With two long articles to write and a book to finish (for real), I bid you a temporary adieu.
The Finnish Music Quarterly (see below) also has a deliciously wry account of Finland's woebegone history in the Eurovision song contest. The writer is Kati Sinisalo:
We Finns are Eurovision losers. A nation of zeros... Nothing seems to help. Dance music, dirges, ethno-chants, folk songs, disco, reggae, Spanish music, and others have been tried. Fiddle scraping, flute playing, behind bumping, and tango dancing have been tried in vain.... The annual European festival of kitsch music is a bit of a sore spot for us Finns. On the one hand, people sniff at the contest, on the other hand, '...What if we finally did succeed this year?'
...What was the idea in 1976 when Pump pump performed by Fredi and Friends was chosen to be Finland's representative? The refrain sung in English was 'Let your hip go hippety pump pump / That's the way we dance 'til we die ... ay ay ay...." But the Finnish original fit the choreography even better; a large man bumping his behind into small women backup singers while singing 'Bum against bum bump bump, now that's something'.... [see photo]
Did the audience perhaps not really get the message of Kojo's wheezing protest song against the neutron bomb called Nuku pommiin? After all, it was in Finnish, so few people understood the critical lyrics and the irony of the Finnish title, which means 'oversleep' but literally means 'sleep into the bomb'.... Rikki Sorsa's Reggae OK (1981) was not OK either. Nor did Pave Marijanen's Yamma, Yamma go down well with European pop fans; it came in last place in Sweden in 1992.
There's a happy postscript. Finland's Eurovision ignominy gave way to sudden triumph last month, when Lordi soared to first place on the wings of their anthem "Hard Rock Hallelujah."
June 28, 2006 | Permalink
The new issue of the Finnish Music Quarterly reveals that the Finnish government is spending 359.5 million euros on the arts this year, of which 60.5 million goes to music. Orchestras are receiving state grants of 12.26 million. Believe it or not, these grants have been described as inadequate, and there are plans to increase them. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen recently signed a law stipulating that orchestra subsidies should increase by 37% per year over a three-year period. One in five Finns attends an orchestra concert in any given year.
The population of the U.S. is sixty times larger than that of Finland. The current appropriation for the National Endowment for the Arts is $124,406,353, or 99 million euros. So the ratio of Finnish per-capita arts spending to American per-capita arts spending is more than two hundred to one.
June 27, 2006 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 3, 2006.
On June 17th, Daniel Barenboim ended his decade-and-a-half run as the music director of the Chicago Symphony with a gritty, impassioned performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Before launching into the work, Barenboim delivered a speech in which he reflected bemusedly on the business of conducting. The celebrated Argentine-Israeli maestro—who has held posts on several continents, maintained a virtuoso piano career, written and lectured widely, and led the remarkable West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, bringing together Israeli and Arab players—spoke aloud the prosaic paradox that so often puzzles newcomers: the conductor is the center of attention, yet he makes no sound. He is, Barenboim said, “permanently dependent on the ability and willingness of the musicians to play in a certain way.” A conductor deserves his title, Barenboim went on, only when he has acquired the players’ trust. Pride filled Barenboim’s voice as he declared that he had gained that trust—for much of his tenure, there was resistance from factions in the orchestra—and that he had just received the unofficial title of Honorary Conductor for Life. He then gave the downbeat for Beethoven’s D-minor Allegro ma non troppo. The sound that flowed around him, grimly eloquent at the outset and electrically triumphant at the end, drove home the point.
While most of us incrementally fall to pieces over time, conductors tend to get better with age. Eventually, their legend precedes them; the respect that they have accumulated over the years does as much work as the movement of their hands. This explains how the physically shattered, emotionally unstable Otto Klemperer was, in his later years, able to deliver one staggering performance after another; musicians wanted to write themselves into his saga. Claudio Abbado is another conductor who has recently ascended to the stratosphere, seemingly incapable of giving non-transcendent performances. Barenboim is now sixty-three, and, although he had gravitas even in his youth, something in his work has deepened.
I had an adverse reaction when I first heard the great Chicago orchestra under Barenboim, a decade ago. There was a crude and chaotic quality to the sound: you could still hear the vehement aesthetic of Georg Solti, Barenboim’s predecessor, but it lacked Solti’s precision. Barenboim conducted with a broad beat, trying at times for profound effects that either he was unable to articulate or the orchestra was unwilling to execute. Now he no longer pushes so hard, for his personality has melded with the orchestra’s. His musicianship is old-fashioned; he doesn’t go in for glossy perfection, instead favoring sinewy textures, earthy rhythms, freely singing lines. He is at his best in the Viennese classics, in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, where he sways to his heart’s content between song and structure.
His last three Chicago concerts, which took place on consecutive nights, featured not only the Beethoven Ninth but also the Ninth Symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, plus Pierre Boulez’s “Notations,” Elliott Carter’s “Soundings,” and Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” with the conductor at the piano in the last two. Nobody ever said that Barenboim was meek. The concerts caused considerable excitement in Chicago, even among those who had never loved the conductor. Some listeners resisted his habit of insistently programming the likes of Carter and Boulez; others resented his pro-Palestinian statements, or criticized him for failing to evangelize to younger audiences. Nonetheless, spare tickets were going for five hundred dollars and up. On the last night of the series, a young man was seen out on Michigan Avenue waving a fistful of twenties, to no avail.
The Mahler Ninth felt like a recapitulation of Barenboim’s Chicago career. The first movement was rocky at times, orchestra and conductor never quite settling on a central pulse—that stuttering-heartbeat rhythm that signifies the composer’s knowledge of his own approaching death. Yet the playing was passionate in the extreme. There was an engaging wildness in the middle movements, together with more disagreements about tempo. (Some musicians have long been frustrated with Barenboim’s habit of setting new tempos on the spur of the moment.) Finally, in the great Adagio that brings the symphony to a close, the picture snapped into focus; the heat of emotion remained, but the music coalesced into one long, glowing line. The audience contributed to the spell: during the tender cello solo that leads into the Adagissimo coda, an uncommon silence filled the hall, the sound of thousands holding their breath.
The Bruckner Ninth was cooler in mood, befitting a composer who carved out his music as if it were cathedral limestone. The performance advertised the fact that Barenboim has left the Chicago Symphony in splendid shape. People always marvel over the Chicago brass, and with good reason: they have no equal. Each time another f was added to Bruckner’s stepwise crescendos, you could hear the gradation clicking into place, and the sound towered ever upward without cracking. But the Chicago strings are also world-class these days. They have acquired that darkly throbbing tone that used to be the sole property of the Berlin Philharmonic. They seemed especially in synch with Barenboim’s roving beat; when he rocked backward on his feet, making the gestures of a drowning man, and then recovered to deliver a punching downbeat, they trembled and dug in with him.
The Carter and Boulez pieces were vividly executed, although neither ranks among the composers’ best. “Soundings” is quirky and jokey, while “Notations” is a feast of fabulous orchestration. Moreover, the choice of two acclaimed modernists who came of age before 1950 to represent the music of our time exposed one major limitation in Barenboim’s world view: he shows little curiosity about most contemporary music, and colleagues like Esa-Pekka Salonen and David Robertson leave him far behind in their quest for the new. Ultimately, Barenboim is a fiery traditionalist, who can revitalize the most familiar scores. There was nothing conventionally festive about his Beethoven Ninth; tension was maintained throughout, the bass Robert Holl struck a minatory tone in the first minutes of the finale, and even the closing recitation of the “Ode to Joy” had a desperate edge, as if the possibility existed that all men might not be brothers.
During the fifteen-minute ovation that followed the Beethoven, Barenboim went around shaking hands with—or, in many cases, hugging and kissing—all ninety-one members of the orchestra. In the process, an ovation that had initially been directed at the conductor became an ovation for the players, with waves of applause rising up for the longest-serving veterans. You forgot the maestro, and focussed on those who had made the sounds. Barenboim could not have made a more graceful exit.
The Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who died on June 12th at the age of eighty-three, was perhaps the most famous of living composers in his last years, yet he was reportedly haunted by the feeling that he would be forgotten after his death. He will not be. His legacy is a string of near-perfect pieces—among them “Lontano,” the Requiem, the Horn Trio, the Violin Concerto, and the Études for Piano—and the composer’s outwardly quizzical, secretly passionate personality is felt in every bar. Picking over a huge scrap heap of material, ranging from otherworldly avant-garde noises to fragments of Schubert and Brahms, Ligeti created works that resemble organic machines, as beautiful as they are alien. A long, painful illness prevented him from realizing his dream of writing an opera called “Alice in Wonderland,” stemming from his love of Lewis Carroll. But his entire output is like the Alice stories come to life: the music that plays on the other side of the looking glass, mocking and transcending the ordinary world.
June 26, 2006 | Permalink
Alan Rich, whose excellent essay/review collection So I've Heard: Notes of a Migratory Music Critic will be out next week from Amadeus, writes a brief obit of Ligeti, consisting mainly of quotations from an interview Rich conducted with the composer in 1993. This passage is particularly striking: "You know, we have certain drawers. There is a drawer of so-called classical music and jazz is in a different drawer and pop and rock, but there are places where the drawers mix. So I have my love for jazz even I don’t play jazz. When Stravinsky wrote his Piano Rag Music, his ragtime was also very, very deep... In fact I dare to say that the real musical style of the 20th century, the real big thing that happened was jazz, this melding of African rhythmic thinking and English, Irish melodies... more important, I feel, than many of the deep learned music." Also worth reading is Paul Griffiths's 1996 interview with Ligeti, which the critic has posted on his website (click on "Snippet of the Week"). There is tantalizing mention of the Alice opera that was not to be. The Alice books hold nearly as much fascination for composers as do Faust and The Tempest: Unsuk Chin, a formidable composer of vaguely Ligeti-ish tendencies, has written her own Alice, to be heard in Munich next June; Tony Tommasini recently reported on Peter Westergaard's Alice-in-progress; and, of course, there are David Del Tredici's Alice pieces, culminating in the ten-year-old, yet-to-be-performed opera Dum Dee Tweedle.
June 22, 2006 | Permalink
Richard Dyer's report of Michael Finnissy's recital in Boston — part of Stephen Drury's Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP, or Sick Puppy) at NEC — makes me wish I'd made the trip up north. Finnissy is a recent discovery for me; I picked his choral disc Maldon as one of my favorites of last year, and I've been taking in his monumental piano cycle History of Photography in Sound, whose movements include "My Parents' Generation Thought War Meant Something" and "Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets." The music completely defies categorization, ranging from unadorned folkish tonality to monstrous polyrhythmic dissonance. Some mad conviction or conspiratorial world-view (or simply superb technique) holds the disparate pieces together. It would be something to hear the cycle in NYC. Ditto Alvin Curran's similarly vast and all-consuming Inner Cities. Sick Puppy continues this week with more Finnissy, a rendition of In C, and a climactic marathon.
June 21, 2006 | Permalink
Rachel Kiel, a student at Wesleyan, writes in with a poetic set of word-associations for the Shostakovich String Quartets:
The First Quartet is a blade of grass.
The Second Quartet is a pocket knife.
The Third Quartet is a captive bird.
The Fourth Quartet is an old train car.
The Fifth Quartet is a piece of blue glass.
The Sixth Quartet is a worn dress.
The Seventh Quartet is a red crayon.
The Eighth Quartet is a forest fire.
The Ninth Quartet is a paper fan.
The Tenth Quartet is the bottom of the ocean.
The Eleventh Quartet is a bullet.
The Twelfth Quartet is a sleeping lover.
The Thirteenth Quartet is a horse's skull.
The Fourteenth Quartet is a strand of black hair.
The Fifteenth Quartet is an empty room.
The brilliant young composer-pianist Timothy Andres, whom I wrote about a couple of years ago, will play at Juilliard's Rose Hall on Friday. Program includes Ligeti's Musica Ricercata, Crumb's Little Suite for Christmas, Bartók's Dance Suite, and recent pieces by Alex Temple and Nico Muhly. Tickets are $15 at the door, $10 for students. There are some new MP3s on Andres's website — see especially the lovely flute-viola-harp trio I Found It in the Woods.
Update: Richard Dyer was at the recital.
My blog has been selected as a Featured Typepad Blog, which means that there will be many people clicking on this site for the first time, exclaiming "Ew! Classical music?!," and clicking away. I am not the famous comic-book Alex Ross, nor am I the dead Scots golfer. Here is an article that says what I'm more or less about as a writer, here is some stuff on rock/pop, here are some fine, fine music blogs, and here is a list of recordings that might make a good introduction to "classical music," which I have decided to rename Awesome Music.
Here are some addenda to my Morton Feldman essay, which appeared in The New Yorker last week. I'm thrilled to see that New Albion's Rothko Chapel is at #8 on the iTunes Store classical bestseller list (where it's only $3.99 for the album), and has reached #400 on the overall Amazon list, between What's the Story Morning Glory and The Best of Sade.
June 17, 2006 | Permalink
LAURSON: Great video, but sloppy performance... intonation problems and the conductor wayward.
DOWNEY: I think the problem is with the instruments. Clearly, we need to hear this work with original instruments, that is, metronomes as they were made in 1963.
LAURSON: ...and Sir Roger Norrington could dig out lost... metronome markings, as it were...
The Poème will be performed tomorrow night on the steps of the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam, in advance of a Holland Festival performance of Peter Eötvös's Angels in America — which, as it happens, also opens tonight at Opera Boston / Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
June 16, 2006 | Permalink
[Beautiful is] a dangerous word to use…. I want my Garden of Eden and eat it too…. There is the apple and there is the snake, and yet you’re in Paradise…. Everything, alles, in one piece. But never an obvious type of sensual beauty….
Most music of the twentieth century is criticism of past music. Just as we’ve been given an Existentialism without God, we are now being given a music without the composer. We want Bach, but Bach himself is not invited to dinner. We don’t need Bach, we have his ideas.
I was some place, somebody wrote a piece for four recorders. And I said, 'In principle I feel that people should write what they want to write. In principle, there is nothing wrong with your writing for four recorders. But, actually, I said, you are making a big mistake. It sounds terrible.'
I’ve become part of musical life in England. In America there’s really no such thing as ‘part of musical life.’
June 15, 2006 | Permalink
The man who was widely and justly considered the greatest of them all died today at the age of eighty-three. There's no way to sum up in brief what Ligeti's music meant; it was an awesome cross-section of the benighted twentieth century, whose worst horrors he knew first hand. Here is what I wrote in 2001. And here are some notes I took when Ligeti lectured at the New England Conservatory in 1993: "When you are accepted in a club, without willing [and] without noticing you take over certain habits [of thinking] what is in and what is out. Tonality was definitely out. To write melodies, even non-tonal melodies, was absolutely taboo. Periodic rhythm, pulsation, was taboo, not possible. Music has to be a priori. … It worked when it was new, but it became stale. Now there is no taboo; everything is allowed. But one cannot simply go back to tonality, it’s not the way. We must find a way of neither going back nor continuing the avant-garde. I am in a prison: one wall is the avant-garde, the other wall is the past, and I want to escape."
When I was in college, I wrote to Ligeti asking about a couple of obscure items in his catalogue, such as the Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. I was astonished to receive a thoughtful letter from him, describing how I could get hold of a recording of the Poème (Edition Michael Bauer). I proceeded to play it on WHRB-FM, as part of a day-long program entitled Ligeti at 66, and had to explain to concerned callers that, yes, in fact, we were still on the air. Then, in 1993, I met him at NEC. As often happens when one is in the company of the great, I took the opportunity to ask an idiotic question: "What do you think of Cecil Taylor?" Ligeti seemed to have a vaguely positive impression of Taylor, but I had not hit whatever jackpot I had been expecting. The brilliance of the man was captivating; his disquistion on Schubert's G-major Quartet was the most remarkable musical lecture I've ever heard. Others report that he could be terribly difficult to work with, but to a starstruck youngster it was a huge gift to spend a minute in his orbit.
More: Richard Dyer's obituary; Mark Swed's; Paul Griffiths's; a superb summary by Ethan Iverson; a blogcritics roundup of Ligeti links; yet more at The Rambler; the metronomes; a Ligeti MySpace site; controversies and oddities at Sequenza21; usw. If you want to buy one record, let it be this; then get this.
June 12, 2006 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 19, 2006.
Morton Feldman was a big, brusque Jewish guy from Woodside, Queens—the son of a manufacturer of children’s coats. He worked in the family business until he was forty-four years old, and he later became a professor of music at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He died in 1987, at the age of sixty-one. To almost everyone’s surprise but his own, he turned out to be one of the major composers of the twentieth century, a sovereign artist who opened up vast, quiet, agonizingly beautiful worlds of sound. He was also one of the greatest talkers in the recent history of New York City, and there is no better way to introduce him than to let him speak for himself:
Earlier in my life there seemed to be unlimited possibilities, but my mind was closed. Now, years later and with an open mind, possibilities no longer interest me. I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room. My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.
My teacher Stefan Wolpe was a Marxist and he felt my music was too esoteric at the time. And he had his studio on a proletarian street, on Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. . . . He was on the second floor and we were looking out the window, and he said, “What about the man on the street?” At that moment . . . Jackson Pollock was crossing the street. The crazy artist of my generation was crossing the street at that moment.
If a man teaches composition in a university, how can he not be a composer? He has worked hard, learned his craft. Ergo, he is a composer. A professional. Like a doctor. But there is that doctor who opens you up, does exactly the right thing, closes you up—and you die. He failed to take the chance that might have saved you. Art is a crucial, dangerous operation we perform on ourselves. Unless we take a chance, we die in art.
Because I’m Jewish, I do not identify with, say, Western civilization music. In other words, when Bach gives us a diminished fourth, I cannot respond that the diminished fourth means, O God. . . . What are our morals in music? Our moral in music is nineteenth-century German music, isn’t it? I do think about that, and I do think about the fact that I want to be the first great composer that is Jewish.
These quotations are taken from three collections of Feldman’s writings, lectures, and interviews: “Morton Feldman Essays,” which was published in 1985; “Give My Regards to Eighth Street,” which appeared in 2000; and the new anthology “Morton Feldman Says,” edited by Chris Villars (Hyphen; $50). The books testify to the composer’s rich, compact, egotistical, playful, precise, poetic, and insidiously quotable way with language. The titles of his works make music on their own: “The Viola in My Life,” “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety,” “Routine Investigations,” “Coptic Light,” “The King of Denmark,” “I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg.” A champion monologuist, Feldman had an uncanny ability to dominate the most illustrious company. Six feet tall, and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, he was hard to miss. He attended meetings of the Eighth Street Artists’ Club, the headquarters of the Abstract Expressionists; he made his presence felt at gatherings of the New York School of poets, dancers, and painters, lavishing sometimes unwanted attention on the women in the room; he both amused and affronted other composers. John Adams told me that he once attended a new-music festival in Valencia, California, and stayed at a tacky motel called the Ranch House Inn. When Adams came down for breakfast, he found various leading personalities of late-twentieth-century music, including Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, and Milton Babbitt, sitting with Feldman, who proceeded to talk through the entire meal. “A lovable solipsist,” Adams called him.
The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. More than a dozen pieces last between one and two hours, and “For Philip Guston” and “String Quartet (II)” go on for much longer. In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”
For a time, it appeared that Feldman would be remembered as one of several experimental composers who were gathered around John Cage. In the past two decades, however, his reputation has steadily ascended, even though his works remain rarities on American concert programs. There are well over a hundred CDs of his music, most of it on intrepid small labels such as Hat Art, New Albion, CRI, CPO, and the indispensable Mode Records, which is in the process of issuing parallel editions of Feldman and Cage. According to Villars’s meticulous online discography, all but a handful of Feldman’s hundred and forty published works can be found on CD, and some have been recorded many times; ten pianists have essayed the ninety-minute “Triadic Memories.” The music has found an audience not only among new-music connoisseurs but also among adventurous fans of rock and pop, who are quick to respond to its unearthly power. In a 1982 lecture that is reprinted in “Morton Feldman Says,” the composer asks, “Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?” If we didn’t before, we do now.
Feldman, whose parents came to America from Kiev, grew up in the cosmopolitan New York of the nineteen-thirties and forties, when Fiorello LaGuardia championed high art for the working man and émigré European artists crowded the streets. Feldman studied piano with Vera Maurina Press, a legendary pedagogue who had been a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. (She is the “Madame Press” who “Died Last Week at Ninety.”) His first composition teacher was Wallingford Riegger, one of the earliest American followers of Arnold Schoenberg. He went on to study with Stefan Wolpe, who, just a few years earlier, had been agitating against the Nazis in Berlin. Young Morty also had several long talks with the expatriate ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse. When you write, Varèse would tell him, think about how long it takes for the sound to travel to the back of the hall. Feldman’s student efforts, which are now showing up on recordings on the Mode and OgreOgress labels, emulate Schoenberg and Bartók, but there is already something unusual in the arrangement of events; as per Varèse’s instruction, Feldman lets loose a striking chord and then lets it reverberate in the listener’s mind.
The crux of Feldman’s development came in 1950, when he entered the world of John Cage. The odd couple of the musical avant-garde—the gay, gaunt, Anglo-Saxon Californian and the straight, burly, Russian-Jewish New Yorker—met one night at Carnegie Hall, where they had both gone to hear Dimitri Mitropoulos conduct Anton Webern’s twelve-tone Symphony. Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” was next on the program, and both men walked out early, to avoid having their modernist spell disrupted by Rachmaninoff’s romanticism. As their paths intersected, Feldman asked, “Wasn’t that beautiful?” And a friendship was born. Feldman visited Cage in his tenement apartment at the corner of Monroe and Grand Streets, where the East River Houses are now. The kid from Queens gazed in wonder at Cage’s austere bohemian décor: the Lippold mobiles, the straw mat on the bare floor, the drafting table with the fluorescent lamp and Rapidograph pens. He soon moved in downstairs. By day, he worked at his father’s coat company in Queens and part time at his uncle’s dry-cleaning business. By night, he consorted with Cage’s remarkable network of artistic acquaintances, the painters and the poets and the artists without portfolio. The painters attracted Feldman the most, and the interest was mutual. Pollock asked him to write music for the famous Hans Namuth documentary about the drip-painting process. Philip Guston immortalized Feldman in a portrait that depicts him with a cigarette jutting from his mouth. “What was great about the fifties,” Feldman later said, “is that for one brief moment—maybe, say, six weeks—nobody understood art.”
Cage, in 1950, was turning music upside down. He had written works using found-object percussion, “prepared” pianos, turntables, and other gizmos. Soon to come were tape and radio collages, compositions using chance procedures, multimedia happenings, and “4’ 33”,” the legendary silent piece. But it wasn’t the particulars of Cage’s innovations that affected Feldman; gizmos bored him, and he almost always composed for ordinary instruments, to be played in a more or less ordinary way. What floored Feldman was the unswerving unconventionality of Cage’s mind. He now had permission to drop all inherited habits—to become himself. “I owe him everything and I owe him nothing,” Feldman said. In later years, they did not always think alike. Cage would talk about Feldman’s sensuous appeal, in a way that implied a critique: he declared that Feldman’s music was closer “to what we know is beautiful” whereas his own was “closer to what we know is ugly.” Yet the two retained a fraternal bond.
Not long after meeting Cage, Feldman opened up his own compositional Pandora’s box, in the form of “graphic notation,” which did away with the routine of writing notes on staves. One day at Cage’s apartment, Feldman produced the first of a series of pieces titled “Projections,” whose score consisted of a grid of boxes. The player was invited to choose notes within the boxes, which represented high, middle, and low ranges. A subsequent series of works, which began appearing in 1957, specified pitches but allowed the performer to decide when and how long they should be played. These conceptual approaches quickly became part of international avant-garde practice, as did Feldman’s habit of using numbered abstractions as titles. Soon enough, composers were filling their scores with patterns, pictures, and verbal instructions, and matters progressed to the logical extreme of Cage’s “Theatre Piece” (1960), during which a piano was slapped with a dead fish. But Feldman had no taste for anarchy. When he realized that his notation could lead to a circus atmosphere—when Leonard Bernstein conducted his music with the New York Philharmonic in 1964, the orchestra joined the audience in hissing him—he turned in another direction. The idea was simply to free music from the machinery of process. Performed in the right spirit, the graphic works sound like the murmur of a crowd in a temple.
All the while, Feldman continued to write in traditional notation as well. In pieces entitled “Intermissions” and “Extensions,” he laid out the fundamentals of his aesthetic, which he once defined as vibrating stasis. The sound owed a great deal to the old atonal masters, the Viennese triumvirate of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, especially in their dreamier, eerier moods; Feldman’s music is inconceivable without the precedent of the “Colors” movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, with its rotating transpositions of one muted chord, or the funeral march of Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, with its misty layers of winds and brass over drum rolls. What Feldman did was to slow the pace of events in the Schoenbergian universe. Schoenberg was, above all, an impatient man, who had to keep scurrying on to the next novel combination of sounds. Feldman was patient. He let each chord say what it had to say. He breathed. Then he moved on to the next. His textures were daringly spare. On one page of “Extensions 3,” he used a mere fifty-seven notes in forty bars, or fewer than two per bar. In confining himself to a minimum of material, Feldman discovered the expressive power of the space around the notes. The sounds animate the surrounding silence.
The example of the painters was crucial. Feldman’s scores were close in spirit to Rauschenberg’s all-white and all-black canvases, Barnett Newman’s gleaming lines, and, especially, Rothko’s glowing fog banks of color. His habit of presenting the same figure many times in succession invites you to hear music as a gallery visitor sees paintings; you can study the sound from various angles, stand back or move up close, go away and come back for a second look. Feldman said that New York painting led him to attempt a music “more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore.” Just as the Abstract Expressionists wanted viewers to focus on paint itself, on its texture and pigment, Feldman wanted listeners to absorb the basic facts of resonant sound. At a time when composers were frantically trying out new systems and languages, Feldman choseto follow his intuition. He had an amazing ear for harmony, for ambiguous collections of notes that tease the brain with never-to-be-fulfilled expectations. Wilfrid Mellers, in his book “Music in a New Found Land,” eloquently summed up Feldman’s early style: “Music seems to have vanished almost to the point of extinction; yet the little that is left is, like all of Feldman’s work, of exquisite musicality; and it certainly presents the American obsession with emptiness completely absolved from fear.” In other words, we are in the region of Wallace Stevens’s “American Sublime,” of the “empty spirit / In vacant space.”
Working nine to five in the garment business, Feldman proudly maintained his independence from the professional herd. He mocked the university composers who tailored their work for fellow-analysts, the tonal composers who tried to please orchestra audiences, the inventor-composers who unveiled brand-new isms each summer at the state-funded European festivals. “Innovations be damned,” he snapped. “It’s a boring century.” In 1972, he obtained his post at SUNY Buffalo, but he continued to insist that composition could not be taught, that it should not be professionalized. He loved to challenge students’ assumptions about what ideas were au courant, about which composers were radical and which were conservative. He proclaimed, for example, a love for Sibelius, who had long been derided in progressive circles as a retrograde Romantic. When I visited the small archive of Feldman papers at SUNY Buffalo, I came across an exam paper in which the composer asked his students to analyze Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony alongside Webern’s Concerto Opus 24. How the would-be revolutionaries of the day must have scratched their heads over that! Another assignment was to write a piece for soprano and string quartet, using a text from the Buffalo Evening News.
Feldman’s works of the seventies were less aggressively strange than those of the fifties and sixties. He sought out warmer, simpler chords, bewitching fragments of melody. Music of this period—the viola-and-ensemble cycle “The Viola in My Life”; a series of concertolike pieces for cello, piano, oboe, and flute; the choral masterwork “Rothko Chapel”—provides a good introduction to a sometimes forbidding sound-world. (“Rothko Chapel” has been recorded immaculately on the New Albion label; for “The Viola in My Life,” wait for an ECM CD next year.) In 1977, Feldman ventured to write an hour-long opera entitled “Neither,” which was destined never to make it to the Met. The libretto was by Samuel Beckett, who had identified Feldman as a kindred spirit, and it consisted of an eighty-seven-word poem that offered no setting, no characters, and no plot, but still the faint assurance of an “unspeakable home.”
In his last years, from 1979 until 1987, Feldman again swerved away from the mainstream. He inaugurated his compositions of long duration, those which went on for an hour or more. Even the most devoted fans may wish to admit that there was an element of runaway grandiosity in these Wagnerian demands on the listener’s time. Feldman plotted his immortality with some deliberation—this was the man who intended to become the first great Jewish composer, ruling out Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schoenberg—and he evidently saw this series of pieces as his tour de force, his run for home. (“I’m on third base,” he boasted in 1982.) Yet there was also a practical need for a drastic enlargement of scale. It allowed his quiet voice to be heard in the total isolation that it required. Feldman’s shorter works make an awkward effect on standard concert programs, particularly when the audience coughs and rustles its puzzlement aloud; they don’t play well with others. The long works create an overarching, protective space around a vulnerable huddle of sounds. The composer Kyle Gann, in his brilliant new book, “Music Downtown” (California; $19.95), describes how you end up living with Feldman’s music as you would with a painting on your wall.
Extreme length allowed Feldman to approach his ultimate goal of making music into an experience of life-changing force, a transcendent art form that wipes everything else away. To sit through performances of the two biggest works—I heard Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble play the five-hour-long “For Philip Guston” in 1995, with phenomenal purity of tone, and the Flux Quartet play the six-hour-long “String Quartet (II)” in 1999, with tireless focus—is to enter into a new way of listening, even a new consciousness. There are passages in each where Feldman seems to be testing the listener’s patience, seeing how long we can endure a repeated note or a dissonant minor second. Then, out of nowhere, some very pure, almost childlike idea materializes. Most of the closing section of “For Philip Guston” is in modal A minor, and it is music of surpassing gentleness and tenderness. But it inhabits a far-off, secret place that few travellers will stumble upon.
In his last years, Feldman became unexpectedly wealthy. He inherited some money from his family, and he received increasing royalties from Europe, where his music was always better understood. Most significantly, he made a small fortune by selling art. Back in the fifties, he had bought a Rauschenberg canvas for seventeen dollars, because that was what he had in his pocket at the time. Shortly before his death, he sold it for six hundred thousand dollars. He became a collector of antique Middle Eastern rugs, whose subtly varied patterns affected his late style. Curmudgeonly and generous by turns, he picked up dinner tabs for hungry young composers. His final works radiate an enormous, ominous serenity: “Piano and String Quartet” (which Aki Takahashi has recorded beautifully with the Kronos Quartet, on Nonesuch), “Palais de Mari,” for piano (played by Takahashi on her mesmerizing Mode CD of early and late piano music), and “Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello” (recorded with icy clarity by the Ives Ensemble, on Hat Art). That piece, the very last, makes repeated, wistful references to Debussy’s Prelude “Des Pas sur la neige,” or “Steps in the Snow.” Pancreatic cancer took Feldman quickly. One day, he was unavoidably there, monopolizing the room; the next, he was gone.
There is no mistaking the lonely, lamenting tone that runs through Feldman’s music. From time to time, the composer hinted that the horrors of the twentieth century, and in particular the Holocaust, had made other, more ornate kinds of musical expression impossible for him. He explained that the title “The King of Denmark,” which he bestowed on a graphic piece for percussion, was inspired by King Christian X, who was occupying the Danish throne when the Germans invaded his country in 1940. Feldman proceeded to tell the story, now considered apocryphal, of King Christian responding to German anti-Semitism by walking the streets with a yellow star pinned to his chest. It was a “silent protest,” Feldman said. In a way, his music seemed to protest all of European civilization, which, in one way or another, had been complicit in Hitler’s crimes. The American composer Alvin Curran once saw Feldman at a German festival, and asked him, in light of the enthusiasm that he was inspiring there, why he didn’t move to Germany. Feldman stopped in the middle of the street, pointed down at the cobblestones, and said, “Can’t you hear them? They’re screaming! Still screaming out from under the pavements!”
If there is a Holocaust memorial in Feldman’s work, it is “Rothko Chapel,” which was written in 1971, for Rothko’s octagonal array of paintings in Houston. Rothko had committed suicide the previous year, and Feldman, who had become his close friend, responded with his most personal, affecting work. It is scored for viola, solo soprano, chorus, percussion, and celesta. There are voices, but no words. As is so often the case in Feldman’s music, chords and melodic fragments hover like shrouded forms, surrounded by thick silence. The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases. The drums roll and tap at the edge of audibility. Celesta and vibraphone chime gentle clusters. There are fleeting echoes of past music, as when the chorus sings distant, dissonant chords reminiscent of the voice of God in Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron,” or when the soprano sings a thin, quasi-tonal melody that echoes the vocal lines of Stravinsky’s final masterpiece, the “Requiem Canticles.” That passage was written on the day of Stravinsky’s funeral, in April, 1971—another thread of lament in the pattern. But the emotional sphere of “Rothko Chapel” is too vast to be considered a memorial for an individual, whether it is Rothko or Stravinsky.
Shortly before the end, something astonishing happens. The viola begins to play a keening, minor-key, modal song, redolent of the synagogue. Feldman had written this music decades earlier, during the Second World War, when he was attending the High School of Music and Art, in New York. Underneath it, celesta and vibraphone play a murmuring four-note pattern, which calls to mind a figure in Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.” The song unfurls twice, and the chorus answers with the chords of God. The allusions suggest that Feldman is creating a divine music, appropriate to the sombre spirituality of Rothko’s chapel. In a sense, he is fusing two different divinities, representative of two major strains in twentieth-century music: the remote, Hebraic God of Schoenberg’s opera, and the luminous, iconic presence of Stravinsky’s symphony. Finally, there is the possibility that the melody itself, that sweet, sad, Jewish-sounding tune, speaks for those whom Feldman heard beneath the cobblestones of German towns. It might be the chant of millions in a single voice.
But I can almost hear Feldman speaking out against this too specific reading. At a seminar in Germany in 1972, he was asked whether his music had any relationship to the Holocaust, and he said no. He was a hard-core modernist to the end, despite his sensualist tendencies, and he did not conceive of art a medium for sending messages. It was probably in reaction to the communicative power of “Rothko Chapel” that he later dismissed it, unbelievably, as a minor work. But in that German seminar he did say, in sentences punctuated by long pauses, “There’s an aspect of my attitude about being a composer that is like mourning. Say, for example, the death of art . . . something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me.” He also admitted, “I must say, you did bring up something that I particularly don’t want to talk about publicly, but I do talk privately.”
Only this one time, in the last minutes of “Rothko Chapel,” did Feldman allow himself the consolation of an ordinary melody. Otherwise, he held the outside world at bay. Yet he always showed an awareness of other possibilities, a sympathy for all that he chose to reject. Listening to his music is like being in a room with the curtains drawn. You sense that with one quick gesture sunlight could fill the room, that life in all its richness could come flooding in. But the curtains stay closed. A shadow moves across the wall. And Feldman sits in his comfortable chair.
There's good classical material cropping up on YouTube, amid the gross-out jokes and softcore porn. AWorks has linked to some videos that conductor Donato Cabrera (assistant at the premiere of Doctor Atomic) has put up for general persual. I clicked on the "Stravinsky" tag and found something marvelous — a scene from the BBC TV drama Riot at the Rite. It's a vivid and fairly realistic recreation of the most famous culture riot in history, though the insults shouted from the audience have been translated into British ("Absolute twaddle!" "Rubbish!" etc.). Notice the people fanning themselves vigorously at the beginning; it was eighty-five degrees that day in Paris. There is a lot of attention paid to the dancing, which, to my totally non-expert eyes, looks convincingly Nijinskyish. You can find the remainder of the reenactment on other YouTube videos, including the following exchange between two portly gentlemen: "This is how they danced in prehistoric times." "How would you know?" Let's hope the BBC puts this out on DVD.
There are still a few people left in the classical world who labor under the illusion that their music is for smart people and pop music is for the others. This Jon Caramanica interview with Texas rapper Bun B demonstrates, among other things, how not so smart that assumption is: "The first thing I do is I try to listen to whatever rapping is already on the track. I listen for cadence and melody to see how the track’s already been written, and to make sure that whatever flow or flows I decide to run with, or patterns or melodies that I decide to put into the song, that they’re not already in there. Then I try to see if there’s a different part of the subject matter that I can talk about. If there isn’t, I try to see if I can analogize it, break it down, flip it another way. If that can’t be done, the best thing I can do is pretty much out-rap the guy. And when I say out-rap the guy—say, if he uses ten syllables in a line, I’m going to use fifteen. If he uses fifteen, I’m going to use twenty, twenty-five. If he’s rhyming two or three words within two bars, I’m going to rhyme four or five words in two bars. I’m going to out-skill you." (Via SF/J.)
Both Disney Hall and the Kimmel Center have recently installed high-class concert organs, and they might be looking for interesting repertory with which to show off their instruments. I would suggest Henry Brant's Orbits, for organ, high voice, and eighty trombones, from 1979. I've never heard it live, and so can't pretend to have experienced it in all its spatial splendor, but the CRI recording gives the impression of a viscerally enchanting, sense-saturating experience. Brant's language is tough, wild, and confrontational, but I'd wager that even the most conservative audience would be carried away by it.
June 06, 2006 | Permalink