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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Human Scale: Scale or Form: the music of Morton Feldman - Music of Extended Duration - how scale informs composing, performing and listening - Study Day

1st May 2017, 10:00 to 17:00, Birley Room, Hatfield College, Durham University

Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was one of the most important composers coming out of the so called New York School of composition, a group of composers around John Cage (1912-1992). In the last years of his life, from 1979 onwards his compositional practice was much more involved with thinking about scale than form, or as he put it: "We know form already, we know the division of the whole into parts. Form is easy. I’m into many things. Scale. What I would feel is a natural proportion. I’m into new aspects of memory. … I feel that the longer the piece is, the more you remember things in the piece." (Interview with Dutch radio, 1985).

He said that up to about an hour in length, the ear wants to hear ‘form.’ After an hour it’s ‘scale.’ As a comparison, Feldman told of visiting Mark Rothko one day when an assistant was stretching and restretching a canvas to slightly different sizes. "Rothko was standing some distance away, ... deciding whether to bring the canvas down an inch or so, or maybe even a little bit higher… Rothko’s scale ... removes any argument over the proportions of one area to another, or over its degree of symmetry or asymmetry. The sum of the parts does not equal the whole; rather, scale is discovered and contained as an image. It is not form that floats the painting, but Rothko’s finding that particular scale which suspends all proportions in equilibrium." (Morton Feldman –

Crippled Symmetry, 1981).

Thinking about length (the duration of his works extended more and more, culminating in his 5-hour String Quartet (II) from 1984), memory, patterns, performing and listening, his music was influenced, and informed not only by his fellow composers, but mainly by his close involvement with visual arts (notably the American abstract expressionist painters) and Turkish rug-making in which the symmetrical patterns are defined largely by memory and are therefore seldom precise.

The project consists of three elements: three public concerts, one of which will be part of the MUSICON New Music Festival. The festival takes its programming from this year’s IAS theme, and deals with works of both extended and compressed duration. John Snijders, Reader in Music Performance at Durham University, will give a lecture on the music of Morton Feldman, and there will be a study day on music of extended duration, its implications for composers, performers, and listeners. All events are open to all.

Tickets and prices for the MUSICON concerts can be located at For the study day it is advisable to book. Guest speakers on the study day will include Dr Seth Parker Woods (University of Leeds) and Professor Martin Clayton (Durham University).

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