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The Fluency of Silence.

Scorpio Sphinx Morton Feldman 01-14-07

By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas

Musings on linguistic fluency and musical meditations from the second day of the seventh month in the sixth year of the twenty-first century, resurrected in the early winter of two thousand seven....

"American Sublime: Morton Feldman's Mysterious Musical Landscape" by Alex Ross. The New Yorker, June 19, 2006.

A Meditation on the Significance
Of Pauses in the Spoken Language.

I pause in the day's order of business reading journalism and scholarly pieces, preparing breakfast and sharing the repast with husband and son to pick up The New Yorker and continue a piece about Morton Feldman, an obscure modernist composer, who has resurfaced and gained renown in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Mr. Feldman's family emigrated from Kiev to New York, where young Morton grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. He worked in his father's children's coat factory until he was forty-four. His began his musical studies as a piano student under Madame Vera Maurina Press (who recently died at age ninety), studied composition under Wallingford Riegger, a follower of Arnold Schoenberg, and continued his studies under Stefan Wolpe. His musical Weltgeist was shaped when he met John Cage and entered the innovative, experimental world of the avant-garde in the 1950s. In 1972 he received an appointment as a professor of music at State University of New York at Buffalo. He died in 1987 at sixty-one.

What makes this composer, so removed in topic and time, impressive to a scholar of curriculum and instruction, especially on an unremarkable day such as this?

Resonant Sound Is the Essence
Of the Composer's Explorations.

Morton felt a kinship to artists and found kindred forms of visual expression in the art of Rauschenberg and Rothko. Like the Abstract Expressionists, who wanted viewers to see the medium as content -- the texture and pigment of the paint -- Feldman wanted listeners to absorb resonant sound as the essence of the musical medium. Mr. Feldman is noted for introducing "vast, quiet, agonizingly beautiful worlds of sound." I noticed that Mr. Ross did not write "worlds of music." He intentionally chose in his New Yorker commentary to point out the composer's explorations in the world of sound.

Mr. Feldman wrote music that was almost subvocal. There is a ritual stillness inherent in his compositions. Mr. Ross observed that Feldman "discovered the expressive power of the space around the notes," and that "the sounds animate the surrounding silence."

I was drawn to Mr. Feldman's desire to "animate the surrounding silence" because I had just previously read about the significance of pauses in the spoken language. The silences (the pauses), appropriately spaced and intuitively interspersed in oral communication, are one indication of a person's fluency in first and second language acquisition. We often hear that "what is not said is just as important as what is said." In other words, we need to pay attention to that "space around" the words.

Silence Envelops and Surrounds
The Utterances of Conversation.

Silence, the absence of sound, envelops and surrounds the utterances of human conversation. For Mr. Feldman, silence was the conduit between instrument and listener. In the context of fluency, the nuances of silence in the ebb and flow of speech mirror Mr. Feldman's desire to "animate the surrounding silence."

The critic Mr. Ross established Mr. Feldman as a master at creating a mysterious musical landscape, a fluency of sound based on what was not played. We use language in a similar way. We create a mysterious linguistic landscape, a fluency of sound, by being aware of what is not said.

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