"Pensive Music Yearning To Be Alone"
by Alex Ross
The New York Times, Aug. 6, 1996
The music of Morton Feldman works best in isolation. It follows parameters so peculiar to itself that it often sounds uncomfortable when heard alongside the music of others. Last weekend, Lincoln Center Festival 96 delivered a magnificent tribute to this lonely giant of American music; for a weekend, the resonant but intimate hall of the Ethical Culture Society on West 64th Street became an almost perfect Feldman world. Even those already convinced of Feldman's stature may have come away staggered by the intensity of vision communicated in this three-concert retrospective.
Feldman's reputation has soared steeply since his death in 1987. Feldman festivals have become common in Europe; half of his 150 works appear on recordings. His total achievement is coming into view. What immediately becomes apparent is the distinctness of the sound: all-pervasive quietness, slow and irregular pulses, mercurial shifts of ambiguous harmony, wanly beautiful instrumental colors, slivers of truncated melody. Feldman aimed intently at greatness, and he recognized the need to say one thing many times over.
But the great value of this survey was also to point up the internal contrasts in Feldman's work. It made a canny selection from various periods of his career, and it gathered a roster of committed performers who do not necessarily search out the same sound. The field of comparison for this composer is now with the dead as well as the living; his voice is powerful enough to find new and deeper resonances.
Despite a deceptively even surface, Feldman's style underwent significant evolutions. Joan La Barbara began the retrospective by singing the early, gauntly lyrical "Only," for solo voice, at a concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Friday. At a piano concert the next day, Aki Takahashi played "Illusions" (1950), which resembled Serialism in its sometimes frantic gesturing, but also forecast the composer's mature style in stretches of static meditation.
In the 50's and sporadically thereafter, Feldman used notation that gave increased freedom to performers. Even in conventional scores, he specified complex juxtapositions of meters that made precise unisons impossible. In "Why Patterns?" (1978), each instrument moves at its own tempo; remarkably, Feldman's peculiar harmonic profile remains in force. The piece is a long feast of glistening combinations of tones from alto flute, glockenspiel and piano. John Palumbo, Gordon Gottlieb and Takahashi played beautifully, although Mr. Palumbo perplexingly repeated portions of his part after racing ahead of the others.
"The Viola in My Life I" and "I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg" filled out Friday's program. These works are from the 1970's, Feldman's most accessible period: the emphasis is on clearly demarcated, sweetly tinted groupings of chords, with an occasional trace of wistful modal melody. The second title refers to Heine's encounter with Chopin; Feldman adored the early Romantic piano literature and made coded references to their more daring suspended harmonies. Ransom Wilson led slightly cautious performances; Paul Neubauer was the viola soloist.
Later, Feldman worked in increasingly vast forms. (A cancellation by the Kronos Quartet regrettably removed the six-hour "Quartet II" from consideration.) He wanted listeners to stop thinking about form altogether and lose themselves in the harmonic material. On Saturday, Takahashi played the hour-long "Triadic Memories" with phenomenal purity of tone. Her misty atmospherics are not the only possible approach, but they bring out an Impressionistic influence, particularly from Debussy's "Cathédrale engloutie" and "Pas sur la neige." (This concert was marred by outside noises. But the good-sized audiences were amazingly quiet throughout the festival.)
The final concert on Sunday afternoon presented two starkly contrasted works from Feldman's last few years. "Three Voices," for solo voice singing alongside two taped vocal tracks, is sensuous and pristine; it begins with unearthly, chromatically shifting vocalise, but lines from a Frank O'Hara poem eventually emerge in a melodic line that sways like a lullaby. Joan La Barbara, for whom the piece was written, combined great beauty of tone with total rhythmic concentration. She performed the full 90-minute version, which makes better sense than the sped-up version she has recorded for the New Albion label.
"For Samuel Beckett," for 23 instruments, is a long voyage into darkness. Piercing woodwind clusters, glowering brass chords and eerie string harmonics collide in slow motion over clocklike chiming tones of harp, vibraphone and piano. The Essential Music ensemble brought out the roughness of the score, its undercurrent of terror. Except for a too-soft piano, the balance was admirable. The connection to Beckett's austere, depopulated landscapes was easily grasped; just as clear was a debt to the sculptured dissonances of Varèse.
In a brief epilogue to the retrospective, Feldman's "Structures" appears on a New York Philharmonic program tonight, alongside the final scene of Strauss' "Salome." The juxtaposition may seem absurd, but it's worth mentioning in advance that those deep clusters in "Samuel Beckett" sound like nothing so much as the moaning brass chords at the beginning of Salome's final monologue. Feldman's music may sound best apart, but it muses on history in ways that listeners have just begun to perceive.