The art of Morton Feldman
This weekend, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble presents a program intersecting the musical and visual arts, including Morton Feldman’s 1962 sextet “For Franz Kline.” The New York-born Feldman (1926-87) felt kinship with the painters of the mid-century New York school — Kline and Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Robert Rauschenberg — aligning his own music with their aesthetic ideas. The terms of the alliance, though, could be hard to pin down.
Early on, Feldman was attuned to such artists. (A favorite story involved a composition lesson with German-American emigre Stefan Wolpe, exhorting Feldman to write for “the man in the street”; looking for an exemplar, Feldman glanced out the window just as Jackson Pollock happened to walk by.) The young composer’s 1949 meeting with John Cage — a watershed — was Feldman’s entrée to the New York art world. Feldman got to know painters, hung out with them, collected their art. (His first purchase, of one of Rauschenberg’s famous black paintings, was for the negotiated price of the contents of Feldman’s pockets — $16 and change.)
Initial encounters with the visual arts in Feldman’s catalog were through film, in particular his score for Hans Namuth’s famous 1951 documentary on Pollock. (He provided music for similar portraits of De Kooning and sculptor Seymour Lipton.) The artists’ concern with substance, materials, and exigent expression bled into Feldman’s musical process. “For Franz Kline” was one of a number of works for which Feldman provided, in lieu of traditional notation, a graphical grid, the durations and sounds divided into discreet boxes, the horizontal axis charting the unfolding time of the piece, the vertical higher and lower ranges. Numbers in each box indicated how many musical events should happen in that range and at that time; performers were free to choose pitches and rhythms.
The method was, in a way, analogous to Abstract Expressionism’s aesthetic directness: music structured with holistic immediacy, realized by performers engaged with the flow while shaping it themselves. Still, Feldman’s deliberate, ever-more hushed rhetoric contrasted with the extroverted quality of much abstract painting. (The glacial sparseness of “For Franz Kline” more counterbalances than conforms to Kline’s brashly monumental calligraphy.) And, as the painters often chafed at stylistic predictability — Pollock felt so straitjacketed by Namuth’s film that he abruptly abandoned the drip-painting that had made him famous — Feldman’s grids were ultimately replaced by precisely notated scores. For Feldman and his artistic comrades, the term “abstract” papered over what, in practice, was a constant wrangle between the conceptual and the concrete.
The Chameleon Arts Ensemble performs music of Poulenc, Schwendinger, Ravel, Feldman, and Schumann, May 20-21 at First Church in Boston. Tickets $25-$47. 617-427-8200, www.chameleonarts.org