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.” 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). 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: 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)