Edinburgh Napier University

Fighting polarity: Pitch-based analysis of Feldman’s late style in Bass Clarinet and Percussion and Three Voices

In a seminar given in 1984, Morton Feldman described fighting the polarity of pitch structure in the course of composition by comparing it to a rural Irishman giving directions (‘you walk on the top of the hill and there is a church on the right. Ignore it.’ (Feldman 2000, p.183). In the next year, in conversation with Misha Mengelberg, he stated that he doesn’t ‘teach counterpoint. I teach orchestration’ (Feldman 2008, p.26).
Many of Feldman’s late works defy pitch-based analytical strategies and in his writings and published lectures, his narratives of practice strongly suggest an absence of conventional structural form. Non-development of motif and a similarity of gesture that seems to grow from memory rather than derivation (not unlike Dahlhaus’s description of Bruckner’s ‘written-out memory image’ (1989, p.273)) makes the unpicking of repetition and variation a challenge and blurs the perception of pitch-form.
By looking at two works from the early 1980s, Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981) and Three Voices (1982), I will identify strategies that fight the polarity of pitch and the way in which timbre and resonance orchestrate these strategies. This will enable me to construct a structural framework to view both pieces in a way that will both begin to address the form of these apparently informal works, and provide a basis for further analysis of other late works.


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John Hails is a Senior Lecturer and Reader in Music at Edinburgh Napier University. He began his training at Durham University and the University of Huddersfield. He returned to Durham to read for a PhD by Portfolio of Compositions with Fabrice Fitch, which he received in 2008.

John Hails