[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

Feldman - String Quartet (II)

by George Albon

The following article was originally published in Shuffle Boil: A magazine of poets and music (Issue No. 2, Summer 2002) pp 60 - 61.

After a "lifetime" trying to write poems, I'm trying now to write a story. It's a drawn-out, incremental, seemingly endless practice, far more difficult than I ever imagined. One thing I'm noticing is that, even though I have a general sense of what is going to happen in the story (which is practically nothing), the only thing that will actually advance the story to the conclusion isn't the story but how the sentences sound next to one another. That is, the next sentence only pushes the story along to the extent that it is the right sentence to follow the one just before it. Some of these "right" sentences will sometimes cause the story to veer wildly off into a tangent or some other unforeseen tangle, but that's my problem, not theirs. Their job is to be the next sentence.

These "problems," more curious than vexatious, put me in mind of Morton Feldman, the master of what-follows-what in our time, who likewise looked to the other arts to clarify what was most needed in his own, the man who when asked by one of his students whether his compositional method necessarily precluded relationships among the notes, looked at the student through his stupendously thick specs and answered in his best Dead End kid Bronx accent: "You want relationships? Get a girlfriend."

Someone once said that Elliott Carter's music was "events happening to instruments," and though it's too easy to turn that statement around and say that Feldman's music is instruments happening to events, it's a good launching pad for speculations about our experience of it. First, we should roughly map out the three major periods of his career (which, as life commands, drift inconsistently among themselves). The first finds him, in the heady atmosphere of fresh permissions given him by John Cage (has there ever been a more salutary window-opener than Cage?), working with unspecified pitches (or a given range in which the performer can choose the pitch) and a notational method that suggests rather than specifies the durational unit (so that the group of performers may interact differently each time, and get to the end together or not). Then there's the middle period, characterized by Kyle Gann as "the return of intuition," where carefully judged sonorities are starting to replace "activity" as the focal point, and where one sonority follows another in a stately, even glacial, sequence. The late flowerings of this period are the pieces for large orchestra, with occasional solo and chamber players featured within them. These are sonoric mountain ranges, ravishing and unyielding - my favorites in all of Feldman. (Get the New World Symphony/Tilson Thomas recording of Coptic Light [Argo 448 513-2] and the more recent Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt/Vis recording Atlantis, also including String Quartet & Orchestra and Oboe & Orchestra [Hat ART 116]. The title work of this recording - Atlantis - is a rare large-orchestra work from his first period.)

Also starting to happen toward the end of this middle period is a concern with longer works. Among the first of these longer pieces is For John Cage, for piano and violin; Triadic Memories, for solo piano; the first string quartet; and Crippled Symmetry, for flutes, keyboards, and percussion, each lasting about eighty minutes. Unlike Steve Reich, who uses a subtle phase-shifting to form a diaphanous arch over the entire work, Feldman in these semi-longer works tends to write small cells of material that are often then repeated a certain number of times, though with occasional rhythmic alterations among the repeatings. Through these investigations of the small cell the work moves through its length, with a walking pace that is able to stop and notice the details alongside. (Reich's fleetness, wonderful in its way, moves on wheels or wings instead of feet.)

These pieces prepare the ground for the extremely long works that occur in his third period, and of a compositional process that evolved to realize them. "For me," he said, "the focus (not discounting my material) was more on what happens to the form of the music as the length of an ostensibly 'one movement' work is extended beyond what was familiar to me." Feldman is looking at the expectation of material moving through a breadth of time so long that the endpoint is prevented from "retroactively" composing any of the forepoints. Even when these hours-long works seem at first listening like the medium-length ones simply extended, this is not the case. Contrary to what you might expect, the former are more willing to use grammars of velocity: a passage or cycle will not so much dissolve into the next one (as in the midlength works) as be pre-empted by it. The midlength works tend to have a leisurely, downtrail amble; the four and five hour pieces, though never hectic, are far more searching and angular. This late long music finds Feldman taking styles "and fluctuating from one to another regardless of any consideration. And this is only possible in a long work."

So what are these long works? Among others, For Philip Guston, for flutes, keyboards, and percussion, and For Christian Wolff, for piano and flute. (That so many of Feldman's titles are dedications is a marker not only of his reciprocity but of his protean ability to learn about music from everywhere.) And now there is the long-awaited premiere recording (Hat Hut 4-144) of the String Quartet (II), performed by the Ives Ensemble, lasting fifteen minutes shy of five hours.

This masterwork is a progression of tightly composed episodes, each of which tend toward a cyclic traveling and repetition, but which succeed one another with a sober implacability. The piece is an exhaustive (though not inexhaustible) study of string sonority up to a certain gentle volume level, and virtually barring all extremity of attack from the bowing hand (and vibrato from the fingerboard). These turn out to be fruitful restraints, and show up how corny the "drama" can be in the most putatively "cutting edge" music. A world is to be found in Feldman's limits: at times the sound has the shimmering thrill of a finger on the wet rim of a glass, at others finely calibrated microtonal "harmonies" are like shining darkness, and at others plump full notes aspire to simple melodic expression.

However tricky this work may be to perform, as a listening experience it occupies a very basic, straightforward space. Its notes come directly to the listener, never raising their voice, never pleading, never gesticulating. Feldman takes for granted the listener's ability to gather her attention toward the transitory and the unemphatic. Although this music can often sound beautiful, a constantly present rigor assures that such beauty is properly experience en route, no more beautiful than attention itself. A cycle may be something as seemingly simple as an interval going back and forth, but this interval may have a harmonic underpinning that is set at a slightly different meter, causing the bottom to wander, ever so slightly, from the top. Just when you think this may become an actual development, the cycle will be over, and you are atop the next one. Feldman's harmonic palette has something of the siren-call about it, so the listening experience is profoundly dual in nature: being drawn in, and then moving on.

Much could be said about the fragile natures of this music, of its ballet between experience and expectation, of its tendencies toward the elegiac while simultaneously banishing memory. Feldman shares this latter with Cage, of course, but Feldman after his first period is a very deliberate composer, someone who (as Alan Rich notes) "chained his performers to the score; it was the listener who, if willing, might be set free to absorb, to suggest possible connections." Cage's "liberations," by contrast, may be more truly so to the performers of his works than to its listeners, since the results that he sets in motion may have more tentacles as sound-activity. The discoveries may be more in the doing; even the most attended listening still inheres in time, and the most aleatory work is still a succession of sounds, like notes in Mozart. (Debord: "The action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to an alternation between a limited number of variants, and to habit.")

In String Quartet (II), the upper edge of attention is also an oasis. It is necessarily bound in time, but in such a protracted time that the notes are really present, there to be themselves in their episode, not as carriers of feeling toward the finale. It seems like an impossible paradox, but this work manages to be utterly picaresque without ever devolving into "narrative." Which situation may be a tale after all, as Feldman's close study of Anatolian rugs has resulted in discoveries of design that actually translate to his own practice in spatial terms, and where majestic weaves of sound, solipsistic in the moment, obdurately selfless in the unrolling, have moved their creator to speak of a place where he and like-minded artists are "telling their stories continually."

© George Albon 2002

[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]