For Franz Kline

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Published on: 23 October 2009

I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important. What the American painter Franz Kline (1910-62) said about his paintings – brusque, black brush gestures on a white background – can be applied equally to Morton Feldman’s compositions. Composition means defining sound space, and this is done just as much with the “black” of the notes as, ex negativo, with the “white” silence, the absence of sound. In its reduction of sound elements, its new balance of sound and not-sound, Feldman’s music attains the magical, floating quality that the composer admired in the early – nonfigurative – paintings of his painter-friend Philip Guston (1913-80): the complete absence of gravity of a painting that is not confined to a painting space but rather existing somewhere in the space between the canvas and ourselves, as Feldman once wrote. Again and again, Feldman noted that the illusion of stasis in his scores could only be understood in the context of his intensive engagement with the visual arts: Stasis, as it is utilized in painting, is not traditionally part of the apparatus of music. […] The degrees of stasis found in a [Mark] Rothko or Guston were perhaps the most significant elements that I brought to my music from painting.

Thus, unlike the graph pieces, the intervals in the sextet For Franz Kline are precisely determined, though the coordination of the sounds is not: The duration of each sound is chosen by the performer, as it says in the foreword to the score. The orientation points on this floating sound canvas are given by recurring phenomena like an unchanging violoncello arpeggio and the b-f#”’ interval that is struck seven times by the piano. If in this piece the uncoordinated simultaneity of sounds is the focus, then in De Kooning (1963) – yet another acoustic homage to a painter – and in Four Instruments (1965), which has similar instrumentation, Feldman is working with the contrast of simultaneous and successive sound events – coordinated chords and loose chains of isolated events. In the case of the latter, a performer is supposed to choose his entrance such that the previous note has not yet faded out: the temporal canvas shouldn’t have any rips in it. Feldman’s balancing act between determinacy and indeterminacy becomes apparent in the seemingly hairsplitting details of the notation: in De Kooning rhythmically free, unbarred passages containing successions of sounds and simultaneous events are interposed with measures of rests with precise indications of tempo (!) – the white is no less important than the black (to return to Franz Kline) and is more precisely structured than the “application of the paint”.
[Peter Niklas Wilson, excerpt]

For italian readers:

Chi legge l’italiano può riferirsi anche a questo saggio di Gianmario Borio da cui traggo questa illuminante dichiarazione dello stesso Feldman:

Il mio interesse per la superficie è il tema della mia musica. In questo senso le mie composizioni non sono affatto ‘composizioni’. Si potrebbe paragonarle a una tela temporale. Dipingo questa tela con colori musicali. Ho imparato che quanto più si compone o costruisce, tanto più si impedisce a una temporalità ancora indisturbata di diventare la metafora per il controllo della musica. Entrambi i concetti, tempo e spazio, sono stati impiegati nella musica e nelle arti figurative come in matematica, letteratura, filosofia e scienza. […] Al mio lavoro preferisco pensare così: tra le categorie. Tra tempo e spazio. Tra pittura e musica. Tra costruzione della musica e la sua superficie.

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