Sounds Of A Silent Age- Visual Music and Artistic Synthesis

By Guston Attar
Rauschenberg Black painting

Morton Feldman, the more I dive into his life and work, seems increasingly like a quiet prophet that is still being digested by humanity. His fierce individualism was indeed just that- he was not interested in taking theoretical concerns to their limits, like his musical adversary Pierre Boulez. Feldman, together with John Cage, Christian Wolff, and a handful of other New York-based composers, were somewhat outcast from the rest of the avant-garde crowd of the 50s, largely in part due to their absorption in the Cedar Tavern scene that was birthing the NY-school of large-scale abstract art.

            The relationship of the arts to one another is something that has deteriorated since the dawn of postmodernism. The idea of analyzing and using concepts in different forms in order to try and attain some measure of objective truth is the mark of all art that considers itself ‘problematic’- a defining feature of all late modern-era work. I often find myself missing this element in many contemporary sounds, so it is a factor I’m trying to make an essential ingredient in my own music.

            I stumbled across something that helped me along quite by accident, in one of those happy alchemical formulations spurred on by the right mixture of stimuli; in this case, the writings of Wittgenstein, Levi-Strauss, and W.S. Burroughs, a long afternoon walk, and a listening session of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. It was simply a structuring of all three major art forms within the greater context of space. I hadn’t yet read of Feldman’s views on space that he’d inherited from Varese, this idea of the sheer physicality of sound in its right context, but I felt it somewhere.

            Through Burroughs’ radical restructuring of language, I saw the word as taking up space. With his prose hallucinatory and vivid in the extreme, and his grammar being thoroughly unusual and often revelatory, it seemed to me that words occupied space first and foremost, since the sheer amount of information/ideas that could be gleaned from one page stayed in my head all day or longer, alien words vibrating like sympathetic strings.

            Visual art, in the form of Rothko’s daunting canvasses, gave me the strongest impression of art being space. It takes a space and makes it into something else; physically, there is no more nor less, only a rearrangement. To me, this aspect makes the visual medium the most easily sustainable of the three, at least intellectually and spiritually.

            Music, finally, is tasked with creating space. Out of silence there comes sound, the bell of a horn or the f-hole of a bass/cello taking up an entire concert hall, or a record of Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic making the walls shake, breathe, and expand. Spatially, it’s perhaps the most intimidating of art forms, but one of its main distinctions makes it much more forgiving; the aspect of time plays the biggest role in music. Time here isn’t quite analogous to scale in visual art- a bigger, grander painting doesn’t necessarily translate to a longer piece of music. Rather, time translates into detail and, especially, immersion. We can see examples of this from Feldman’s visual inspirations. In Rauschenberg’s Black Painting, which Feldman bought directly from the artist, textured canvas lends an impression of endlessness to the monochrome composition. Light changes suddenly when one views it from different angles, making the two-dimensional work seem, in a way, even more ‘real’ than three-dimensional canvasses; it appears to have been plucked straight out of nature itself.

            In Feldman’s close friend Philip Guston’s abstract work, however, lies his perfect visual counterpart. Discussing his companion’s painterly style, the composer always had plenty to say. “Neither close nor distant, like a fleeting constellation projected on the canvas and then removed, suggests an ancient Hebrew metaphor: God exists, but is turned away from us.” Talking about Guston’s famed canvas Attar, which he himself had purchased, he remarked: “I have the feeling that if I moved it to another wall, it would be an entirely different painting. It seems to be reflecting rather than ordinating phenomena… This explains the painting’s complete absence of weight. But the sensation of what you see not coming from what is seen is characteristic of all Guston’s work.” The phenomenon he describes as being so integral to his friend’s work is evidently something Feldman strove for as well. His method of always composing is completely intuitive, yet careful; he always wrote at the piano, so as to be able to ‘weigh’ the sounds. Feldman’s is a music free of overt system, yet always with a clear goal, and his interdisciplinary approach to conception and composition was absolutely integral to this.

            In the end, it’s this slow, organic approach to composition that gives away Feldman’s innate romanticism. His devotion to sound in itself is unparalleled by any figure since in the world of music. On one hand, it’s easy to point to his more aggressive pronouncements on certain topics, particularly where his heritage was involved. “Because I’m Jewish, I do not identify with, say, Western civilization music. In other words, when Bach gives us a diminished fourth, I cannot respond that the diminished fourth means ‘O God…’  What are our morals in music? Our moral in music is nineteenth-century German music, isn’t it?” Or, perhaps more succinctly (and tellingly): “Polyphony sucks!”

            In this miniature flash of polemic, two of Feldman’s personalities are on display. He makes clear his disdain for Boulez, Berio, and the entirety of self-conscious academic modernism, whose systems often seem to eclipse their own musicality. But, more importantly, it shows Feldman for what he actually was- a sensualist, a deeply sensitive individual whose lifelong goal of ‘not pushing the sounds around’ was less a combative intellectual stance than an act of devotion.

            From a 1975 interview: “For me, sound was the hero, and it still is. I feel that I’m subservient. I feel that I listen to my sounds, and I do what they tell me, not what I tell them. Because I owe my life to these sounds. Right? They gave me a life.”

By Dhani Muniz