The Still, Small Voice (III)

Part I

Part II

Jeffrey Potter collects reminiscences of Jackson Pollock’s wake in his “oral biography” of the artist, called To a violent grave (New York: Putnam, 1985):

MORTON FELDMAN: What stays with me is that baked Virginia ham. I have never tasted such ham, never.

I was asked to write a piece for saxophone trio in 1988, and I decided to make it a memorial to Feldman, who had recently passed the previous year. Feldman’s influence on my music up until that time had been manifest in the slow movements/sections of my pieces, which tended to be really slow and very soft. On the surface of these pieces, with fast rhythms, irregular phrase structures, and frequent changes in harmony, Carter’s influence was clearer.

I can see in retrospect that the occasion of the sax trio was an opportunity for me to explore a reconciliation between what I had learned from Feldman and Carter. The solution (I’m not sure “solution” is the right word, because this is a “problem” that I’m not sure anybody else had) was simple: Combine the kinds of slow and soft textures that had attracted me to Feldman’s music in the first place with the fixed vertical sonorities around which Carter’s music was organized.

Without getting overly technical about it, but providing enough information to communicate the issues, the resulting piece, What stays with me, is made from a specific voicing of a particular six-note pitch-class set (Forte number 6-Z17, for the terminally dorky, and you know who you are). This set is unique in that it contains at least one iteration of every three-note set in the 12-note equal temperament universe.

The materials of What stays with me are the single notes (six), intervals (15), and three-note chords (20) that can be drawn from a six-note set whose notes are fixed in a specific register. (The chord is voiced so that all six notes are playable by all three saxes.) As the piece unfolds over its approximately eight minutes, each of these 41 “sonorities” is sounded once. The sonorities are often extended by the instruments trading notes or overlapping entrances and exits.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the techniques I worked out for myself for What stays with me would resurface in different and surprising ways in almost every piece I’ve written since then.


  1. Anonymous12:21 PM

    Much of art can be said to consist of two activities:

    1. Killing your fathers.

    2. Trying to ressurect your dead children.

  2. I'm sort of worried that it's that ham that stayed with Morton. But it's of a piece, certainly, with the Cagey the non-art is the art attitude.

    Although, the attitude aside, I've gotten to know a few Feldman pieces over the past year or so, which I like very well.


  3. Another activity is dealing with your artistic grandfathers, who can be very cantakerous.