Coptic Light

By Kyle Gann

Written for the concert American Originals, performed on Nov 17, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Morton Feldman is a paradigmatic case of a composer who freed himself from the musical dilemmas of his day by learning from another art form. The post-World War II dilemma in America was a choice between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, between 12-tone technique and a highly rhythmic, ironicized tonality. Feldman circumvented this limited either/or situation via an attention to musical surface, informed by years of association with the abstract expressionist painters. Born in Queens in 1926, Feldman found a kindred spirit in John Cage, whom he met in 1950 at a Carnegie Hall performance of Anton Webern’s Symphony, which Cage and Feldman loved but to which the audience responded antagonistically. Thus began a life revolving around the Cedar Bar, where painters like Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning, and Philip Guston (who would become Feldman’s best friend) would hang out. “John and I would drop in at the Cedar Bar at six in the afternoon and talk with artist friends until three in the morning, when it closed,” Feldman would later write. “I can say without exaggeration that we did this every day for five years of our lives.”

Until he was in his early forties, Feldman worked for his father and uncle in a clothing factory and a dry cleaning establishment. In 1969 he obtained a job as dean of the New York Studio School, and in 1973 he was appointed to the Edgard Varèse chair in music at SUNY Buffalo, where he would remain until his untimely death. His early music used chance methods, notating sounds on graph paper with pitches left to the performer, or notating pitches without rhythm—often with the overall performance direction “as soft as possible.” Around 1970, however, as his career was changing, Feldman underwent a remarkable transformation of idiom. Disdainful of what he saw as a modernist cliché—the “20-minute piece”—he began expanding the length of his works to an hour, 100 minutes, four hours, and even (in his Second String Quartet) six hours. “Beyond an hour,” he wrote, “length becomes scale.”

Coptic Light (1986) is brief by late-Feldman standards, just under a half-hour, but along with Turfan Fragments (1980) and For Samuel Beckett (1987) it is one of the orchestra works in which Feldman’s highly original concern with surface becomes most apparent. The texture is dense throughout, to the point that details are impossible to grasp; as in a late Mark Rothko canvas, color is applied thickly yet edges remain indistinct. Within each section of the orchestra, pitches are echoed back and forth in varying, off-centered rhythmic placements. As a result, the harmonic structure is actually rather stable over long periods, but manifested in filmy waves of sound in which pitches bouncing around the orchestra are a challenge to the ear’s ability to focus.

Feldman was an avid collector of Middle Eastern rugs, and frequently based his compositional techniques on their asymmetrical patterns. In his own program notes, he recounts that Coptic Light was inspired by ancient Coptic textiles on display at the Louvre. He also noted Sibelius’s comment that the primary difference between writing for orchestra and piano is that the orchestra has no pedal. In Coptic Light, Feldman attempted to write for orchestra with the pedal.