Let the Sounds Alone 02

From the end of Vertical Thoughts (1963):

Art in its relation to life is nothing more than a glove turned inside out. It seems to have the same shapes and contours, but it can never be used for the same purpose. Art teaches nothing about life, just as life teaches us nothing about art.

Vertical Thoughts is an early Feldman essay, but there’s a little of this statement in everything he writes afterward. You can spy it in The Anxiety of Art and in Conversations with Stravinsky (1967), where Feldman reaffirms his disdain for the mixing of philosophy and art:

The truth is, we can do very well without art; what we can’t live without is the myth about art. The mythmaker is successful because he knows that in art, as in life, we need the illusion of significance. He flatters this need. He gives us art that ties up with philosophical systems, an art with a multiplicity of references, of symbols, an art that simplifies the subtleties of art, that relieves us of art.

I’m working on an interview right now where this topic comes up. The idea that music contains a message, or communicates some thought, is something I’ve always assumed was true. Feldman disagrees, but it isn’t easy to summarize why. In some places he distinguishes between music and sound and in others he speaks as if they’re are the same, but whatever their relation, he insists on comparing the elements of his music to the elements of painting, and specifically to the elements of paintings by Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists. Like the colors, shapes, and subjects painted by those artists, Feldman’s sounds have a life of their own and he insists that it’s a mistake to impose too much on them. What the character and quality of that life is, Feldman doesn’t make plain, but the conclusion is clear enough. If music is going to speak to us, it’s going to have to do so in a way that language can’t, and if you write music the same way you construct a sentence or build an argument, then you’re imposing something on sound that doesn’t belong to it. There are only sounds, and whatever else we imagine as belonging to sounds are, in reality, something we add to them ourselves.


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