Back in autumn 2011 I was introduced to the music of Morton Feldman. I felt then as I do now, that the New Yorker’s music is an acquired taste, and must admit that I placed it firmly alongside olives and the film ‘Pitch Perfect’ in the ‘not for me‘ category. At the time, I was listening to a lot of impressionism, as well as Shostakovich’s quartets, and was very interested in the colours these composers were creating within a tonal setting. Not surprisingly, Feldman’s work didn’t make sense to me.
However, it has become almost de rigueur to be a Feldman aficionado in certain composing circles so I kept hearing nothing but good things about the composer’s work from colleagues. Consequently, I kept returning to Feldman’s music in an effort to understand what I was missing.
Then, a few months ago, two very strange things happened. First of all, while at a party, I risked an olive with the hors-d’oeuvre on which I was nibbling and found that I quite liked it. Second of all, and even more surprising, one evening the penny finally dropped with Feldman’s music. Back when I was first introduced to the composer, if you had told me that in 2016 I would be eating olives and listening to Morton Feldman, I would have assumed that I had a very cultured tormentor and had been condemned to death by indeterminacy (and kalamata). However, today I find myself a free man, enjoying both ‘Intersection No.2’ and Tesco’s finest on a regular basis. And, as is so often the case with acquired tastes, the very things I used to avoid have now become firm favourites of mine.
In the last few days, given my upcoming release, I have been contemplating the link between Morton Feldman and Erik Satie. Satie was a profound influence on Feldman’s friend John Cage, who even gave a lecture entitled “In Defense of Satie” in 1948. Whether Satie was a direct influence on Feldman is not quite so clear, but the argument can certainly be made that the Frenchman helped shape the musical landscape that Feldman inhabited.
Notable similarities can be drawn. Both composers were ahead of their time; they were considered experimental in their day and the reputations of both have grown posthumously. They are also both known for writing sparse piano music and experimenting with alternative ways of scoring. Upon initial analysis, one noticeable difference that appears to exist between the work of the two composers is the length of time their pieces tend to last. Although Feldman’s early work is of a more ‘normal’ length, his later work, much of which is now his most well known, is famously long. Indeed, his longest piece, ‘String Quartet II’, is over six hours in length. In contrast to this, the vast majority of Satie’s work is very short; regularly under five minutes and often under ten. There is, however, one important exception that I think points to a salient link, perhaps the most salient link, between the two composers.
‘Vexations’ was written by Erik Satie in 1893. It is a modest but unnerving piece for a solo instrument (we assume piano but it is not specified) that covers around half a sheet of notation. Upon first glance, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about this piece. However, closer inspection reveals that the performer is instructed to repeat it eight hundred and forty times, which takes approximately twenty hours. Satie never published ‘Vexations’, and it wasn’t until 1963, seventy years after it was written, that it received it’s first public performance, organised by John Cage. The performance had a great affect on Cage, who later declared “I had changed and the world had changed”.
I have read several different interpretations of Satie’s whimsical musical directions over the years. Many theorists disregard them as nothing more than light-hearted jokes. Others posit that the musical directions were Satie’s way of mocking the seriousness with which the musical establishment took itself. I have also come across theories that suggest that the Frenchman used humour as a mask to hide his insecurities behind. Without trying to sound like I am sitting on the fence, I honestly feel that there is a degree of truth in all of them. However, it could be argued that it was Cage’s willingness to take Satie at his word with the musical directions in ‘Vexations’ that opened the door for Feldman to experiment with extreme durations of length in his own compositions. Cage’s influence on Feldman is well documented, and it is because Feldman was involved in the avant-garde New York scene of the mid to late 20th century (a scene that was certainly influenced by Cage’s ideas) that he found himself exposed to such ways of thinking. The exact extent to which Feldman’s decision to explore extremes of length was influenced by Cage (and therefore, by extension, Satie) is, of course, hard to say (although I am now eager to get hold of some biographies to try and find out), but I think the case can certainly be made that the New Yorker was alive during a time when his home town was fertile ground for such ideas, ground that was made fertile by, in part, the music of the peculiar Parisian. It is this link, between ‘Vexations’ and the defining characteristic of Feldman’s late work, that strikes me as the most significant.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that Cage also wrote pieces that explored extreme lengths of time, and, in true Cage-fashion, he pushed the idea to an extraordinary degree. His piece ‘As Slow as Possible’ normally lasts around twenty to seventy minutes, but there is a performance of it currently taking place in Halberstadt, Germany, that is due to finish in 2640.
Thinking about this over the last few days has given me a clearer understanding of just how pioneering Cage and Feldman were. But it has also made me wonder if Debussy knew just how astute he was being when he referred to his friend Satie as “the precursor”. Indeed, if the avant-garde composers of the 1950-80s were pioneering for exploring extreme lengths, what does that say about Erik Satie, given that he wrote ‘Vexations’ in 1893? And, I think more interestingly, given that Satie’s ideas were still shaping music as recently as the 1980s, could any of his other ideas (perhaps even his most eccentric) be a source of inspiration for new music, when looked at from a fresh perspective?
Anyway, with all of the intriguing questions that my change in taste has generated, with olives in hand, I’m off to try and understand the appeal of ‘Pitch Perfect’. Wish me luck.