Reinbert de Leeuw unlocks the mystical world of Morton Feldman.

For Bunita Marcus

Morton Feldman, Reinbert de Leeuw

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The music of the American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) is a paragon of understatement. His compositions are characterised by a deceptive emptiness and daringly sparse instrumentations. Feldman wrote this piano work for composer Bunita Marcus, who was inseparable as his artistic companion in the last years of his life. The score plays a complex and elongated game with different, overlapping time signatures and metres. By creating a scarcity of events, Feldman manages to exert a hypnotic influence on the listener. Hardly anything happens and at the same time a lot happens, and thereby his music touches on the mysteries of time itself. It’s mystical stuff that could not be in any better hands than Reinbert de Leeuw’s, who is a master of tension and focus.



Morton Feldman
Reinbert de Leeuw
Holland Festival

Feldman's slow, methodical composition effectively inspires a meditative contemplation.

Dusted Reviews

Background information

The music of Morton Feldman is a marvel of understatement. While other composers will overwhelm their audience with contrasts or tonal eruptions, Feldman presents us with a world in which, at first hearing, hardly anything happens. This certainly applies to the later works, such as the piano work For Bunita Marcus, in which the distance between the notes is even more important than the notes themselves.

However, considering that Feldman (1926-1987) is regarded as one of the most important American composers of the twentieth century, one realises there must be more to him than meets the eye, or indeed the ear. Nobody is better equipped to unveil the secrets of this idiosyncratic music than Reinbert de Leeuw, who will perform the lengthy For Bunita Marcus. At the Holland Festival 2011, De Leeuw performed an enthusiastically received programme of obscure piano music by Erik Satie, The esoteric world of Erik Satie, in which he demonstrated that the French audience's favourite had a rather eccentric taste for musical extremes, in stretching time and abandoning tone relations. In the light of this new programme one could say that Satie was an early musical ally of Morton Feldman.

Although Feldman is usually considered to be part of the experimental, multi-disciplinary 'New York School', along with John Cage, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, as an artist he totally followed a path of his own. Feldman found art, for instance by Pollock or by his great friend Mark Rothko, to be just as inspiring and important for his development as music. Nevertheless, his meeting with Cage in 1950, was of crucial importance. Both men shared an interest for indeterminacy and graphical notation. Feldman studied with Stefan Wolpe and Edgard Varèse. His early work was influenced by Schönberg and Bartók. However, from the very start his music was characterised by a remarkable scarcity of events and, also in his ensemble and orchestral works, boldly sparse orchestrations.

From the 1970's Feldman wrote ever longer pieces, some stretching to four or five hours, in which he employed more repetitions than before and also made comparatively big gestures. For Bunita Marcus (1985) is one of the many works which Feldman dedicated to friends or teachers. Bunita Marcus studied with Feldman from 1976 at the State University of New York in Buffalo. They became friends and were almost inseparable in the later years of Feldman's life. Timed at roughly one hour and a quarter, For Bunita Marcus is one of the shorter pieces from this period. Due to its metrical construction the composer himself called the piece a-typical. Nevertheless, it has all the characteristics of Feldman's music and has become, maybe precisely for its manageable size, a much-loved work.

Underlying For Bunita Marcus is a complex game with different, overlapping time signatures. “Rhythm is non-existent to me,” Feldman famously said. However, he was interested in metre, and he used it to give shape to this work. About 12 minutes in, there is a characteristic passage, when beneath a high, continually repeated note, suggesting a pulse, three other tones are alternated, reminding one of the effect of chiming church bells: they all adhere to an internal logic, but in their interplay they come across as arbitrary. However, this is only what seems. Due to the slow tempo, which has a hypnotic effect, the events are easy to follow and one can actually hear they are not arbitrary. The experience can be compared to an extreme enlargement of scale: the spaces in between the onsets are immense. Compliant with he law of scarcity in economics, every new tone accordingly gains in weight enormously. Hardly anything happens and at the same time an awful lot happens, and thereby, between standing still and the passing of time, the mystery of Feldman's music touches on the mystery of time itself.


Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was a leading American composer, who is regarded as one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. Feldman studied composition with Schönberg disciple Wallingford Riegger and former Webern student Stefan Wolpe; but the decisive encounter in his musical life was with John Cage, who encouraged him to break away from old compositional models, such as traditional harmony and serial techniques. Feldman is often associated with the experimental New York School, along with Cage, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown. In the 1950’s Feldman experimented with graphic notation and freedoms for the performers. From the 1970’s he used conventional notation. Through Cage, Feldman met various other prominent figures from the New York art scene, including visual artists Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Robert Rauschenberg, the composers Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson and George Antheil and the writer Frank O’Hara. Feldman was especially inspired by the works of the abstract-expressionist painters. He expressed his indebtedness with titles such as Rothko Chapel (1971) and For Frank O’Hara (1973). In 1977 he wrote the opera Neither, set to a text by Samuel Beckett. Until 1973 Feldman worked as a composer as well as holding a full time job in his family’s textile business. That year he started lecturing in composition at the State University of New York in Buffalo, a position he held until his death. Especially his later chamber music, from 1977, tends to be soft, slow and intimate. These works are often extremely long. For Philip Guston (1984), for instance, is 4 hours long; his Second String Quartet (1983) measures 6 hours. Shortly after his marriage to the Canadian composer Barbara Monk, Feldman died of pancreatic cancer.


Reinbert de Leeuw (1938) studied music theory and piano in Amsterdam and composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. In the 1970's he was widely lauded for his interpretation of the music of the 'forgotten' modern composer Erik Satie. In 1974 De Leeuw along with some students from the Royal Conservatory The Hague formed the Schönberg Ensemble, today called Asko|Schönberg, which he has been the conductor of ever since. He has also conducted many other ensembles and symphony orchestras both in the Netherlands and abroad, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the The Hague Philharmonic and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. In the 1995-1996 season the Concertgebouw's Carte Blanche series was exclusively dedicated to De Leeuw. As well as concerts, he also conducted operas with De Nederlandse Opera and the Nationale Reisopera, including operas by Stravinsky, Andriessen, Ligeti and Vivier. For three seasons De Leeuw worked as artistic advisor in modern and contemporary music at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In 1992 he was artistic director at the Aldeburgh Festival and from 1994 to 1998 he held the same post at the Tanglewood Festival for contemporary music in the United States. De Leeuw received many prizes and awards for his groundbreaking work. In 1994 he was awarded a honorary doctorate by Utrecht University and in August 2004 he was appointed professor at Leiden University. Reinbert de Leeuw received a number of Edison Awards – prestigious Dutch music awards -, including one in 2007 for the ‘Schönberg Ensemble Edition’, a publication of 25 CD's and DVD's on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the ensemble, and one in 2008 for the recording of his Schubert adaptation Im wunderschönen Monat Mai with Barbara Sukowa and the Schönberg Ensemble. From 2001 to 2010 De Leeuw was artistic leader of the Summer Academy of the Dutch National Youth Orchestra. In 2008, on his 70th birthday, he received a knighthood in the Order of the Dutch Lion.

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