"Celestial Chords in Gorgeous Array"
by Alex Ross
The New York Times, May 13, 1995
On Friday night, I heard Mahler's Eighth Symphony in Carnegie Hall: it harnessed immense forces to a musical narrative of surprising swiftness, even brutal efficiency. Four nights later, I heard something no less gigantic: Morton Feldman's "For Philip Guston," which sent a small complement of musicians into spaces of vast dimensions. The flutist Petr Kotik, the pianist Joseph Kubera and the percussionist Chris Nappi, all members of the S.E.M. Ensemble, played this five-hour trio in the Paula Cooper Gallery in SoHo on Tuesday night; the audience was about a twentieth the size of Carnegie's, but the burst of stupefied pleasure at the end was just as intense.
Mahler compared his symphony to suns and planets revolving; there is something celestial, too, about Feldman's "Guston," whose disconnected slivers of sound glimmer like starlight. Some stretches are dense with figuration and detail; others are nearly empty, with flecks of music hanging here and there. The work stretches itself before the ears like the sky on a clear night; any hints of larger patterns are probably self-invented constellations.
What makes "Guston" fundamentally and wondrously beautiful is its harmony. Feldman's whole career was a search for ways to string together lovely chords, and "Guston" contains some of his most lustrous inventions. He is careful to parcel them out economically, so that they arrive as gratifying shocks after stretches of more neutral sound.These islands of beauty are like suggestions of figuration at the center of an abstract painting. (Feldman dedicated the work to the painter Philip Guston, even though he condemned Guston's turn from abstraction.)
There is also a kind of structure to "Guston," or at least so it appeared to one onlooker. (Further acquaintance can be gained through a recording on the Hat Art label.) The first two hours present some of the toughest, most unyielding material, as if to weed out casual listeners. At about the midway point, Feldman begins to give the sound more tonal and rhythmic focus: there is a dizzyingly beautiful spell of C major, a gently dancing passage in triplets. For much of the way, the three instruments play in separate time signatures, giving the attacks a certain chancy imprecision; but toward the end the meters come into sync.
Feldman's genius was always in the ending. At a point where the music seems to have ground to a halt completely, the glockenspiel begins to play a descending melody in unblemished A minor. This scalar figure sounds 50 more times in the work's last few minutes, sometimes cleanly harmonized, sometimes couched in hazy dissonance. There are also enigmatic clocklike strokes on the chimes and soft clusters on the piano. The whole miraculous passage was superbly realized by Mr. Kotik and his players, whose concentration never faltered through the whole five-hour span.
At the end of his cosmic journey, Mahler discovered great shining columns of sound, trumpets and banners, the gates of heaven. At the outer limit of a late 20th-century universe, Feldman found an ancient music box playing mournful scales. The world ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but a sigh.