Support American Mavericks with your purchases
  • News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment
American Mavericks home page

If Jackson Pollock Wrote Music
Morton Feldman

In 1951 the photographer Hans Namuth made a film of the painter Jackson Pollock at work. Using his famous "drip technique," Pollock made a painting on glass, that would eventually be titled simply Number Twenty-Nine. The glass was placed horizontally and Namuth filmed from underneath it as Pollock splattered and dripped not only paint but pebbles and shells. Riding the crest of his fame as the victorious bad boy of modern art, Pollock in the film is unselfconscious, spontaneous, consummately in control. For the soundtrack, the film's producer Paul Falkenberg first wanted to use bits of Indonesian gamelan music, but when he played them for Pollock, the painter complained, "But Paul, this is exotic music. I am an American painter!"

Pollock's wife Lee Krasner, an important painter in her own right, knew of a young composer who might be perfect for the music. Pollock and Krasner went over to audition him. He was a young friend of the avant-garde composer John Cage named Morton Feldman. Only 25 years old, Feldman was completely untried. He had written only a few small piano pieces in a dense, dissonant style. He had met John Cage at Carnegie Hall in the winter before last; the two were present for a controversial new symphony by the Austrian 12-tone composer Anton Webern, which they enthused about while the rest of the audience got their dander up. The two became fast friends. Meanwhile, Feldman worked mornings in his uncle's dry-cleaning establishment.

For whatever reason, Pollock and Krasner were impressed enough with the young unknown to give him the job. Feldman wanted to use a single cello, overdubbed. Lean, quiet, and austere, the music marked a new style for Feldman, one that he would cultivate into perhaps the most recognizable musical style of the late 20th century. Pollock had placed his bet well: by century's end Morton Feldman would would go on to become one of the most influential composers of the second half of the century, and also the one most attuned to modern painting. Of working on Pollock's film, Feldman later said, "It was the beginning of my life, really; I hadn't had entree and now people were talking about me."

In the middle of the 20th century, the arts exploded into a new and unsettling realm of abstraction. Paintings were no longer paintings of something; they were simply paint. Music, too, was no longer about melody; it had abandoned the grounding in tonality that had been its mainstay for centuries. For some composers, notably John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, music was now about sound the way paintings were about paint. For others, like Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, the issue was not sound, but new and more complicated kinds of musical relationships. In either case, listeners were being asked to relinquish the ideas of a steady beat and of hummable melodies, music's equivalent of representation. There were many reasons for the mid-20th-century explosion of musical abstraction: some good, some not so good, others compelling at the time.

Reason No. 1: At the beginning of the 20th century, the system of tonality that had been developing for more than 300 years seemed exhausted, played out. And yet, musicians felt that without any system at all there was no way to be creative on a large scale. In response, Arnold Schönberg invented the 12-tone row in 1921, and built from it a method of composing that he felt could guarantee cohesiveness and unity in music. The devastation of World War II made many artists feel that the old, romantic view of life had been discredited by the international conflicts it led to, and hundreds jumped on the 12-tone bandwagon.

Reason No. 2: Anyone who's ever taken a music theory class knows that music is hemmed-in with hundreds of dos and don'ts. Composers were tired of having their knuckles slapped for dissonant chords that may have broken a few rules. Stravinsky was the first to break out with his massive "Rite of Spring" in 1913, and since then the exploration of new resources has never stopped.

Reason No. 3: As music developed in complexity, especially among those interested in 12-tone method, an analogy grew up between music and science. Certain composers, especially those ensconced in college music departments, came to feel that music was a science, with its own natural development that had to be followed whether the average music lover was left behind or not. The leader in this crusade was Milton Babbitt, author of a rabble-rousing 1959 article in High Fidelity magazine that was supposed to be titled "The Composer as Specialist," but was instead given the inflammatory headline, "Who Cares If You Listen?" In this article, he compares the relationship between composer and audience to that between a physicist, or mathematician, and the layman. If the average person can't follow the latest developments in theoretical physics without extensive training, why should music be otherwise? "Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled," he wrote, "by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music...."

Babbitt followed this logic through to the bitter end, suggesting, "that the composer would do himself and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition." In other words, the advanced composer was relegated to the university. In response, over the next several decades American academia developed its own musical culture, with Babbitt's own music as an extreme endpoint.

Reason No. 4: Paradoxically, the very difficulty of following 12-tone music had tempted some musicians to listen to it in a way that hadn't been intended - as pure sound. Composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman found them interesting just as abstract patterns of sound, and even more than that - musical analogues for what was going on in the world of painting. The little dots of sound in Webern's music seemed akin to the little squares of paint on a canvas by the painter Piet Mondrian. And so Cage and Feldman did away with the complicated 12-tone structuring, which they considered irrelevant to the actual audible results anyway. Cage developed a new technique based in collage and the use of randomness within a field of possibilities. Curiously, as has often been noted, the initial results of his chance pieces were not all too different in effect from Babbitt's extreme 12-tone pulverization.

Reason No. 5: Musical abstraction became the hot new aesthetic in the 1940s and '50s, an era which saw an unprecedented commercialization of music and everything else. Big band jazz, rhythm and blues, and even the classical warhorses were recorded and marketed in a new kind of manipulative, consumerist economy. The composers of atonal abstraction, at least some of them, aimed at a music that couldn't be commercialized: that had no big, romantic melodies, no lush orchestra, and no rhythmic glitter. Especially in Europe, composers wrote music intentionally to defeat the memory, to prevent listeners from taking a recording as a comfort commodity. They aimed at a music whose very difficulty would force a listener to remain in the moment, without daydreaming and without looking back or at the crass commercial world and attune oneself to the complexity of momentary, lived experience. To that extent, composing such music was not academic narcissism, but a noble cause, a search for authenticity in an artificial age.

And so among these five reasons we have three competing impulses, not entirely separable, behind abstract music: scientific abstraction, the idea that music has its own inner laws that only the elite can understand; sonic abstraction, the idea that sound is interesting to listen to for its own sake; and what might be called existential abstraction, the idea that the old modes of musical listening had been co-opted by the corporate world and lost their value. You may sympathize with these impulses or find them deplorable, but either way they set the stage for a period of tremendous atonality and abstraction on the part of our maverick friends.

Milton Babbitt

The big takeoff of abstraction coincided with America's emergence as a world economic power after World War II. Symbolically, it was also the moment at which American composers began to "get ahead" of European ones. Milton Babbitt had grown up in Mississippi, the son of a mathematician; he became a good enough mathematician to do top-secret research on code-breaking during World War II. One of Babbitt's childhood friends had been the Broadway composer Lehman Engel, who happened to be the person who met Arnold Schönberg at the boat when Schönberg emigrated to America, fleeing the Nazis. Engel introduced Babbitt to Schönberg, and Babbitt quickly became the leading American expert on Schönberg's 12-tone technique.

Like many young composers, however, Babbitt found Schönberg's pitch language revolutionary, but thought his rhythms were kind of stodgy and traditional. So Babbitt figured out how to apply the concept of a row, or d '48 wrote the first pieces that applied 12-tone technique to rhythm as well as pitch, Three Compositions for Piano and Composition for Four Instruments. Several months later, in 1949, a French composer named Olivier Messiaen developed his own way of applying mathematical techniques to rhythm. Babbitt didn't get credit for having been first until many years later, but for the first time, an American had beaten the Europeans to the next historical step in music.

Babbitt's difficult music demanded a precision that, in his early days, performers could rarely deliver. Trying to get his music perfect, he turned to electronics, becoming the first composer, in the 1950s, to work with the then-brand-new RCA Mark II synthesizer. The Mark II was a strange contraption by today's ideas of electronic music. It filled most of a room, and contained 750 vacuum tubes drive sequencing devices - allowed for a polyphony of four melodies at once. "The machine was extremely difficult to operate," Babbitt later remembered. "...getting the paper through the machine and punching the holes was difficult.... And yet for me it was so wonderful because I could specify something and hear it instantly." The pieces Babbitt produced with the Mark II became classics of early electronic music. Perhaps the most beautiful was Philomel for soprano Bethany Beardslee and electronic tape.

Other abstractionists got by without the 12-tone system, and worked more intuitively, notably Elliott Carter and Stefan Wolpe. Carter, having studied with the famous French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, started out as a neoclassicist, Stravinsky-style. But two experiences confirmed his interest in rhythmic complexity: one, he was introduced to the reclusive American experimentalist Charles Ives, and got to know him; and two, he corresponded with American expatriate Conlon Nancarrow, who was writing extremely rhythmically complex music for player piano. In the late 1940s, as Babbitt was writing his first attempts at serializing rhythm, Carter began writing music in which the players would fall into different tempos at the same time, such as his Cello Sonata and First String Quartet.

In a 1955 trip to Europe, Carter learned that young European composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen were writing much more complex music than any Americans were, and that they were getting it played, and played well, which Carter thought at the time impossible for complex music in America. American orchestras would never grant a new work more than a few hours' rehearsal; in Europe, Carter saw ensembles giving difficult new works as many as 25 rehearsals. Starting with his Variations for Orchestra in 1955, Carter greatly upped the amount of complexity in his music, and came to public notice with his groundbreaking Double Concerto of 1961. The Double Concerto is written for two solo instruments, piano and harpsichord, each backed by its own orchestra rimmed with plenty of percussion.

Carter majored in English at Harvard, and is one of the most literary of American composers. Though he doesn't write programmatic music in the usual sense, nearly every work of his has a parallel in some work of literature. In the case of the Double Concerto there are two: "De Rerum Natura," by the obscure ancient Roman poet Lucretius and "Dunciad," by the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope. "De Rerum Natura" is a poetic treatment of the physical theories of Epicurus, which attempt to explain material nature and the behavior of atoms (here in translation by Rolfe Humphries):

"All things keep on, in everlasting motion,
Out of the infinite come the particles
Speeding above, below, in endless dance."

Lucretius' ringing phrases are echoed in the way Carter's percussion noises circle the orchestra and melodies speed up and grind to a halt. The work's plunges into chaos also evoke Pope's "Dunciad."

"Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarch! let the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all."

Stefan Wolpe wrote simpler music than Carter or Babbitt, but he was one of the great masters of abstraction. Born in Berlin, he had moved to Palestine when the Nazis took over in 1933, and then to America in 1938, where he lived in Greenwich Village for the rest of his life. Each geographical relocation was accompanied by a change in style; in Germany he had written political Gebrauhant. In his American period his style became thoroughly abstract, but never rigorous like that of the 12-tone composers. Instead it was playful, light, airy. It's said that Wolpe kept a goldfish tank in his house, and that he would watch the darting and gliding of the goldfish for inspiration. You can hear that in his Chamber Piece No. 1 of 1964, in the way that the music hovers around certain pitch fields before darting off, fishlike, into something new.

Perhaps Wolpe's magnum opus of abstraction was his huge, sprawling canvas for three pianos called Enactments. For all his massive sonorities, Wolpe used no system, but splashed his bushels of notes around through pure intuition. Surely, if Jackson Pollock had attacked the piano the way he had attatcked his paintings the results would have been similar.

And yet, while all this abstraction was flourishing in the 1950s and '60s, there were other composers standing on the sidelines and thinking, "If pitch relationships and rhythmic structures are the point, the point's not getting through." John Cage enjoyed the sound of all that abstract complexity; it seemed to echo and musicalize the chaos of real life. But he felt that the sounds themselves were interesting, not the complicated background structures that one seemed to need a doctorate in music theory just to locate. Cage, and his cohorts Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff - sometimes referred to today as "the New York School" - took a different approach to musical abstraction, one that allowed sounds to happen in naturally complex ways rather than according to intricate plans.

That approach was highly influenced by what was going on in the world of painting. In the early 1950s, while Babbitt was adding rhythm to the 12-tone arsenal and Carter was experimenting with tempo structures, Cage and Feldman were hanging out at the Cedar Bar in New York with painters: Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns. Most of these painters were what was called Abstract Expressionists. Jackson Pollock threw his paint on the canvas, so that some chance entered into the results. Rauschenberg played with surreal juxtapositions, such as a sculpture involving a stuffed goat and an old tire. Cage was a friend of Rauschenberg's - sometimes following his ideas, sometimes anticipating them. Cage's most notorious composition, 4'33" - consisting of four and a half minutes of silence, or rather, unintended environmental sounds - was in part a response to paintings Rauschenberg's completely white paintings. And Cage was drawn to surreal juxtapositions, too, as in his use of a record player as a musical instrument in Credo in US of 1942. In the score Cage asks that a recording be used of a symphony by Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, or some other romantic favorite, which is then interrupted collage-style by the piano and percussion.

One of the most powerful artistic ideas of the 1950s was the mobile. The sculptor Alexander Calder had pioneered a now-familiar type of sculpture with large steel shapes that floated in air, suspended from above, the relationships of the shapes continually changing as they shift in the breeze. This ability of an artwork to change shape over time especially fascinated Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, who both found their own musical analogues. Brown composed sections of music which were notated in large, numbered squares, which a conductor could then improvise with as a painter improvised with paints. The seminale piece's musical content was predetermined, but the temporal relationships between the different parts would be different at each performance. [Brown, Available Forms I]

Lean and elegant, Brown was an especially eloquent interpreter of his own music, with a precise hand technique that opened up new realms of improvisation within the world of orchestral music. In his Cross Sections and Color Fields, a work from 1972, you can clearly hear the influence of color and shape from the abstract expressionist painters.

While Brown's works change from performance to performance, Feldman searched for a way to have sonic images change the way they related within one performance. In 1957, Feldman penned a simple score for four pianos, called simply "Piece for Four Pianos." It consisted of only one page a music played by all four pianists, but at their own chosen rate. Feldman was the first composer to experiment once again with repetition in a milieu that had made repetition all but illegal, and such techniques would soon find their way into a new American style called minimalism.

Meanwhile, Feldman had other fish to fry. In an age in which almost all music had become ambitious, raucous, loud, and chaotic, he marked most of his scores with a single direction: "as soft as possible." In an age which prized systems and compositional rigor, he relied radically on intuition, the musical figures float along, and as they float, the relationship between simple figures changes as in a Calder mobile.

Timbre, tone color, was the aspect of music Morton Feldman obsessed about. Once, discussing his method of composition, he described how he would choose the instruments he wanted to work with. Then he paused. "But Morty," Earle Brown said, "just because you've chosen the instruments doesn't mean the piece is finished." Feldman replied quietly, "For me it is." Feldman noticed that many composers were writing pieces 20 minutes long, that the length itself had become a cliche. He began writing longer and longer works. His First String Quartet was 100 minutes long, without pause. Another work for flute, piano, and percussion lasted for five hours.

Feldman died in 1987, at the age of 61, of pancreatic cancer. During his lifetime, less than five vinyl records' worth of his music was recorded. Since his death, there have been more than 50 compact discs. By breaking through the modernist macho that had made music loud, chaotic, and yet paradoxically rigorous, and by restoring the freedom to use one's intuition, Feldman became perhaps the most influential composer, not in the U.S., but in Europe. A product of modernism, he was the Maverick who helped bring modernism to a close, and showed the way out.

Modernist abstraction dominated music from World War II up until 1970 or '80. It was the last music that was felt to be an international mainstream. During the '70s, its dominance was challenged first by minimalism, then by a return to romanticism, then by free improvisation, music based in pop idioms, world music, and most recently by DJs playing turntables. In the postmodern world, there may never again be a single style that every musician has to learn. Meanwhile, the language of modernism has lingered in university music departments, where it has become the musical culture of academia; the Maverick composers went elsewhere. In the next program on "American Mavericks," we'll explore the style that challenged the modernists: minimalism.

End of file