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June 10, 2012

Figure 1: Morton Feldman (1926 – 1987) [Photo: (C) Roberto Massotti].

Morton Feldman (1926 – 1987) was born in New York City into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, and became one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century, developing new forms of music. “He was a pioneer of indeterminate music, a development associated with the experimental New York School of composers…[i] Feldman’s works are characterized by notational innovations that he developed to create his characteristic sound: rhythms that seem to be free and floating; pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused; a generally quiet and slowly evolving music; recurring asymmetric patterns.”[ii] Indeterminacy in music is about “automatism,” the resolute elimination of the artist’s ego or personality from the artistic product[iii] – the musical work is either chosen by chance, or its performance not precisely specified.[iv]

Figure 2: Coptic tapestry fragment showing Jonah partly in the inside of the whale.

Coptic light is one of Feldman’s late productions; and can stand as one of his best examples of musical indeterminacy. The idea of the title of Coptic Light came to him when he saw Coptic textiles in the Louvre, at Paris, France. As Raymond Tuttle tells us, “Feldman was struck by how these fragments ‘conveyed an essential atmosphere of their civilization.’”[v] The 30-minute musical piece was premièred by the New York Philharmonic in 1985. Its mystic beauty is undoubted. “It is a shimmering web of hushed sound. In a sense, it’s an example of Maximalism – every instrument, like a bee in a hive, seems to be working on the same project, but no two instruments are doing it in exactly the same way. As one listens closely, patterns emerge, but they are elusive, and they alter as soon as one tries to hold on to them. The texture is dense, but nevertheless suffused with a gentle light.”[vi]

Figure 3: Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light by Michael Tilson Thomas (The New World Symphony Orchestra; released 1995; duration: 29:43).[vii]

 The reader can listen to Coptic Light in the three videos below:

Every time I listen to this extraordinary piece of art, I find myself imaging souls of Coptic children, men and women, who have left us over millennia of time, springing up effortlessly and noiselessly from Coptic tapestries, portraits, coffins and cemeteries, from across Ximi,[viii] where their remains or images have kept their essence, and wandering around in thin air as if they are soft clouds floating in space, with their almond-shaped eyes wide-open but fixed on nowhere. They reveal no emotion, of fear or joy, except from a feeling of resignation and submission to Ephnoti,[ix] the Compassionate Judge. The background music may sound a bit eerie, and the images may be unnerving, nonetheless one is not overwhelmed by horror but with peace and harmony. These are our beloved – they have not succumbed to disease, starvation, persecution, and ultimately death. They are alive! And the ether is crowded with them! This is Coptic Light!

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (10 June 2012), COPTIC LIGHT BY THE GREAT AMERICAN MUSCICIAN MORTON FELDMAN,

[i] The following composers, John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown, are also leading members of this school. John Cage was the leader of this group.

[ii] See:

[iii] Indeterminacy: John Cage and the “New York School”; Chapter 34: Starting from Scratch: Music in the Aftermath of World War II. In Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin and Christopher H. Gibbs  (Oxford, 2012).

[iv] Music of the Twentieth Century: Style and Structure by Bryan R.Simms. (New York, Schirmer Books, 1986); p. 357.

[v] Raymond Tuttle, one of the reviewers/contributors to See:

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Recording location: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, FL; and recording date: 9-10 January 1995.

[viii] Egypt in ancient Egyptian and Coptic.

[ix] God in ancient Egyptian and Coptic.

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