At the Margins of the Audible. Morton Feldman’s Ephemeral Compositions


Dieter Mersch

translated by Laura Radosh




The ancient Greek word ephēmeros literally means that which is “transitory” or blooms “only one day” as well as “fleeting” and “impermanent.” It is a compound of hēmera, “day,” and the prefix epi which means “adjacent,” “on,” “near,” or “during.” In early Greek, this term was used mostly to connote the transitory character of human existence. Pindar’s odes, for example, denote man as ephēmeros, as a “one-day being” or a “shadow in a dream.” He exists only in passing and is barely capable of memory.[1] At the same time, the adjective praises submission to the passing day or the moment, an idea that was central to the thought of antiquity and found its apex in Horace’s carpe diem—an affirmation of the mortal world precisely because of the impermanence and unpredictability of the hour.

Thus “ephemeral” can be used particularly to characterize an art or aesthetics that has dedicated itself to the instant, whether to that which is fleeting, or to the incursion of an Other. Adorno saw these attributes as prototypical for artworks, as best exemplified by fireworks, an “apparition kat‘ exochēn“ as he wrote in Aesthetic Theory: “They appear empirically yet are liberated from the burden of the empirical, which is the obligation of duration […], an ominous warning, a script that flashes up, vanishes, and indeed cannot be read for its meaning” (Adorno 2004: 81). Adorno, using the example of fireworks, is claiming for art in general a moment of ungraspability that removes it from daily experience, a moment of alienation that links art to childhood magic. “The instant the curtain goes up is the expectation of the apparition,“ Adorno continues, an expectation no art can completely dash, not “even the most abstract paintings“ (Ibid.: 81-82). This expectation also emanates that shining brilliance (Glanz)—dubbed “aura” by Walter Benjamin—which makes closeness recede into the distance (Benjamin 2008). This formulation expresses a negativity immanent to art, to the extent that it aims at transparency or meaning: The ephemeral denotes a countermovement to this negativity, where phenomena show themselves and, as if they had come for the first time, appear only to, at the same time, manifest themselves as Other. “In each genuine artwork something appears that does not exist,” Adorno’s passage continues, “It is not dreamt up out of disparate elements of the existing. Out of these elements artworks arrange constellations that become ciphers, without, however, like fantasies, setting up the enciphered before the eyes as something immediately existing” (Adorno 2004: 82, my emphasis). Here the term “constellation” should be taken literally: it duplicates the moment of the ephemeral in what is unattached. For a constellation, in the sense of con stellare—the dispersion of stars that stand together but do not necessarily form a figure, a “configuration” marks the “joining” of the “unjoined” (“Fuge” des “Ungefügten”).[2] Art makes similar demands of us: turning to it, we must both read the unreadable and at the same time abandon this task. Aesthetics is genuinely inscribed in the ephemeral: It resists identificatory access that seeks to subsume that what art shows and what shows itself through art to a fixed purpose.


The Ephemerality of “Sounds”


The above is particularly true for works of music and for that phase of music known as “experimental,” the aesthetic profile of which was set by the New York School in the 1950s and 60s. John Cage, in his essay “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” laid down the credo according to which the experimental should be seen as “simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.” An always one-of-a-kind and unrepeatable experiment that results not in certainty, but in “indeterminacies (Cage 1972; see also Metzger 2012: 198). Many composers in Cage’s circle undertook similar searches, for example Earle Brown or Christian Wolff, whose compositions are more coordinates than notations or scores and allow for varying figurations, thus leaving a certain room for chance. La Monte Young, another composer from the same circle, tried to make audible minimal differences between notes or micro-intervals smaller than a second, or slowed his music so much that the sound, like the wind blowing through a house, became perpetual, a caesura of time without the interruption of a bar line. It is the musical event itself that is experimental here, in the literal meaning of experiri, “experience” or “try;” experior, “attempt” or “put at risk;” and expetere, achieving something or having something happen. It is not characterized by reproducibility—in contrast to the exoteric pathos of the scientific experiment—but by ephemerality in its literal meaning of an “apparition kat exochēn,” as Adorno put it, that carries the “shining” (Glanz) of the passing within itself and resists all joinings to determination or recognizability.

Morton Feldman, another member of the New York School and, alongside Cage, perhaps the most influential American composer of this period, devoted himself to the shining brilliance of the fleeting like almost none other. As a close friend of painters from the same circle, including Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, who were interested in exposing the materiality of color beyond form or drawing, and thus in apparitions, before contour or shape, Feldman went on an analogous search for what he called the liberation of sound. Most important to him was not the idea or the context, the literal com-positio (no more than a disciplinary regime for Feldman), nor sound as an identifiable note, an element of a harmonic or disharmonic order, but sound as a verb, as a ringing that, on the margins of perception, is always interwoven with the temporality of its own attenuation. In this way, sound becomes an ephēmeros, a fleeting moment, a “shadow in a dream,” like the individual who follows her own slowly fading trail. As a Jewish American intellectual, Feldman references motifs of Jewish thought more than those of antiquity. Above all, he is invoking the loss of memoria, the forgetting or disappearance of music in light of the Shoah as well as grief over the dissolution of art after the Second World War. He confronts these with an “aesthetics of the gift,” with giving oneself time[3] and concentration, to which he confers their unmistakable place in the world of music. His sounds fade, displace one another, individuate each in their own place without privileging a certain structure or obeying a collective. They are an insistence on not forming images, on the planlessness and non-expressiveness of music, the sounds of which are like points or individual threads that are not woven in a row and hang loose, placed slowly one behind the other, each insisting on its own rights. They want to be heard in their individuality, in their echoes. Melancholy over what is departing and joy over the arrival of their appearance go hand in hand: The enjoyment of the individual sound without desire for permanence and the savoring of the pain that every moment carries within its own passing. Even when they are repeated, when they seem to be united in a pattern, they are never the same. Repetition means difference. Morton Feldman learned this from Sören Kierkegaard’s philosophy—which he references directly in his writings—long before this motif found a home in poststructuralism and in the works of Gilles Deleuze. What is more, every return includes the Other of a radical alterity.


Music without Mysticism


Morton Feldman’s music takes many forms and can hardly be reduced to a common denominator, even if its basic theme remained the same throughout the varying phases of his work. The catalyst for his work, as he repeatedly wrote in his essays, was his meeting with Cage (See Feldman 1985: 36f., 134ff.). Cage was the very decisive caesura in the history of the avant-garde and of European music history in general. During this entire musical tradition, from antiquity to free atonality, notes and the manifold differences between melos and rhythmos, between harmony and disharmony or between meter and pulse were preeminent, while noise, as their Other, represented the negated or the distant, and silence was a pause, a gap or an interruption. Cage took the self-conception of this order of inclusion and exclusion and literally blew it apart, turning its constitutive principles around by taking the primacy of something—composition as a relationship of consecutively “positioned” sounds—and opposing it with nothing. And here I mean the phenomenological nothing, not the ontological. By implication, everything—notes and noise, background and foreground, form and formlessness—becomes an event. What was special about Cage was thus not the inclusion of chance as a means of escaping the sovereignty of the subject—that flight has been part of the fine arts, literature, and music since Dadaism at the latest—but rather that by flipping being and nothingness he consistently discarded structure as the analytical foundation of composition and replaced it with contingency. One could say that the “musical real” is that which has no foundation of its own, but at any time might also be different.

Put another way, beyond the models and concepts to which compositions are bound, there appears an Other, an alterity that denies all necessity. Does this support chaos or the randomness of the word? “An indetermined music,“ Morton Feldman wrote, leaning on Cage, “can lead only to catastrophe. This catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound […]“ (Ibid.: 49). In that case, catastrophe literally means kata strophē, a turning point or inversio that must be understood through hearing and whose echo haunts us without us having yearned for it. It implies the destruction of identity. After identity is not disintegration or emptiness, but the singularity of the moment that differentiates itself from every other moment. “Each moment is absolute, alive and significant,” Cage said in Silence: “Blackbirds rise from a field making sound delicious beyond compare” (Cage 1972: 113). Since then we have found ourselves—literally—in another musical space. It is the space of absolute temporalization, the appearance and disappearance of sound without measured time that addresses neither meaning nor understanding, but only the “gift” of sound’s being, that is the ecstasy of its existence and the moment of its perception, the aisthēsis. I call it “the real of sound.”

In contrast to Cage, Morton Feldman spelled out this reality in a new way. His first pieces from the early 1950s, his Projections and Intersections (Projections 1 (1950) to Projections 4 (1951), Intersections 1 and Marginal Intersection, (both 1951), were represented by purely graphic notation: miniatures or, better, images with no reference. They prescribed only register, dynamics, and time values, while the pitches, responsible for the actual melos, could be freely chosen. The score thus opened, as Walter Zimmermann put it, a chromatic field “free of all agreements.”[4] We are thus dealing with an abstraction whose concrete realization (that which can be heard) acts as a projection: nothing is predetermined, not even the time. Rather, the interpreters tune into time values like musicians into the intake of breath. “As if you’re not listening,” as Feldman remarked, “but looking at something in nature.” “Imitating nature in the manner of its operation,“ as Cage added (Feldman 1985: 128).

These beginnings were followed by the Extensions and Durations (1952-62)—instrumental pieces with a longer duration and more complexity—which were already modular. Always pianissimo, or on the lower margins of the perceivable, sometimes interrupted by sudden forte elements, they challenge perception as concentration in their own particular manner. Each instrument—for example in Piece for Four Pianos (1957)—follows its own punctuated course from a given starting point, creating pointillist patterns that repeatedly go “out of sync.” On the one hand, Morton Feldman was accused of mysticism, on the other hand, he was called one of the greatest spiritualists in music since Johann Sebastian Bach, not recognizing that his working method was neither religiously inspired nor connected to the Kabbala; rather, it emerged from the “logic” of a concentration that in turn was bound to listening, that proceeds from moment to moment to collect the particularities of what has been heard. Feldman, drawing from the Abstract Expressionism of New York School paintings, dubbed this “Abstract Experience.” “The most difficult thing in an art experience is to keep intact […] consciousness of the abstract,” he wrote in one essay, continuing: “The Abstract Experience cannot be represented. […] The Abstract Experience is a metaphor without an answer. […] [It] is really far closer to the religious. It deals with the same mystery – reality – whatever you choose to call it” (Ibid.: 103-104).

Rather than speaking of religiosity, which is used here only as an analogy, one might rather speak of an “aesthetic mysticism without mysticism,” just as Adorno in Music and Language: A Fragment attested a theological moment to music without it being theology. It is, he wrote, an apparition that is “simultaneously revealed and concealed. […] It is demythologized prayer, rid of efficacious magic. It is the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings” (Adorno 1998: 2). That can most emphatically be applied to Feldman. The idea of music as “the divine name which has been given shape” (Ibid.) is equivalent to sounds “being themselves” for themselves and needing no relation or reference to justify their existence. Rather they literally form something irreplaceable or unheard (of). They are the correlate to the “pure language” of God (Benjamin 1996b: 257) that, in Walter Benjamin’s words, only the arts come close to on earth—to the extent that they themselves are founded on “certain kinds of thing-languages” and, as he continued in “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” one seeks their “connection with natural languages” (Benjamin 1996a: 65; 74).[5] For this reason, Feldman compared his pieces to watching nature as if, as cited above “you’re not listening.” The experience thereof is admissibility in the sense of passibility, that is the facility for passio, which reinstates the earlier form of aisthēsis and which was linked to mediatio in Latin antiquity. That implies a turning of the reference system:[6] listening or perceiving means first and foremost to take, but not to appropriate or to own. Concurrently, perception knows no identity. Access necessitates surrender to the gift (Auf-Gabe), an opening that answers rather than judges. (Benjamin 1996b: 257)

This can be seen most clearly in Morton Feldman’s late work, his long one-movement instrumental pieces from the late 1970s and early 1980s. These begin with For Cello and Orchestra (1972) and Piano and Orchestra (1975), both around half an hour, which in their simple conjunction name both that which binds and that which separates and hold both in a limbo that cannot be localized—like the gentle subtlety of a breath that comes and goes. These were followed by Trio (1980) and the Triadic Memories for piano, which were more than one and a half hours and the String Quartets I and II from 1979 and 1982, the latter of which lasts almost five hours. The composer Walter Zimmermann made a drawing of this piece that looks like an asymmetrical rug pattern. Feldman, who was a great connoisseur of the Oriental art of knotting rugs, mastered this art of not correcting false knots. That meant, he noted, he recorded his compositions, but never took back what he had put down. He left it there. To him, this manner of working was the paragon of absolute music. All of the above-named pieces therefore allow themselves time, they stretch time until it becomes meaningless and the sounds begin to unfold their own fleeting life. They become, literally, ephemēros; beings of one day, like the people that listen to and belong to them: “This is perhaps why in my own music I am so involved with the decay of each sound, and try to make its attack sourceless. […] Decay […], this departing landscape, this expresses where the sounds exist in our hearing – leaving us rather than coming towards us.” (Feldman 1985: 89)


Paradoxes of Liberation and the Ephemerality of the Other


String Quartet Nr. 2 works with irregular lines; one can hear repetitions, but they do not create a recognizable pattern, because we are not dealing with a linear fabric, but with asymmetrical processes. Every process is individual and one-of-a-kind. “In String Quartet,“ Feldman himself explained, “there is an almost obsessive reiteration of the same chord,“ but the rhythmic patterns vary. (Ibid.: 130) “I am interested […] in a lot of music where the variation is so discrete, I would have the same thing come back again, but I would add one note. Or I have it come back and take out two notes […].” (Ibid.: 178) Feldman associated this addition and subtraction, which is more change than constant variation, with “liveliness”. If one wants a note that “lives” he wrote in Vertical Thoughts, one needs to let go of the desire to differentiate, (Ibid.: 46) because “(e)very time I try to manipulate my work, for what I think is a terrific idea, the work drops dead. I’m not even allowed to manipulate. I know in a minute I’d hear my music screaming.” (Ibid.: 239, italics in the original)

One might be tempted to contradict here, for composition always means control and differentiation as well as the application of certain methods or techniques. Cage has been accused of the same thing— that his music of indeterminacy staged a kind of intentional non-identionality. “I’m not creating music, it’s already there,” Feldman countered: “Stockhausen asked for my secret […] and I said: ‘I don’t have any secret, but if I do have a point of view, it’s that sounds are very much like people.’” (Ibid.: 144)[7] But people are non-compliable (unfüglich), they do not bow to (fügen) any idea nor are they at its service (verfügbar). That’s why Feldman adhered to Stephane Mallarme’s dictum, which he adapted to the practice of composing: music is not written with ideas, but with sounds. Nevertheless, his music does still seem to be about the idea of a non-idea or the concept of conceptlessness, just as one can say that Cage’s work is the determination of the indeterminate. There is no way of avoiding a glimpse of meaning that can be understood and analyzed, even in the most rigorous Dadaist chance and nonsense compositions. “For meaning is cunning,” as Roland Barthes also noted: “drive it away, and it gallops back.” (Barthes 1985: 202)

This figure can also be turned around, for there is only a contradiction as long as one assumes an a priori of meaning. If instead the emphasis is put on movement, the flight from determinacy, the paradox loses its bite and becomes instead a stepping stone or the hinge of the “turn” from the dominant and over-determined character of European culture that the New York School was critiquing. In fact, it seems that no critique and no inversion—and no thinking or hearing differently—can exist without passing through a paradox. The paradox is thus like a ferment or catalyzer for liberation, which Feldman, just like Cage and other members of the New York School, defined as a break with the rules, or with order in general. People say you can only break a rule if you understand it. “Yes everybody keeps saying that,“ was Feldman’s reply, “ I’ve never understood it. I never understood what I was supposed to learn and what I was supposed to break. What rules? Boulez wrote in a letter to John Cage in 1951 […] ‘I must know everything in order to step off the carpet.’ And for what purpose did he want to step off the carpet? Only to realize the perennial Frenchman’s dream […] to crown himself Emperor. Was its love of knowledge, love of music […]? It was love of analysis [… that] he will use as an instrument of power.” (Feldman 1985: 65, Emphasis in the original) Emphasis in the original) Whoever tries to shatter the rules is still within the framework of the rules. A desire to break the rules means one continues to be disciplined by the rules. For this reason, Feldman broke with everything: with European tradition, with the manner of composing and of hearing, as well as with that which he denounced as the “academic avant-garde”: “America [was] taken over by the academic avant-garde. […] It’s what I’ve described […] as a getting out of history.” (Ibid.: 56) The ephemeral in contrast formulates an anti-regime, an alternative design that countered the architecture of compositional orders and their construction and instead constituted musical practice as a continuous performative: “It’s not a question of a non-idea, but it’s like an exercise. Let us be intelligent Menschen, it’s an exercise to get rid of the old ideas.” (Ibid.: 160) And he continued, referencing the old adage, “people make plansmake–God laughs”: “The composer makes plans, Music laughs.” (Ibid.: 114)

This in fact marks the site of the alternative: freedom does not mean the total lack of restriction or randomness without borders but opening to an Other than must first become. While the first phase of new music—the atonality of Arnold Schönberg and the serialism of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen—necessarily had to affirm the musical system in order to overturn it, the anarchy of the New York circle was not interested in “abstract negation,” as Albrecht Wellmer insinuated. (Wellmer 2009: 288f.) Rather in every step taken they were probing, despite all their failures, for a transition from structure to surface. The autonomy of the structure allows for its constant and always consistent reiteration, while the surface induces the materiality of the ungovernability of the event. Feldman repeatedly made comparisons based on his intimate knowledge of contemporary painting. (See in particular Feldman 1985: 97ff.) Just as Barnett Newman hated using technology and turned away from representation and its figurality by the explosion of color, the Other of the drawing, in order to find the apparition, the moment of now, as Jean-François Lyotard expressed it in his unforgettable analyses of Abstract Expressionism, so too does music have an auratic surface in the materiality of the notes—as a phenomenality that has its own reality, metaphors, and poetry. (Ibid.: 138) It is not negativity that defines the core of this work, but the positivity of that alterity that manifests an errant position to that which “is” by displacing a truth and the persistence of its validity with finitude, with the relativity of apparitions and their momentary character—their ephemerality. Their credo is therefore to turn away from the idea and the epikeina tēs ousia to horaton and akouston. Put another way, it is the experience of aisthēton with its strict worldliness, however with another sensibility— a sensibility for the extraordinariness of “ex-istence” as a “gift”, dignified and irreplaceable, and with an inherent fragility. “What we did,“ Feldman therefore wrote in his short text on The Anxiety of Art, “was not in protest against the past. To rebel against history is still to be part of it. We were simply not concerned with historical processes. We were concerned with sound itself. And sound does not know its history.” (Ibid.: 86)



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