This is an interesting exhibition. Art lovers will want to see the delicate little Pollock and a variety of work by de Kooning (one rather indifferent canvas), Kline, Guston and others. Whether they will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the nominal subject, Morton Feldman, is another matter. In exhibition format, the sonic artist must lose out to the visual. In fact, the show makes me wonder about the fashion for boundary-crossing between genres. Another American composer, Ned Rorem, who is also a writer, says that he is astounded by the lack of overlap between those who buy his books and those who listen to his music. The arts, despite good intentions, do not mix.
How good a composer is Feldman? The very question smacks of impertinence, like asking, how good is your spouse in bed? Mortomania, in my experience, describes a faith group more than a collection of critical listeners. The man is a genius, and there is no need for further comment.
My one extended experience of his music (the adjective is advisedly chosen) was a performance of his Piano and String Quartet in Dublin in 2006. It took place in a church and we were seated in pews. My backside has not yet recovered. As the tweak of a fiddle was succeeded by the scratch of a cello and the plink of a high piano note, audience members eyed one another in despair. When would the music venture a decisive, clarifying gesture? How much more of this could there be? Much, much more, was the answer. Like all prophets, Feldman’s skills do not typically reside in the editorial sphere. Listen to one of Stalin’s speeches, or read John Smith’s Mormon scriptures.
Feldman was also a voluminous writer, and a polemical one. The tone of much of his polemic is tediously the same. No one before me (except possibly Cage) knew how to write music. Look no further: the buck starts here. The objects of his attack are explicitly the European serialists and implicitly their American counterparts. It makes me wonder how often poor Milton Babbitt needs to be shot before we can decently bury him. Against these academicians Feldman poses as the gitane-wielding provocateur. Stick to your row charts and hexachords, losers. I’m the gunslinger around here. It’s Clint Eastwood in the hallowed cloisters of modern music.
All of this would be diverting enough in a sophomorish kind of way if people did not take it so seriously. In this they follow Feldman, who styled himself the first great Jewish composer. Move over Schoenberg, Mahler and Mendelssohn. One is reminded of the ludicrous remark of Barnett Newman (another painter in the MMA show) that ‘we felt it was between Michelangelo and us.”
I first got to know Feldman through Rothko Chapel. Already I hear the true-gospelers of mortomania sniff. Brevity, melody, shape and form: Feldman outgrew all of that. More’s the pity, perhaps. I still find it a beautiful work. The tragedy of Feldman is that he had a genuine, delicate gift. But he lost his way. Eric Satie decided he wanted to be Richard Wagner, with disasters like the Piano Quartet as the result. After my experience of this work, I intend to keep a wide gap between myself and his six-hour String Quartet. It’s a pity. Like so much in modern music, what began promisingly ended in delusion and special pleading.