Morton Feldman: For Aaron Copland
Morton Feldman was born in 1926 into a Russian-Jewish family. From a young age he began to learn piano where he found his love for music and composition. Feldman learnt with and admired a range of different German-modernist composers such as Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. After a successful run in his early musical career, Feldman became very close friends with John Cage. With the aid of Cage, Feldman began experimenting with composition, such as dabbling with non-standard systems of musical notation. Feldman also became very interested in composing ‘chance music’, which gives away a lot of responsibility to the performer. Through this he became a much more well-known American composer.
Through his friendship with John Cage, Feldman met a range of prominent figures within the New York arts scene (which included a range of different art forms such as architecture and fine art). He began taking a lot of interest in abstract expressionists, and from there he started composing with these figures and works in mind. Through the 1970s, Feldman composed a fair bit of music that was based on these abstract ideas, such as Rothko Chapel (1971).
As well as abstract compositions, Feldman also composed a few film scores. The first was for Jack Garfein’s 1961 film Something Wild. Interestingly though, this commission fell through very quickly as Feldman composed the music for the opening scene, where a female character (who also happened to be Garfein’s real-life wife), is raped. After hearing Feldman’s music for this, Garfein famously exclaimed: “My wife is being raped and you write celesta music?!”. His commission was abolished, and instead Garfein enlisted Aaron Copland to compose the score.
After his very creative period, Feldman branched away from his graphically notated scores and bizarre notation systems and his music became much more rhythmically precise. The breakthrough piece within this new period was his short work, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety – which was dedicated to his childhood piano teacher. He then became very involved with composing music that was very long in duration. Usually these works were in one continuous movement, which made them even more stand-out. To name but a few works included in this period:
Violin and String Quartet (1985, 2 hours)
For Philip Guston (1984, 4 hours)
String Quartet II (1983, 6 hours)
These works are very static, with an incredibly slow developmental theme that runs throughout. These compositions are comprised of many small, quiet sounds which build up over the duration of the work. Whilst he was composing these long works, he was also a Professor at the University of Buffalo.
For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin was composed in 1981, and unlike a lot of his other works in this period, it is only 72 bars long, with a duration of around 4 minutes. Composed for solo violin it’s very slow and it comprises only single notes in each bar. The violin is muted, and the choices of pitches by Feldman is very interesting as it creates an ambiguous transparency. Throughout the whole work, Feldman only uses seven white-key pitches. This introduces an interesting element of diatonicism into the work, which contradicts a lot of his other works which are heavily chromatic and harmonic.
The first seven pitches are as follows: G,F,D,C,B,A,E. These cover the seven pitches used throughout the piece. It seems that these pitches descend (usually by step) to one another, until the final pitch is hear and a very loose ‘cadence’ is heard (note that this is without octave transposition).
Feldman used an approach in some of his music that he said “crippled symmetry”, to which he uses it in the second round of these pitches being played. The reason for this title is that the notes are symmetrical, although the duration of the notes are varied ever so slightly. Feldman starts using compound time signatures such as 7/8 and 5/4 to slightly change the symmetrical image of the last round.
The different durations do not appear to follow any sort of internal logic, however the way the new durations are placed may give some clue as to Feldman’s logic. For example, the first alteration is weighted towards the end of the sequence, which creates a slower progression.
Feldman also starts playing around with triplet off-beat beats which naturally gives off a rather hesitant feel to the work. However, after a succession of these off-beat rhythms, Feldman writes back onto the natural beat of the bar, and the sequence begins again which brings some relief for both the performer and listener.
The G-F dyad that opens the piece is incredibly distinctive within the shaping of this work. With the octave transposition, this rising seventh is indeed a specific character that Feldman then repeats throughout the piece. The importance of this seventh is also reinforced by other notes such as C-B, which sounds not long after the first.
Referencing to the style of Feldman, it can be effectively argued that this particular work does not develop in the way that we know music to develop. Feldman does not take on the Germanic classical development ritual, but instead he makes his ‘character notes’ persist. This gives a lot of interpretation to the listener.
The function of this piece is not to generate new and expansive motives out of a small chunk of music, but instead to explore and really hone in on the particular notes that are played and how they are played (i.e – with the violin being muted).
With the violin being so much in the spotlight, and with no accompaniment to hide behind, the use of harmonics is also interesting. For example, in the opening few bars the harmonics played on G and D really resonate and create such a wonderful colour within the violin. It can be argued that G is the most important and central pitch within this work. It always appears as a harmonic, from the start to the end of the piece it is the only pitch to be repeated immediately at any point in the piece (whenever and wherever in the sequence of notes).
Each note sits and exists in its own right within this work, and it was noted by Feldman that each note should resonate within the body of violin. With this thought process in mind, it is worth mentioning that the G-string harmonic on the violin is perhaps the richest in tone, and therefore is an ideal note to have at the centre of a piece such as this.
An aspect within this piece that always grabs the attention is the octave displacement, which runs throughout the piece. Many believe that the idea of G being the most important note is interesting when viewed within the octave displacement. It’s like Feldman does not want G to be noticed as the same as the original G played. So for example if the first G was played above the stave, and the second was played on the stave, this creates slight ambiguity into what the note may be.
Sonority on different harmonics are created through this work, so firstly we had the major seventh, and following this there is a lot of emphasis on the major ninth interval. These different intervals are emphasised a lot through rhythmic variations in the score. The fluctuation between 7/1-3/5-5/4 is very interesting as it puts the weighting of the phrases in different places – creating very different atmospheres.
Within the last 12 bars of the piece there is an emphasis on the rising major seventh and ninth figures, which have been so central throughout the work. Many of the first musical ‘ideas’ heard at the start of the work begin to echo within the last few bars, conforming to Feldman’s “disorientation of memory.”
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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