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Composed: 1980
Length: c. 17 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 6 violas, 4 cellos, and 4 basses
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Morton Feldman spent his prime working in the family garment business in Manhattan so as to protect his artistic independence. Meanwhile, he fueled his profoundly original brand of musical thinking through associations with fellow mavericks. Feldman drew closely on the inspiration he found from friendships with painters and writers. Close pal John Cage introduced him to some of the seminal New York-based Abstract Expressionists as well as literary figures, including Frank O’Hara and Samuel Beckett, with whom he collaborated on an opera.

Throughout the 1970s, Feldman explored some of his idiosyncratic ideas in works for large orchestra featuring various solo instruments. A recurring obsession is the placement of timbre and color in the foreground as elements that “hover” across the unfolding fabric of the music. The Turfan Fragments is pitched for a reduced chamber orchestra and marks the beginning of a pause in Feldman’s writing for orchestra that lasted a half decade (until he resumed it with Coptic Light).

The title refers to a significant trove of manuscripts in various languages discovered by German researchers in the early 20th century along the ancient Silk Road and which had been hidden away during the war. Feldman likely saw some of the collection when parts of it were again made available in Berlin, where he lived in the early 1970s. Feldman’s delicate stitching together of fragmentary but elusively repetitive particles hints at the enigmatic character of their namesake.

Feldman’s score repeatedly asks for an intensely subdued dynamic field (ppppp) which belies the tension of its chromatic blurs of dissonance and shifting pulsations. There are no violins to sweeten the palette, giving Feldman’s pointillist chords a tangier sound. Like Rothko’s lozenges of color, the musical fabric slowly draws out slight variations in perspective as fragments intersect and become absorbed into the whole, leaving us to savor their resonance.