This whole quarantine thing has me pretty screwed up, time-wise. Maybe you can identify.
The dissolution months ago of our usual routines, modest and mundane as they may have been, has left many of us unmoored. The familiar beat of my day-to-day has degraded into something more like a circadian polyrhythm, and I wasn’t much of a dancer to begin with.
No wonder I’m listening to so much Morton Feldman.
Glacial, spectral, static yet constantly in motion, the sprawling works of the late mid-20th century composer have always been an acquired taste, despite their strange, luminous beauty and unparalleled scale. Feldman has always been a composer of shifting environments, an arranger of uncertainties. And in the disorienting stretch of this pandemic, I’m finding his most “difficult” works newly useful and uncannily accessible.
A contemporary of Christian Wolff, John Cage and Pierre Boulez, Feldman tends to get tagged as a formative minimalist — if not a father, then at least one of its weird uncles. But, to my ears, he’s a maximalist, creating vast expanses of pure sound — like his String Quartet No. 2, a colossus of color that takes up to six hours to unfold. (Mode Records’ recording of it from New York City’s tenacious Flux Quartet is available on five CDs, or unbroken on a single DVD.)
It also misses the mark to try to understand Feldman in the context of other composers, as aware as he was of the traditions he bore and bucked. His approach feels more akin to an invisible mode of visual art, producing compositions too vast to perceive and too present to escape. His music doesn’t demand your attention so much as supply a condition.
Or listening to “Rothko Chapel” (1971, for chorus, viola and percussion) you might feel present in the meditative octagonal sanctuary for which it was composed. When I lived down the block from it in Houston, I’d revisit Feldman’s piece through ear buds while sitting among the 14 looming, blooming, monolithic black paintings Rothko created for the space. The minutes and hours would melt together (and not from the Houston heat) and the limited light allowed in through the roof’s aperture would scatter my sense of the day outside.
Eventually, I came to treat this quality of Feldman’s music like a utility: I’d listen to Feldman in traffic to blur the lurching, stalling boredom into something more like beauty. I’d listen to him at the grocery store to make errands more dreamlike. I’d listen to him at the gym to feel myself move through space while running in place.
And now, as the days repeat with barely perceptible variations like one of Feldman’s figures, his music isn’t just lending form to time as it drifts by, it’s recalibrating my sense of scale. And I’m not alone.
Cellist Stephen Marotto recently recorded Feldman’s 80-minute “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” (1981) with the pianist Marilyn Nonken for a forthcoming release on Mode; but before he did, he put a piece of tape over the clock on his iPad.
“I strongly did not want to know what time was elapsing,” says Marotto on a recent Zoom, who compares performing Feldman to running a marathon — right down to the lactic acid buildup. Not only is Feldman’s music physically taxing and mentally demanding (especially the overlapping scaffolds of complex rhythm that invisibly gird his music), it also requires performers to submit to “a different mode of thinking, a different way of experience, a different way of perception.”
“It’s like you start the piece and the sun’s over here and you end the piece and the sun’s over there,” Marotto says. “Even though it’s obviously very human music, highly expressive music, it’s sort of like removing the human body from it. In a sense, we’re moving the biological clock and putting you on a celestial clock.”
For Nonken, the power of Feldman’s music comes from the tension he generates between regularity and instability (sound familiar?), and his reluctance to suggest narrative through “artificial resolution.”
“The drama,” she says over Zoom, “is how is that instability going to manifest itself? When is it going to rupture? How is it going to rupture?” Indeed, you can be 80 minutes into a Feldman piece before something happens, in the traditional sense of things happening. Nonken compares the journey to a long hike that ends at a grand vista.
“It’s like being one of the guys working on the pyramids or something,” says pianist Stephen Drury over the phone, who has performed “Patterns” as well as the nearly 90-minute solo piece by Feldman, “For Bunita Marcus.” “There’s this awareness that there’s something really significant and amazing and long-scale happening. There’s an unfolding that happens. It’s not exactly like watching paint dry; more like watching a flower blossom in real time.”
His strategy as a performer of Feldman doubles as a strategy for novice listeners, as well as anyone weathering the pandemic. “My focus is much more on the instant of sounding the next note, depressing the next key, than in other repertoire,” he says. That is, take one thing at a time.
For listeners looking for a sensible starting point in his vast catalogue, don’t bother. Feldman wasn’t big on beginnings — his music is far more concerned with decay, which he described as “a departing landscape.” Start anywhere and hang in there.
The record label Another Timbre has recently released several fresh Feldman realizations, including a gorgeous account of his final 75-minute composition “Piano Violin Viola Cello” (1987, the year he died at 61 of pancreatic cancer) and a stunning oeuvre-spanning box set of solo piano works deftly performed by Philip Thomas. Mode’s catalogue of Feldman is up to 13 volumes and counting, including several performances by one of Feldman’s most trusted interpreters, the pianist Aki Takahashi. And if you’re combing the used market, it’s hard to beat Hat[now]ART’s enduring back catalogue.
(And while YouTube could certainly be a valuable resource for Feldman newbs, the interruption of even a single five-second advertisement is more than enough to break the spell. Highly not recommended.)
Divisive and daunting as it may sound and seem, Feldman’s music can provide a valuable escape for quarantined listeners — if not from the bounds of our apartments, than at least from the hours we spend in them.
“His music has a healing capacity,” Marotto says. “Everyone’s stuck in quarantine and in this holding pattern. Experiencing this sense of time dilation or timelessness is like a relief.”
“The monotony of these days,” Nonken says, “day in and day out, there’s a repetitiveness. We’re waiting for something to happen and we’re not quite sure what it is. Small details take on incredible significance.”
Feldman once likened his music to aimlessly walking the streets of Berlin, “where all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not.” And these conflicting senses — of sameness and difference, wandering and searching, stillness and motion — are at the heart of its power.
As our days surrender their rhythms to a constantly shifting new normal, Feldman’s embrace of the uncertain can help us apprehend what’s to come, note by decaying note. By staying still in one sense, we can move forward in another.
“A stasis develops between expectance and realization,” he wrote of a piece in 1971. “As in a dream, there is no release until we wake up, and not because the dream has ended.”