January 21, 2007

Now Playing: Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman (1926-1987): Patterns in a Chromatic Field (Tzadik, 2005)

Charles Curtis: ‘cello
Aleck Karis: piano

Even though I prided myself on my radically open-minded taste in music, I didn’t like Morton Feldman’s music at all when I first heard it - and that shocked me. I knew he was “important” since he was not only a close friend and colleague of John Cage (whose music I had no problem with), but also friends with the major Abstract Expressionist artists like Willem DeKooning, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and Robert Rauschenberg (all of whose art I loved). Clearly there was something wrong with me, to be so befuddled by this apparently simple – if seemingly simple-minded – music. Rather than rejecting it out-of-hand, I viewed this music as a challenge to my unexamined prejudices about what music is supposed to be and decided to investigate further.

Feldman made a name for himself in the 1950s with his “graphic notation” wherein sounds are divided into three categories (high, medium, and low) and a number in each category refers to the number of musical “events” that are to take place, with each column on the graph representing a certain span of time (i.e. each column = MM=60). The actual pitches and rhythms are left up to the performer. John Cage would continue to develop this kind of “indeterminancy” for the rest of his career, while Feldman gradually returned to a conventional, if idiosyncratic, notation full of double-flats and double-sharps, constantly changing odd meters (i.e. 5/2, 13/8, etc.), and meticulously subdivided rhythms.

Feldman’s mature music is small-m minimalist music. Using the least amount of musical material (a few notes, a broken rhythm), Feldman aspires to create music with the Greenbergian “flatness of surface” akin to the paintings of his artist friends, the Abstract Expressionists. The dynamic markings are generally “as slowly and as softly as possible.” But, unlike the Big-M Minimalists like Philip Glass, Terry Riley, or Steve Reich, this is decidedly not easy listening. I mean no disrespect to these composers, but Feldman’s music is deeply rooted in the harmonic language of the Second Viennese School (particularly Anton Webern) and is built around dissonant intervals (particularly the minor second) and complex, asymmetrical rhythmic figures. Ultra-subtle variations of the material will move between enervating repetitions to moments of rapturously languid beauty across sometimes vastly uncomfortable time-spans – “String Quartet II” (1983) and “For Philip Guston” (1984) are both nearly five hours long in a single movement. Needless to say, these pieces place extraordinary demands on both performers and listeners.

The first piece I heard that really spoke to me was “Rothko Chapel” (1971) (New World, 1991) for soprano, mixed chorus, viola, celeste and percussion. Commissioned along with the painter Mark Rothko for the non-denominational chapel at the DeMenil Collection in Houston, Texas, Feldman’s music is as sublime and somber as Rothko’s paintings. Snippets of actual melody float above wordless choral harmonies punctuated by gentle clouds of percussion. But this music, while fairly accessible and, in some respects, conventionally “pretty,” is atypical of Feldman’s usual procedure.

The recording that finally opened my ears to the whole of Feldman’s work was a 1994 compilation of radio broadcasts on the German label Editions RZ. On “Piano Three Hands" (1957), Feldman himself performs with John Tilbury. Feldman’s touch is exquisite: extremely quiet with a minimum of attack, yet rich and full of overtones - and the rhythm (such as it is) almost “swings.” Hearing this recording was a revelation. Aha! This music is not just “interesting,” it has soul.

As for the CD at hand, “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” (1981) was written near the beginning of Feldman’s final phase of gargantuan works and at over 80 minutes, this single-movement piece pushes the capacity of the CD format to the limit. It is also an example of Feldman’s music at its most extreme. The opening minutes set the tone: a handful of dissonant intervals repeating a jagged yet insistent rhythm. After a long while, a lush consonance hovers briefly, only to take off into another angular and dissonant repeating figure. If you are willing to submit yourself to Feldman’s sound-world, the dissonances begin to sound like consonance and the consonances emerge as fleeting glimpses of the divine.

Morton Feldman was over 6 feet tall, weighed almost 300 pounds, and wore Coke-bottle thick eyeglasses. A native New Yorker, Feldman was as oversized and brash a person as his music was quietly delicate and subdued. He was voluble speaker and prolific writer and some of his talks and writings can be found online here. More of his prose writings have been gathered in Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000) and Morton Feldman Says (London: Hyphen, 2006), a collection of lectures and interviews. Literate, opinionated, and oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny, Feldman’s writings offer unique insights into this singularly American composer. Rarely performed outside of New York and Europe, the last decade or so has fortunately seen a deluge of recordings on CD. Most notably, Mode has embarked on a series aiming to record his complete works. Superb recordings are also available on Hat-Art, CPO, Nonesuch, Bridge, Naïve, Argo, and other adventurous record labels.

Immersing myself in Morton Feldman’s austere and initially off-putting music has immeasurably enriched my musical life.


1 comment:

Sam said...

Excellent post, Rodger! I've been intrigued by Feldman ever since you talked about him to me, oh, three years ago. But I haven't had the chance to pursue it further. I'll use this post as an aide-memoire to get off my listening butt and exercise my ears!