[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

The Ecstasy of the Moment

by Frank Denyer and James Fulkerson


Morton Feldman: Three Periods of Working by James Fulkerson.

Feldman's Search for the Ecstasy of the Moment by Frank Denyer:

Morton Feldman: Three Periods of Working

Morton Feldman once remarked that he had passed without noticing the moment from being an 'unknown' composer into being a 'master'. Whatever one's understanding of Feldman and his work, he left behind an admirable body of work which begins to be increasingly better known and available on CD's to a wider public. Most of these available recordings are of the late works, works which utilize the possibilities of the CD medium because of their long durations.

I understand Morton Feldman's work as comprising essentially three distinct periods: an Early Period starting from the late 1940's, a Middle Period, starting in the late 60's/early 70's, and a Late Period from the early 1980's.

In his Early Period from the late 1940's until the late 1960's/early 70's - works were essentially characterized by relatively small scale instrumental forces and short durations (2-4 minutes or 10 minutes). This was a period in which he defined his sound world, both with respect to 'sound' meaning the intervallic relationship between notes, melodically and harmonically, and with respect to 'touch' - how is a sound drawn/blown or struck into existence and how does it disappear?

Duration was probably generally short because he was still defining his own personal language - how sounds might form continuities or discontinuities. The organizational principles to build extended forms could not be tackled by Feldman yet. Nevertheless, this work remains for me, much of his most extraordinary work ever - work in which Feldman's vision was most unique and in which he developed his own requirements of 'touch' by the performers. This period of his work created a performance tradition which is in general not widely known, especially here in Europe which has generally been concerned more with pitch, pitch relationships, and musical gesture rather than with 'sound' per se.

In his Middle Period the late 60's/early 70's, Feldman achieved a clearly mature, chamber music style. The pieces became longer (frequently c. 20 minutes in duration), continued to use his previously developed sensual sound world and began to explore 'melody'. He had also by the late 1960's forsaken variations in musical notations.

In 1973, as I was leaving New York to live in Berlin as a 'composer-in-residence', I spent one of my last evenings with Feldman. I asked what he was working on at the time. He said, "melody. I'm writing melodies ... big melodies, Puccini-like melodies."(My mind boggled!) This was a time in which he was composing the series The Viola in My Life I-III for Karen Phillips and was beginning to work with Nora Post, the oboist who inspired the extraordinarily difficult oboe/cor anglais parts in Instruments I, II, and III (1974-77). Feldman had begun to create melodic continuity in this music. In the early period, he had tended to work with repetition of notes or chords - or their non-repetition - to create the moment to moment in his music. With his "melodies", Feldman began to also create continuities by gluing pitches - usually a step or half step apart into a melody.

In the early 1980s, his Late Period, Feldman continued to explore this "gluing materials together" approach to create a musical narrative by using rhythmic cycles or melodic gestures permutated within reiterated cycles. These melodic gestures or chords are often bracketed by silences (rests in musical notation). These silences are indeed a part of the whole pattern or cycle. These reiterations and melodic permutations within the space of the cycle are actually moments of consciousness for the composer, performer, and listener. Feldman created large blocks of consciousness - an awareness of the present state of being, a memory of textures or state of having been or of being different and thus a "narrative style". With this narrative style, he achieved a breakthrough in musical rhetoric which enabled him to compose regularly for larger forces (orchestra and opera) while in the medium of chamber music he began frequently writing works of 45-60 minutes duration, indeed, even 4-6 hour pieces like, For Philip Guston or String Quartet II. Bass Clarinet and Percussion, while much shorter than these works, is clearly from Feldman's 'Late Period'.

At a point early in his career, Morton Feldman settled on composing a music which was characterized by very soft sounds (Instructions were often: Dynamics are very low or Dynamics are exceptionally low, but audible.) Almost always, he demanded: Each sound with a minimum of attack.

What do these indications about dynamics and how a note is drawn into life really indicate? Unquestionably, they indicate an attitude to performance, to making sound, from which many other musical details follow. Attempting to play with a minimum of attack means that there will not be aggression in this music, fundamentally, it is a fragile, tenuous sound world in which exactly which instrument is playing a sound is often ambiguous. Is the instrument playing a muted trombone or an alto flute, a soprano or violin?

This approach to instrumental performance radicalises the tone color of every note played. A performance which ignores these extreme demands upon the performers - a performance of these pieces in which the performers play louder for ease and security cannot really be considered to be the piece which Feldman composed. It must lack the subtle washes of color, the nuances of weight and the fragility of sound which is Feldman's music. For performers, it is easier to play a little louder, use a little vibrato, in short, to live more comfortably but ... they aren't playing Feldman's music.

We have gone to some length to perform and record this extraordinary experience, it is equally important that you the listener set your playback level properly. Playback must be extremely soft! If you boost the playback level, the recordings will simply sound noisy.

© 1995 James Fulkerson

Feldman's Search for the Ecstasy of the Moment

Feldman's life as a composer is a series of untiring steps to penetrate reality and enter an inner territory whose intensity can only be recognized by the memory traces it leaves.

The titles of his compositions often hint at a journey to a hidden world, for example, Atlantis and Journey to the End of the Night, or they refer to mysterious confrontations or particular choices along the way, such as I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg, Intersection, or Ixion (while journeying to the underworld Orpheus met Ixion being tortured on his wheel).

Creatively, Feldman's is an art of 'becoming', a new Feldman always painfully emerging from the dying ruins of his previous work so that the search can continue on a new level.

This whole endeavor can be misconceived if seen predominantly through the lens of his later music, for his life's work is a single story of which the earlier works are the crucial opening verses. To understand the latter we must look at the background from which he came rather than our knowledge of his final destination.

He was born in New York in 1926; studied piano from the age of twelve with Madame Maurina-Press who had been a close friend of Scriabin and a pupil of Busoni. At 15 he started composition lessons with Wallingford Riegger who had been a pupil of Max Bruch. At 18 he transferred to Stefan Wolpe, another pupil of Busoni, and during this period he frequently met Varèse, who had known Debussy. Incidentally, it was through Wolpe that Feldman became friendly with the pianist David Tudor for whom he composed the piece Illusions (1949), and later introduced to his last and most important mentor, John Cage (himself a pupil of Schoenberg). With these connections he could see his work as making legitimate claims on the inheritance of the European heartlands as well as the traditions of the New World.

Feldman's quest was essentially that of the romantic artist, but his significance at the end of the 20th century partly derives from his paradoxical ability to be committed to his own interior poetry and yet simultaneously embrace the detached and abstract aural relationships which arose when certain compositional controls were abandoned and sounds liberated from the demands of overt self expression. Superficially it may be thought that indeterminacy held little significance for Feldman's mature work, but none of it could have been conceivable without his maintaining strong roots in the radicalism that first accepted chance encounters.

Only (1947)

Words by R.M. Rilke
Sonnets to Orpheus Part I, No. 23 (Feb. 1922),
based on the translation by J.B. Leishman (from Feldman's manuscript)

Only when flight shall soar
not for its own sake only
up into heaven's lonely
silence, and be no more

merely the lightly profiling,
proudly successful tool,
playmate of winds, beguiling
time there, careless and cool:

only when some pure Whither
outweighs boyish insistence
on the achieved machine

will who has journeyed thither
be, in that fading distance,
all that his flight has been.

The earliest of Feldman's published compositions, Only has resonances with the modal melody he composed in 1941 and later incorporated at the end of Rothko Chapel (1971). Despite the awkwardness of the word setting, Feldman avoids sentimental naivety by presenting his melody in all its naked simplicity, shorn of the harmonic accompaniment that would otherwise have been considered quite normal at this period. The approach may have been suggested by Cage's The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs composed in 1942. Unlike Feldman, Cage's soprano is still technically accompanied by the piano, although the pianist represents the final desiccated remains of this tradition by merely tapping on the piano lid with fingers and knuckles. But Cage imposes on himself a radical discipline by using only three notes in his voice part, a stance which Feldman cannot yet embrace, although he does adopt these very same notes as the basis of his own modal material for verses 1 and 3.

Cage 'The Wonderful Widow' AB*E
Feldman 'Only' verses 1 & 3G AB*CDE
verse 2 (new material) CD*E F#GABb

* = central note of modal system
of piece/part of piece.

Apart from this work, Feldman's output at the end of the forties was fairly atonal, but it was in 1950 that he found his real beginning when he abandoned staff notation for graphs in the Projection series.

Projections 1-5 (1950-51)

Projection 1solo cello
Projection 2flute, trumpet, violin, cello, piano
Projection 3two pianos
Projection 4violin and piano
Projection 53 flutes, 3 cellos, trumpet, 2 pianos

There was much talk of chance and indeterminacy around the Cage group at the time. Feldman said of these extraordinarily bold steps into graph notation: "My desire was not to 'compose' but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here".

The results are startlingly abstract. Historically, these are the very first scores to leave the precise pitch of each note to the free choice of the performers, pre-dating Cage himself by several years. They are also the first graphic scores to emerge from the New York school.

For Feldman, graph notation was never seen as a replacement for staff notation, but only an alternative mode of working. He described it by comparison with a painter who may choose sometimes to work in charcoal or another related medium. Feldman's large output of graph scores in the early fifties is balanced by his even larger output of staff notated works during the same period. Only in 1951 were there more graph pieces (8) than conventionally notated works (3). Between 1954 and 1957 there were no graph pieces at all, but there were substantial ones again in 1958 (Ixion), 1959 (Atlantis), and 1961 (Out of 'Last Pieces'). The final graph piece, In Search of an Orchestration, appeared in 1967.

A similar form of graph notation is used for all the pieces in the Projection set. The instructions explain that each rectangular box is potentially four beats long, and that individual notes are represented by the squares or rectangles within or across them, duration being indicated by the amount of horizontal space occupied. A specific metronome mark is given. Pitch is only relative with the general range shown (by the vertical position of the rectangles within the boxes) as high, middle or low.

Any tone within that range may be chosen by the performer. For the strings the notation also specifies timbre, i.e., arco, pizzicato or harmonics. Certain questions immediately arise. For instance, should pitch choices be made spontaneously during the performance or chosen in advance? After all, it would be possible to prepare a conventionally notated score beforehand, although this might seem to subvert the real psychological challenge, and indeed, the spirit of these pieces. There are also possible intermediary positions, such as performers individually selecting in advance, just those pitches that occur in sequences where a rushed choice might cause a loss of technical control.

Two more questions: Should the pitch material all lie within the chromatic scale, or, can any pitch be performed within the given range as the instructions say? Should each player in an ensemble follow the same overall approach, or might each individual find personal solutions without the necessity of forcing them into a common mold?

In these present recordings, Projections 2 and 5 are performed by the players spontaneously choosing their material 'in performance'. The small incidental hesitancies and other imperfections impossible to control in these circumstances effectively highlight Feldman's close artistic relationship with John Cage during this period. Feldman wrote: "John at that time lived on the top floor of tenement on Grand Street overlooking the East River... In a few months (i.e. 1950) I too moved into that magic house, except that I was on the second floor, and with just a glimpse of the East River. I was very aware at the time of how symbolically I felt that fact".

The performances of Projections 1, 3, and 4, all solo or duo pieces, adopt an alternative approach. The players limit themselves to the chromatic scale and have also prepared a few pitches in advance in order to stay completely in control. The result brings to the fore the other main influence on Feldman - that of Webern. This is particularly apparent in Projection 4; the listener can therefore compare these two approaches.

The interpretation of the notation for Projection 1 contains yet another problem. While the instructions for all the other Projections specify that the dynamics must be soft throughout, the instruction to Projection 1, which otherwise uses identical words, excludes this one vital phrase. To the Feldman scholar Keith Potter, this is merely an oversight by the composer but the issue may not be so straight forward, for in February 1951, immediately after completing the Projection set, Feldman again made use of the same notation for his orchestral work Intersection 1, but with very different instructions for its interpretation. In this latter work the dynamics are no longer "soft" but "may be freely chosen by the performers". Surely this change would have made the composer doubly careful about his instructions for Projection 1 and quite conscious of any unwanted areas of ambiguity, especially as both the Projection series and Intersection 1 must have recopied (together with the instructions, of course) months later, after August 1951. In that month Intersection 2 was completed but the published photocopy is in the unmistakable handwriting, not of Feldman, but of John Cage.

Feldman elsewhere explained: "We spent the whole week copying things, showing me how to set up a page. His idea of professionalism was that things had to be beautifully, and neatly, and cleanly presented". As the Projection scores are indeed very neat but also in Feldman's own hand, this can only mean that they were recopied, along with Intersection 1, later in the year after this lesson.

Intersections 2-4 (1951-53)

Intersection 2 solo piano (1951)
Intersection 3solo piano (1953)
Intersection 4solo cello (1953)

These works are in another form of graph notation. In this case notes do not necessarily have to commence right at the beginning of a notated duration but are free to enter anywhere so long as they end precisely as shown: "...things had to come in a certain time span. Now it didn't have to come exactly in the beginning of the time span, and as you know it can come anywhere, like crossing a street, that's why I called them 'Intersection', to me time was the distance, metaphorically, between a green light and a red light". Intersections represent a crucial shift in Feldman's conception of time, which had now moved away from being a series of beats through which the various musical parts align themselves, and become instead a series of 'windows of opportunity' within which multiple and complex events might occur in multifarious relationships. Although this concept is used quite modestly in Intersections (the windows are really very short, just a fraction of a second each), it was to reappear later much extended, as a temporal field, or a memory area, and in this form became a central element of Feldman's art, as demonstrated both in Durations series and after. (1951 also saw the completion of Feldman's only magnetic tape piece, similarly called Intersection, as well as another work entitled Marginal Intersection!)

The graph notation used for Intersections 2-4 gives figures in boxes which indicate the number of notes to be played within that 'window'. Registers are again given as high, middle and low, and there are precise metronome speeds for each piece. Dynamics are freely chosen by the performer. Intersections 3 and 4 take us into areas of extreme virtuosity. Because of the very high note densities Feldman has specified, it is no longer feasible for the performer to even consider choosing the notes spontaneously during the performance, and other strategies become necessary. In Intersection 3 the pitches have sometimes to be chosen for their ease of performance, for at certain points up to forty notes have to be performed within one-third of a second.

Intersections 2 and 3 were written for David Tudor. He was a pianistic phenomenon in a period of very new and highly complex musical developments, when it seemed that nothing from either the European avant-garde or the New Yorkers could daunt him. John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, the four composers in the Cage circle, who were far from being virtuosi themselves, held his gifts in high esteem.

The fourth Intersection explores cello virtuosity through a similar notation except that here "numbers indicate the amount of sounds to be played simultaneously (if possible)... All sounds are pizzicato unless otherwise notated". In these instructions the cellist comes to appreciate the words in brackets, particularly when confronting a number of seeming impossibilities, for example, the ten low notes and three high notes that appear within a single box! It may become necessary for the cellist to reassess certain norms of performance in order to meet the technical challenges of this piece. But musically, too, all three Intersections enter some unusual areas, opening up alternative paths that Feldman might have pursued had he not chosen other ways forward.

Piece for Four Pianos (1957)

One of the seminal works of the fifties. The four pianos present simultaneous versions of the same score. They start together but then slowly diverge, because within the general injunction 'slow', the length of each tone is slightly variable, and there are other imponderables, not least being the many indefinite pauses. The listener, however, merely perceives a quietly, almost silently expanding universe of mysterious beauty and ever growing complexity.

This particular composition opened up an important line of development which was explored in the sequence of pieces for piano or pianos that followed it. Its resonance can be felt to the very end of Feldman's life.

Two Pianos (Dec. 1957)

Some composers are eager to build on their ideas. Feldman's instincts often led him to reduce his material in order to perceive more clearly its hidden essence. Therefore, immediately following on from Piece for Four Pianos we find him adopting less flamboyant means to pursue his vision. Now just two pianos present simultaneous versions of a single score, once again starting off together and then slowly diverging,. However, the differences between this piece and its predecessor are significant. Simpler chords of just two notes have come to predominate, giving each pitch more individuality and allowing the pianists greater tone control, which means they can take the music down to even softer dynamic levels. It is marked "slow" and "as soft as possible". Feldman also finds an increased flexibility, not least because every event is now merely doubled rather than being invariably and automatically quadrupled. While the pianos slowly diverge, the variety in the pitch material also diminishes, until it settles into repetitions (what Feldman would later call re- spellings) of just four notes - Bb C D Db - which appear in many octave displacements. Musically this seems to create a stable state, which having been established could conceivably continue indefinitely (shades of the long later works here).

Piano Four Hands (April 1958)

One step further again. The sound source is now reduced to a single piano, albeit with two pianists. They move independently of one another but no longer read from a single score. Each has an individual part, one that consists of a single row of notes which can be performed using alternate hands (although later in the piece a few chords do appear in the upper part).

The scarcity of material makes it possible to play yet softer still, but to accomplish this the pianists physical and psychological preparation for each note must also be intensified, so that every sound is made an end in itself. We seem to almost reach the edge of silence, the limits of the musicians' sensibilities and the instrument's capacities. This was as far as Feldman could penetrate at this particular time. Piano Four Hands, compared to its predecessors, reveals a more abstract sound world; nor do its features essentially alter during its allotted time span, so one feels rather like the ancient astronomers contemplating, not the moving planets, but that remote and mysterious area known as 'the fixed stars'.

Having somehow arrived through the experience of writing these piano works, and their progressive reductions at his first example of the inappropriately named 'racecourse' notation, Feldman now changes the creative tide by cultivating this tiny embryo so that its begins to grow. Casting off the black and white of the piano, it almost immediately reappears in the colour of Two Instruments, for horn and cello (May 1958; not included here). Two Instruments is the immediate successor to Piano Four Hands, and the link with Durations 1-5.

But before we consider the Durations series, a word about another piano work.

Piano Piece 1964

Both in the span of his creative life and in the musical form of individual compositions we find the same ebb and flow, of diminution when the focus tightens on less and less, and the expansion that follows as he slowly releases his grip.

Six years after Piano Four Hands we again find Feldman at his most extreme, but he has come a long way in the intervening period. In Piano Piece 1964, it is the presence and quality of silence that is most notable. The silence is conceived and notated as a non-uniform, barely moving continuum, to which small sound particles become attached, or more rarely, by which musical events are contained. This subtle temporal web is in part measured out, but only with a beat that is itself variable, lying between MM 42 and MM 76. There are also numerous events which have the effect of further modifying, interrupting, or extending this framework, such as sound whose length is dependent on the natural decay time of the piano, numerous pauses, imprecise durations and caesurae.

The sounds themselves are incredibly ephemeral, often no more substantial than flecks of dust in the void. About two-thirds of them are written as 'grace' notes (magical terminology) and as such they are suspended partly within, partly outside the formulated matrix of time. Feldman makes a distinction between longer grace notes and shorter ones, though none are very short. An individual grace note may appear quite alone, floating between silent pauses, or again as an appoggiatura to a beat which is itself vacant.

In a drought when the water level of a lake falls, objects previously hidden can become starkly revealed. Similarly, when music is as reduced as it is here, sounds that were seemingly inaudible become vividly apparent. The most obvious are the noises from the piano's mechanical workings, which therefore become an integral part of the piece however much the pianist tries to minimize them.

Durations 1-5 (1960 - 61)

Durations 1 alto flute, violin, cello, piano
Durations 2cello and piano
Durations 3violin, tuba, piano
Durations 4violin, cello, vibraphone
Durations 5violin, cello, horn, vibraphone, harp, piano/celeste

The first of this set to be composed was Durations 2 (Feb. 2, 1960), and as a piece it is similar to Two Instruments of May 1958 (see above). In between Feldman had composed Last Pieces for solo piano using the same form of staff notation, and Atlantis, a dance piece for seventeen players in the graph notation familiar to us from Intersections 2-4.

Placing the Durations for cello and piano second despite having composed it first, raises the following question: Are these works designed as a single sequence that should be experienced as a whole? Although Feldman seemed happy to perform them individually, he did choose to place the first four pieces together for an early LP recording on Time Records (they had offered just one side of a disc and all five Durations would have overrun). Personally I believe that Durations 1-5 are enhanced by being heard together, and Feldman's numbering encourages us to see them as a cycle. (The argument is even more compelling for the Vertical Thoughts series, as we shall see.)

Each of the five Durations has as distinctive instrumental timbre and each has an individual flow, despite the fact that almost all the music is slow. Feldman wrote: "In Durations I arrive at a more complex style in which each instrument is living out its own individual life in its own individual sound world. In each piece the instruments begin simultaneously, and are then free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo... The Pieces, while looking identical on paper, were actually conceived quite differently".

Exact pitches and their sequence are written in staff notation. This cycle also represents a considerable expansion in Feldman's concept of time. Because the instrumental parts are not rigidly tied to one another, Feldman can entangle them in quite new relationships arising from their sharing the same short-term memory area. By doing so, common resonances are revealed, but only while the players stay within, say, 30-45 seconds of each other, becoming weaker if they stray much further afield. Therefore, in performing Durations Feldman was anxious that individual players should never get too far ahead or behind each other. The performers must adopt strategies to prevent this happening. Feldman loads the dice in favour of certain encounters which then seem to happen accidentally, although he has himself created the circumstances where it is impossible for such 'accidents' not to occur.

In all the Durations except No. 2, one can find another Feldman fingerprint. Occasionally very large arpeggiated pizzicato chords occur in the violin part which the composer asks to be performed in an unusual manner, that is, with just one pluck for each string's aggregate of notes. The result has an irrational rhythm and timbre that is pure Feldman (one can hear this towards the end of Durations 1, for example). After the opening piece, the much shorter Durations 2 seems withdrawn and austere (not unlike Piano Four Hands), but then Durations 3 opens out again, and, it is the only one of the set to consist of more than a single movement, the four sections being marked 'slow', 'very slow', 'slow', and finally, 'fast'. The changing weights and densities are shifting continuously. Feldman can now bunch up sounds or spread them out with immense subtlety, as if he were coercing shadows rather than anything more tangible.

Durations 4, composed in April 1961, has a faster speed, and although the durations are still chosen individually, here they all lie within the narrow band MM 72 - MM 92. The instrumentation is allied to a timbral preference for string harmonics and pizzicato, gives the music a strangely fleeting, illusive character, while Durations 5, written in the following month, augments this same ensemble by adding to it horn, harp, and piano/celeste, and a resonance of the character of the previous piece thereby remains. Nonetheless, it has its own ephemeral nature despite using the largest ensemble of the cycle. This in part is due to the predominance of sounds that rapidly decay.

Vertical Thoughts 1-5 (1963)

Vertical Thoughts 1 two pianos
Vertical Thoughts 2violin and piano
Vertical Thoughts 3soprano, flute, horn, trumpet, trombone, piano/celeste, percussion, violin, cello, double bass
Vertical Thoughts 4piano solo
Vertical Thoughts 5soprano, celeste, tuba, piano, violin, percussion

This glorious set of pieces from 1963 is a particular high point in the Feldman canon. Here there can be no doubt we are dealing with a series of pieces designed to be played as a single sequence, although there is no performance tradition to support this.

The progression from the monochromatic sound of the two pianos in No. 1, through the limited introduction of colour in No. 2 (violin and piano), to the full abundant palette of the central third piece which simultaneously introduces the cycle's single line of text - "Life is a Passing Shadow", makes for compelling listening, especially when it is then followed by the short, rather fast piano piece (No. 4), full of illusive ambiguities, a piece which can hardly stand on its own but which is absolutely essential to the unfolding drama, placed as it is between No. 3 and the equally weighty fifth piece with its alternative setting of the same text.

For these five pieces Feldman uses a new form of modified staff notation designed for the ever-shifting, multidimensional concept of time that has now fully flowered. Sometimes notes or silences are strictly measured by the metronome, sometimes durations depend on a sound's natural decay time, or a player's breath length, or on instinctively felt pauses. As the title suggests, there are harmonic co-ordinates and many indicated continuities, but everything is accomplished with great subtlety of thought. In Vertical Thoughts 2, for example, which lasts just 5 1/2 minutes, there are twenty-two speed changes and fourteen different metronome markings (some quite fast). Each of these may last for only a brief phrase or even appear for a single bar's rest. This particular work is a masterpiece of sensual awareness in which every note and every minute change of timbre seems to attain a mesmerizing significance.

The text "Life is a Passing Shadow", which appears in both Vertical Thoughts 3 and Vertical Thoughts 5, has perhaps half remembered affinities with the famous passage in Macbeth, Act. V. Sc. v :

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

To include two separate settings of the same text may seem a little peculiar, but their relationship is crucial for our understanding of the work. In both, the individual words of the text appear one by one, isolated from each other by sizable expanses of purely instrumental music. Each piece uses just one chord for the setting of all five words, and these text-chords have a distinctive colour which is emphasized because the instruments involved play no other role in the music. Four of the five notes that make up the text-chord in Vertical Thoughts 3 reappear as part of the eight-note text-chord of Vertical Thoughts 5, (some in other octaves).

In both settings the chords bearing the text are the only parts of each piece to be strictly measured out by the metronome. (In No 3 these metronome markings change for each word; in No. 5 all the words are the same length, reaching some kind of equilibrium.) It is as if these small islands of language, rationality, time and space, were surrounded and contained by an older, more mysterious inarticulate continuum, and they act like Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles in giving focus to the flux, in the painting of that name.

In Vertical Thoughts 3 the sections between the text-chords have a full multicolored richness, whereas the text-chord by comparison, is of a more limited if distinctive hue. This situation is completely reversed in Vertical Thoughts 5 where the text-chord, similar in timbre but slightly brighter than in No. 3, attracts to itself all the colour available compared to the surrounding featureless continuum of sombre deep hued percussion sounds. There is one further contrast. In No. 3 the purely instrumental music begins the piece long before the first word is uttered, whereas No. 5 opens with the singer proclaiming "Life". But following the final word "Shadow", the void, seemingly unaffected by passing time, reasserts its infinite presence.

© 1997 Frank Denyer.
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