From Fanfare magazine, November/December 1992.
FELDMAN: For Philip Guston. Eberhard Blum, piccolo, flute, and alto flute; Nils Vigeland, piano and celesta; Jan Williams, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba and chimes. hat ART CD 4-61041/2/3/4 [DDD]; 65:50, 67:35, 65:39, 66:12. Produced by Pia & Werner X. Uehlinger.
FELDMAN: Piece for Four Pianos. Intermission VI. Piano—Four Hands. Two Pieces for Two Pianos. Two Pianos. Five Pianos. Le Bureau des Pianistes. SUB ROSA SUB CD018-41 [DDD]; 72:38. Recorded by Anne Fontigny.
FELDMAN: The Viola in My Life (1). False Relationships and the Extended Ending (2). Why Patterns? (3) Morton Feldman, conductor; Karen Philips, viola; Anahid Ajemian, violin; Seymour Barab, cello; David Tudor, piano; Paula Robison, flute; Arthur Bloom, clarinet; Raymond DesRoches, percussion. (1) Morton Feldman, conductor; Matthew Raimondi, violin; Seymour Barab, cello; Paul Jacobs and Yuji Takahashi, pianos; Arnold Fromme, trombone; Richard Fitz, percussion. (2) Eberhard Blum, flute; Jan Williams, percussion; Morton Feldman, piano. (2) CRI CD 620 [ADD]; 74:58. Produced by Carter Harman (1,2) and Carter Thomas. (3)
Listening to these works of Morton Feldman, which range in length from 1'46" to four and a half hours, I thought repeatedly of Gustav Mahler. Nothing in the sounds suggested the association; rather, it was the shadowy intent behind the music, the purposes around which the notes were arranged. Both composers force basic questions upon us: How does music relate to the world? How does music relate to this world, a world increasingly inimical to the uses of musical tradition? Mahler famously proclaimed: "The symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything." But his music sometimes strains to escape, to reach some white and empty refuge—the uncanny stillness of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" and the closing section of the Ninth Symphony. These episodes of utter abnegation in Mahler are not touched by pathos, by the imminence of death or other platitudes; rather they are the meditations of a mind so far-reaching and subtle that the future course of musical history lay clear and open to it. Mahler foresaw another way; Feldman followed it. Music must not be like the world, it must embrace nothing.
I am prompted to bring up Mahler for two reasons. One is the question of Jewishness in the music of both composers. Mahler strived to grasp everything under the sun, but avoided material of a recognizably Jewish character; Feldman, at the opposite extreme, forbids anything recognizable, anything "from outside"—except those Hebraic melodies which momentously haunt his works on occasion. He said in an interview: "I want to be the first great composer that was Jewish." That utterance was not arrogant but deliberately precise: Feldman would be the first great composer to affirm his Jewishness in spite of the world. While his music might be lost to the world, the world is not lost to him. Through George Steiner, Feldman received Theodor Adorno's dictum that art might not be possible after Auschwitz, and he hung that thought over every bar: the music can exist, but at a terrible price. It can divorce itself, it can descend into the utmost solitude and quiet, but it cannot be at peace.
Mahler also comes to mind when one is contemplating the question of musical scale. For Philip Guston is vast, one of the largest fully notated instrumental works ever recorded. (It is the largest, if one averages total timings for the two recordings by which its chief competitor, the Sorabji Opus Clavicembalisticum, has become available. An even longer Feldman work for string quartet awaits recording.) Yet the problem of size seems rather insignificant. Listening to the Sorabji, and to the Brian Gothic Symphony, I am bothered by the question of necessity—does the music need to present itself on this scale? Feldman's immensity arrives like a natural phenomenon, a meteor-impact in the landscape of an ordinary day. There is no question of sampling the work, of examining fragments: the four-and-a-half-hour span is unbroken and indivisible. As in Mahler and Bruckner, the length seems inevitable; but unlike the Austrians, Feldman provides no clear features in his landscape by which forward progress might be marked, by which the passage of time might be judged. Quotidian space-time is lifted away. To reemerge into the world from this work is to see everything in its colorlessness, its drabness, its impurity. There is no frame around the music's beauty; it therefore poisons the outside.
This extravagant length of this gift-work has an ironic subtext. Feldman (1926-1987) was very close to painter Philip Guston in the New York abstractionist heyday; the friendship faded as Guston allowed figuration and other worldly traces to intrude on his canvases. Feldman, in contrast, stayed intransigently true to the late-modernist approach that also produced the writings of Samuel Beckett and the paintings of Frank Stella. (There is a cinematic analogue as well: Michael Snow's Wavelength, a 45-minute film consisting of a slow zoom toward pictures on a wall.) Feldman offers us the prospect of a trance, but forces us to stay awake. What first appears to be a serene landscape turns into strange and confusing terrain, covered by minute growths that mysteriously impede progress. A few particularly alarming instances: the appearance of slithering chromatic motifs (II/4/13:05: the four-note utterance on the bells), the insistence on single tones (II/4, intermittently throughout), dreamlike the repetition of seductive rhythmic patterns (III/4/6:28: 5/4 vs. triplet rhythms, with spastic accents from the flute). And across this terrain, phantoms pass, near-diatonic harmonies that flicker in the ear; they disappear before one can make associations. The passage for flute and vibraphone at I/4/5:56 is an example; the motif C-G-A flat-E flat that resounds through the work is another. At the very close, Feldman unveils an uncanny scale-like melody that descends by jagged intervals: some revelation seems to be at hand, but the end comes suddenly. (Only once, to my knowledge, did Feldman let the fog lift entirely: at the end of Rothko Chapel, he let the Jewish viola-melody stand alone in simple harmonic garb.)
Much of what I have been struggling to say about this music is said clearly and eloquently in Art Lange's notes for this release: "The length of For Philip Guston is deceptive. Like a visual artist, Feldman was concerned with scale, not size, so that his near-obsessive concentration on intricate detail and his sensual attraction to the material sensitizes and energizes space, erases the time frame, alters our sense of perspective. Despite the seeming simplicity of intervals and rhythms, the music is constantly changing; for example, though the the three instrumental lines are frequently coordinated and interact in various ways (syncopation, hocket, Klangfarbenmelodie, etc.) ... a simultaneous juxtapostion of meters (3/16 with 3/8 and 3/32, or 7/4 with 5/4 and 6/4) means they are never perfectly synchronized. Similarly, motifs that seem to recur at various places seldom if ever repeat literally. So the tranquility of the music's surface is an illusion; feelings of melancholy, confusion, wonder, sorrow, and affirmation exist equally in the moment and in the memory." To come to terms with the piece, Lange allowed himself the luxury of writing in a loose, aphoristic structure, under the heading "13 Ways of Looking at For Philip Guston." This extraordinary music defeats ordinary attempts at description.
The performance is nearly as difficult to describe. Its principal qualities—evenness of tone, chilling exactitude of execution, imperturbable patience—might not seem praiseworthy in another context; but as Mike Silverton has pointed out in past reviews of this hat Art ensemble, the avoidance of emotional expressivity is crucial in this music, whose character is not displayed bar to bar but rather emerges over the long span. The sounds are not expressed, they simply occur; in Feldman's remote and inverted universe, their beauty is therefore magnified. The remarkable recording performs a similar service. Conventional wisdom might have dictated a distant and ambient setting: hat Art plunges us into the midst of the ensemble, almost uncomfortably close, but without a hint of distortion. Another paradox is therefore achieved: Feldman, aloof from his listeners, engulfs them.
I do not mean faint praise when I say that this recording is difficult to confront and comprehend: Feldman was one of our greatest artists, and For Philip Guston will count among his principal achievements. But it is also a frightening and unsettling event, not to be rapidly consumed. Most of us live our lives at a pace that will exclude this music automatically; unlike the symphonies of Mahler, its hour may never arrive. My guess is that Feldman's choice to work on larger and larger canvases toward the end of his life was dictated by a need to put that hour off, to make his art more and more remote from the noise in the street. I am reminded of another poem by Wallace Stevens, Esthétique du Mal: "The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world, to feel that one's desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair." The pleasure-seeker in me wishes that Feldman had written more works like Rothko Chapel, in which a slender hand is stretched out to the world at the end.
Sub Rosa's collection presents Feldman at lesser extremes. The works for two or more pianos are anchored in an aesthetic of sonorousness, and their much smaller scale does not result in the time-bending disorientation characteristic of the later music. All but one of these pieces date from the 1950s, and the texture is rather more active and uneven. Two Pieces for Two Pianos (1954) is a fully notated work in an almost Webernian mode, with bursts of sound replacing the signature sustained tones; Intermission VI (1953), while more typical of the later Feldman, is also aphoristically brief. Two Pianos, Piece for Four Pianos, and Piano—Four Hands, from 1957 and 1958, show the full influence of John Cage: the players proceed at their own tempi, or alter freely the durations of the chords. The fifteen-minute Four Pianos strikes me as an early masterpiece—the basic melodic material, in rising fifths, is voluptuous, and Feldman allows it to unfold generously. The final work on the program, Five Pianos from 1972, is much longer than the others, and extends their techniques and moods. Feldman does not introduce his principal material until three minutes in—an almost sentimental motif in falling fourths, with the pianists humming softly underneath, followed by a complex and upward-seeking scale-melody. The working-out of these subjects occupies the rest of the half hour.
This semi-indeterminate music requires not only sympathetic execution but creative collaboration, and Le Bureau des Pianistes supplies both. The ensemble consists of Laurence Cornez, Kaat de Windt, Jean-Luc Fafchamps, and Jean-Luc Plouvier; Stephane Ginsburgh joins them for Five Pianos. The Feldman that emerges has a tinge of Romantic intensity, not at all inappropriate in these earlier works. The sound is excellent, although a greater depth of field might have been preferable; documentation is intelligent but sparse. Sub Rosa is an absolutely fascinating Belgian label that disregards conventional barriers in choosing repertory to record. I have heard three other things from them, all mesmerizing: a magnificent anthology of Dadaist, Futurist, and Surrealist compositions (Russolo's noise-machines, performance art by Marinetti and Jean Cocteau, semi-electronic music by Marcel Duchamps, Kurt Schwitters' crucial Sonate in Urlauten, and much else); Break Through in Grey Room, a compilation of cut-up tape experiments from William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin (including a 1973 Burroughs-Ornette Coleman duet); and the pompous, barbaric, and thrillingly off-kilter Baptism by the Slovenian industrial-rock band Laibach (replete with quotations from Liszt's Faust Symphony). I hope more Sub Rosa releases, from all genres, will arrive at Fanfare.
Finally, CRI continues its "American Masters" series with three works from Feldman's middle period. Two of these—The Viola in My Life and False Relationships and the Extended Ending—are familiar from CRI LPs; Why Patterns? has been recorded by hat Art and New Albion, although this reading with Feldman at the piano has lain unheard since 1978. Eberhard Blum and Jan Williams, performing with Feldman, are two-thirds of the hat Art ensemble that gave us both For Philip Guston and the recent Why Patterns? (CD 2-60801/2; ravely reviewed by Mike Silverton in Fanfare 15:1). Differences between Blum/Williams/Feldman and Blum/Williams/Vigeland are hard to discern, but they are there: the earlier Blum is not as glacially smooth and regal as the later, and Feldman accentuates moments here and there at the piano that Vigeland glides over (a bit of menace in repeated strokes just before the six-minute mark, for example). CRI comes in two minutes ahead of hat Art, and a minute behind members of the California EAR Unit recorded by New Albion (NA039CD)—whom Silverton rightly described in 15:4 as more "dramatically expressive," with an air of "subtly enraptured fantasy." That severe hat Art sound which Silverton called "pure and non-referential" remains the most persuasive, although this slightly more gestural composer-led reading must be taken into account.
CRI also gives us Viola in My Life, one of two works bearing that title (the other is scored for full orchestra). In his superb notes for this release, Nils Vigeland finds Viola to be "exceptional" in Feldman's output, standing with Rothko Chapel as "the only music of Feldman which suggests some equivocation on his part concerning the extraordinary absence of traditional concepts of contrast and development in the rest of his music ... There is a decidedly tonal quality, often diatonic, to this melodic writing ... [passages that are] associated with expressions of loss, highly personal in character." The diatonic ghosts of which I spoke earlier are indeed thick across the page in this unusually eventful work, although there is no unrestrained eruption of melody as at the end of Rothko Chapel. (New Albion's recording is very fine, but it does not match the intensity of the original Gregg Smith Singers recording on Odyssey, in which ice-cold pillars of choral sound loomed over the solitary song of Karen Philips' viola.) False Relationships and the Extended Ending has a playful title but is dominated by dark undercurrents; as Vigeland notes, "two groups of instruments (violin-trombone-piano and cello-two pianos-chimes) go their separate ways," but a forceful structure emerges through the insistence on a single tone (E-flat/D-sharp), and particularly through the stark utterances of the trombone. One need only glance at the distinguished names in the headnote to know that the composer-conducted performances are authoritative; CRI's recordings capture the colors of these unique ensembles, and tape hiss is unobtrusive in the all-important silences. All three recordings under consideration are essential additions to a Feldman collection; I would recommend the CRI particularly as a good first approach to the composer.