Triadic Memories Analysis Essay

Morton Feldman completed Triadic Memories for solo piano on July 23, 1981. It is dedicated to the avant-garde pianists Aki Takahashi and Rodger Woodward, and is the composer's most famous piano work. Consisting of over 1100 measures, it is also the longest. There is no designated tempo; performances and recordings can vary in duration from seventy to over ninety minutes. Only a few notes, generated from a sparse, two-bar musical cell, is the basis for all the ensuing material. This extreme economy does not betray a dry or deliberately challenging work. It is not especially demanding music, but rather it is inventive, beautiful, and never boring. One can only be amazed after listening to such an unprecedented achievement; most works of this length require the composer to fill it with as many diverse elements as possible in order to keep it interesting. Gustav Mahler said "a symphony is like the world; it must contain everything," and even though this worked for him, many composers have sworn by this edict and have still failed to hold an astute audience's attention. Feldman has done something very different in Triadic Memories. He has made a work that should fail in theory but succeeds, making it the opposite of many pieces by Stockhausen, which are wonderful ideas that do not translate into interesting music. Feldman's Triadic Memories is simplicity itself, taking a tiny amount of material and laying it out in repetitions of varying lengths so that the memory of what happened before the moment being heard is consistently erased. This idea of not engaging memory, negating it, had already been a preoccupation of Feldman's for many years. Triadic Memories is perhaps his most successful depiction of this idea. This aesthetic is one that the composer picked up from the abstract expressionist painters in New York in the 1950s, particularly from Montreal-born Philip Guston. The idea was to help the viewer find an inner world, outside of time or space. Laying out this goal in musical terms was Feldman's intention for many decades. The material he produced before the 1980s was also superb, but this work accomplishes its aims with the directness of an atonal work by Webern. It is the clearest utterance of this approach.

Triadic Memories is, in practical terms, non-conceptual. It is pure music, as pure as the fugues of Bach, and completely original. One can regard its absence of foreground/background and absence of harmony as indicative of Satie and Varèse, but Feldman arrived at his conclusions independently, as they did. There is certainly no correlation between his music and the American Minimalists, such as Reich and Glass, whose works involve repetitions that are compelling in the way that popular dance rhythms are compelling. Feldman is not concerned with that kind of intertextuality, and his music is much more sublime than it is clever. He described the construction of this piece as "a conscious attempt at formalizing a disorientation of memory." If Triadic Memories were a lesser accomplishment, or just an ordinary one, it would be necessary for the listener to know what it is about in order to enjoy one's self. Listeners who come in contact with this work need not know anything about its manner of operation. Like all great art, it is a simple idea that amazes. Feldman's accomplishments rank him among the greatest of American artists from all media.

Morton Feldman (January 12, 1926 – September 3, 1987) was an American composer.

A major figure in 20th-century music, Feldman was a pioneer of indeterminate music, a development associated with the experimental New York School of composers also including John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown. Feldman's works are characterized by notational innovations that he developed to create his characteristic sound: rhythms that seem to be free and floating; pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused; a generally quiet and slowly evolving music; recurring asymmetric patterns. His later works, after 1977, also begin to explore extremes of duration.


Feldman was born in Woodside, Queens into a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His parents, Irving Feldman (1893—1985) and Frances Breskin Feldman (1897—1984), immigrated to New York from Pereyaslav (father, 1910) and Bobruysk (mother, 1901).[1] His father was a manufacturer of children's coats.[2][3] As a child he studied piano with Vera Maurina Press, who, according to the composer himself, instilled in him a "vibrant musicality rather than musicianship."[4] Feldman's first composition teachers were Wallingford Riegger, one of the first American followers of Arnold Schoenberg, and Stefan Wolpe, a German-born Jewish composer who studied under Franz Schreker and Anton Webern. Feldman and Wolpe spent most of their time simply talking about music and art.[5]

In early 1950 Feldman heard the New York Philharmonic perform Anton Webern's Symphony, op. 21. After this work, the orchestra was going to perform a piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Feldman left immediately, disturbed by the audience's disrespectful reaction to Webern's work.[6] In the lobby he met John Cage, who was at the concert and had also decided to step out.[7] The two quickly became friends, with Feldman moving into the apartment on the second floor of the building Cage lived in. Through Cage, he met sculptor Richard Lippold (who had a studio next door) and artists Sonia Sekula, Robert Rauschenberg, and others, and composers such as Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, and George Antheil.[8]

With Cage's encouragement, Feldman began to write pieces that had no relation to compositional systems of the past, such as traditional harmony or the serial technique. He experimented with nonstandard systems of musical notation, often using grids in his scores, and specifying how many notes should be played at a certain time but not which ones. Feldman's experiments with chance in turn inspired Cage to write pieces like Music of Changes, where the notes to be played are determined by consulting the I Ching.

Through Cage, Feldman met many other prominent figures in the New York arts scene, among them Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Frank O'Hara. He found inspiration in the paintings of the abstract expressionists,[9] and in the 1970s wrote a number of pieces around 20 minutes in length, including Rothko Chapel (1971, written for the building of the same name, which houses paintings by Mark Rothko) and For Frank O'Hara (1973). In 1977, he wrote the opera Neither[10] with original text by Samuel Beckett.

Feldman was commissioned to compose the score for Jack Garfein's 1961 film Something Wild, but after hearing the music for the opening scene, in which a character (played by Carroll Baker, incidentally also Garfein's wife) is raped, the director promptly withdrew his commission, opting to enlist Aaron Copland instead. The director's reaction was said to be, "My wife is being raped and you write celesta music?"[11]

Feldman's music "changed radically"[12] in 1970, moving away from graphic and arhythmic notation systems and toward rhythmic precision. The first piece of this new period was a short, 55-measure work, "Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety", dedicated to his childhood piano teacher, Vera Maurina Press.

In 1973, at the age of 47, Feldman became the Edgard Varèse Professor (a title of his own devising) at the University at Buffalo. Until then, Feldman had earned his living as a full-time employee at the family textile business in New York's garment district. In addition to teaching at SUNY Buffalo, Feldman held residencies during the mid-1980s at the University of California, San Diego.

Later, he began to produce very long works, often in one continuous movement, rarely shorter than half an hour in length and often much longer. These include Violin and String Quartet (1985, around 2 hours), For Philip Guston (1984, around four hours) and, most extreme, the String Quartet II (1983, over six hours long without a break). These pieces typically maintain a very slow developmental pace and are mostly very quiet. Feldman said that quiet sounds had begun to be the only ones that interested him. In a 1982 lecture, he asked, "Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?"

Feldman married the Canadian composer Barbara Monk shortly before his death. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1987 at his home in Buffalo, New York, after fighting for his life for three months.


See: List of compositions by Morton Feldman

Notable students

For Feldman's notable students, see List of music students by teacher: C to F § Morton Feldman.


  • Feldman, Morton. 1968. Give My Regards to Eighth Street, Artnews Annual. Included in Give my regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (2000), The Music of Morton Feldman, and elsewhere.
  • Gagne, Cole, and Caras, Tracey. 1982. Interview with Morton Feldman. In: Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, 164–177. Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1982. Available online.
  • Hirata, Catherin. 2002. Morton Feldman. In: Sitsky, Larry, ed. 2002. Music of the Twentieth-century Avant-garde. Greenwood Publishing Group.
  • Revill, David. 1993. The Roaring Silence: John Cage – a Life. Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-220-6, ISBN 978-1-55970-220-1.
  • Ross, Alex. 2006. American Sublime. The New Yorker, June 19, 2006. Available online.
  • Zimmerman, Walter, ed. 1985. Morton Feldman Essays. Kerpen: Beginner.

Further reading

  • Cline, David. The Graph Music of Morton Feldman. Cambridge University Press, 2016
  • Eldred, Michael The Quivering of Propriation: A Parallel Way to Music, Section II.4.4 A musical subversion of harmonically logical time (Feldman) 2010
  • Feldman, Morton. Morton Feldman Says. Chris Villars, ed. London: Hyphen Press, 2006.
  • Feldman, Morton. Morton Feldman in Middelburg. Lectures and Conversations. R. Mörchen, ed. Cologne: MusikTexte, 2008.
  • Feldman, Morton. Give my regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. B.H. Friedman, ed. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000.
  • Gareau, Philip. La musique de Morton Feldman ou le temps en liberté. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2006.
  • Hirata, Catherin (Winter 1996). "The Sounds of the Sounds Themselves: Analyzing the Early Music of Morton Feldman", Perspectives of New Music 34, no.1, 6-27.
  • Herzfeld, Gregor. "Historisches Bewusstsein in Morton Feldmans Unterrichtsskizzen", Archiv für Musikwissenschaft Vol. 66, no. 3, (Summer 2009), 218-233.
  • Lunberry, Clark. "Departing Landscapes: Morton Feldman's String Quartet II and Triadic Memories." SubStance 110: Vol. 35, Number 2 (Summer 2006): 17-50. (Available at [#105 on the list])
  • Noble, Alistair. Composing Ambiguity: The Early Music of Morton Feldman. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4094-5164-8

External links


  • Art of the States: Morton Feldman three works by the composer
  • UbuWeb: Morton Feldman featuring The King of Denmark
  • Morton Feldman featuring tracks from Only – Works for Voice and Instruments
  • In Conversation with John Cage, 1966, Part 1
  • In Conversation with John Cage, 1966, Part 2
  • In Conversation with John Cage, 1966, Part 3
  • In Conversation with John Cage, 1966, Part 4
  • In Conversation with John Cage, 1966, Part 5
Morton Feldman, Amsterdam 1976
  1. ^Morton Feldman «The Early Years»
  2. ^Ross 2006.
  3. ^Hirata 2002, 131.
  4. ^Zimmermann 1985, 36.
  5. ^Gagne, Caras 1982.
  6. ^Feldman, Morton. "Liner Notes." Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman. Ed. B. H. Friedman. Cambridge: Exact Change, 2000. 4. Print.
  7. ^Revill 1993, 101.
  8. ^Feldman 1968.
  9. ^Vigeland, Nils. "Morton Feldman: The Viola in my Life". Liner note essay. New World Records.
  10. ^Ruch, A, Morton Feldman's NeitherArchived 2011-11-23 at the Wayback Machine. website, 17 May 2001. Retrieved October 30, 2012.
  11. ^Wilson, Peter Niklas. "Canvasses and time canvasses". Chris Villars Homepage. Retrieved 30 May 2011. 
  12. ^Feldman, Morton (February 2, 1973). "Morton Feldman Slee Lecture, February 2, 1973". State University of New York at Buffalo. Archived from the original on 28 June 2010. Retrieved 17 December 2012. 

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