We cannot escape the press of worldly events, expectations, and anxieties — the noise, the computers and the pressure to be the best. Indeed, to talk about the drivenness of the world only adds to the inescapable tension. Too many of us feel like a child’s old-style wind-up toy, impelled along a track we did not choose until finally we stop moving at day’s end, awaiting the next morning’s rat-race and another twist of the key to the clockwork motor. The world wins, stress wins, and we lose. And performers lose especially, by the anxiety that precedes and impedes their performance.
Enter Morton Feldman, composer, who has not been with us since 1987, when he died at age 61. A man who worked in the garment industry until he was 44. Feldman was no therapist, but his music just might add something to the much commended and researched antidote to the crazy-making nature of contemporary life: mindfulness meditation. I can offer no scientifically validated proof that his music makes a focus on “being centered in the moment” easier, but offer my anecdotal observations for your consideration.
For too many, mindfulness meditation is an elusive solution, despite its well-documented benefits to overall well-being. As meditation newbies we sit quietly and concentrate on our breathing, nothing more. We are told that it will be hard and that it should be done daily, usually shooting for 30 minutes at a time at the start. Eventually — so the research tells us — our brains will be retrained.
The object of such a practice is to permit us to live in the moment, alert to (but untroubled by) the single instant in which we are immersed. Its practitioners claim that it is a path to seeing the world as it is, accepting it without judgment. By doing that, they indicate, we stop ourselves from adding to the internally generated interpretations and pressures — and the self-consciousness — that can make life unbearable. We are advised that true mindfulness does not look back or forward. Nor is it freighted with worry, regret, or rage. They remind us that the past is gone and cannot be changed and the future is unknowable. The only thing we have with certainty is the present instant of time and our ability to really “live” in it.
Ah, but mindfulness meditation is difficult, more than you might think. The mind wanders from the breath. We are distracted by small noises and random thoughts: How much time has passed? What about today’s doctor appointment? What did my voice teacher or boss really mean when she talked to me yesterday? Anything and everything intrudes, including troubling dead-end ideas. We are instructed to expect this; and then, when we notice that our focus on the breath has been lost, to gently return our attention to that target. Our attention and focus will, with enough practice and dedication, get better — so the experts say. Until then keep practicing.
At this point, many people give up in frustration. Here is the opening through which Morton Feldman enters, this unlikeliest of composers: a man of 6′, approaching 300 pounds; a non-stop, cigarette-smoking talker with a strong New York accent. Alex Ross described his music this way in The New Yorker issue of June 19, 2006:
The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences… In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music… Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his, Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”
Feldman requires us to listen to music without the expectation of conventional melody fit into a recognizable musical form and provides a kind of experience that creates that new way of listening. Unlike most Western music, Feldman’s does not seem to be leading us anywhere. We do not come to anticipate the next note or chord, as we do in a popular song or symphony. We have entered an unfamiliar space with nothing ahead of us, nothing guiding us, no forward or backward. Lacking “landmarks” we can be certain only of where we are right now. We are simply “in the moment” with the delicate sound he most often provides us — and the decay of that sound, as can be heard in this example from For Bunita Marcus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU
The importance of being neither judgmental nor critical, just experiencing what is present, is crucial. It is easier to listen to Feldman’s music with this type of “accepting” attitude than almost any piece of Beethoven, Brahms, or The Beatles. Their music “leads us” to judgment — too loud, too slow, too fast — once we have established even a bit of familiarity with it. For purposes of enhancing mindfulness, however, music like Feldman’s that provides us with no map is actually more beneficial. It does not “progress” and is harder to know than that which presents a formal structure that can be grasped and notes that can be anticipated, leading our thoughts to interfere with our attention and the mind to drift away from the sound.
Much of Feldman’s work can magnetize our focus so that the pull of external or irrelevant thoughts (including self-criticism) is vanquished, but only if we give up the conventional expectations built from years of listening to “tunes” and apply ourselves to the task he requires of our ears and our brains. With this new attitude, judgments about ourselves and about the music no longer gain an easy point of entry to the mind.
The compositions he offers us don’t seem to make headway except by extraordinarily subtle and quiet changes that are riveting. We are drawn in. To give a visual analogue, it is like looking at a kaleidoscopic image that is changing almost imperceptibly (much slower and without the formal structure of the example just below) with the slightest rotation of the tube, barely enough to be noticeable.
As T. S. Elliot put it in Burnt Norton, Feldman finds “the still point” without which “there would be no dance.” But it is a dance in excruciatingly slow motion that can sound boring as described, but is absorbing when experienced and heard; where background silence is as important as foreground, ever-so-careful sound.
With or without Feldman’s music as an alternative to focus on the breath, mindfulness meditation (with sufficient practice) is able to reduce the “chatter” in the brain — all the extraneous and debilitating ideas and judgments inside our head. And to accept life’s inevitable discomforts without so much of the suffering that we seem to add by our anxious anticipation, over thinking, hand wringing, and the belief that things must change in order to create a state of satisfaction.
The regular practice of that discipline attempts to assist us in finding contentment in the terms that life allows, not by virtue of some dramatic achievement or the elimination of all that most of us might wish were different. And, by helping anyone who frets about his own performance to focus on what is being performed (the music or the play or the speech he is giving) rather than the self, the actual execution of that work may reach the state that athletes describe when they are “in the zone” (or in a “flow” state*), fully captured by what they are doing (and achieving the best of which they are capable) rather than observing themselves doing it, or painfully aware that others might be watching critically.
Does Morton Feldman’s music have therapeutic value in the mindfulness enterprise or in dealing with performance anxiety, beyond its shimmering, otherworldly beauty? There is a Ph.D. dissertation or two waiting to be written on the subject, I’m sure. And wouldn’t it be ironic if a man who once said “Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it,” wrote music that might help refocus our troubled souls.
*For a further description of the “flow” state, see my response to the first comment below.
Here is a short example of Feldman’s music, the first 15 minutes of “For Bunita Marcus:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU
Here is a 20-minute talk by a monk and master meditator about the benefits of brain-retraining that can come with meditation: Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness
The top image is a photo of Morton Feldman taken at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on May 31, 1976 during the Holland Festival. It is the work of Rob Bogaerts. The second image is a Digital Teleidoscope Animation by nadjas. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.