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Morton Feldman


About this Artist

MORTON FELDMAN was born in New York in 1926. He studied music and piano with several teachers at a young age before becoming a student of Stefan Wolpe after graduating from high school in 1944. Although Feldman mastered atonality, the pair spent much of their time together simply arguing about music and Feldman struggled to find an artistic voice when composing music.

Feldman's artistic development took shape in 1949 when Feldman met composer John Cage, commencing a lifelong artistic association of crucial importance to American music in the 1950s. Cage was instrumental in encouraging Feldman to have confidence in his instincts, which resulted in totally intuitive compositions. From then on, Feldman never worked with any systems that anyone has been able to identify, working from moment to moment, from one sound to the next. During this vital time of his musical career, his friends during the 1950s in New York included the composers Earle Brown and Christian Wolff; painters Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg; and pianist David Tudor.

The painters in particular influenced Feldman to search for his "physical sound-world," one that was more immediate and direct than had existed before. It is said that his use of repetition of individual elements creates a vast field of shimmering colors and textures. He rejected standard notation which resulted in his experimentation with graph notation; Projection 2 was one of his earliest scores using this highly visual system. In these scores, the players have some input in the overall structure as they select their notes from within a given register and time. These led to a series of groundbreaking works, often considered controversial in regard to their inaccessibility to the general public. However, Feldman was not happy with the amount of improvisation and freedom given to the performer, so he returned to more precise forms of notation. It was at this time that many would say he created his most "visual" pieces, including Rothko Chapel, Why Patterns?, and For Philip Guston.

After partially rejecting the use of graph notation and aleatory music, his works of the late 70s and 80s grew longer: his compositions expanded in length to such a degree that allowed him to focus on the passage of time and the movement of blocks of sound through musical space. The scale of these works allowed Feldman to have control over the piece he wrote. Nine of Feldman's one-movement compositions last for over one and a half hours each. His infrequently played String Quartet No. 2 can last up to six hours, with no break for the performers.

In 1973, the University of New York at Buffalo asked Feldman to become the "Edgard Varèse Professor," a post he held for the rest of his life. In June 1987, Morton Feldman married the composer Barbara Monk. On September 3, 1987, he died at his home in Buffalo at age 61.