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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

As always, the allowance for discretion (particularly discretionary tempo or tempo rubato) reintroduces personal interpretation, even self-expression, into an ideal realm from which Cage, the consummate Apollonian, had sought to exclude it. That realm, as we have seen, is the ideally autonomous artwork. Cage's most zealous competitor in the pursuit of esthetic autonomy was Morton Feldman. Their approaches were very different. Cage's involved a meticulous and demanding methodology. Feldman, who studied in the 1940s with Stefan Wolpe (not a Cageian by any means but also a sympathetic friend of surrealist and abstract expressionist painters), tried more spontaneously to achieve l'acte gratuit, the wholly unmotivated gesture.

His earliest pieces (“gestures”) were of three kinds: Projections (five, 1950–51), Extensions (four, 1951–53), and Intersections (four, 1951–53). By “projection” Feldman meant an attempt “not to ‘compose’ but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here. In order not to involve the performer (i.e. myself) in memory (relationships), and because the sounds no longer had an inherent symbolic shape, I allowed for indeterminacies in regard to pitch.”70 His were in fact the first pieces to make such allowances.

Preserving the Sacrosanct

fig. 2-13 Morton Feldman.

Preserving the Sacrosanct

fig. 2-14 Score page from Feldman, Projections II

Anticipating Earle Brown by a couple of years, Feldman developed a rudimentary graphic notation so as to avoid specifying exact pitches, which all too easily fell into predictable patterns that reflected the conditioned responses of human beings in society rather than the autonomy of an esthetic object. Instead, he drew boxes of varying length on graph paper to indicate roughly defined high, middle, and low registers, from which the player was free to select any note. Each choice was supposed to be made “blind,” or “from scratch,” that is, without regard for logical sequence. Most notes were to be played softly, often “just about audible” (to cite a favorite Feldman direction), so that occasional loud notes might appear “for no reason.” The composer exercised control over duration, hence overall shape, timbre, and (when the medium was polyphonic) texture. Projection I (1950) was for solo cello. Projection II (1951), from which Fig. 2-14 is selected, is scored for an ensemble of five instruments.

“Intersections” were pieces in which the players were asked occasionally to make simultaneous attacks so that their individual “lines” intersected, as lines might do on a painted canvas. In the “Extensions” series, conventional notation was occasionally used to set up little repetitive phrases that might go on (extend themselves) for as many as fifty iterations, providing not a narrative or logical continuity but an ambience against which unpredictable events might unfold. These delicate ostinati must come and go, like the occasional loud eruptions, without apparent rhyme or reason. The listening ear must never be allowed to form expectations. Indeed, Feldman once wrote, his music should be listened to “as if you're not listening, but looking at something in nature,”71 which exists for its own reasons, ignorant and independent of the observer.

Beginning in 1954, however, Feldman abruptly abandoned graphic notation and brought his various gestural series to an end. The reason was simple and significant. Hearing enough performances of his pieces convinced him that his method had an undesirable side effect. As he later put it, “I was not only allowing the sounds to be free—I was also liberating the performer.”72 As Cage had realized before him (and as the experience of the Scratch Orchestra would confirm), liberating people only frees them to follow their habits and whims, which once again deprives the music of its autonomy. Once again it became necessary to put limits on discretion, which meant reverting once again to conventional pitch notation. The difference in musical effect was not great; Cage wryly observed that “Feldman's conventionally notated music is himself playing his graph music.”73 But if performers were now to become the proxies of the composer's own master-rendition, then the paradoxical social elevation of the composer over the performer threatened to intrude anew.

Feldman tried to get around this by a process of automatic writing. In his Piece for Four Pianos (1957; Ex. 2-5), the bunch of chords prescribed and arbitrarily repeated seem to have been invented by an unpremeditated ‘laying on of hands” at the keyboard. The composer's seemingly random touch is then duplicated by four pianists, all playing at different (but not too different) tempos, and at different (but not too different) levels of soft volume. The music achieves a quality of shimmering reverberation during the more repetitive moments, of inscrutable disclosure during the unique events. The periodic general pauses allow the gathered echoes to disperse and a new set to begin.

Preserving the Sacrosanct

ex. 2-5 Morton Feldman, Piece for Four Pianos

Pieces from this phase of Feldman's career are written in what is sometimes called “free-rhythm notation,” but that is a misnomer. The effect of the music depends on relative uniformity of action within a limited latitude of variation, the composer counting on his vague performance directions to activate a basically similar response in all performers. Performers and listeners with the capacity for making themselves passive often find the results ravishing; those without it can find the experience maddening. “What was great about the fifties,” Feldman wrote, “is that for one brief moment—maybe say, six weeks—nobody understood art. That's why it all happened.”74

In later years Feldman demanded ever greater reserves of passive endurance on the part of listeners. The music of his last two decades, fully and conventionally notated, entered a time scale unprecedented for “autonomously” conceived instrumental music, maximizing (and thus transforming) the whole centuries-old idea of esthetic autonomy. For Philip Guston (1984), a trio for a flutist (doubling alto flute), a pianist (doubling celesta), and a percussionist, dedicated to one of the composer's many artist friends, wends its quiet, basically uniform, yet wholly unpredictable way for four-and-a-half hours. The Second String Quartet (1983), Feldman's longest work, lasts more than six. When listening to one of these pieces, as the critic Paul Griffiths put it in a perceptive review, “all you can say is that you are there; and when it is over, that you were there.” The music, “hovering in the rare space between what you can ignore and what you can understand,” effectively ignores you.75

Yet it is anything but “furniture music.” Complete performances of such pieces, in which the traditional concert format and its attendant etiquette are fully maintained, are necessarily infrequent. The Second String Quartet was not attempted complete during Feldman's lifetime. Its first uncut performance, by a young ensemble of Juilliard graduates called the Flux Quartet, took place in October 1999. It was treated by its audience (and heralded by the New York press) as a once-in-a-lifetime event. In this way Feldman managed, even more emphatically than Cage, to preserve the specialness of the esthetic experience during what the critic Walter Benjamin famously called “the age of mechanical reproduction,”76 when art, by being rendered too easily accessible, had been effectively demystified (or, as Benjamin put it, had lost its “aura”).

During a performance of For Philip Guston, Griffiths noted, not more than a dozen listeners managed to sit still all the way through. “Perhaps another 20 stayed and moved from place to place. A few others came and went, tiptoeing in and out, like visitors to a long religious ceremony.”77 And with that, the motivation hidden behind the acte gratuit is at last revealed. Only by dint of extreme measures could the romantic sacralization of art continue into the age of science. The avant-garde had become a conservative faction, perhaps (as Cornelius Cardew, had he lived, would certainly have charged) the most reactionary faction of them all.


(70) Feldman, “Liner Notes,” p. 6.

(71) Quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 45.

(72) Feldman, “Liner Notes,” p. 6.

(73) Quoted in Nyman, Experimental Music, p. 45.

(74) Morton Feldman, “Give My Regards to Eighth Street,” in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, p. 101.

(75) Paul Griffiths, “A Marathon for 3 Players and the Ears,” New York Times, 6 April 2000, Section E, p. 10.

(76) See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), pp. 217–53.

(77) Griffiths, “A Marathon.”

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002010.xml