In “American Sublime”, the music critic Alex Ross reviews the genesis of and reasons behind the title of Feldman’s composition:
There is no mistaking the lonely, lamenting tone that runs through Feldman’s music. From time to time, the composer hinted that the horrors of the twentieth century, and in particular the Holocaust, had made other, more ornate kinds of musical expression impossible for him. He explained that the title “The King of Denmark,” which he bestowed on a graphic piece for percussion, was inspired by King Christian X, who was occupying the Danish throne when the Germans invaded his country in 1940. Feldman proceeded to tell the story, now considered apocryphal, of King Christian responding to German anti-Semitism by walking the streets with a yellow star pinned to his chest. It was a “silent protest,” Feldman said. In a way, his music seemed to protest all of European civilization, which, in one way or another, had been complicit in Hitler’s crimes.
Whether the original story is true (it has now been documented that the yellow Star of David badge was not introduced in Denmark during the Nazi occupation), Feldman’s political view is apparent due to his focusing on this pacific protest, this silent resistance, as well as its human fragility. Feldman translates this silent resistance into performance by removing from the hands of the percussionist what had until then been his or her most important means of sound production – sticks and mallets – and instead has the percussionist produce the sounds with his or her fingers, hands or arms. The sounds produced by the percussionist’s actions now become not only soft but also fragile, played with the dramatic intention of producing sounds, or rather, performing actions that lead to sounds, at the limit of audibility – something later explored, for example, in Luigi Nono’s works with live electronics.
Flutist Eberhard Blum (Blum 2008: 1) recounts that Feldman’s silent resistance not only corresponded to a very clear political statement in music, it also served as a direct answer to Stockhausen’s Zyklus, composed five years earlier, which featured the expressivity of the solo percussionist in a completely different way:
In 1956, John Cage had composed the first work ever of this kind, his “27 ́10.554 ́ ́ for a Percussionist.” Stockhausen reacted to this pioneering work with his “Zyklus,” The soloist places a great number of instruments in a circle enclosing him, according to a plan by Stockhausen. During the performance, the player slowly turns, clockwise or anticlockwise, as he chooses, and executes one of the possible cycles of the composition. It is a most impressive and virtuoso act, one could almost say “expressionistic”.Feldman knew this work, as it was performed in New York by the percussionist Max Neuhaus shortly after its completion. He called his own new percussion work “the American answer to ‘Zyklus.’”
In contrast to Stockhausen, Feldman’s approach to the politics of the soloist led him to propose a performance where the fragility of the sounding results would suggest an equal fragility in the actions of the performer him- or herself.
It was this notion of performative fragility that I wanted to preserve when translating The King of Denmark into the electronic domain. The lack of a clear interdependency between physical action and sonic manifestation in electronic instruments led me to rethink how to expose this fragility.