Morton Feldman ‘For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin’: A Persisting Character

It’s that time again classical music fans! I’m very excited to share with you a piece that is incredibly simple, yet speaks volumes for me. This work is by the fantastic American composer, Morton Feldman. So for something a little different today, here is my breakdown of Morton Feldman’s For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin – enjoy!

Morton Feldman was born in 1926 into a Russian-Jewish family. From a young age he began to learn piano where he found his love for music and composition. Feldman learnt with and admired a range of different German-modernist composers such as Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. After a successful run in his early musical career, Feldman became very close friends with John Cage. With the aid of Cage, Feldman began experimenting with composition, such as dabbling with non-standard systems of musical notation. Feldman also became very interested in composing ‘chance music’, which gives away a lot of responsibility to the performer. Through this he became a much more well-known American composer.

Through his friendship with John Cage, Feldman met a range of prominent figures within the New York arts scene (which included a range of different art forms such as architecture and fine art). He began taking a lot of interest in abstract expressionists, and from there he started composing with these figures and works in mind. Through the 1970s, Feldman composed a fair bit of music that was based on these abstract ideas, such as Rothko Chapel (1971).

As well as abstract compositions, Feldman also composed a few film scores. The first was for Jack Garfein’s 1961 film Something Wild. Interestingly though, this commission fell through very quickly as Feldman composed the music for the opening scene, where a female character (who also happened to be Garfein’s real-life wife), is raped. After hearing Feldman’s music for this, Garfein famously exclaimed: “My wife is being raped and you write celesta music?!”. As you can perhaps guess from this, his commission was abolished, and instead Garfein enlisted Aaron Copland to compose the score.

After his very creative period, Feldman branched away from his graphically notated scores and bizarre notation systems and his music became much more rhythmically precise. The breakthrough piece within this new period was his short work, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety – which was dedicated to his childhood piano teacher. He then became very involved with composing music that was very long in duration. Usually these works were in one continuous movement, which made them even more stand-out. To name but a few works included in this period:

Violin and String Quartet (1985, 2 hours)

For Philip Guston (1984, 4 hours)

String Quartet II (1983, 6 hours)

These works are very static, with an incredibly slow developmental theme that runs throughout. These compositions are comprised of many small, quiet sounds which build up over the duration of the work. Whilst he was composing this incredibly long works, he was also a Professor at the University of Buffalo. Feldman died in 1987 from pancreatic cancer and he has left behind an incredibly rich and fruitful legacy within modernist music history.

For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin was composed in 1981, and unlike a lot of his other works in this period, it is only 72 bars long, with a duration of around 4 minutes. I find that this work has a very simple surface, but actually when you get under this layer it has a lot to offer (so bare with me on this one – it’s worth it I promise!). So the work is for solo violin, and it’s very slow and it comprises of most just single notes in a bar – with a few changes throughout the work. The violin is muted, and the choices of pitches by Feldman is very interesting as it creates this wonderful ambiguous transparency. Throughout the whole work, Feldman only uses seven white-key pitches. This introduces an interesting element of diatoniscism into the work, which contradicts a lot of his other works which are heavily chromatic and harmonic.

The first seven pitches are as follows: G,F,D,C,B,A,E. These cover the seven pitches used throughout the piece. It seems that these pitches descend (usually by step) to one another, until the final pitch is hear and a very loose ‘cadence’ is heard (note that this is without octave transposition). Feldman used an approach in some of his music that he labeled “crippled symmetry”, to which he uses it in the second round of these pitches being sounded. The reason for this title is that the notes are symmetrical, although the duration of the notes are varied ever so slightly. Feldman starts using compound time signatures such as 7/8 and 5/4 to slightly change the symmetrical image of the last round. The different durations do not appear to follow any sort of internal logic, however the way the new durations are placed may give some clue as to Feldman’s logic. For example, the first alteration is weighted towards the end of the sequence, which creates a slower progression.

Feldman also starts playing around with triplet off-beat beats, which makes the performer think whilst they play, which naturally gives off a rather hesitant feel to the work. It’s strange, because I can relate that as the performer it would become quite difficult to get each off-beat rhythm and pitch exactly right. However, after a succession of these off-beat rhythms, Feldman writes back onto the natural beat of the bar, and the sequence begins again which brings some relief for both the performer and listener.

In terms of character, one may argue that ‘well there’s some repeated notes in a slow tempo – surely there’s no character!’ – but I couldn’t disagree more. The G-F dyad that opens the piece is incredibly distinctive within the shaping of this work. With the octave transposition, this rising seventh is indeed a specific character that Feldman then repeats throughout the piece. The importance of this seventh is also reinforced by other notes such as C-B, which sounds not long after the first. After doing my reading on the compositional styles of Feldman, I am very swayed with the idea that this particular work does not develop in the way that we know music to develop. Feldman does not take on the Germanic classical development ritual, but instead he makes his ‘character notes’ persist. This gives a lot of interpretation to the listener as a lot can be said for this piece, and my imagination runs wild when I hear certain intervals in this way. The function of this piece is not to generate new and expansive motives out of a small chunk of music, but instead to explore and really hone in on the particular notes that are played and how they are played (i.e – with the violin being muted).

With the violin being so much in the spotlight, and with no accompaniment to hide behind, the use of harmonics is also an interesting one. For example in the opening few bars the harmonics played on G and D really resonate and create such a wonderful colour within the violin. It can be argued (and indeed I am arguing) that G is the most important and central pitch within this work. It always appears as a harmonic, from the start to the end of the piece it is the only pitch to be repeated immediately at any point in the piece (whenever and wherever in the sequence of notes). Each note sits and exists in its own right within this work, and it was noted by Feldman that each note should resonate within the body of violin. With this thought process in mind, it is worth mentioning that the G-string harmonic on the violin is perhaps the richest in tone, and therefore is an ideal note to have at the centre of a piece such as this.

An aspect within this piece that always grabs my attention is the octave displacement, which runs throughout the piece. I believe that the idea of G being the most important note is interesting when viewed within the octave displacement. It’s like Feldman does not want G to be noticed as the same as the original G played. So for example if the first G was played above the stave, and the second was played on the stave, this creates slight ambiguity into what the note may be (unless you have perfect pitch of course!). It’s tricky within this piece, and I certainly found it whilst analysing the music, that it is difficult to connect notes and pitches together. There is not so much voicing extremities, as he only covers two octaves within the work.

Sonority on different harmonics are created through this work, so firstly we had the major seventh, and following this there is a lot of emphasis on the major ninth interval. These different intervals are emphasised a lot through rhythmic variations in the score. The fluctuation between 7/-3/5-5/4 is very interesting as it puts the weighting of the phrases in different places – creating very different atmospheres.

Within the last 12 bars of the piece there is an emphasis on the rising major seventh and ninth figures, which have been so central throughout the work. Many of the first musical ‘ideas’ heard at the start of the work begin to echo within the last few bars, conforming to Feldman’s “disorientation of memory.” There is certainly a feeling that Feldman wanted to focus on the gesture and placement of the notes, rather than the development of these ‘characters.’ Although this work seems incredibly sparse at first glance, it is actually rich in tones, ideas and themes that, once you’re aware of, you may listen to this piece slightly differently.

It feels as though with For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin takes each page as a visual for an idea. So the first was the major seventh interval, but then on the next page it was the major ninth. Each page should perhaps be treated as a more visual concept and then these ideas may merge together in a more understandable and coherent manner. I would like to think that after reading my partial analysis of this piece that you may think of it as much more than a few notes played on a page. I find the diversity within Feldman’s music so exciting as some works are absolutely bizarre and complex to both listen to and perform. Whereas other compositions, such as this one, are incredibly simple and are perfect to perform some analysis on. I hope you can find something interesting in this work – I know I definitely have!

This blog is for a violinist who I admire very much Jenny (aka JENNNNAAAAAYYY) Espin. I hope you find some simplistic beauty in this piece – you’re wonderful, keep doing you!

Happy Reading!

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