Considering the legacy of Morton Feldman, the radical American composer who would have turned 90 this year.

Few contemporary composers reach more than a handful of specialist listeners. But – occasionally – a composer’s reputation continues to grow against all odds. The appeal evolves from niche taste to phenomenon, spreading as inexplicably as it does relentlessly. The music of American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) is enjoying just such a moment. For confirmation, you need only peruse the discography: since 1989, no less than 249 CDs have included his music. His chamber and solo piano works are performed regularly all over the world. He is widely cited as an influence among composers under 50.

The outpouring of interest has taken many by surprise. During much of his lifetime, Feldman was considered little more than one of John Cage’s hangers-on. His relationship with Cage, a friend and mentor, was a double-edged sword: it gained him access to artistic New York, but few people took him seriously. His compositions were invariably short, and many interpreted this as a lack of substance. Cage’s encouragement of the 24 year-old – Feldman called it Cage’s “permission” – was improbable. But it was also a powerful incentive. Although Feldman composed only in the evenings (after working in the family garment business), he used his amateur status to his advantage by taking an experimental approach. He had nothing to lose. 

During his lifetime he was considered little more than one of John Cage’s hangers-on

Feldman’s watershed year was 1971, when he was hired (without a degree) as composition professor at the University at Buffalo, New York. Buffalo was a hotbed of musical creativity in the 1970s, thanks to generous federal grants. Feldman flourished there. At age 45, for the first time in his life, he could concentrate fully on music. He gave one long seminar per week, and composed the rest of the time. 

Leaving experimentation behind, his works became more intense. Their tenderness and abstraction were now combined with an increasingly ambitious scale. Feldman joked that writing long pieces was a “career move” – in retrospect it seems to have been true. His concert-length pieces resemble mysterious rituals, and this implied spiritual dimension is a key part of their potency. 

While researching how to perform Feldman’s works, I realised that characteristics of his mature style are likely a reflection of his daily routine. Feldman would compose for an hour, then spend an hour neatly copying out the previous work, a lesson he learned from Cage. “While I’m copying, neatly, I’m getting ideas, or I’m thinking about it. Subliminally or consciously.” He would play a note, listen to it, write it down. Then he would seek the next one, instinctively, always playing quietly, always concentrating intently. He would alternate composing and copying for up to 16 hours a day. 

One reason for his music’s sparsity of notes may be prosaic: a thickset, extravagant man, Feldman had terrible eyesight. According to fellow composer Earle Brown, Feldman once said, “You can do all this complicated stuff. My eyes won’t let me.” Whatever the reason, Feldman clearly preferred the poetic possibilities of transparent, suggestive textures rather than overwhelming blocks of sound. The result of these influences is music which sounds as if Feldman is composing in real time. You hear individual notes and chords, mostly sustained, with little forward motion or discernible plan. Often the space between the notes is so long that it sounds as if Feldman had time to play a note, write it down, and play another note, all in the same slow tempo. He seems to be dramatising the composition process itself.

Feldman wrote his scores directly in ink, saying it heightened his concentration. If he had a system for choosing the notes, he refused to admit it: “My ideas, my notes, for whatever reason, just come to me.” Indeed it was a source of pride: “I don’t need a system.” But in fact his system was to improvise slowly, using his pen as his instrument. 

If you’re curious about Feldman’s music, start with Rothko Chapel (1971), a moving tribute to his friend Mark Rothko. His final piano piece – Palais de Mari (1986) – is also accessible with a beginning reminiscent of Claude Debussy’s haunting Prelude, Des Pas Sur La Neige (Footprints in the Snow). 

Ivan Ilić’s recording of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus is available on Paraty (PTY135305)