June 29, 2008

Now Playing: Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman: The Viola In My Life I-IV (ECM)

Cikada Ensemble
Norwegian Radio Orchestra
Marek Konstantynowicz, viola
Christian Eggen, conductor

This series of compositions was written for violist Karen Phillips in 1970-1971 and signaled Morton Feldman’s transition away from indeterminacy and the overt influence of John Cage and towards precise notation and the development of his own singular and recognizably mature style. Indeed, parts of Number I contain the seeds of the monumental, multi-hour works of the 1980s: a two note figure with chiming accompaniment gently oscillates without exactly repeating itself before trailing off into silence. However, these pieces remain somewhat unique in Feldman’s oeuvre for their explicit, almost conventional melodicism. Number IV, an orchestratral "translation" of the chamber pieces that precede it, goes even further afield: there is a moment of swelling, voluptuously expectant tonality wherein Feldman’s seemingly incongruous affection for Sibelius becomes strikingly audible.

During this period, Feldman sought to use such elements as singing melodies and (non)functional harmony in the way his friend, Robert Rauschenberg, utilized photography on his canvases, in order to introduce “perspective” to the “flatness” and “stasis” of his music, but later abandoned this kind of literalism (“in music, it just doesn’t work the same way,” he remarked in 1980) [FN1]. And yet, these melodic and quasi-tonal fragments succeed in unsentimentally evoking a memory of a lost past, a role the viola plays again to great effect in Feldman’s contemporaneous masterpiece, Rothko Chapel (1971). Accordingly, these pieces are some of Feldman’s most immediately accessible and downright likable works and, therefore, an excellent entry point into Feldman’s sometimes forbiddingly austere sound world [FN2]. Highly recommended.



[FN1]: Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987, ed. by Chris Villars, London: Hyphen Press, 2006, p.91. See also Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, ed. By B.H. Friedman, Cambridge: Exact Change, 2000, pp.90-91.

[FN2]: Of course, Feldman himself would disapprove of such an approach. In a 1972 interview, he characteristically stated: “I could have had big performances of The Viola In My Life in Berlin. But I didn’t. The trouble is that they’ll like it. They must earn the right to like it by getting to know my earlier works first. I want them to forget their background and their education.” (Morton Feldman Says, p.44.) Nevertheless, such elitism is not necessarily very helpful to the novice listener.

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