Morton Feldman at the Festival d'Automne (Paris 1997)


It’s a pleasure to see the French finally acknowledging Morton Feldman by programming a series of concerts of his music as part of the Autumn Festival. Feldman has finally succeeded in capturing the imagination of the Europeans in a way that his fellow American Experimentalists have so far failed to do: perhaps the old Europe vs. U.S.A. (or rather, Boulez vs. Cage) thing is still partly responsible--for, despite the fact that it’s become rather chic these days to pour scorn on IRCAM, that organisation’s founding father and the philosophy he represents both still carry a not inconsiderable cultural weight round these parts. So, Cage is important more as a philosophical rather than a musical force (“we Europeans never could take those radios and mushrooms all that seriously...”), Wolff is interesting ideologically (personally I live in hope that one day his 1960s works will receive more attention), and Earle Brown is more or less forgotten, albeit unjustifiably so. Only Feldman, marching steadily on along the path he started upon in the mid-Sixties, devoting his life to the production of increasingly fragile and exquisite--and from time to time exquisitely long--music, produced a homogenous body of work too strong and original to be dismissed by those all too ready to do so. Perhaps image also played a part: it’s easy to wonder at how such delicate sonic surfaces could have issued from that gangling, overweight, chain-smoking character (“It’s too fuckin’ loud and it’s too fuckin’ fast!” he once berated some well-meaning students at York University after they’d tried their best to render one of his pieces...). Certainly that frank lucidity evident both in his Writings and in his fascinating re-evaluation of the basic concepts of musical notation (see the liner notes to “Crippled Symmetry”) was responsible for attracting the attention of more mainstream French composers (Dusapin and MÉfano are both quoted in the Festival programme), and ultimately prompted several fine European ensembles--notably the Ensemble Recherche in Freiburg and the HatArt label--to issue several excellent CDs. Nowadays, Feldman is better served in terms of available discography than many of his contemporaries. As I write this, the extraordinary vocal sonorities of “Rothko Chapel” float around me in the quiet of my apartment, and there is nothing else (apart from the hum of the computer) to distract my attention. This is private music, perhaps best appreciated in the quiet of one’s own space--does this explain why Feldman CDs have been found in the same bin as Arvo Prt and Tavener? A curious match, that, for while Feldman’s music is for the most part still and invites contemplation, it lacks the self-conscious asceticism of Prt or the public spirituality of Tavener. It’s also for the most part “atonal”--sorry to bring back that meaningless old tag, but you know what I mean: lots of major sevenths, minor ninths, etc. OK, OK chromatic, if you prefer--worth stating I think, for were it to consist solely of gentle Bill Evans minor elevenths and perfect fifths, this music would be alarmingly bland.


Eglise des Blancs-Manteaux, 10th. October 1997

Gratifying though it is to hear this music in concert, my overriding impression is one of frustration: how dare a car-horn honk outside during these breathtaking pianissimos? Why can’t the concert-going public carry and use handkerchiefs instead of desecrating this sacred emptiness with ear-splitting smokers’ hacking coughs? Anyway, the resonant acoustic of the Eglise des Blancs Manteaux was perfect for “Rothko Chapel,” in a sensitive and moving performance by violist Barbara Maurer and the Ensemble Vocal Les Jeunes Solistes conducted by Rachid Safir. However, Safir’s decision to use two-part women’s chorus instead of two solo voices in “Voices and Cello” (1973) seemed to me a mistake; many of Feldman’s works are written for trio combinations (“Crippled Symmetry,” “For Philip Guston,” “Why Patterns” etc.), and the visual intimacy of three musicians alone on stage was sacrificed “in order to obtain a perfect fusion of the two vocal lines and the cello harmonics,” to quote Safir. All well and good--the performance was careful and clear, though I couldn’t see the cellist for the conductor--but I can’t help feeling that it became somehow a different piece, more akin to Feldman’s other more public choral offerings (“Christian Wolff in Cambridge” and “Chorus and Instruments I and II”). Perhaps Feldman scholars will write in to tell me that he himself authorised this alternative version, and I will duly stand corrected.
“The King of Denmark” (1964), for percussion, was performed in a seven-minute version by Florent Jodelet, who looked like an escapee from Nexus or Les Percussions de Strasbourg, incarcerated as he was on stage in a cubic prison of gongs, drums and bells (very impressive to look at--it produced some pretty reflections too under the pale gold lights). His reading of this graphic score was quite balletic to watch, as he darted around his cage, flicking and pinging his instruments, but gave the impression that he was in some way making it up as he went along (he was playing from memory). It certainly sounded quite different from my recording--though this is hardly surprising, since Feldman’s scores of the period leave many decisions of timing and articulation to the performer--had you played this in a blind test telling me it was a new piece by Boulez I might just have believed you. If Jodelet was consciously highlighting the playful character of Feldman’s score (after all, he wrote it on the beach in Long Island...) he certainly succeeded, but the piece sat uneasily in the programme between “Voices and Cello” and “Principal Sound” (1980) for organ. Here I have to state a prejudice: church organs, along with bagpipes and bassoons, are among my least favourite instruments. If you’re going to write for this great big ugly beast, at least go all the way and attack it Gothic-horror style with fists and forearms, as in Ligeti’s “Volumina.” Somehow the registration can never be intimate enough, as was the case with “Principal Sound,” performed well enough, I suppose, by Olivier Latry; in music such as this, where surface is all-important, the organ’s chronic inability to produce sounds with definable attack and decay seems to me to set it at a distinct disadvantage. In short, I can sit spellbound for nearly two hours listening to “Crippled Symmetry” (for flute, celesta, vibraphone), but “Principal Sound” had me nodding off within ten minutes. “Rothko Chapel” (1971), however, was breathtaking. I suppose this has to be Feldman’s most accessible piece, due probably to the inclusion near the end of a haunting melody on the solo viola which Feldman tells us he wrote when he was fifteen. This strange timeless melody arrives from nowhere, but somehow reflects on the work’s eerie floating chords. (Where did he get these amazing pitches from? What an ear!) Inevitably, the title leads us to think of death and matters spiritual--I wonder if we would react as intensely had he followed his usual practice of naming the piece after its instrumental forces: “Voices, Viola and Percussion” somehow just doesn’t sound as good.

Théatre Molière, Maison de la Poésie, 4th. November 1997

In 1983, when I should have been old enough to know better, I walked out of a Feldman concert in London. It was the mighty Kronos Quartet playing the second String Quartet, which lasts somewhere near four hours. What had annoyed me at the outset was the presence of eight chairs onstage--four for the musicians and four more for their page-turners... As they were playing from copies of the full score, all four turners would have to stand up and turn together, which, in the absence of any discernible movement on the part of David, John, Hank and Joan, soon became the major visual focal point of the performance. After two hours, I started agonizing as to whether I could stay the course, and twenty minutes later left as silently as possible (the hard seats helped me make up my mind). I spent the rest of the evening feeling extraordinarily guilty, and trying to think of some justification for what I was beginning to consider as an act of cowardice. You know, like: “well, Feldman was always very close to painters such as Rothko, and in the same way that painting has no existence in time (duration)--you can look at it for as long as you wish--neither does a Feldman piece, which means I can leave when I want...” And, worse: “I know that the piece won’t change very much during the next ninety minutes, so I figure if I leave now I can say I’ve heard as much as I have to hear...” Of these two excuses, the former is a conceptually interesting, if flawed, notion; the latter plain wrong. To requote Howard Skempton on LaMonte Young, “it’s not that there’s not enough to hear, there’s too much to hear.”.
Kronos came to mind at the ThÉtre MoliËre, with “Piano and String Quartet” (their recording of the work with Aki Takahashi is one of the most readily available discs of late Feldman), performed here by members of the Ives Ensemble, who, though less sartorially flamboyant than Kronos, played the work with extreme precision and sensitivity. Thankfully they had arranged and recopied their scores in such a way that page turners were not required, leaving the audience free to watch the musicians alone. Not that there was much to watch--the gentleman next to me nodded off, leaving his starched shirt to creak in time with his breathing, as if a geiger counter had been hidden somewhere in the plush upholstery--the minute gestures of coordination between the players (one sensed the intricacies of Feldman’s notation) were almost imperceptible. Fascinating however was the spatial distribution of the string chords: what on the record can seem like the same sonorities (more or less) repeated over and over was aurally richer in performance, as the constituent elements of each chord were subtlely swapped between the four musicians.
As Steve Reich notes in his appreciation of Feldman in the programme, many of the chords are inversions of themselves, though the repetitions are never exact: ceratin harmonic events do reoccur--the E-G#-F#-G chord (or “4-2” if you prefer set-theory), permeates much of the central area of the piece: a typically ambiguous Feldman sound, this, with its implicit dissonance--two adjacent semitones--and yet a hint of an E major ninth (a duality highlighted by its vertical note-by-note presentation, the pitches entering in order one by one above each other, major third, minor seventh, minor ninth). It’s also tempting for set-theorists to analyse what Feldman was up to in the piano part near the end of the piece, where the same arpeggiated chord is heard in numerous transpositions but with the same intervallic profile--perfect fifth, major third, whole tone, perfect fourth, minor sixth (e.g. F-C-E-F#-B-G, or “6-38” in Forte notation)--though the fact that the same pitch information occurs again and again is hardly evidence of Feldman consciously applying set-theory. His oft-asserted “I compose by ear” may well account for the coherence of pitch-class content (i.e. he just heard the same pitches), and budding analysts are well-advised to bear this in mind before congratulating themselves on discovering “Morty’s use of set-theory.”. To quote Feldman: “If you think you might have secret information listening to me, you’re lost.”
This is only one of many intriguing aspects touched upon here, but leads to a question of great significance: does that the fact that we recognise recurring events (such as the cello’s solo melody--played four times on harmonics and finally pizzicato) impart form to the work? What is musical form? If we propose the hypothesis that our so-called traditional Western musical forms are classifiable and identifiable precisely because they contain elements which reoccur and are perceived to reoccur (what is Rondo other than ABACADA etc.?), then are concepts such as Stockhausen’s “moment form” invalid as musical forms? Where do we situate Feldman’s music in this discourse? I would venture to suggest that a kind of moment form is in effect here, in that our capacity to perceive recognisable musical ideas, indeed our very notion of memory itself, is being brought into question. To be sure, these are issues which are central to the discussion of any piece of contemporary music, be it by Ferneyhough or LaMonte Young, but Feldman’s direct exposition of basic musical building blocks--arpeggio, simple rhythmic unison, regular/not-so-regular repetition of events--brings them into sharper focus. Closing my eyes during the piece I thought at times of the Nevada desert, of a sensation of travelling without really moving: the profile of distant mountains shifting slowly enough for a change in the landscape to be perceived only in retrospect, a blurring of past and present. Do the “Speed Limit 75” signs which flash by every ten miles or so impart a kind of form to this landscape? Perhaps not, though they trigger the processes of memory which allow us to (re)construct its form, which might not be the form in an abstract cartographical sense but is certainly our form. Similarly, in a score, do barlines impart musical form? Yes, in a sense, but only for the performer--maybe then we can consider Feldman’s repetitions as audible barlines, simple signposts we pass as we make our way through a desolate and beautiful landscape. And what do we remember of the piece when it is finished? Sometimes we dream of places we know but the dream image bears no relation whatsoever to the place as it really is (“I dreamt of Paris but it didn’t look like Paris at all, but it was Paris.”.)--for some strange reason, all I could hear as I made my way home on the MÉtro was a descending major seventh, from A below middle C to the B flat below. The more I think of it, the surer I am that this sonority is nowhere to be found in “Piano and String Quartet,” but it somehow belonged there, part of the piece. Now, where was Feldman in all of this?


Théâtre Molière, Maison de la Poésie, 25th. November 1997

In contrast to the Rothko Chapel concert, the audience for the Ensemble Recherche was by far the quietest I’ve ever heard. Not the slightest hint of a cough. Maybe it’s just that they were well educated concert-goers, but I prefer to think it had something to do with the music. It was an awesome concert, spanning the full range of Feldman’s career, from the exquisite pointillism of the “Four Songs to e.e. cummings” (1951), via the first-past-the-post indeterminate durations of the “O’Hara Songs” of 1962, to three major Seventies works “I Met Heine on the Rue Frstenberg” (1971), “For Frank O’Hara” (1973), and “Routine Investigations” (1976), culminating in Feldman’s final work, “Samuel Beckett, Words and Music,” premiered only months before his death in 1987. The Ensemble Recherche was on fine form--they have after all recorded this music and toured it extensively--and the vocal contributions from Sarah Leonard, Omar Ebrahim and Stephen Lind were superb: Ebrahim in fact nearly got a standing ovation mid-concert for the O’Hara songs.
Performing without a conductor--no easy feat given Feldman’s notational idiosyncracies--the ensemble’s coordination was nonetheless impeccable (sitting on the front row I was actually able to follow the scores). What comes across most forcibly in performances of this quality is the distinct identity of each piece; despite the fact that they’re all 100% pure Feldman, i.e. almost entirely pianissimo and gently chromatic and mildly repetitive throughout, each work rapidly establishes its own musical identity, its own unique sonic universe. “I Met Heine...” trembles like a captive butterfly with its voice and clarinet fluttertonguing (and what supremely lyrical vocal writing for wordless soprano!); in “For Frank O’Hara” the percussion growls like a distant thunderstorm, until at one moment the snare drum breaks out in an extraordinary crescendo to fortissimo (surely one of the most breathtaking moments in Feldman’s oeuvre); “Routine Investigations” is more active, but also more rhythmically stolid, its tiny chromatic fragments rotating in intricate not-so-regular metrical prisons, a technique Feldman later explored in 1980’s “The Turfan Fragments.” As for “Words and Music,” of the maybe hundreds of composers (myself included) who have tried, it seems to me that only Feldman ever succeeded in truly capturing the intimate desolation of Beckett. His most austerely Beckettian work, and to my mind his masterpiece, is the ensemble piece “For Samuel Beckett” from 1986 (if you don’t have this at home, your record collection is woefully lacking), whereas “Words and Music” finds Feldman in more relaxed, “incidental music” mood, dictated somewhat by the bitter humour of Beckett’s text.
One of Feldman’s overriding concerns was musical time and how we experience it; LaMonte Young once spoke of a prisoner confined for a long time who hears a door slam one day--as the only sound he has heard (and will hear) for a very long time, Young (I think it was Young) postulates the hypothesis that the sound continues to exist for him long after it has physically ended. In the same way, the shattering snare drum roll in “For Frank O’Hara” resonates in the listeners’ minds not only for the rest of the piece, but way beyond. However, as I wandered out into the night once more after the concert, I put on my Walkman (an indispensable travelling aid in the Parisian transport system), and discovered that I had taken the wrong tape to listen to: instead of the Ives Ensemble’s newly-issued (and excellent) version of Feldman’s “Trio,” I found myself listening to the Waudang flute music of Papua New Guinea. Absolutely spellbinding, utterly minimal, and very Feldmanesque--a touch of chance “Morty” himself might well have appreciated. May he rest in peace.