Jackson Pollock (filmscore)
Nature Pieces (piano)
Variations (piano)
Intermissions (piano)
problem of first publication
Intersection (tape)

Morton Feldman, first recodings of formerly unpublished pieces

liner notes for CD mode records 66

"They came to audition me, Lee (Krasner Pollock) having scouted me out, an unknown composer. John Cage was there, and I scored for the film as I would for choreography. It was the beginning of my life, really; I hadn't had entree and now people were talking about me."(1)

For Morton Feldman at the age of 25 in 1951, the commission to compose the music for the film of the artist Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg offered indeed a welcome opportunity to introduce himself to the New York art world. Of course, the pupil of Stefan Wolpe who had become a friend of John Cage in 1949 had already attentively followed the development of Abstract Expressionism; but up to then only a few of his compositions had been performed. In 1950, the pianist and friend David Tudor had given the premiere of Illusions in New York, a work from his youth dated 1948 (available on mode 54), and in 1951 the 4 Songs to e.e.cummings followed. Feldman was indeed an unknown composer.

But Hans Namuth, too, was to become better known only that year. The photographer and film maker had left Germany at the age of 17 for political reasons, moving to Paris and then emigrating to the U.S. during the Spanish civil war. His teacher at the New School for Social Research, Alexey Brodovitch, strengthened his interest in Jackson Pollock. In July 1950, the first encounter between the painter and the photographer occurred. Surprisingly, the reserved Pollock quickly took him into his confidence, and finally Namuth came every weekend during that summer from Walter Mill to Springs in East Hampton, where Pollock had made his studio in a barn. The physical motion, how Pollock spread, dripped and poured the paint on the canvases placed all over the floor, soon left Namuth with the desire to document it on film. With the first test film in black and white he won over the established editor Paul Falkenberg for the project, and in September began shooting in color. The meager budget of $2000 which the artists raised themselves did not permit the use of lamps, which is the reason the film was shot outdoors.(2)

Falkenberg initially mixed in a soundtrack from recordings of Indonesian gamelan music for the ten-minute film. However, Pollock declared, after the first private show: "But, Paul, this is exotic music. I am an American painter!"(3) That is why they turned, at the suggestion of Pollock's wife Lee Krasner, to the young Feldman to create the music for the soundtrack. He proposed to use a solo cello. Falkenberg asked for two parts, which presumably were both recorded in May 1951 by cellist Daniel Stern using the multi-track process. The session was engineered by Peter Bartok.

At the beginning of the film, Pollock writes his signature over the screen. For this sequence, Feldman used an organ point of a major seventh, over which an artificial flageolet in the interval of a major third plays a glissando up and down. In this way, the viewer is acquainted within a few seconds to the visual and acoustical material which will follow for the next ten minutes. Pictures of the process of painting and of music await the viewer, determined by these characteristic intervals and the tension between the organ point and movement.

After the title one sees how Pollock creates a canvas by lying on the floor. You hear his voice off-screen which makes a brief statement that is joined together by Namuth and Falkenberg from the few texts published by him(4):

"My home is in Springs, East Hampton, Long Island. I was born in Cody, Wyoming, thirty-nine years ago. In New York I spent two years at the Art Students League with Tom Benton. He was a strong personality to react against. This was in 1929.

I don't work from drawings or color sketches. My painting is direct. I usually paint on the floor. I enjoy working on large canvas. I feel more at home, more at ease in a big area. Having a canvas on the floor, I feel nearer, more a part of a painting. This way I can walk around it, work from all sides and be in the painting, similar to the Indian sand painters in the West. Sometimes I use a brush, but often prefer using a stick. Sometimes I pour the paint straight out of the can. I like to use a dripping, fluid paint. I also use sand, broken glass, pebbles, string, nails or other foreign matter. The method of painting is the natural growth out of a need. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.

When I am painting I have a general notion as to what I am about. I can control the flow of the paint; there is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.

Sometimes I lose a painting. But I have no fear of changes, of destroying the image, because a painting has a life of its own. I kind of let it live.

This is the first time I am using glass as a medium.

I lost contact with my first painting on glass, and I started another one." (Jackson Pollock, 1951)"

Then the music begins, a rising major seventh, a tone held in high register, roughened up by two pizzicatos with the minor seventh, immediately repeated, far extended dissonant intervals-characteristic models for Feldman's work of the fifties which here, however, follow each other in an unusually fast tempo. On camera, the drawn out picture Summertime files past, followed by Pollock hanging the painting on the wall at the Betty Parson Gallery. With the repeated glissando of a third, the view widens towards the gallery rooms where Pollock's wife walks around as a visitor.

Namuth was filled with the desire to film Pollock through a growing painting. Therefore, they erected a glass plate, under which Namuth placed himself with the camera while Pollock painted above-using, in addition to color, also fragments of a metal fabric, glass pearls, shells and string. With this new medium-Pollock explained briefly that this was his first painting on glass-a new figure began in the music, the fast fluctuating between a minor second and a ninth in pizzicato at a very high pitch. As in a rondo, it appears four times before flageolet resting sounds appear together with the second glass picture. Towards the end dissonant pizzicato chords thicken which only establish a steady meter in the final credits.

The film was not very successful at its first showing in the Museum of Modern Art on June 14, 1951, and the Pollocks themselves had mixed feelings about having the intimate creative process of the painter made public. Pollock thoughts on Feldman's music was that "it might be great"(5). It was only after the death of the protagonists in 1956 that the film Jackson Pollock and the photos of Hans Namuth would have their triumphal success as unique documents which do not at all expose Pollock's method of working, but rather describe it with artistic sensibility.

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As the film music for Jackson Pollock, the Nature Pieces for piano also combine elements of Feldman's youth with those that left their mark on the musical language of the mature composer. The score, which has remained unpublished up to now, is dated 1951 and had its premiere performance on January 18, 1952 as accompaniment to Jean Erdman's choreography Changing Woman by David Tudor at Hunter College in New York. The program for the events indicates a three-part solo: I. Forest voice, Wind voice, Brook voice, Earth voice. II. Sea voice, Desert voice. III. Moon voice. The distribution of these segments into the five piano pieces with roman numerals on the top of each remains unclear. Only the third piece suggests a three-part division, while the others stay in one character.

The soft arpeggio with wide intervals in No.1 uses a restricted amount of notes, from which the repeated appearance of central notes becomes apparent. Again and again, especially noticeable at the end, Feldman establishes one- and two-tone models which he repeats, generally separated by long pauses, in rhythmic shifts. This procedure is also used in No.3, although here with up to five-tone models. The resting-tone passage of the middle part takes up the quiet chordal structure of No.2, also with a major seventh and minor ninth as the characteristic framework interval. In addition, both pieces leave the dynamic uniformity of No.1 which reappears in the parallel piece No.4 with its simple scale segments. Simple swinging models are repeated here up to four times-also a procedure typical of the mature Feldman. No.5, on the other hand, with its Webern-like springing chords, reminds one of the Illusions from 1948. Its total range is again a major seventh, here spread over three octaves, while this framework interval is always present by frequent appearance of the outer notes. The repetition of the entire piece finally brings about a formal unity.

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Also intended for a solo dance, Feldman composed the Variations in 1951 for Merce Cunningham. In this piano piece, Feldman's typical style of the early fifties is fully developed for the first time: the dynamics are to be held down "as softly as possible", sometimes extremely long general pauses give the brief single happenings enough space to continue sounding, and the musical material is limited to a few aggregates with characteristically soft dissonant intervals. These aggregates appear in various combinations, in different rhythmic models which are often repeated. In this way, time seems to stand still. In place of developments, Feldman makes changing conditions. And the extended pauses leave any feeling of a defined meter as blurred. The start of the sounds becomes, even with rhythmically precise repetition (such as the four-tone chord sounding six times in the middle of the piece) unpredictable.

Feldman completed the score on March 24, 1951, in time for the guest appearance of Cunningham and Cage at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was there that the two recipients of its dedication had brought dance (with the title "Variation" [sic]) and music to be performed for the first time. The fact that this piece was repeated only a few times was due to the enormous, actually unperformable complexity of the choreography which was constructed by chance operations. Cunningham commented about it: "There were classic ballet steps, arranged in a chance order, and it was impossible, I couldn't do it. You're supposed to, without preparations four pirouettes, suddenly... There was one day when I was working in the studio when I found a way to do it, but I could never do it again, I just couldn't hold it."(6) For this reason the score disappeared into the archive of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and was probably, just as with the Nature Pieces, not performed again during the past forty years.

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Two short pieces from the piano cycle Intermissions, written between 1950 and 1953, had a similar fate. When Morton Feldman signed a contract with New York music publishers C.F. Peters Corporation in 1962, he published numbers 1 and 2 as "Two Intermissions" (1950) as well as "Intermission 5" (1952), but not numbers 3 and 4. They were found only after Feldman's death in David Tudor's archive. But numbers 1 through 3 had their premiere performance together as "Three Intermissions" (January 1951 [sic]) on July 5, 1951 at a recital by Tudor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and on February 10, 1952 Tudor played "Three Intermissions" (3, 4 and 5) at the Living Theatre in New York City, of which No.4 and 5 were premiere performances. At Black Mountain College, he put numbers 4 and 5 (August 12, 1952) and 1 through 3 respectively (August 19, 1952) on his program.

Here we touch on a problem which has occupied me during the preparation of both this CD and the edition of these up to now unpublished works again and again: does the fact that Feldman did not have certain scores published during the sixties mean that he did not consider them valid, that he withdrew them? Were the "Nature Pieces", "Variations", "Intermissions 3&4" and the tape piece "Intersection" works that Feldman intentionally deleted from his work catalogue and did not want performed? I have been unable to find any corresponding comment by Feldman regarding the instrumental work. One could infer from the fact that he made no effort to have these works published that he considered them less significant. And in the case of the Intermission where the missing numbers 3 and 4 leave the cycle incomplete, one is tempted to believe that Feldman thought the unpublished pieces to be the weakest of the cycle. But no letter to his publisher exists in which Feldman explicitly refused to have these published. Therefore, my decision is to make these pieces-which are already known within musicological circles-accessible to a wider public, supported by the conviction that it is more important to return this wonderful music to life than to take into account the only possibly changed attitude of the composer to his work which had been performed only several times since their creation.

"Intermission 3" refers to the already known numbers 1 and 2 is notable, however, as the only piano piece by Feldman in which a third voice of silently pressed down keys, whose strings are only activated in order to be oscillated by other frequencies which are related to them. The amorphous sounding space which is created in No.5 by the constant depressing of the sustaining pedal, is here in a sense through-composed in mostly chordal sustained sounds. The normally struck strings create the typical major sevenths and minor thirds, while the single events clearly remain isolated from each other. Connections are less clearly created than in Nos.1 and 2, where motives are repeated, or gestural issues occur with higher density.

In "Intermission 4" there is only a literal repetition (a minor ninth which did sound before in a different position and as an inversion), but the central note g-sharp appears two octaves above middle-c four times and three times in another pitch. This way Feldman reaches tonal connection even without long continuing pedal models, as they appear in No.5. The score of No.6 finally consists of 15 aggregates freely distributed throughout the score and consisting of one touch each (tone, interval, chord). The pianist-two musicians at two pianos can also play at the same time-decides freely where to start and in which order or which repeat he continues. Already in 1953, Feldman had created one of the first examples of "open form" which gives the performer certain tonal materials, but does not fix its structural form. The comparison with Jackson Pollock's drip paintings suggests itself which do obey the entirely different laws of painting, but as a matter of fact demand no definite direction of reading-leaving the original materials standing with equal weight to each other.

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Compared with the "Intermissions" and related pieces in different instrumentations such as the "Piece for Violin and Piano" (1950), the cycle "Extensions" stands out due to a noticeably higher density of, and integration of, the fortissimos. "Extensions 1" for violin and piano (1951) had its first performance, as did "Extensions 3" for piano (1952) only in 1952, actually after the Intermissions had progressed to No.5. The larger activity which was heralded in "Intermission 2" manifested itself in the overlapping of models which up to now followed each other, especially in Extensions for three pianos (1953). In addition, some sounds stand out "as loud as possible" from the usual soft surroundings.

The numbers 2 (instrumentation unknown) and 5 (for two cellos) are presently considered missing.(7) Of No.3, we present here a version from David Tudor's archives which differs slightly from the published score-in which, among others, the famous sixteen-time repeat of f-sharp in triple octaves is missing.

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It may amaze many that Feldman actually wrote a piece of electroacoustic music, if one keeps in mind his later disparaging remarks about this medium.(8) However, he made a contribution, "Intersection" for tape (1953-54), to the "Project for Magnetic Tape" initiated in 1952 by Cage, from which Christian Wolff's "For Magnetic Tape" (1952), "Williams Mix" by Cage and "Octet I" by Earle Brown also came. In following "Williams Mix", Feldman's score fixes not the kind of sound events, but only their numbers within certain band (and also time) durations, as well as their distribution among the eight loudspeakers placed around the listeners. In the realization by Cage and Brown, a noise tape resulted which was internally structured in extremely small sections and divided into general pauses, the conception of which may be comparable to that of "Intersections" No.2 and 3 for piano (1951, 1953). There, too, no concrete pitches are composed, rather Feldman notates in a system of little squares solely the number of tones which are to sound during a certain period of time on a section of tape. There, also, the detailed level remains amorphous and the piece of tape appears less strange before the background of this work group. Nevertheless, Morton Feldman never returned to electronic music.

Volker Straebel

my research has been furthered by Deutsches Evangelisches Studienwerk e.V.

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translation from the German by Sabine Feißt and Kurt Michaelis
CD-Booklet: Morton Feldman, First Recordings 1950s, Philipp Vandré and The Turfan Ensemble, mode records 66, New York 1999
© Volker Straebel no reprint without author's written permission


  1. statement by Morton Feldman, in To a violent grave. An oral biography of Jackson Pollock [compiled] by Jeffrey Potter, New York 1985, p. 139
  2. Hans Namuth: Photographing Pollock, in Pollock Painting. Photographs by Hans Namuth. Edited by Barbara Rose, New York [1980]
  3. Paul Falkenberg: Notes on the Genesis of an Art Film, in Pollock Painting
  4. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith: Jackson Pollock. An American Saga, New York 1989, p. 663
  5. ibd.
  6. Merce Cunningham. Fifty Years. Chronicle and Commentary by David Vaughan, edited by Melissa Harris, New York 1997, p. 62
  7. Sebastian Claren suggests "Extensions 5" might be identical with the film score "Jackson Pollock" (Claren: Neither. Die Musik von Morton Feldman, Diss. FU Berlin 1995, p. 640)
  8. Morton Feldman Essays, edited by Walter Zimmermann, Köln 1985, S. 177, S. 194