Morton Feldman


Morton Feldman (1926-1987)  Palais de Maris for solo piano: or,


Please listen to the Feldman piece, and share with us your reaction.  No one need read any of the rest of this, but I wrote the following to describe my profound response to a recent concert during which this piece was performed.


Quote from Feldman:  "Earlier in my life there seemed to be unlimited possibilities, but my mind was closed. Now, years later and with an open mind, possibilities no longer interest me. I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room. My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.  …  If a man teaches composition in a university, how can he not be a composer? He has worked hard, learned his craft. Ergo, he is a composer. A professional. Like a doctor. But there is that doctor who opens you up, does exactly the right thing, closes you up—and you die. He failed to take the chance that might have saved you. Art is a crucial, dangerous operation we perform on ourselves. Unless we take a chance, we die in art."




I recently attended a concert where a number of modern and contemporary works were performed.  One composition I did not expect or know anything about was a piece by Morton Feldman called "Palais de Mari."  I have not heard a live performance of any work which has had this kind of impact on me before.  It's difficult to explain.   Putting aside technicalities, I will simply describe the event phenomenologically, as a matter of experience, sensation, perception, feeling and thought.  


This was a work  for solo piano performed in a very large and old auditorium on a fairly well known university campus.   Several very contemporary works had just been performed, by a wide variety of instrumentalists.   The pianist, before performing Palais de Mari, gave a very brief verbal introduction to the piece, which may have affected perceptions.  He noted that Morton Feldman was often given to extreme doubt about the type of works he was writing in his late period, and that doubt and the "listener's choice" as to what to attend to in any given piece was included in the work, so to speak.  The pianist noted: the listener could have any number of diverse reactions, including the desire simply to get up and leave, which was perfectly acceptable.  He emphasized the fact that "indecisiveness" was built into this piece, and that this would be obvious after the first 90 seconds of the piece.  He pointed to a quotation in the program, in which Feldman had said, "I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room." I had no idea what to expect.   You can listen to the piece here:


Please "perform the experiment," and see what effect it has on you.


My description of the experience:  What I noticed at first was a very simple theme, so sparse that it should more properly be called a simple motif.   It has four notes, and it is followed simply by a chord.  The piece is so slow that one can hardly attribute a "rhythm" to it, though what rhythm there is varies from measure to measure.  The harmonic content might appear to be somewhat "impressionistic."  It is pleasant enough, and the content changes subtly from moment to moment.  


After a while, however, something begins to happen.  Or at least, it happened in my mind.  While I found the piece "pleasing," I began to grow frustrated with it, at the same time.   There was nothing odd or dissonant, nor was there anything obviously monotonous about the effect, though the sparseness of it made it seem "self-similar."  It was very much without a specific direction or noteworthy content, other than the initial motif. 


The score is shown in this youtube, as the piece proceeds:


The slowness of the work made for the reception of the very exaggerated effects of resonance throughout the hall.  As the motif was played over and over again, with slight differences in chord structure, one could notice the "silences" between the notes, which were almost never complete moments of silence, but just brief wisps of near quietude, as the echoes of resonances died away.


One has to experience this oneself.   I am not going to speak of time in any scientifically quantifiable way.  I had no idea how much time was passing, or how much had passed, during the performance.   After a while, frustration and resignation seemed to alternate.  I would have the feeling, "Just how long how can this go on?" as a kind of negative sensation (but not as boredom, or as a desire for the music to end exactly); and this would alternate with the feeling, "Why should it not go on—it's pleasant enough, and can go on for as long as it likes."  This polarity or movement between the poles of partial disapproval and partial approval seemed to become accentuated in my mind as time passed.   I wanted to cry out at certain points, to make an objection, as the French critic and composer, Florent Schmitt, would often do during concerts in the late 1920's.  Later, I felt as if I would burst out into laughter.   "How much longer" became a refrain in my mind: that stemmed not so much  from a sense of frustration as from a feeling of wonderment that this could go on so long—and that the audience would simply to continue to listen.  There was an incessant growing apparent repetitiveness in the piece, but this was undercut by the fact that the harmonic content was in reality never exactly the same;  there was still something akin to key modulation, an appeal to some part of the brain through the use of occasional higher pitches.  This seemed to vary  the impact, and to impart just the slightest, almost negligible feeling of change as the piece proceeded.   


I looked very carefully at the audience, which was small, but widely spread out across the auditorium.  This concert hall was semicircular, so I could see everyone fairly easily, and lights were not turned off completely, just dimmed.  Almost everyone seemed to be listening as I was, in a kind of rapt attention.  A few people here and there were slumped in their seats, perhaps sleeping, or perhaps just relaxing.   There were two or three more occasions where I almost burst out into laughter, and I was starting to wonder if this was a kind of joke, to see how long the pianist could play before everyone left.  I believed that this was not the situation, since the program had promised an intermission after this particular piece was over, and then three more works by other composers.


I thought the pianist must have been handling this work very deftly, to keep audience interest as high as it was.   He had to play each self-similar sequence in a way varied, that remained calm, to produce the right impression, to throw off the expectation of the audience by accentuating this set of chords less, another set of chords more; he had to treat each portion of piece as a unique expression of a particular moment within the larger whole—and I did not ever doubt that this was something difficult to achieve, in spite of, or probably because of the apparent simplicity of the material.   The progression of the work had to appear to speed up ever so slightly at certain points, and also appear to come to a dead stop at other junctures, to allow resonance and to give the work the overall sense of uncertainty that was its essential emotional and very human characteristic.


I am interested to know how other people respond to this particular work by Feldman.


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