The other night, in the company of Seated Ovation, I ventured through suffocating heat to Bargemusic, under the Brooklyn Bridge, where Blair McMillen played Triadic Memories, Morton Feldman's biggest and perhaps most beautiful work for piano. The concert was up against not only hostile weather conditions but also an outdoor showing of Sweet Smell of Success in the gorgeous new Brooklyn Bridge Park. (Having lived in Brooklyn Heights for much of the nineties, I'm amazed by the transformation of what used to be a grim, empty pier complex.) Nonetheless, a hardy band of Feldmanites came out to hear McMillen, and it was very much worth a trip through the outdoor oven. On our way, we passed the former site of 7 Middagh Street, the Britten-Pears-Auden hideout, and Will (Seated Ovation) informed me that Gabriel Kahane has made the house the subject of a musical, which the Public will produce next spring. I had somehow overlooked this crucial fact. I used to be able to see the ghost of the house from my window.
I've caught only one other live rendition of Triadic Memories, by the legendary new-music pianist Aki Takahashi, at the 1996 Lincoln Center Festival. (Let's take a moment to acknowledge the remarkable programs that John Rockwell presented that summer.) Feldman's later piano music took inspiration from Takahashi's miraculously translucent tone, which vaguely resembles that of Radu Lupu. McMillen, too, draws softly glowing pianissimos from his instrument, and in the opening bars (see above) he brings out more of a rhythmic lilt than do most of his recorded predecessors — almost a jazzy bounce. He has an acute feeling for those remarkable passages in which Feldman strips everything down to a unison line (B, D-flat, A-sharp, D-natural, spaced out over two octaves) or even to bell-like soundings of single notes (C# twice, E-flat three times, C-natural four times, D five times). And McMillen applies just the right amount of pedal, so that the music is enveloped in a slight mist while remaining crystalline. I hope he has a chance to record the piece: his view is one that I'd like to have in my library, alongside Takahashi's account and cosmically spacious readings by John Tilbury and Marilyn Nonken. Chris Villars's Feldman site presently lists more than a dozen recordings.
The experience of hearing Feldman waterborne adds unexpected layers of extra-musical or semi-musical meaning. (It's not the first time: there was a Bargemusic Feldman series last year, which Steve Smith attended.) Something about the gently irregular rhythms of Triadic Memories matched the pulsation of the waves. And the music lent a novel emotional timbre to the familiar backdrop of downtown Manhattan lights and East River traffic. One by one the boats went by — water taxis, speedboats, party-central paddle steamers, “Spirit Cruises,” a huge vessel with the curious name Cornucopia Majesty — and Feldman marked each one of them with an air of ineffable sadness, as if they were all sailing smoothly into oblivion.