Morton Feldman was an American composer and influential figure of 20th-century music known for writing exceptionally long pieces.
Feldman was born in Queens, Brooklyn to a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father was a manufacturer of children’s coats and Feldman supplemented his early career income working in the family’s textile industry.
His childhood piano teacher instilled in him a vibrant musicality. He went on to study composition with Wallingford Riegger, one of the first American followers of Arnold Schoenberg, and Stefan Wolpe, a German-born Jewish composer who studied under Franz Schreker and Anton Webern.
Feldman met the composer John Cage by chance in the early 1950’s during a performance of Anton Webern’s Symphony, op. 21 by the New York Philharmonic. The two quickly became good friends and Feldman moved into an apartment in the same building Cage lived in.
Feldman and Cage inspired and encouraged each other in their work. Feldman started to write pieces without constraints of traditional harmony, serial technique or other systems of the past, preferring to experiment with non-standard systems of notation and chance. This in turn inspired John Cage’s use of chance operations in his music, and his use of the Chinese I Ching as a compositional device.
Through Cage, Feldman met many contemporary artists and composers including Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Philip Guston. He was particularly inspired by the paintings of the abstract expressionists and wrote a number of pieces based on them including Rothko Chapel (1971, written for the building of the same name, which houses paintings by Mark Rothko) and For Frank O’Hara (1973).
Feldman’s works are characterized by notational innovations, free floating rhythms, softly focused pitch changes and recurring patterns resulting in a quiet evolving music.
His later works (after 1977) moved away from chance operations towards pieces of precision and extreme duration. These include Violin and String Quartet (1985, around 2 hours), For Philip Guston (1984, around four hours) and String Quartet II (1983, which is over six hours long without a break.) The pieces consist of mainly quiet sounds and maintain a very slow almost static developmental pace.
Feldman once claimed that if he could only find a comfortable chair, he would rival Mozart.
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