The Arty Semite

The Return of Morton Feldman

By Raphael Mostel

  • Print
  • Share Share
New Albion Records

Looking at Morton Feldman, one hardly would have guessed that this irrepressible, self-described “New York Jew” created some of the most mystical and subtle music ever composed. Yet since his death, in 1987, it has become ever more apparent that his late works are among the most individual, distinctive and influential of the second half of the 20th century — even if recognition and reverence for his achievements are still more widespread in Europe than in the United States.

And so it makes sense that Europeans — the 89-musician Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava of the Czech Republic — have arrived to perform the very first all-Morton Feldman orchestral concert ever presented in the United States, at Alice Tully Hall on November 5 in New York City, the composer’s hometown. A significant part of the backing for this concert of Feldman’s music comes from the town of Ostrava and also from the Czech Republic. To ensure the quality and detail of the performance, the orchestra committed to an almost unheard-of 18 days of rehearsals. The driving force behind this program, and the entire seven-program “Beyond [John] Cage” festival of which this concert is a major highlight, is the 70-year-old Prague-born-and-educated conductor/composer Petr Kotik, grandson of a Theresienstadt survivor who was also a conductor. In trying to convey the importance of music in the Czech republic, Kotik told me that the entire country has the same population as New York City (where he currently lives and directs the S.E.M. Ensemble), “yet it has five major orchestras and another eight to 10 professional orchestras.”

Kotik said he’d gotten to know Feldman personally when both were teaching at SUNY Buffalo, but he had already been a fan from his youth in Prague. “What a joy to encounter music which had nothing to do with all the crap one heard from morning to night!” he said. “Even though there is no one I’ve ever met who was more consumed with desire for money and success than Feldman was, there is not one note of music he ever wrote with any thought of money or success.”

Feldman’s singular soundworld has as little to do with 19th-century music as it does with the medievalisms and other pious anachronisms that most mistake for mysticism these days. Such historical tropes made little sense to his aesthetics in any case. “Because I’m Jewish, I don’t identify with, say, Western civilization music,” Feldman said. “I want to be the first great composer that is Jewish.” Feldman is never hurried and never louder than a whisper, and what drives his music is simply being in the timeless, almost physical presence of sound itself — much as his famous abstract expressionist painter friends, such as Mark Rothko, did with color.

This is not music for those who need rousing climaxes, hummable tunes or even dramatic dynamics. But for those with the patience and capacity to enter into the enticing whispers of Feldman’s ever-unfolding sound world, the experience can be unforgettable and irreducible. Composer Bunita Marcus, Feldman’s longtime muse, student and companion, as well as the foremost expert on his compositional methods, said, “A lot of 19th- and 20th-century orchestral music is, shall we say, flamboyantly hitting you over the head to convert you. Jews are not into converting other people, and his music has that aesthetic. You are invited to enter into this world, if you wish to. He took a lot of what he humorously referred to as ‘sauerkraut’ out of music. How do you notate the mystical? By what process do you keep the mystical going? One note out of place, and the whole thing collapses. Morty always heard music from a distance.”

Feldman grew up around New York City’s mid-20th-century garment business, and his music shows a connection with fabric: Its methods more closely resemble those of weavers than they do traditional musical techniques. The relationship became even more pronounced after he and Marcus discovered Turkic square knot rugs. “Something about the making of a rug — work like at the garment center, or like the line of scribes my first husband came from, copying one letter after another. There is no foreground and background; everything is primary material. In a similar fashion, the rug maker places square knot against square knot,” Marcus said. “When Feldman placed musical objects on the page, he knew what they would sound like. He started from the sound, figured out a notation for the sound and placed it. This is how a painter works on a canvas; they walk back and forth, looking from many angles, and then — place the brush. And this is how the rug maker makes decisions, too.”

Listen to Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” here.

Raphael Mostel is a composer, writer and lecturer based in New York City.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: John Cage, Mark Rothko, Morton Feldman, Alice Tully Hall

Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.