Morton Feldman Edition, Vol. 4: Indeterminate Music

Morton Feldman's Indeterminate Music

by Sabine Feisst


“Between 1950 and 1951 four composers - John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and myself - became friends, saw each other constantly...and something happened. Joined by the pianist David Tudor, each of us in his own way contributed to a concept of music in which various elements (rhythm, pitch, dynamics, etc.) were decontrolled. Because this music was not “fixed” it could not be notated in the old way. Each new thought, each new idea within this thought, suggested its own notation. Up to
now the various elements of music (rhythm, pitch, dynamics, etc.) were only recognizable in terms of their formal relationship to each other. As controls are given up, one finds that these elements lose their initial, inherent identity... It follows then, that an indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe. This
catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound..... which unified everything.” 1

-Morton Feldman

The Projections

Morton Feldman was the first composer of the so-called “New York School” (including Cage, Brown, Wolff and Tudor) to experiment with a new type of notation and write music involving a considerable degree of indeterminacy in regard to pitch. Inspired by the creative atmosphere of the Cage circle and by visual artists, including Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and particularly Philip Guston, Feldman composed the path-breaking series of five pieces entitled Projections in December 1950 and January 1951. These Projections are written on graph paper and with pitch notated in a very general manner: only the pitch range of the instruments is indicated in boxes and divided into high, middle and low registers corresponding to the vertical position of squares and rectangles within larger boxes. This allows the performer various pitch choices within these registral ranges. Arabic numerals in the piano part indicate the number of pitches to be played simultaneously. Rhythm is also notated in an
unconventional manner ó yet no less precisely than in traditional notation. Feldman designed time-boxes each containing four icti (MM = 72 or thereabouts) and the length of a rectangle specifies the duration of the sound and the rectangle's placement within the time-box determines the attack moment. Further dynamics which are kept very soft throughout and timbre such as the use of mutes and harmonics, pizzicato, arco are designated. What exactly were Feldmanís reasons for employing graph notation and indeterminacy in his Projections? He explained: “My desire here was not to 'compose' but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here.”2 This remark as well as the work titles point toward a definite influence of Edgard Varese's ideas of “sound projection”
and “projection of sound in space.” Feldman admired Varese's unorthodox compositional approaches, his avoidance of traditional musical rhetoric, and such features found in Varese's oeuvre as immobile sonic textures and spatial or three-dimensional effects. Feldman once compared Varese's music to a “floating sculpture.”3 With his “graph music” Feldman similarly aimed at sound as a “totally plastic
phenomenon, suggesting its own shape, design and poetic metaphor.”4 Besides Varese, painting had a considerable impact on Feldman's new compositional direction as well, a fact often emphasized by Feldman himself: “The degrees of stasis, found in a Rothko or a Guston , were perhaps the most significant elements brought to my music from painting."5 Indeed the Projections assume a pointillistic and static character. The melodic and harmonic relationships are indeterminate and unpredictable, and
the pitches are chosen from rectangle to rectangle separately. Hence the melodic and harmonic continuity and directionality of the pieces disintegrate to a certain degree. Artists such as Pollock, famous for his ”action painting” inspired Feldman's direct and intuitive compositional approach focusing on direct action within the framework of sound itself and made him “desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore.”6  Feldman incidentally considered the graph paper on which he wrote his music as a kind of canvas. Wolff, who often saw Feldman at work, once remarked that “Feldman's interest in indeterminacy has to do with his interest in painting. He used to put sheets of graph paper on the wall and work on them like paintings. Slowly his notations would accumulate and from time to time he'd stand back and look at
the overall design.”7  However, Feldman did not view his graph notation as an imprecise type of
notation. For him “it was as precise as Pollock.” Also he never gave up staff notation completely, but liked to alternate between graph and traditional notation “like somebody does a sculpture and then does a painting.”8 Since pitch has to be chosen by the performer, this traditionally primary and most important parameter appears as secondary. Instead other aspects which are often unspecified and regarded secondary in conventional works such as instrumental and tone color, various kinds of attack and decay, dynamics, timbre combinations and sonic density are meticulously designated and come to
the fore in graph pieces such as the Projections. With each Projection Feldman explores different types of instrumentation and plays with timbres and the different “weight of sounds. In Projection 1, a solo piece for cello written for the noted cellist Seymour Barab, categories of pizzicato, arco and arco-like ponticello as well as harmonics are explored. Projection 2 is written for a quintet consisting of flute, trumpet, violin, cello and piano. Herein as well as in the following Projections, piano flageolet is used.
The pianist silently depresses keys with his left hand and plays sounding tones with his right hand. In Projection 2 the trumpet playing into the open piano causes some of the harmonics of the piano to sound. The trumpet and the string instruments employ mutes and the latter avail themselves of four timbral nuances: pizzicato, arco, sul ponticello and harmonics. Projections 3 and 4 are duos. In Projection 3, scored for two pianos, the interplay of sounded and unsounded tones, harmonics, is the focus of interest and the two pianists are required to make the lower part of the piano “a source of sympathetic resonance.” In Projection 4, written for violin and piano, the violinist uses three types of timbre (arco, pizzicato and harmonics) which are combined with the piano's timbres including harmonics. Both instruments are required to keep dynamics not just “very low” but “equal and low” throughout. Projection 4 also reveals a steady pulse, which is unusual for Feldman's writing. The last Projection is scored for nine instruments: three flutes, three cellos, trumpet and two pianos and features a rich interaction of instrumental colors and unusual sonic effects through manifold overlapping sounds. While the scores of the Projections might suggest textural and technical simplicity, Feldman cautioned: “The new structure required a concentration more demanding than if the technique were that of still photography, which for me is what precise notation has come to imply.”9

After having written a considerable amount of graph music including a series called Intersections (1951-53), Feldman abandoned graph notation for about five years. He gave the following reason: “After several years of writing graph music, I began to discover its most important flaw. I was not only allowing the sound to be free... I was also liberating the performer. I had never thought of the graph as
an art of improvisation, but more as a totally abstract sonic adventure.”10 Feldman believed that improvisation with its empirical and artificial examples of styles depends on memory, whereas graph notation strives for the switching off of memory and avoidance of virtuosity. The focus is on the direct action within sound itself. “I found that my most far-out notation repeated historical cliches in performance more than my precise notation.”11 Not interested in improvisation and not believing in chance, Feldman was disappointed by the poor performances of his graph scores which performers frequently viewed as invitations to improvise and produce successions of conventional sounding phrases. Moreover, Feldman believed that he himself was still too involved with the chronology of sonic events allowing for lapses of taste on the part of the performer.

Two Pieces for Six Instruments

In the Two Pieces for Six Instruments - composed in 1956 and now recorded for the first time - Feldman employed conventional notation and different compositional approaches on which he had been focusing since 1954. Scored for flute, alto flute, horn, trumpet, violin, cello, these Two Pieces reveal techniques evoking piano resonance. Hereby Feldman uses chords in which most tones after their entrance immediately discontinue leaving only one or two sustained tones. This produces accents not conditioned by changes in dynamics, but by the amount of tones simultaneously played. The Two Pieces reveal another interesting feature which has been described as “interval fields” by Martin Erdmann.12   Interval fields emerge through the frequent occurrence of certain intervals or interval groups in atonal music and lead to new types of structural coherence. In the case of the Two Pieces, major seconds, perfect fourths, fifths and octaves are predominant and form various “interval fields”. The Two Pieces do not involve contrast; they are both short and require at MM 88 an Andante tempo. Their texture is quite sparse and penetrated by an abundance of silence. Further the dynamics are very soft, the full sounding instruments, the horn, trumpet and violin, use mutes, and tutti entrances of all six instruments are avoided throughout. Hence the Two Pieces convey calmness and stillness interspersed by delicate sonic spots.

The Durations

For his Durations, a series of five pieces composed between February 1960 and May 1961, Feldman also employed staff notation to determine pitches and their succession. However, here he explored - as the work titles imply - a new time concept involving flexible duration and more elastic vertical coordination in order to arrive at a greater sonic plasticity and a free development of sound in time.
Therefore he decided to notate pitches merely as black note-heads without stems and omit meter and bar-lines. Feldman explains: “In Durations I arrive at a more complex style in which each instrument is living out its own individual life in its own individual sound world. In each piece the instruments begin simultaneously, and are then free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo.”13 While the general pace of the five Durations is slow, each of them features its own distinct flow through subtle tempo indications. All beats in Durations 1, 2 and 5 should be “very slow”. Durations 3 falls into four short movements which bear the headings “slow” - “very slow” - “slow” - “fast”. Durations 3 appears as the virtuoso and fastest piece of the whole series , while Durations 4 in which one stem-less note-head equals between MM 76 and 92 shows a more moderate, yet still brisk tempo. The five pieces share, besides very low dynamics, the indication that all sounds should be played with a minimum of attack. Furthermore the scores of the five pieces look strikingly similar, yet like the Projections, they are written for various mostly unorthodox, colorful instrumental combinations featuring different sound images. Feldman stressed that they “were actually conceived quite differently.” Scored for alto flute, violin, cello and piano, Durations 1 reveals a kaleidoscopic sound image since all four voices were written individually and seldom share materials with each other. Feldman preferred “intervals that seem to erase or cancel out each sound as soon as we hear the next.”14

Durations 2 (1960) for cello and piano, the shortest piece of the series, was the first of this set to be composed. It appears to be a refined application of the technique used in Two Instruments (1958) for horn and cello, where the two voices are played extremely slow avoiding the sound of linear counterpoint. In Durations 3, featuring the unusual instrumental combination of tuba, piano, and violin,
Feldman treated all three voices vertically. He wrote all chords simultaneously because of “the weight of the three instruments used,” and he frequently employed octave doublings, and “thinned” and “thickened” sounds. Throughout this piece the instruments or voices share common pitch material. On the other hand, in Durations 4 and 5, Feldman uses a combination of horizontal and vertical technique.
There are numerous sections showing an exclusively horizontal and independent movement of voices, and there are also passages featuring vertically conceived structures. In both works, Durations 4, written for violin, cello, vibraphone, and Durations 5, scored for the largest ensemble of the whole set adding horn, celesta/piano and harp to the instrumentation of Durations 4, Feldman especially carved out each instrument's distinct timbral spectrum. Particularly in Durations 4, but also in Durations 5, the string instruments employ a nuanced gamut of articulation, including harmonics, pizzicato arpeggios, pizzicato-vibrato and sul ponticello. There are also subtle repetitive patterns in all three instruments, conveying a most delicate, volatile and ethereal character.

The Durations series (and likewise the Projection series) could be considered a cycle since Feldman chose a special numbering and order which does not correspond to the chronology of the piecesí genesis. It certainly is a rewarding experience when one hears the five Durations (as well as the five Projections) played together and one gets a sense of Feldman's mastery of instrumentation and timbre and savors the metamorphosis of shifting colors, weights and densities of sounds in five tableaux.

The Straits of Magellan

In 1958, after exploring new time concepts and the vertical dimension of sound in such compositions as his Durations, Feldman resumed graph notation. Until 1967 he produced such important other works as Ixion (1958), Atlantis (1959), ...Out of “Last Pieces” (1961), The Straits of Magellan (1961), The King of Denmark ( 1964) and In Search of an Orchestra (1967)... all based on graph notation. The Straits of Magellan is scored for seven instruments, flute, horn, trumpet, amplified guitar, harp, piano and contrabass. Each of its instrumental parts is notated in a line of equal sized time-boxes, each box representing one beat at MM 88. Arabic numerals in the boxes designate the amount of single notes; roman numerals show the amount of simultaneous notes to be played within each time unit. In the piano part Arabic numerals, however, denote the number of simultaneous sounds and encircled Arabic
numerals the number of successively played single notes. Specific symbols determine the number of repetitions of the same sound. In contrast to the Projections, rhythm here is treated more freely within the limits of a time-box and the given tempo and pitch registers can generally be chosen freely by the performers. Pitch is no longer divided into three registral ranges; only occasionally arrows specify a
high or low register. Consequently the notation of the piano part also dispenses with the traditional division into upper and lower parts. Yet sometimes Feldman specifies when the pianist should play black or white keys or a combination of both. However, the textural density and verticality, the succession of silence, single notes, chords and clusters within this composition are very regulated. The frequent density of sonic events, the amount of notes played within one time-box, paired with meticulous timbre specifications such as the use of mutes, flutter and double tonguing in the wind instruments, eight different performance techniques in the contrabass, glissandi and harmonics in other instruments, the requirement of very low dynamics throughout and that sounds should be played with a minimum of attack make extremely high demands on the performers. The difficulty of such techniques and the reduction of soloistic passages to a minimum will certainly prevent performers from producing cliches. By de-controlling pitch registers and fanning out timbre in The Straits of Magellan, Feldman indeed succeeded in avoiding traditional concepts of continuity and juxtaposing different structures more so than in his early graph pieces and thereby achieved a greater sonic plasticity and a more vertically oriented structure. He once emphasized: “When the horizontal line (time) is broken, the vertical experience (no time) emerges. Differentiation, an integral part of the horizontal process, can now be discarded. One is going toward a more “all over” sound world. There is no longer the separation of registers. It is as though one were working in one register. Time intervals no longer give the music its shape and contour. Time does not shape the sound. The sound shapes time.”15 The listeners of The Straits of Magellan might ideally assume a listening attitude focusing on the static and “vertical experience” as well as on the constantly changing and fluctuating density of sonic events. Then they will be able to relish the subtlety and sensuousness of this music which startlingly also conveys a jazzy character.


1 “Determinate/Indeterminate (1965),” Give My Regards to Eighth Street. Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, ed. B. H. Friedman (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000), 35.

2 Ibid.

3 M. Feldman, “Crippled Symmetry,” 149.

4 M. Feldman, '...Out of Last Pieces'” Give My Regards to Eighth Street, 19.

5 Ibid.

6 M. Feldman, "Liner Notes," Give My Regards to Eighth Street, 5-6.

7 V. Schonfield, “Taking Chances. An Interview with Christian Wolff,” Music and Musicians, 17, 1969, 39.

8 Cole Gagne/Tracy Caras, Soundpieces. Interviews With American Composers (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1982), 170.

9 M. Feldman, “Liner Notes”, 5-6.

10 Ibid.

11 C. Gagne/T. Caras, 170.

12 M. Erdmann, “Zusammenhang und Losigkeit. Zu Morton Feldmans Kompositionen zwischen 1950 und 1956”, Morton Feldman, Musik-Konzepte No. 48/49, ed. H.-K. Metzger and R. Riehn (Munich: Edition Text & Kritik, 1986), 91.

13 M. Feldman, "Liner Notes," 7.

14 Ibid.

15 Morton Feldman, “...Out of 'Last Pieces'' Program notes for “The Avant-Garde - Program V,” performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein, 6-9 February 1964.