Morton Feldman’s For John Cage, written in the final phase of his career, is, typically for this period, a long work, almost 70 minutes. It is atypical, however, when one considers on how few occasions he actually wrote for this particular pairing of instruments: In 1951 there were “Extensions 1” and “Projections IV”; in 1963, he produced “Vertical Thoughts”; and again in 1978 he composed “Spring of Chosroes.”
The reasons are varied, but the one constant that runs through these works is how Feldman’s palette of sonances, timbres, and textures could be achieved more forcefully by using these two instruments in his quest for “stasis.” This term refers in Feldman’s vocabulary to the effect achieved by the visual art of Mark Rothko and Philip Guston. In For John Cage, Feldman sets the piece in three movements where a minimum of notes are written in patters, played in varying time signatures, over and again, in slightly altered combinations of chords and tones. They are consistently modified to vary textural, polytonal, and even perceptual degrees, but never to the point of any linear modulation or scheme.
For John Cage may repeat each sequence of notes — in limited range — and repeat them asymmetrically or symmetrically, this distinction doesn’t matter to Feldman, who felt that if he could just achieve “stasis” within his music, the question would forever be in his words “held in abeyance.” These patterned sections proceed from one another without reorganization or discernable system. But then, this work, as in all of Feldman’s middle and late pieces, was about the relationships between note and silence and instruments and tones. For John Cage, meant to be played by both performers and listened to at barely audible volume, established enough displacement to achieve a kind of stasis in sound and in its relationship to the greater stasis: silence.
Despite the seemingly endless academic theorizing he involved in his work, Feldman’s music, and it’s concern with gentleness, stillness, is music of great, if subtly expressed, emotion. Inspired by one of his longest personal and professional relationships, For John Cage is perhaps his most haunting and beautifully wrought for all of its alien construction and perceptual ambiguity. Indeed, it appears as if Feldman were, at the end of his life, attempting to free music from the only thing that weighted it to earth: itself.
Artist: Aleck Karis
Artist: Erik Carlson
Composer: Morton Feldman