18 min read

Concept, Image, & Idea

Darmstadt Revisited

A year ago Johannes Kreidler put together a wide ranging overview of the various methods used in creating ‘neo conceptual’ pieces of music. The long list of techniques put some of my own thinking in relief, prompting me to clarify my thoughts on the nature of sound and concepts by revisiting Morton Feldman’s 1984 Darmstadt Lecture in the light of neo conceptualism.


‘Readymades’ is the first (and most extensive) of Kreidler’s categories and includes various ways in which musical material need not be created ‘from scratch’ but might consist of a sonification stock market data or weather patterns, for example.‘Re-sonification’ is a sub-category in which data from an already sonic source is ‘re-presented’ in sound. Kreidler points to Peter Ablinger’s Words and Music as a classic example. I too have been working with the transformation of speech into (instrumental) music for quite some time, and have to admit that it came as something of a shock to suddenly consider the process in those terms. Morton Feldman’s Darmstadt Lecture sprang to mind:

You must believe me that I try not to give anything a name. Many years ago, I met a very young pianist Frederik Rzewski, and he said was a piece of mine available, he said, “You know that canon for two piano’s?” Canon, me, my canon? Oh yes, that free-durational piece. It was a canon I suppose. To tell you the truth, if I’d thought it was a canon, it would have caused me to commit suicide.

Feldman goes on to explain how important it was for him to refrain from giving things a name and how that strategy played out when composing a piece of music.

I don’t call a thing by a name. For example, if I’m repeating something I don’t say that I’m repeating something. In fact I don’t let my students use repeat signs. I say something might happen at the end of the measure.1

Feldman took delight in the ‘tailor-made’ qualities of his music, emphasizing the mindful aspect of maintaining attention throughout the process. In this he is often regarded as an example of a composer at the opposite end of the spectrum with regard to the conceptualists: Kreidler, for example, takes up Sol Le Witt’s notion that “The idea is a machine that produces the work of art”.2 If a composer needs to decide whether the next note should be an f or an f-sharp, the piece doesn’t qualify (in Kreidler’s view) as conceptual since it is the concept (“the machine”) that must make the decisions.

By setting up a process that can then be observed, or through creating a conceptual frame, the composer has the opportunity to step into the role of listener. Rather than communicating something heard internally, Cage spoke of notating music “so that he could hear it”. While Feldman generally avoids compositional ‘machines’ (although he might on occasion make use of small scale ‘devices’) this approach figures in his work as well:

John Cage said to me recently, “Morty, you mean to tell me you hear all that?” And I said, “No I write it down to hear it.” And he said, “Well I understand that.”3

In Feldman’s case the ‘readymades’ are brought down to a kind of micro-level. Not so much a case of choosing between an f or an f-sharp – an f-sharp on a piano is in itself a kind of readymade:

Everything is a found object. I mean, I didn’t invent the major sixth. I didn’t invent the minor seventh… Even something I invent is a found object.

And for Feldman the value of the ‘found object’ is as a means of loosening the hold of ideas.

Watching these found objects… You’re all amateur Duchamps and you don’t know it. And in realizing that, you loose your vested interest in ideas.4

Material and Idea

One of Feldman’s main concerns in the Darmstadt Lecture is what he sees as a disconnect between the ‘acoustic reality’ of a piece of music and the ideas it is attempting to communicate. Even in the case of ideas or forms within the realm of absolute music, aspects such as instrumentation might be more or less successful when it comes to performance. The found object short-circuits the classic relation of the idea and its materialization. One can still identify idea and material, but they now exist alongside one another, with attention drawn to the way in which they relate rather than the one serving the other.

A step back in time to Feldman’s 1976 interview with Walter Zimmerman provides a little more insight into his thought on sound and concept:

Duchamp… took the experience out of the eye, out of the retina, and he made a concept. Cage took it out of the past nonhearing aspect, the formal aspect of putting music, and he put it directly to the ear. So that’s absolutely the difference, you see? For all I know the greatest musical Duchamp was Beethoven.5

I take Feldman as saying that while Western art may for centuries have been caught up with the workings of the eye, music was for those same centuries caught up with an aspect of sound that was internal. Painters came from the opposite end of the spectrum. Obsessed as they were with the lens of the eye, Duchamp could point them in the other direction.6 Composers on the other hand were long occupied with writing down what they heard internally – an ability at the heart of popular notions of what it means to be a composer. Cage took the attention away from these forms, from fugues and the like (and the vested interests of the histories they were embedded in) and firmly placed attention on the act of listening.

Conceptual – Perceptual

Harry Lehmann, whose theoretical contributions have played an important role in the development of neo-conceptualism, and who proposes a relational counterpart to the tradition of absolute music, takes another view. He sees Cage as proto conceptualist, discounting Cage’s own view of 4′33″ as a frame onto the aural environment:

I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music they would hear if they went into a concert hall.
—John Cage

Lehmann, in his own Darmstadt Lecture, states:

Only under the umbrella of absolute music and within the spiritual Buddist worldview of Cage are people prepared for such a minimalistic sound experience. Under the perspective of relational music 4′33″ is no longer a piece with the most radical aesthetic that has been written but a paradigmatic anaesthetic piece of conceptual music.

Whether one chooses a conceptual stance, or, with Seth Kim-Cohen, views the piece as both birth and apotheosis of ambient listening,7 Feldman’s position is somewhat less radical. Listening to a note on an instrument as the “content” of a piece is less extreme than listening to the sounds of the environment, and, given the historic shaping of intrumental sounds, also contains a built-in aesthetic element. Feldman refrains however from placing all his cards on instrumental sound8 and takes up a position between the internal and external aspects outlined above:

You have to understand that since two Greek characters many, many years ago would have an argument about those two points of view – it was the conceptual and the perceptual – and the whole history of our thinking and our understanding has either to do with either a fight against both, or the amalgamation of both, and is both, or some standoff, whatever…

But if we take Henri Bergson seriously, he reminds us that there are essentially only two ways of expressing ourselves; one is conceptually, and the other by way of images. …So that’s essentially how I work. I don’t know which is which and what is what. There’s a confusion between the conceptual and the images.

The Aural ‘Memory Image’

Similar to Bergson’s notion of a ‘memory image’, Feldman speaks of an aural ‘image’: Successive perceptions of an f sharp played in a particular register on the piano accumulate to form an aural image of that note and the accumulation of perceptions leads to a deeper, more saturated image. These images might involve more than individual notes – they might encompass a particular register of an instrument or an entire musical texture, for example.9 This notion of a mental image blurs the line between the realms of material and idea.

By “image” we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing – an existence halfway between the “thing” and the “representation”.
—H. Bergson10

Feldman goes on the explain how this somewhat undefined in-between position (what he describes as a confusion) between ideal representation and actual thing plays out in his compositional process, how he might for example shift focus from something closer to an inner sense of sound to its more concrete outer “reality” in the form of an instrument.

They’re notes. They’ve got names. They’re pitches. The magic is to make sounds out of pitches. Or the magic is to bring back pitches. They might be sounds. Of course, I do that in my quartet. I’m going from pitches to sounds. Again it’s a translation.11

Having no resting place at either end of the scale, and wary of giving the in-between position a definitive name, Feldman is constantly turning things over, uncovering new aspects in a process of translation. And with translation we are once again relating one thing to another.

In Feldman’s case metaphors from painting, rugs, and literature all contribute to the process. While the aspect of communicating some ideal form through the medium of instruments has to some extent been short-circuited – there is no clear dividing line between the inner sense of sound and the perception of external sounds – forms might nevertheless make their appearance only to make way again for a shift in the direction of the acoustical “reality” of the music.

The classical instruments offer Feldman a kind of stability and a distillation of history in light of what he sees as the fleeting nature of concepts. They bring shapes with them. Concepts on the other hand “come and go,” as he quipped. 12 (Not that the neo conceptualists would have a problem with that.) Freed from the weight of historical imperatives there is no “compositional reality” to bump up against, but the instruments still provide an acoustic reality (even if not in absolute form) to contend with, without that acoustical reality becoming a source of “truth”.13

Not only is there a back and forth between internal mental images and their instrumental counterparts, recording an account of these movements in the form of musical notation introduces another element with its own role to play. In his 1981 essay Crippled Symmetry Feldman describes the discrepancy between his attempt to notate patterns that had a character both ‘concrete and ephemeral’ and their performance as follows.

These patterns exist in rhythmic shapes articulated by instrumental sounds, they are also in part notational images that do not make a direct impact on the ear as we listen. A tumbling of sorts happens in midair between their translation from the page and their execution. To a great degree this tumbling occurs in all music…

The degree to which music’s notation is responsible for much of the composition itself, is one of history’s best kept secrets.14

The constant translation from one aspect to another eases the load on having ‘original’ ideas as the main means of carrying the composition. 15

How do I get my notes? There are other things beside notes. Registration… I can’t hear a note unless I know its instrument. I can’t hear a note to write it down unless I immediately know its register. I can’t write a note unless I know its shape in time. 16

You have to know your instrument. You have to know what happens in registration. You have to know how to notate very difficult images. Isn’t that composition? 17


The anxiety of finding notes is replaced with an anxiety of maintaining attention:

To me concentration is more important than someone else’s pitch organization or whatever conceptual attitude they have about the piece.18

Ears, mind, and fingers are each part of the process.19 Notation, already shaping the music itself, as noted above, also has a role to play in finding that focus:

My pieces are to some degree a performance. I’m highly concentrated when I work. In fact I found one of the ways to arrive at concentration… is that I write in ink.20

Feldman’s awareness of himself as a part of the historical continuum of people, not only “composers”, but writers and painters as well, becomes yet another aspect of achieving a concentrated state.

…when you recognize strong voices around you, you are on another consciousness level. I had to bring myself into a certain creative pressure and concentration.21

Feldman isn’t primarily occupied with communicating a world of ideas through his compositions, nor do they rest on acoustics. Rather than creating new material, whether conceptual, in the realm of ideas, or acoustic, I take Feldman’s scores, along with the thoughts and reflections that surround them and contribute to them, as a kind of account (‘performances’) of his consciousness navigating a world of music.

* * *

Feldman is clearly no conceptualist. Nevertheless both he and the (neo) conceptualists draw on the same pool of terms that emerged in the art world in the first half of the previous century – a landscape that has played an important role in Feldman’s approach to thinking about and writing music.

There immediately we get involved with a certain interesting terminology, assemblage, as opposed to a word like composition. And there I mentioned it words. You must believe me when I try not to give a thing a name.22

I also find it interesting to note how some of Feldman’s concerns touch on certain (neo) conceptual directions.

Sol Le Witt, for example, sees alterations to the process, the “machine” that has been set in motion, as an interference of the ego.23 Feldman is equally interested in getting the ego out of the way, but his angle of focus and attention keeps the composer involved throughout, without necessarily falling into regarding adjustments as question of will.

I think there are three things working with me: my ears, my mind and my fingers. I don’t think that it’s just ear. That would mean that I’m just improvising, and I’m writing down what I like and what I don’t like.24

Feldman’s big argument with Cage was that his use of chance operations amounted to a system. One might argue that Cage’s painstaking method of consulting the I CHING and throwing the dice each step of the way kept him closely involved throughout the process. Today we have machines to do that work for us.

“The concept-machine today is above all the algorithm” as Johannes Kreidler, points out in his Sentences on Musical Concept-Art.

For all the social commentary and critical engagement of many neo conceptual pieces, I take it that in our surveillance age, surrounded by bots built for the purpose of death or public shaming, we’re a little more wary of regarding algorithms as unbiased:

Of course an autonomous weapon can carry out a war crime—if its programmers instruct it to do so
—Mandy Brown, @aworkinglibrary, (See conversation).

The notion that technology created by flawed, biased humans is somehow free of those biases is extremely dangerous
—Mandy Brown, @aworkinglibrary, (See conversation).

  1. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 184, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  2. This seems to be Kreidler’s own paraphrase.
    Numbers 28–29 of Sol Le Witt’s 35 Sentences on Conceptual Art read as follows:

    28. Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
    29. The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.

    (See also Kreidler’s own Sentences on Musical Concept-Art.) 

  3. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 195, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  4. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 187, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  5. Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmerman, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 235, (Beginner Press 1985). 

  6. Everything since Courbet has been retinal, that is, you look at a painting for what you see, you add nothing intellectual about it. —Marcel Duchamp, BBC Interview, (1968).

  7. …Cage completely eradicates figure and foreground,while abolishing authorial agency regarding the formal content of the work. What’s more 4′33″ is not just the birth of these erasures and of the “infinitessimal degree”, but their apotheosis.
    —Seth Kim-Cohen, Against Ambience, (Amazon).

  8. The after all, you can’t take instruments seriously enough. To me they’re an accomodation. I mean Moses didn’t give us instruments.
    —M.F. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p.186, (Beginner Press 1985).

  9. Do we ever get together about what an instrumental image is?
    Think of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, the first movement. Try and locate it. Think of the high tessiture registers. You remember the low flute cutting in at the bottom?
    —Morton Feldman, Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 184, (Beginner Press, 1985).

  10. H. Bergson, Matter and Memory, p. 9, (Zone Books, 1988).  

  11. Morton Feldman, Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 184, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  12. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 194, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  13. There’s an avant-garde aspect which has a very religious, St.Thomas aspect about the “truth of the material”. In that sense, I don’t feel that material has any “truths”. It has our truths. We bring it in.—Morton Feldman, Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p.209, (Beginner Press, 1985).

  14. Crippled Symmetry, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 132, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  15. Grabbing and republishing a large amount of data as text is at the heart of conceptual poetry, or “uncreative writing,” a relatively recent movement heralded by Kenneth Goldsmith. In conceptual poetry, reading the text is less important than thinking about the idea of the text. In fact, much of conceptual poetry could be called unreadable, and that’s not a bad thing. Goldsmith tweeted recently: “No need to read. A sample of the work suffices to authenticate its existence.” —Paul Soulellis

  16. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 196, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  17. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 208, (Beginner Press 1985). 

  18. Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmerman, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 230, (Beginner Press 1985). 

  19. I think there are three things working with me: my ears, my mind and my fingers. I don’t think that it’s just ear. That would mean that I’m just improvising, and I’m writing down what I like and what I don’t like.
    —Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmerman, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 230, (Beginner Press 1985).

  20. Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmerman, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 229, (Beginner Press 1985). 

  21. Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmerman, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 240, (Beginner Press 1985). 

  22. Darmstad Lecture, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 184, (Beginner Press, 1985). 

  23. “7. The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His wilfulness may only be ego.” —Sol Le Witt, Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1969. 

  24. Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmerman, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 230, (Beginner Press 1985). 

I’ll be following up on these considerations with some further thoughts on neo conceptualism as well as some posts on how I’ve approached some of these aspects in my own compositions.

Thanks to Mads-Emil Dreyer for valuable feedback and conversation.

You can find me on Twitter – or send me an email.

Leave a comment

Available formatting commands

Use Markdown commands or their HTML equivalents to add simple formatting to your comment:

Text markup
*italic*, **bold**, ~~strikethrough~~, `code` and <mark>marked text</mark>.
- Unordered item 1
- Unordered list item 2
1. Ordered list item 1
2. Ordered list item 2
> Quoted text
Code blocks
// A simple code block
// Some PHP code
[Link text](https://example.com)
Full URLs are automatically converted into links.

Have you published a response to this? Send me a Webmention!

Hi, I’m <a rel="me" class="p-name u-url" href="https://rudigermeyer.com">Rudiger Meyer</a>, a composer interested in the play between music, sound, and&nbsp;media.