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Morton Feldman and Hallucinatory Time

"For if there are times past and future, I wish to know where they are […] Wherever they are and whatever they are they exist only as present."

– St. Augustine, Confessions


​It’s difficult for me to write about Morton Feldman in any concise or clear way, because his music – so simple and delicate on the surface – contains multitudes. Multitudes of meanings, of experiences, of potentialities. It is mystical music, a kind of mysticism suspended between time and timelessness. Like St. Augustine, Feldman questions and challenges temporal assumptions that many of us take for granted. What is time? How can we measure its movement? Does time move at all? The ways in which Feldman confronts these questions are the most salient and substantive aspects of his musical style: extremely long durations; non-linear repetition; the expansion and contraction of compact pitch sets. What makes Feldman’s music special, however, is not the fact that he asks these questions, nor the ways in which he asks them. What makes it special is that he incorporates the listening experience within the act of asking.

Morton Feldman at his home in Buffalo in 1985.

"There’s something about a long piece […] the whole question of real time and constructed music […] real time-constructed time. I like constructed time because it’s timeless."

– Morton Feldman, The 1986 Darmstadt Lecture


Last March Oerknal performed For Philip Guston at Korzo Theater in The Hague. For Philip Guston is a sumptuous piece, full of delicate patterns, soft sonorities, and lush timbres. It’s also famously long, clocking in at around five hours sans pause. This was my first time hearing the piece live, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience. The first hour was entrancing; soft, porcelaneous music unfurling slowly and deliberately. But the material, though varied, didn’t really go anywhere - it was meandering, circuitous. Around the two-hour mark I realized I was stuck in a kind of infinite loop, one from which there was little hope of escape – the music just kept going, and going, and going. Then something very visceral happened: I completely lost my sense of time. I had no idea how long I’d been sitting there listening. I had no idea how much longer the piece would go on.

This realization was jarring. The closest analogy I can think of is the feeling you get in the middle of a long-haul flight when you suddenly look up at the display clock and you have WAY more time left to your destination than you previously thought, and your whole sense of time and your relationship to the situation changes in a radical and often uncomfortable way. Except with Morton Feldman there’s no display clock to reference; there’s nothing to help you reset.

Which led to hallucinations.

At some point between what had to be hours three and four, I looked up at the ceiling of Korzo and had the sincere realization that I and everyone else in the theater were actually in the hangar of a giant spacecraft floating in deep space. And who knows if we’ll ever reach our destination safely and if we do will the piece even be finished by the time we arrive?


And so why exactly?

Because our sense of time – our way of experiencing it and our assumptions about it – is so basic that we take it for granted. So to be put in a situation where time becomes elastic, fluctuates and evades all frames of reference, where the lines of proportion bend so radically that to speak of ‘time’ in any commonsense way makes no sense at all…well, I suppose the only recourse for the shocked human psyche is to hallucinate itself into some deep space fantasy. Or any number of odd, physically intense, downright frustrating, and quasi-spiritual experiences audience members spoke with me about after that performance.

In whatever way a person’s body and mind choose to adapt to Feldman's music, there is an adaptation. And it's an altogether necessary one, because the listener's actual experience of time (and everything that experience implies) becomes a compositional element, is varied and developed. This composing-out of our temporal certainty is one reason many people characterize Feldman’s music as timeless, minimalist, and expansive. And there’s some truth to that. His music, taken at face value, is minimalist; he rarely works with anything more than 4-note chromatic composites; his patterns, though non-linear, are repetitive in the sense of a kaleidoscope’s shifting geometric patterns. But there is a way of listening to Feldman's music that goes beyond soft hues and fragile textures, one that exposes an intensely dynamic, fluctuating world, a world concerned not so much with time or timelessness but a radical synthesis of the two. And it’s this dynamic interaction with time itself that gives Feldman’s music its power, originality, and importance. Because in transcending our own preconceptions, in being forced to submit to another mode of sensory intake and temporal experience, we can glimpse something beyond ourselves, something akin to what mystics call interconnectedness. But don’t take my word for it:

"I believe when my work arrives at one mood, it’s as if I am praying."

– Morton Feldman, Interview with Bálint András Varga (1983)

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