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date: 16 October 2019

Feldman, Mortonlocked

  • Steven Johnson

Extract

(b New York, Jan 12, 1926; d Buffalo, NY, Sept 3, 1987). American composer. Influenced by abstract painting, his music often employs alternative notational and organizational systems that contribute to a compositional style centred on gestural, timbral and non-metric relationships.

He studied composition with Riegger and Wolpe, but especially admired Varèse’s music. Early in his career he distanced himself from traditional academic training, earning his living by working in his family’s business. Later he served as dean of the New York Studio School (1969–71). A residency in Berlin (1971–2) generated commissions from European orchestras and radio organizations, gaining him wider attention and leading to compositions for larger ensembles. From 1973 until his death, he taught composition as the Edgard Varèse Professor of Music at SUNY, Buffalo.

Feldman’s aesthetic crystallized in the early 1950s when he became associated with John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and David Tudor. His strongest influence, however, came from New York abstract expressionist painters. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and especially Philip Guston stimulated Feldman to imagine a sound world unlike any he had ever heard. Throughout his career, he adhered with remarkable consistency to a few tenets learned from them: a dislike of intellectual system and compositional rhetoric; a hostility to past forms of expression; a preference for abstract gestures set in flat ‘all-over’ planes of time; an obsession with the physical materials of art; a belief in handmade methods; and a trust in instinct. He defended this aesthetic in a number of essays written over the course of his career. Some of these are autobiographical, even nostalgic (‘Give My Regards to Eighth Street’), while others involve polemical attacks on system-conscious European composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen (‘The Anxiety of Art’). In ‘Crippled Symmetry’ he wrote straightforwardly about his compositional methods and his inspiration from the visual arts....

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