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The Premiere of "Triadic Memories"

Notes collected by Adrian Jack

In the early 1980s, British composer and music critic Adrian Jack was Director of the MusICA concert series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. On Sunday 4th October 1981, for a concert in this series, the Australian pianist Roger Woodward played the London premiere of "Mists" by Iannis Xenakis, followed by the world premiere of Morton Feldman's "Triadic Memories." The score of "Triadic Memories" is dated 23rd July 1981 and the work is dedicated jointly to Roger Woodward and the Japanese pianist Aki Takahashi. Recalling the night of the premiere, Adrian Jack writes: "That night it poured, and the rain on the tin roof of the ICA theatre was almost louder than the music. Feldman was present and sat next to Harrison Birtwistle. He kissed Roger's fingers after the performance!"

The following reviews of the event from British newspapers were collected by Adrian Jack:

A day of new music

by Dominic Gill  (Financial Times, 6th October 1981)


Xenakis's title is not evocative. "Mists" is another piano solo in the genre of his "Herma" and "Evryali": torrential, thunderstruck piano writing, full of sudden halts, strange twists and turns, and violent surges. Woodward gave it with concentration and panache: exciting to witness as a tour de force pure and simple, a bolt of naked keyboard energy.

After substantial flirtations with sforzandi, and even some crescendi, during the latter years of the 1970s, Morton Feldman has returned to writing very quiet music. His new "Triadic Memories" never rises above the dynamic of triple-piano, and many phrases are marked ppppp. It is also just over one and a half hours long. It is so quiet and so long that gradually the aural focus shifts away from the piano towards all the other little regular concert hall noises which compete with it for attention: the squeaks, sniffles, buzzing electric lights, creaks and coughs.

Chief among these was the accompaniment throughout the piece of a quiet gurgle of water, like a dozen contented guinea-pigs, through the ICA's rainwater pipes. If there had to be an accompaniment, we could have asked for none better: a natural partner of the music, moist and delicate. Feldman's own image of the work is different: he calls it "probably the largest butterfly in captivity." But to me it seemed more humid and ephemeral, like the mist on a bathroom window pane.

Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories

by Robert Henderson  (Daily Telegraph, 6th October 1981)

That it consists of no more than 25 pages of spare, conventionally notated patterns of sound, yet lasts for an hour and a half and never rises above a gentle pianissimo, should indicate something, if only on the most superficial level, about the nature of Morton Feldman's new piano piece, "Triadic Memories," which was written for, and given its first performance by, Roger Woodward at the ICA.

The pulse rate, or rather the rate of change, is extremely low, the music mainly unfolding through hushed, obsessive, minutely calculated repetitions of brief chordal segments or simple decorative figures. Almost as exhausting as Wagner's Rheingold, but for very different reasons, such microscopic music, music which depends on the almost infinitesimal fluctuations of response, frequently hovering within the dynamic range of triple to quintuple piano, and in which any hint of expression is accidental, demands unusual concentration, not only on the part of the performer but also on that of the audience, very few of whom failed to stay the course.

Described by the composer as probably the largest butterfly in captivity concerned with the shape of a leaf and not the tree, each tiny segment taken in isolation possesses its own peculiar beauty, their cumulative effect as they dissolve slowly into one another, one of a near trance-like stillness and immobility.

Where Feldman is exceedingly parsimonious with his notes, Xenakis in his much shorter piece, "Mists", also written for Roger Woodward and receiving its first London performance, is lavishly unrestrained; where Feldman remains consistently just above the threshold of audibility, Xenakis goes to the other extreme, his more conventional bravura dramatic and fiercely rhetorical.

Yet Feldman, in his quietly hypnotic economy and Xenakis in his exuberance seem to share one thing in common: for when, within a given piece, everything is unexpected, everything begins to sound curiously the same.

Feldman premiere

by Hugo Cole  (The Guardian, 5th October 1981)

Those who think that all contemporary music sounds alike should have been at the ICA last night to hear Roger Woodward play new works by Xenakis and Morton Feldman. The contrast between the furious activity and violent fluctuations of mood of the first and the enigmatic serenity of the second could not be greater, and reflects attitudes to music as far separated as they could possibly be; Xenakis's "Mists" is based, we're told, on "non-octavating pitch sieves" and "arborescences rotated in the pitch-time space," mathematical processes which few have ever been able to follow, while Feldman has denied that he follows any processes at all. His only technical comment on the 90-minute "Triadic Memories" is that grace notes are to be played not crisply, but somewhat delayed, each with its own isolated ring.

Both, however, provided in different ways fuel for Woodward's virtuosity. "Mists" makes use of many textures and figurations derived from common pianistic stock, but fed through the filter of Xenakis's strange imagination so that the music comes out wildly distorted; a wrong-note idiom carried to extremes, where there seem to be no expectable notes to give us our bearings; but with a rhetorical power that compels attention.

Feldman's work - much longer than the Choral Symphony - takes up only 26 pages of score, though these include passages in Feldman's labour-saving notation where three written notes can occupy 75 seconds. The piece is played pianissimo throughout; the psychological effect is often like that of an elasticated Webern work; we become acutely aware of the distant gurgling of an ICA cistern, of the air-conditioning, of every breath drawn by our neighbours.

In spite of earlier disclaimers, Feldman shows much ingenuity in dislocating his slow basic rhythm, throwing parts out of synchronisation or building in faint hesitations by ingenious notational means. To get the most out of this music, one should not be a critic with a deadline to meet and probably would do better without a score - the mysteries of chords 11 times repeated are revealed before their time if you are following the music.

Woodward's performance was an extraordinary feat of control; to play for 90 minutes pianissimo and almost senza espressione must be the hardest thing in the world; while Feldman's ability to spread music so very, very thin without losing his thread or his audience, is also not to be underestimated. It was significant that the few who left, left in the early stages of the work. Given time, this music seems to cast its hypnotic spell over most listeners. As a reaction against the busy-ness and absurd over-concentrations of meaning in most intellectual Western music, "Triadic Memories" makes its point clearly.

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