Morton Feldman

The composer Morton Feldman was born in New York as the second son of a Jewish immigrant family in 1926 and grew up in Queens. At age 12, Feldman began taking piano lessons, and in 1941 began studying composition. His meeting with John Cage in 1949 introduced Feldman to a New York art world that included Cage and his partner Merce Cunningham, the composers Christian Wolff and Earl Brown, the pianist David Tudor, and the painters Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston. In the decades to follow, Guston became Feldman’s closest friend. The works of Morton Feldman were not only inspired by these artists, known as abstract expressionists, but also often took on graphic form. It was only in the 1970s that he returned to using conventional notation.

In 1971 and 1972, Morton spent a year in Berlin as a guest of the German Academic Exchange Service, two years later being offered a named-chair professorship at SUNY Buffalo, at his request called the ‘Edgard Varèse Chair of Musical Composition’ – Feldman became aquainted with Varèse in the 1940s. His affinity to the world of Samuel Beckett led to three compositions in 1976–77, the orchestra pieces Orchestra and Elemental Procedures and Routine Investigations for chamber ensemble, and finally to the opera Neither, for which Beckett wrote the libretto. A series of Feldman’s compositions are dedicated to the composer’s friends and acquaintances and bear their names: for example For Franz Kline (1962), For John Cage (1982), For Philip Guston (1984), For Bunita Marcus (1985), and, one of his last works, For Samuel Beckett (1987), but also Rothko Chapel (1971) for dual chorus, composed for Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, a chapel featuring paintings by the artist. As of the early 1980s, works of extreme length began to emerge, usually for chamber ensembles: the longest being String Quartet No. 2, which is around five hours long.

Feldman’s music, which is almost always very quiet, is directed by the idea of shadow and texture: it is also inspired by the proportions and broken symmetries of hand-woven Anatolian rugs, and reflects their making and their micro-chromatic spectrum of colors.

Morton Feldman died in 1987 at age 61 in New York.