Morton Feldman

For Samuel Beckett
1987. For chamber orchestra: Double wind quartet, muted brass septet, string quintet, piano-harp-vibraphone trio. (45-55 minutes.)
Morton Feldman's For Samuel Beckett
The last large work composed by Morton Feldman before his death in 1987, For Samuel Beckett comes from a ten-year relationship with the writer, and was partly inspired by his work in setting Beckett's Words and Music in 1986.
Like many Feldman pieces, For Samuel Beckett is a lengthy exploration in sonic textures. (As Paul Cook calls it, an "eerie, meditative study in slow, dissonant pulses and atonal moods.") Since the many liner notes below go into great detail explaining the structure and compositional theory behind the piece, I will confine my remarks to a simple description -- which is fairly easy, as Feldman's work often seems best described, rather than explained. Indeed, my description is quite similar to that of Wilson's liner notes, which I read only after writing my own impressions. (I am completely aware that I am about to use visual metaphors to describe an aural experience; if this troubles you, please redirect your browser to and look up something nice by that Brahms fellow.)
Imagine if you will being suddenly immersed in a vast space that extends around you in all dimensions. Above and below you are great, drifting blocks of color and texture -- dark reds, burnt yellows, occasional swatches of vibrant blue. They drift, slowly, ominously, shimmering as they pass over each other, sometimes blurry, sometimes snapping clearly into focus. Once in a while wavering forms seem to percolate up from the depths and vanish through the obscured ceiling, and somewhere in the distance it sounds like a child is playing a piano. Occasionally the blocks seem to line up, and just for a second you can see through the patterns into a vast, silent space beyond --- but only for a second. Or, at other times, they seem too clustered, too muddled, and you can almost hear the rasp of their edges as they slide off each other. There is also something vaguely sinister about them; perhaps their edges are to jagged, and they seem to loom a bit too much. In fact, it seems to be a bit claustrophobic in here, and the fact that you were just dropped there all of a sudden doesn't help -- has this been going on forever? Will it continue to go on forever? And when will you emerge? But after awhile you begin to feel less confined; in fact, there is something almost peaceful about the drifting blocks, like God gave Mark Rothko permission to design tectonic plates. After a while the patterns seem to become more pleasing; once you stopped trying to look for them, they started to emerge more readily. Oh, sure, this isn't a place where you'd want to settle down, set up shop and raise some kids; but its really not that sinister, is it? The blocks haven't actually hurt you, have they...? And just around the time you are starting to grow used to them, if not actually fond of them, they dissolve, and you are left with a silence like a thundering roar.
You may draw your own parallels to Beckett's work...!

Below, I have reprinted the liner notes from all four recordings of For Samuel Beckett. The first is from the HatArt CD. Though a bit awkwardly written, Lang's notes do the best job in comparing the writing of Beckett and the music of Feldman. Lang also describes the piece in very simple and understandable terms, with little note to any technical jargon. They are followed by Alan Rich's notes to the now-deleted Newport CD. Rich opens with a quote from Feldman on Neither, drawing the conclusion that For Samuel Beckett is "best heard as the process of deeper and deeper saturation." Next are Peter Niklas Wilson's comments from the CPO recording. Lucid and insightful, these excellent notes do the best job in describing both the musical structure and the overall feel of the composition, and are the most comprehensive and useful of all the liner notes. The final commentary is an essay written by Hans-Peter Jahn for the Kairos CD. A touch cranky but refreshingly informal, the notes are basically a diatribe against spurious connections between Beckett's writing and Feldman's music. Though the author likes Feldman's music, he sees it as very American, though he misses the point entirely when he claims that the work may have well been called For Franz Schubert.

Liner notes from the HatArt CD (Ensemble Modern)

Liner notes written by Art Lang, 1992:
"The quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or esthetics... Form is the concretion of content, the revelation of a world." Substitute "music" for "language" and one might think this is a quote from Morton Feldman, but it's Samuel Beckett, from an early essay on the prose of Marcel Proust. To his mind, form, then -- the revelation of a (note, not our) world -- is the most pressing, personal, question any of us must face, and it's one of the constants in Beckett's writing; that is, the difficulty (yet necessity) of forming a life out of the conditions we find ourselves in, among. It's not a matter of acceptance, but self-awareness. Ultimately, confirmation arrives through the arduous (if absurd) task of coming to an agreement with existence, when it's impossible to tell what's real and what is not.
To do so, Beckett created a series of situations in which characters were dispossessed, disenfranchised, powerless, bearing the burden of pain, alienation, incomprehension. The degree to which this was a response to specific incidents in his lifetime or a metaphysical dilemma is open to interpretation. But it's true that, whatever his motivation or state of mind, he chose to create Art to counteract the Void. This, along with his outsider status and his willingness to embrace ambiguity in the face of fascism and/or chaos, could be why Feldman felt an affinity to him, and so titled this music.
Beckett's Art, like all great Art regardless of rhetoric, is a confrontation with existence, perception, understanding. In rejecting the artificial in the world he needed to focus on the extremes, divorcing his characters from our device of Time, for example, and other comfortable aspects of realism (convention, recognizable images, commonality of behavior). His work sought to be "neither life nor art, but something in between" (as Feldman once wrote of Robert Rauschenberg). In his own words, he wanted it to be both "perfectly intelligible" and "perfectly inexplicable" at the same time. This required unorthodox structures, unfamiliar events, passages of unusual (bordering on incoherent) insight, and a persistence (if not metamorphosis) of activity for the survival of an identity.
As with Feldman. For Samuel Beckett is a late (1987) work, rich in detail and lush in sound (especially in relation to so many of his more "austere" pieces, early and late), but troubling, obsessed, claustrophobic in spite of its scope. Given their shared attraction to shadow (Feldman's music uses chiaroscuro in the way Beckett meticulously exploited darkness and light and the moods in between on the stage and on the page), it's perhaps surprising that Feldman's dedication didn't involve the starker textures of solo piano -- and individual surrounded by... nothing. In any case, this is not dazzling, but muted, orchestration; instrumental timbres and tonal colors emerge as if by chance and quickly disappear.
In the beginning... there is no warning. We just are in the music, a self-contained environment (whether real or a state of mind we don't yet know) that forces us to find our position within what seems to be an eternal present. The sounds proceed with a deceptive monotony -- deceptive in their simplicity and lack of development (progress), since what is seductive might eventually become oppressive. The repetition seems a Beckett-like punishment, but it shouldn't be heard literally, as the details differ even as the effect remains the same. With no beginning, middle, or end, no goals, no intent in evidence, it could be one of Beckett's static dramas; since continuity, unasked for, is inevitable, there's no need to invent anything. Everything simply is, and continues to be. Our role has to do with the nature of perception: we experience a music that seems not to change, but is constantly changing; we don't know what it means, but it is insistent in its message. Though the Art of Feldman and Beckett understands and incorporates aspects of silence, in its ultimate condition silence equals Death. What comes after doesn't matter. The music continues, until it stops.

Liner notes from the Newport CD (San Francisco Contemporary Players)

Liner notes written by Alan Rich:

...He would write something in English, translate it into French and then translate that thought back in the English that conveys that thought... He wrote something for me in 1977, and I got it. I'm reading it. There's something peculiar. Finally I see that every line is really the same thought said in another way. And yet the continuity acts as if something else is happening. Nothing else is happening. What you're doing in an almost Proustian way is getting deeper and deeper saturated into the thought...
--Feldman, 1984, in a lecture at Darmstadt.

Somehow, those words of Feldman about Beckett's writing methods lead directly into Feldman's own ultimate chamber-orchestra work For Samuel Beckett. The music here, scored for pairs of winds, horns, and trumpets plus tuba, and with solo strings, piano, harp and vibraphone, is like most of Feldman's late works completely written out in traditional notation, with some short "modules" meant for repetition. Are these, then, the musicalizing of Beckett's own writing process?
If the parallel to Beckett needs to be drawn -- and it isn't such a bad idea -- perhaps the best analogy would be to the play Endgame, written in French in 1957, in English a year later. The title refers to the last moves in a game of chess, where the board has been cleared of most of its pieces and the remaining moves are in a series of stylized gestures that lead toward an inevitable and foreseeable conclusion. In Feldman's music, too, the board is "cleared." The sound panorama is of single players operating in emptiness, forced sometimes to repeat a move over and over for lack of an alternative. What variety there is happens in the minutest shift of detail. Chronological time, as we know it, disappears. In music of this expanse, of this paucity of detail, concepts of beginning, middle, and end become irrelevant. The music itself does not. As Feldman suggested, it is best heard as the process of deeper and deeper saturation.

Liner notes from the CPO CD (Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin)

Liner notes written by Peter Niklas Wilson:

Capturing the Moment

It is a closed world, huis clas, and right from the very first measure we find ourselves in the midst of it. No preliminaries, no introductory formulas. With the first sounds we learn what this case involves, and during the next good forty minutes we are held captive within this sound space. The word "captive" has been chosen for deliberate emphasis; one observer termed this piece "claustrophobic." The outline of the walls in this sound prison can quickly be made out; the sounds keep to the normal Feldman pulse: fourths at sixty-three to sixty-six, only a little faster than the second hand. Four layers clearly form the fabric of the music: a doubled woodwind quartet, a muted brass septet, a string quintet also arrayed with mutes, and in between a harp-piano-vibraphone trio. The trio serves as an index of the strong entry and punctuality of the sounds in contrast to the stationary tones of the winds and strings. All of this is in the triple piano typical of Feldman and without any eruptions. Feldman's art of culinary cluster registration also clearly stamps the harmony. Seconds (primarily major ones), (minor) sevenths, and (major) ninths dominate. At the beginning the piano and vibraphone expound A flat -- B double flat -- C flat -- A as a four-tone formula: chromaticism in expressive extension, melodizing the cluster.
The "parameters" have been defined. Or, rather, let us put it this way (for Feldman loathed musical-technocratical jargon of this sort): the canvas has been grounded, the colors have been selected and mixed, and paintbrushes lie ready. What appears on the canvas, what shines in Feldman's toned-down colors? Sound blocks, sometimes blurred, sometimes clearly contoured, in changing degrees of sharpness and blurredness. Sound layers that shift against each other. The strings act, with few exceptions, as a unit, as a homophonic chorus. Even the seven wind pairs (only the tuba is without a partner) are almost always coupled together, are Siamese twins in their sounding in and sounding out. What remains when so much has been fixed at the start? Drifting processes placing the layers in mutual opposition, tectonic shifting in the harmonic surfaces. Changing "alliances," sometimes within the four layers (oboes combining with bassoons or bassoons with clarinets) and sometimes between groups (trumpets synchronizing with oboes, strings together with the clarinets). Like a superdimensional organ on which one presses the keys and pulls, combines, and overlays different stops. Thickenings and thinnings, darkenings and brightenings are possible, and occasionally the fabric tears. Individual threads can be made out in isolation, and now and again one can see right through the sound material: moments of quiet. White spots on the screen.
Sound is in motion, tells only about itself: no "program," no "plan," no sounding drama. Music, completely in the now. And then again there are a few riddles beyond the sounding, ciphers that only the reading of the sixty-seven score pages, each with nine measures, can decipher. Little riddles such as: Why does Feldman notate the two-note group A-C flat instead of the simpler, reader-friendlier A-B? And larger questions of eye-music: What is the point of the symmetrical arrangement of the score pages (at its most apparent: pp. 24-33), with visual sound mirrorings in which the middle measure, the fifth measure, on each page is an axis, with figures impressing the eye more than the ear, which listens "forward," which cannot look at the score page as an "image?" One does not have to link Feldman's music to the cabala, as sometimes has been done, but it does present a couple of writing secrets to the ear.
And yet there is naturally a "history" or "story" involved here, one that is announced by the title of this piece from the year of Feldman's death: the story of the intimate intellectual-spiritual bond between two masters of artistic reduction, between Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman. The irritation once felt by Feldman while studying Beckett's "libretto" to his "opera" Neither is the same irritation that is produced by his own music: the special and unique suspension between stasis and motion, identity and change. He could read it but, remarkably enough, not grasp it. Finally, he noticed that each line in fact contained the same idea but only expressed it differently. This circling as the basic pattern of intellectual motion links the Irish poet and the American composer; and something that Feldman once said of his method also applies to Beckett's practice. Feldman tried to capture the moment with a minimal of compositional method. He considered what would sustain the music and keep it flowing.
In this focusing on commonalities in artistic stance, in fundamental structural analogies between the work of the poet admired by him and his own work, Feldman's homage to Beckett avoids the trap of the narrow popular fixation of Beckett's poetics on existential (or even apocalyptic) pathos. Rather, a composition like For Samuel Beckett is supposed to motivate the listener to reflect on what is eminently musical (and thus not at all morbid) in Beckett. Here we should recall Beckett's radio play Words and Music (elaborated musically by Feldman). Or the subtle dramaturgy of language, style, and music in Cascando. Or the trio polyphony of the three voice parts in Play. Another possibility: one can simply read (and hear!) the beginning of Beckett's Embers, a radio play from 1959, this listening on the verge of silence together with its repetitions and variations:

Sea scarcely audible
Henry's boots on shingle. He halts.
Sea a little louder

On. Sea. Voice louder. On! He moves on.
Boots on shingle As he goes. Stop.
Boots on shingle. As he goes, louder. Stop!
He halts. Sea a little louder. Down. Sea.
Voice louder. Down!
Slither of shingle as he sits.
Sea, still faint, audible throughout what
follows wherever pause indicated.

Almost sounds like a piece by Feldman.

Liner notes from the Kairos CD (Klangforum-Wien)

Liner notes written by Hans-Peter Jahn and translated by Rita Koch:

It is with a certain degree of stubbornness that musicology insists that Samuel Beckett's uniqueness is not so unique after all but reflected in the music of Morton Feldman. The evidence is well known, stagnant almost like a pond, laughing and stinking, Feldman's music, it is alleged, is without being anything. A music without beginning or end, without intention, tied up in its own textures and patterns, in the tissue of irrational, minutely changing pitches and rhythms. A music whose immobility seems to be dissolved in constant movement, which is doomed to stasis without raging and yet seems to be shot through with flashes of lightning.
It is quite right, it is argued, that the esoteric gleam of this music surrenders itself to a circle of exegetes -- just as the contrary is true as well: wildly gesticulating know-alls whose enmity Feldman in his life countered with thundering laughter and the mise-en-scène of his rather effective arrogance. He knew little and cared less about Europe's attitudes to music; and so he poured his undifferentiated and sometimes denigrating contempt on all compositions created in the countries of that continent, thus becoming a vulnerable attacker who attracted sympathy and antipathy alike. Perhaps his own übervater John Cage was too great a human being for Feldman to permit him to try and embody greatness in Europe all over again. Feldman had to lash out whenever he met European musical tradition. And there's something else. The installation of silence made him a saint, a wanderer in the desert. Whoever followed him on bare feet burned his soles in the permanent silence that Feldman -- inspired by Webern -- claimed for himself. This was his considerable misunderstanding -- and that of his many apologists. Webern's silence was derived from the dialectics of contrast. It holds its own because its environment is almost always throbbing with brief fortissimi. Webern's syntax is totally and entirely Europeanized, while Feldman's music is totally and entirely American in its non-tradition. In silence, with silence, it annihilates the attractiveness of time and thus searches to find a refuge for "boredom."
Despite the thorough study of such relative superficialities in Morton Feldman's oeuvre, one thing, perhaps the essence of his music, is left out of consideration ... its effect on the individual listener. There is hardly any other type of music that lends itself so little to collective listening, let alone evaluation. The listener is isolated in this music, sometimes at its mercy, sometimes sensing his own awkwardness if patience falters during especially long pieces and exhaustion sets in disturbingly in the midst of the other concentrated listeners. Antipathy versus Feldman's music instantly generates sympathy in others, including his adversaries. It is almost like a law of nature. Whoever attacks this music does not only encounter adversaries but stigmatizes his own intellectual-musical tastes.
What is the effect of Morton Feldman's music?
Maybe it lies in the fascinating way he orchestrates his works, in the maturely developed sound determined by the carefully selected pitch of the instruments, the mixture of -- sometimes identical -- carriers of tone colour (e.g. in the string quartet), which release a sound that formerly simply did not exist on this earth. A light-flooded glitter of sound ... contemplative sadness cast in beauty ... consonantal intervals combined with dissonances arranged in a way that generates jingling and buzzing in the overtone spectrum ... everything in motion without ever freezing despite the constantly repetitive variation patterns ... permanent, unobtrusive change according to illogical, even irrational decisions ... a steady flow whose random waves release glittering, shimmering, glowing reflections that rise from a deep bottom ... perhaps like the surface of a body of water offering no resistance to its natural breathing? ... Perhaps an oasis for the sensitive individual able to amass his own, inner wealth, to guide him into a realm of purity devoid of intention? Feldman's music demands a concentration born of listening. A kind of free fall into the primordial districts of mental activity as distinct from intellectual presence or rational understanding of the musical events set in the river of time.
It would be easy to continue our contemplations on, and descriptions of, the effects of Morton Feldman's music; linguistic tricks could be invoked to articulate impressions that yet would only be clumsy translations of an acoustic phenomenon.
Feldman's attempts to approach literature as an art form, to ascribe something to it that essentially is not related to literature, are amongst his most impressive puzzles.
It was very rarely that Morton Feldman composed scores based on texts. There are only nine such examples: Louis Ferdinand Céline ("Journey to the End of the Night", 1947), Rainer Maria Rilke ("Only", 1947), Edward Estlin Cummings ("Four Songs", 1951), Morton Feldman ("Intervals", 1961), Frank O'Hara ("The O'Hara Songs", 1962, and "Three Voices", 1982) and Samuel Beckett ("Neither", 1976/77, and "Words and Music", 1987). His reluctance to set texts to music distinguishes Feldman from other composers; his way of assigning the text to his music is incommensurable. His compositions do not make texts which originally take an authentic, original form appear as a totally dissolved linguistic work written for several voices and cut up into many individual elements, only to put them together again in a new, different, changed way forming a novel whole with sounds and notes. While in the field of literature there have been only a few absurd attempts to force music to conform to language, there are hardly any composers who have left literature intact. Feldman is one of these few.
The yearning to set literary masterpieces to music is not only an oddity of art history. It is also indicative of the suspicion with which composers regard the all-embracing expressiveness of music. Expression without content, content without semantics are not sufficient for most composers. They want to speak like authors, their colleagues-in-art, they want to say what their music cannot say of its own, and ... thus they tend to occupy what moves them in the guise of literature. In a way, they talk with a forked tongue: their composing belly imitates others' thoughts while their head speaks the language of sound. It does not matter whether the manner in which composers impose their composing methods on literature is subtle or crass: in any case, they feel the service they render literature to be truly infinite, namely to help it cross its linguistic borders, the idea being that music thus illustrates, imitates, reflects what poetry wanted to say but should not say without music.
Morton Feldman was fully aware of this institutionalized stupidity, and this is why his belated approach to Samuel Beckett's oeuvre was so difficult. He claimed that there existed a relationship between himself and the Irishman in their ways of "positioning", i.e. the "positioning" -- as Wolfgang Rihm would say -- of linguistic and musical building blocks.
Although a more intensive analysis of the structure of Beckett's texts shows clearly that while the reduction to a specific verbal material and the permutations and repetitions of this material in diverse variations are similar to Feldman's pattern compositions, minimal sound becomes massive content in Beckett's verbal rituals. This continuous circling of the narrowest space in which invented stage characters get lost without being able to reflect why does not indicate musicality or literature set to music but rather stands for the darkest light in pitch-black night. Conscious colourlessness, rhythms created by repetitive procedures. This is the result of literary technique and an extremely sophisticated treatment of language.
In Beckett's early plays, in Lucky's (Waiting for Godot) autistic-brilliant logorrhoea, when the mere shells of thoughts are repeated, the result is not music, no tapestry of interwoven patterns, but a pure, unadulterated comic effect derived from a human being becoming a machine. Winnie (Happy Days) is fairly bursting with fun and humour although there is nothing to laugh about since her prison is all too obvious. Or the voice in Cascando. Reduced verbal material repeated according to irrational rules does not evoke music (which Beckett uses as a separate quality) but a horrific mechanism hid behind a gaudy mask. Even in the later works, e.g. in Not I, when there is only a woman's mouth left as an aperture for undigested verbal trash trying to analyze itself in a ceremonial, compulsory rite, what happens is the creation of literature and, for the listener, an encouragement to engage in desperate, cheerful, rebellious associations. Here a human being is reduced to her mouth, and this mouth is reduced to speech controlled by a nonexistent brain. This speech, in the manner decreed by Beckett, is both a flow of sounds and the expression of a tragic, self-reproducing existence frozen in words. A heroine who speaks from a hell of her own making.
Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett.
They confront each other with their respective autonomy while the effects of their artificial mechanical mechanisms are diametrically opposed.
Attempts at joining these two incomparable personalities are a result of numerous statements by Morton Feldman on the similarity between his and Beckett's working methods. However, I consider the conjecture that Feldman's music tackles Beckett's texts in congenial fashion and in a way even musicalizes them to be an extremely rash supposition or rather a misunderstanding.
The methods applied in composing on the one hand and in the writing of literature on the other hand produce different results and hence different effects. Repeating a musical phrase may stem from the wish "to hear it again", and probably no musical technique is more effective to transform listening individuals into mass creatures lost in passionate self-expression.
Contrary to repeating musical notes, the effect of repeating words or sentences depends on the significance of the respective words and sentences. In the continuum, i.e. in the space of immutable permanence with small variations, what is revealed is not language or the author positioning language, but the speaking character as a protagonist of fictitious reality. In the continuum of identical musical phrases with small variations within patterns, i.e. in elaborated minimal music, what is revealed is not the performer, but, seen from a European angle of deliberate reaction, the American composer.
Where Beckett rams words like "desolation", "despair", "shattered", "isolation" into the undefined soil of language as marginal corner-stones describing his works, the words used by Feldman concerning his music, such as "contemplation", "delicacy", "tensionless tension", "beauty", contradict the widespread assumption of a symbiotic unity of the two artists' oeuvres.
In other words: embers can be compared to the shimmer of light only if we remember where they come from. Apart from that, embers and light have only one thing in common: they are able to spread over large areas. Perhaps the only common denominator here is the irreconcilable contrast between two works of art in music and literature that possibly were created along the same working methods. Morton Beckett and Samuel Feldman would certainly have felt at ease with this paradox.
Morton Feldman's last composition, written in 1987 over a longer period of time, bears the title For Samuel Beckett. But it could also have been For Franz Schubert. Since here we have a composer who, drawing on his last ounce of strength, once more lovingly uses his own working methods, dedicating the result to a person he admires, the work in the sense of a speculation about the person to whom it is dedicated remains incidental.
The main point about Feldman's composition, which runs slightly under 55 minutes, is the listener's surrendering to the creeping change of musical events within time. This is an issue about which nothing of universal validity can be said. And the non-universally valid is in fact Morton Feldman's legacy.

CD Information

For Samuel Beckett has four incarnations on CD . The first is by the San Francisco Contemporary Players on the Newport Classic label, NPD 85506, now deleted. This is the softest of the four versions. As critic A. Lockwood writes, the "timbral emphasis in the woodwinds (especially the bassoons) lends a faint languor and melancholy to a work as exquisite and devious as a repeating nightmare." The second version is German, the Klangforum Wien, which I have yet to hear, but understand is a "lighter" reading. It is put out by KAIROS, #0012012KAI. The Ensemble Modern's rendition (HatArt CD 6107), only available in the US as an European import, has a soft, muted sound, with all the instruments well-blended, maintaining the "rigorous, threatening colorations" of the piece. (Again, Lockwood's words.) The most recent version is out on another German label, WDR/CPO 999647-2, and is performed by the Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin. They give an edgy, intense reading, clearly focused and more than a bit ominous. As critic Paul Cook writes, the Kammerensemble "gives a more assertive role to the piano's out-of-sync declarations, betraying the work's skeletal underpinnings." The sound quality is excellent, and the liner notes leave little to be desired. Of the three versions I have heard, this is the one I recommend.

Feldman: For Samuel Beckett / Ensemble Modern
Morton Feldman / HatArt CD / Released 1991
(You must use their search engine to find the CD)

Feldman: For Samuel Beckett / Klangforum Wien
Morton Feldman / Kairos CD / Released 2000

Feldman: For Samuel Beckett / Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin
Morton Feldman / CPO CD / Released 2000

--A. Ruch
11 March 2003
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