Feldmans For John Cage, the Crippled Symmetry and the blurred forms

For John Cage, for piano and violin, is a late piece by Morton Feldman written in 1982. In this piece, Feldman develops some forming issues from his aesthetics, especially in the late works. Pattern composition, slow pace, displacement of events, notational images, floating meters, extreme of temporal duration.

In the paper homonymous, Wes York [1] establishes a detailed analytic approach to this Feldman’s For John Cage. It is a sort of attempt to divide the piece in segments, trying to find out (crippled) symmetry and relationships between parts, phrases and groups. “In his duo for violin and piano, For John Cage (1982), Morton Feldman employs both of these methods – symmetry and ‘over-all’ – and thus, the work’s component parts are always treated as equal in importance” (York, 1996, 147).

The symmetry in Feldman is a concept that deals with a balance between order and disorder, achieved by disturbances, distortions, and skewings of symmetrical forms. This notion, that Feldman called crippled symmetry, is an important feature in his late works. The composer developed the notion of crippled symmetry based on symmetrical images from Near and Middle Eastern rugs and paintings by artists of Abstract Expressionist, leading him to answer (in music) the question “what is symmetrical and what is not”. In the essays entitled “Crippled Symmetry” [2], Feldman discuss this concept            in light of his (late) work and his compositional issues, for instance, the use of patterns, the notational images, and so on.

The over-all is a concept that York credits to Cage and means “where each small part is a sample of what you find elsewhere” (York, 1996, 147). Based upon both concepts, symmetry and over-all, the author suggests the notion of self-similarity as a strategy, in the sense of “the form of For John Cage is all the more interesting in that each of its self-similar structures is itself symmetrical. Thus, For John Cage employs both symmetry and the over-all character of self-similarity to achieve its unique sense of coherence”.

The author tries to demonstrate the symmetries and the self-similarity, achieving that through the segmentation. In order to find symmetries, York divide the work’s form in parts, forms of each part, sections, forms of sections, groups, sub-groups, phrases, sub-phrases, patterns, and gestures.

But two problems result in this approach. On one hand, in order to prove some analytical issues, the author separates the composition’s parts without a convincingly musical reason. For instance, the separation between the subgroups 2 (mm. 150-167) and 3 (mm. 168-180) does not seem based upon a contrast or difference in the materials or any another musical issue. On the other hand, this approach is unable to answer the main question that the own author proposes: “if a structure consists of a series of events, all equally important, and, at the same time, each of those events becomes the focus of attention, what, then, do all these events and their details add up to? What makes such a collection a unified whole?”, (York, 1996, 147). What do these series of events sound like a piece? What are the elements of connection, coherence (it does not matter in what sense), wholeness, integrity? The paper fails in answer this question, since the approach just lists and describes the composition’s parts in order to show the (crippled) symmetries and the self-similarity. It is important to remember Feldman: “as a composer I am involved with the contradiction in not having the sum of the parts equal the whole. […] The reciprocity inherent in scale, in fact, has made me realize that musical forms and related processes are essentially only methods of arranging material and serve no other function than to aid one’s memory” (Feldman, 1986, 127).


In fact, the memory is an important question in Feldman’s late works. Is anybody able to memorize musical processes and recognize formal relationships in a piece that lasts one hour (or sometimes much more than this)? Feldman often hands obstacles for the listener’s memory.

The ambiguity plays a fundamental role in Feldman’s late works. Actually, it is a feature of crippled symmetry, but it is more than this, the ambiguity is often present in the notation (notational images), in meter, pace, enharmony, etc. In For John Cage (mm. 334 and ss., mm. 778 and ss.), for instance, the enharmony is used to create an interesting universe of color, especially in the part of violin, creating slight differences between enharmonic notes. That procedure keeps for the rest of piece, always in order to propose different shades to the music materials.

Here, it is important to underline the relationship between Feldman’s music and visual artist. Moreover the straightforward correlation between the symmetries in the rugs and the Feldman’s crippled symmetry, the shades established in the procedures of orchestration of clusters (as discussed early) and the colors as a result of the enharmony writing evoke the Abstract Expressionist Aesthetics, and some shades present in paintings of Jackson Pollock, Sonia Sekula [3], Richard Lippold, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mark Rothko.

The form in Feldman’s late work represents a very interesting concept. It is not possible talk in section, in a traditional sense. The form is almost always blurred. It seems like a blurred Abstract Expressionist Painting (like Mark Rothko’s blurred rectangles of colors). It happens because of the asynchronism applied in the writing of the parts (asyncronisms in pace, meter, and so on). It is better to talk in regions or zones of identity in a composition. For instance, in Cripple Symmetry, for ensemble, there is a part written as blocks of notes (page 14). However, the composer remembers: “It should be understood that this page (like the others) is not a synchronized some”. Due the different paces and meters in the previous measures, it sounds like a polymetric texture, allowing the composer to control the general design (a sort of accelerando first and allargando after).


[1] Wes York,  “For John Cage,”  in  DeLio, Thomas, Ed,  The Music of Morton Feldman (Excelsior, 1996), 147-95.

[2] Morton Feldman,  “Crippled Symmetry”,  in Feldman, Morton and Walter Zimmermann,  Morton Feldman Essays,  (Beginner, 1985), 124-142.

[3] Sonia Sekula (or Sonja Sekula) is a Swiss painter that attend the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, during de 1950`s. She lived in New York between 1936 and 1955. She killed herself in Zurich, in 1963. Some images from Sekula’s works are available in:






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