance here. Careful attention is given in each piece to texture and contour, arguably the most salient features of this style of music.

The quality of the recording strikes a nice middle-ground between dry and reverberant, a notable achievement considering the overall quiet dynamics of the pieces, and the use of the sostenuto pedal; the decay is fast enough for each delicate note to be heard clearly, without the piano sounding dry as a bone.

Form (1959) by Stefan Wolpe. Like the Webern later in the recording, Form is, as Karis puts it in his notes, “tightly constructed,” a twelve-tone piece that takes pleasure in the refulgence of the piano.

Piano (1977) by Morton Feldman. His first piece for solo piano since embarking on his late style, which first began manifesting itself in the early 70s, Feldman uses a little chordal variation device in Piano that I particularly enjoy, called “crossover revoicing” by Paul Kopstick Ames. A simple example: in the right hand is the chord F#4-A4 and G5, and directly following it is the chord G4 and F#5-A5—same notes, but their registral placement has been swapped.

Form IV: Broken Sequences (1969) by Stefan Wolpe. Karis draws the connection between Wolpe and the jazz scene of his time, and this piece really does sound like bebop, giving the appearance of chaos while still within the walls of predetermined musical constructs.

Variations, op. 27 (1936) by Anton Webern. As Karis points out, Webern’s influence reached both Wolpe (Webern’s student) and Feldman (Wolpe’s student). What I’ve always appreciated about Webern’s music is how laconic it is, using a concise amount of material to express something larger than itself. I hear this particularly in Feldman’s music, the use of concise material spread over long spans of time (both of the Feldman pieces on this recording are over 20 minutes long), which leads me to—

Palais de Mari (1986) by Morton Feldman. Palais for me is a beautiful example of Feldman’s late style, in that it defies a close listening, lulling the listener into a sort of trance. It’s the magic of pieces like this and the second String Quartet that Feldman somehow suspends the forward motion of time, leaving you with a sense of pure aural pattern; it’s almost a negation of teleology, defying the idea of a Designer (though we know from Feldman’s sketches that he was a meticulous Designer). Karis does a lovely job playing the piece skillfully and unobtrusively, being faithful to the music both in its technical execution and its intended effect.

Many thanks to Karis, Bridge Records, and Merkin.

Hello again, I’d like to pick right up where I left off in my last post, talking about Feldman’s sketches for his 1982 piece, For John Cage, and all those labels he used.

Though I focused mostly on For John Cage, I made a complete survey of the sketches for Feldman’s later works at the Sacher Collection, and, by far, number labels pop up most frequently.  Particularly common is the circled number, which is used to count out a specific number of measures per system.

I copied out–using a notation program and my own handwriting–a page of Feldman’s sketches, whose material eventually became the first 28 measures of For John Cage.  (The sketch page should be read from bottom to top—Feldman often sketched this way.)

What this sketch communicates to us: Feldman shifted the material within the system when copying out the sketch into the final manuscript score.  Feldman took the first measure of system 2 in the sketch and placed it at the end of system 1 in the final score.  The last measure of system 3 in the sketch was to become the first measure of system 4 in the final score.  Having made these shifts, Feldman assures 9 measures to a system, and in fact we find strictly 9 measure systems not only on this page, but on every page of the score.

Feldman often laid out his scores so as to contain a certain number of measures per system (usually a multiple of 3) that would generally hold throughout the score.  9 measures per system (as in For John Cage) and 12 measures per system seem to have been favorites for him.

Feldman’s apparent desire for the uniform placement of musical patterns on the page reminds me of the symmetrical placement of patterns found in the Eastern rugs he admired late in his life.  It could be that Feldman first sketched out his musical patterns, and then returned to label them according to the larger-scale organizational plan he had in mind.

That’s all for today.

Until next time,


Welcome to my new music blog, a place for thoughts on new music.

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For several years now, the length and form of Feldman’s later compositions have piqued my curiosity.  For John Cage in particular has occupied much of my time—the piece is an hour long, written in staff notation, and has no clear recycling of sections of music.  Yes, there are moments when the texture shifts abruptly and it feels as if the piece has started a new section, but there’s no clear sense of what we’ve left behind, or if we’d recognize it if it came back again.  Feldman of course was going for this disorientation of our memories (see his essay Crippled Symmetry).

Looking at Feldman’s sketches for For John Cage (held at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, Switzerland), I was greeted with happy clues from Feldman regarding the seeming formlessness of this long, sparse, mesmerizing piece.  The sketches were full of labels: numbers, letters and roman numerals telling me, for the most part, where the sketch material would end up in the manuscript score.

Then I remembered the style of rugs Feldman admired and drew inspiration from while writing his later pieces.  Gradually, during my many hours communing with the microfilm machine at PSS, it started to occur to me that Feldman really was weaving* patterns together on a scale comparable with those large and intricate rugs.  The music was becoming “an image of discreetly arranged musical sound and form,” as pianist Siegfried Mauser put it.

I’m looking forward to sharing in more detail my sketch observations in future posts.  Until then, please share your thoughts in the comments section, and look to see different takes on Feldman’s music from other authors here at the Feldman Files.


*Thanks to Nancy Garniez for pointing out to me that rugs are woven, not stitched, as I had originally put it.