Thomas McGee ’22

Williams College Department of Music, Williamstown, MA

Over the summer I researched the American composer Morton Feldman. While some aspects of this project were primarily analytical, I also conducted an interview with Christian Wolff, an innovative American composer and friend of Morton Feldman. During the initial stage of this project, I read Feldman’s collective writings, along with literature about the New York School and a group of painters, poets, and composers living and producing art in New York in the 1940’s and 50’s. While artists of the New York School represent a disparate array of styles, there are various continuities among the works of these artists. The concept of action-painting, similar to the poetic 
practice of “personism,” a term coined by Frank O’Hara, is one such defining feature that distinguishes artists of the New York School from European modernists.

One facet of the research that I pursued involved studying how Feldman’s compositional techniques and aesthetic ideas can be understood in the context of the New York School. I argue that the technique of presenting various 
forms of a musical object without a primary form has the effect of the musical materials of a piece being improvised, 
meditatively, in real time. Other techniques, such as the use of inexact repetition to create patterns, relate Feldman’s music to abstract-expressionist painters. I also argue that the use of “time-canvasses,” as Feldman refers to them, imbues an intrinsic expressivity in Feldman’s music. Feldman views meter as innately expressive, and 
relatedly, his rhythmic notation requires performers to take a phenomenological (rather than strictly chronometric) 
approach to rhythm and phrasing. His varied rhythmic notational techniques also make degrees of rubato and inexactness arise naturally. Cobb’s paper on Triadic Memories asserts that Feldman’s approach to repetition 
disorients the listener temporally similarly to how Rothko’s immerse and disorient the viewer spatially. This 
intrinsic expressivity in Feldman’s music further relates his work to Rothko’s, as well as many other painters of the New York School.

Another approach I took was from a structural perspective, focusing 
on the sectional proportionalities of works of varying lengths to characterize how Feldman conceptualizes scale. While I am still working on this component of the project, I have structurally 
analyzed two of Feldman’s late pieces, as well as multiple pieces from his graphic notation period. Researching Feldman’s music with a focus on time perception, especially using Husserlian approaches to time perception, has been very interesting. While Feldman’s early pieces are very unpredictable and non-repetitive (in most if not all musical parameters), his later pieces have long, homogenous sections that are extremely repetitive.

Considering Feldman’s music from this perspective has offered an intriguing way for me to combine my interests in music analysis and cognitive science. I found analyzing Feldman’s music to be an interesting challenge, since it is often mischaracterized as lacking compositional technique, or being “unanalyzable.” Furthermore, Feldman’s unique style encourages novel analytical techniques, especially in regard to considering structure, scale, and perceptual salience; and I am grateful for this opportunity to pursue a personal research project that was of great interest to me.