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Three Feldman Articles from The Village Voice

by Tom Johnson


Morton Feldman's 'Voices and Instruments II' (February 22, 1973)

Morton Feldman's Instruments (March 24, 1975)

Morton Feldman Writes an 'Opera' (December 11, 1978)

Note: These articles are also included in the book The Voice of New Music: New York City, 1972 - 1982: A collection of articles originally published in The Village Voice by Tom Johnson, published in the Netherlands by Het Apollohuis, 1989.

Morton Feldman's 'Voices and Instruments II' (February 22, 1973)

It's a little difficult to review Morton Feldman's music, since he was my composition teacher for two or three years. Actually, he was more of a guru, in my case. Every time I had a lesson with him, I would go home and carefully make notes of what he had said and then set about trying to solve any problems he might have posed, without any of the resistance I often gave to my teachers. Like anyone's guru, he was all knowing, infallible, and perfect, as far as I was concerned. And even today, whenever I run into people who have reservations about Feldman's music, it seems to me that they are being frightfully unobjective. Of course, my own admiration of his music is not particularly objective either, so I will try to avoid superlatives, and just describe the stylistic change currently taking place in his music.

'Voices and Instruments II,' which was premiered on February 14 at Carnegie Recital Hall, follows the basic Feldman approach to sound. The piece is very soft and consists of individual notes and chords, mostly sustained, without any melodies or rhythmic ideas, to speak of. The pitches and colors are carefully chosen, and there is great concern for the constantly fluctuating harmonies which result from them. In this case, the ensemble consists of flute, two cellos, bass and three singers who hum, mostly in the upper register.

The new piece, however, is much longer than the typical Feldman piece, and it changes character noticeably, rather than maintaining one feeling from beginning to end. At one point, a single chord is sustained for quite a while before the notes start to change again. Sometimes one or two instruments will not play for a while. The harmonic feeling of the music also seems to be different in different parts of the piece, though these changes are too subtle for me to put my finger on in one hearing.

Now that Feldman is moving into longer forms, his sensitivity to time and his exquisite (oops) control over harmonies and tone colors are more apparent than ever. Those who have considered Feldman a quaint miniaturist will be forced to take a second look.

Some listeners were probably disappointed with the way the piece was performed by members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts of Buffalo, but I liked their approach very much. The hardest thing in the world is to play very very softly, and nobody likes to do it in public, but the Buffalo musicians accepted the challenge. They played so softly that they were right on the brink of losing control most of the time, and occasionally a cello bow or a singer's voice did go out of control briefly. But playing it this way, they gave the piece a wonderful fragile quality. At the same time, they drew the listener in by requiring him to strain his ears a little.

Morton Feldman's Instruments (March 24, 1975)

There are so many kinds of fine new music current today that no one can expect to really understand them all, so we tend to oversimplify. That is particularly true in the case of a composer like Morton Feldman, whose music is so distinctive that one only needs to hear about three notes of one of his pieces in order to recognize the style. By now, I don't think anyone denies that Feldman is one of our major composers, but I don't think many people really listen to his music very carefully either.

'Sure, I know Feldman,' I hear people say. 'He's the guy that writes the soft sparse music with free rhythm.' Or something like that. And once we can identify the style, and have pigeonholed the name up in our brains somewhere, we have a tendency to stop listening and go on to something else.

I have a special interest in Feldman, however, because I studied composition with him for a time, and because I know he has remarkable insight into a lot of things. So I've kept listening to his music, and I've kept discovering new things in it. And by now, every new Feldman piece I hear sounds totally different from all the others. True, the style itself never really changes, but within that style, Feldman produces a continual stream of high-quality music. And it seems to me that he doesn't actually repeat himself nearly as much as, say, Hindemith or Milhaud did.

Feldman has always been largely concerned with the sounds of traditional instruments. Lately this has become a more conscious concern, and he has begun to use the names of the instruments as titles. He has also begin to make longer statements. Most of his recent pieces last at least 20 minutes, and one runs almost an hour. 'Voices and Instruments,' 'Piano and Orchestra,' 'Pianos and Voices,' and 'Chorus and Orchestra' are a few of the eight or 10 substantial pieces he has written since he moved to Buffalo in 1972. All are fully notated, the 'chance' techniques of Feldman's early music having been long forgotten.

One recent piece, called simply 'Instruments' (1974), received an excellent performance Friday night by the SEM Ensemble of Buffalo. The work, which lasts a little over 20 minutes, is scored for flute (Petr Kotik), oboe (Nora Post), muted trombone (James Kasprovicz), celeste (Judith Martin), and percussion (Jan Williams).

Unlike any other Feldman work I know, 'Instruments' has a kind of tonal center. Or is it a theme? Anyway, much of the time, the instruments play on a three-note cluster. As in all Feldman's works, the instruments generally play isolated tones and chords, and the texture is relatively sparse. But there are also a number of gestures which never occurred in earlier pieces. The muted trombone plays occasional glissandos. A sequence of oboe tones may become almost melodic in character. Soft-timpani and bass-drum rolls occasionally intrude. At one point a quiet swish of maracas comes in, so dramatic in the context that it seems almost scary, for all its gentleness.

I was interested in finding out what Feldman would have to say about the changes in his music, and particularly about his more recent vocabulary, which I described as dramatic elements. He agreed that the glissandos and drum rolls create a tension which his music in the '60s never had, but he feels that this tension has less to do with the materials than with the way they are used, generally entering as surprises, without being prepared in the usual ways. He also pointed out that he continues to avoid elements which have the strongest connotations, such as crescendoing drum rolls.

Later the conversation shifted to painting metaphors, and Feldman's intentions became clearer. He was acquainted with many of the abstract expressionist painters, particularly Philip Guston, and he continues to think of his music in terms of painting. He talked about how, now that he was working on a larger scale, using larger canvases, there was a greater possibility that a strange glissando or a swish of maracas would enter the picture. One could say that his pieces of the '60s were all-over paintings, which maintained a constant mood from beginning to end. But now, one sometimes finds areas in his canvases which stand out rather sharply from the rest of the music. It is also a question of color. While his work in the '60s was done largely in pastels, he now uses occasional browns and greys as well.

But the most important thing about all of Feldman's work is his uncanny sensitivity to instrumental colors. Just as an example, at one point in 'Instruments' the winds were playing the three-note cluster, and I found it difficult to tell whether they were all playing in the same octave or not. At first I thought the flute was an octave above the other instruments. Then it began to sound as if both the flute and oboe were playing an octave above the muted trombone. Or were they all in the same register? Normally I have a good ear for such things, but in this case I really couldn't tell. Without ever relying on special avant-garde techniques, Feldman finds ways of putting instrumental colors together so that they sound like something we've never heard before.

Morton Feldman Writes an 'Opera' (December 11, 1978)

Many of us who have followed the highly abstract output of Morton Feldman over the years were surprised to learn that he had composed an opera, and it is perhaps still questionable whether he really has. 'Neither,' which was written for the Rome Opera two seasons ago and received its first New York performance in the Group for Contemporary Music series on November 21, might be better described as an hour long art song. Samuel Beckett's libretto consists of exactly 87 words, which are sung exclusively by a solo soprano. The only truly dramatic moment in the performance at Borden Auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music was the soprano's entrance. After a few minutes of introductory music by the large onstage orchestra, the singer slowly ascended on a platform behind the musicians, where she remained, score in hand, for the rest of the performance. Is it an opera, an art song, or just another remarkable Feldman work? However one might choose to categorize it, 'Neither' is a gorgeous piece of music, and quite possibly the richest, most rewarding work of the whole Feldman catalogue.

Like most of Feldman's compositions, 'Neither' is concerned primarily with dense atonal harmonies and unusual blends of instrumental color. Here, however, the composer works with a wider variety of instruments and a larger span of time than usual. If most of his pieces are easel paintings, this one is a wall-sized mural, and it is so loaded with activity that there is no room for the silences that play such an important part in other Feldman works. The music flows easily from one section to another, each of which contains its own unlikely combinations of celesta, contrabassoon, harps, tuba, piccolo, low violins, high cellos, or whatever. The instruments are played in conventional ways, but the come together in unconventional combinations, and there is much more repetition than in most Feldman works. A sustained chord may repeat 15 or 20 times, and a couple of other ostinatos may be following out their own reiterations in their own tempos at the same time. The repetitions are seldom exact, however. Little bits of the sonorities are always dropping out, shifting around, and otherwise breaking the rules somewhere in the almost inaudible background.

Meanwhile, the soprano line comes and goes. This extremely demanding role continues on one or two notes for long periods of time and remains above the treble clef the whole time. One senses the difficulty and expects the performer to show signs of strain long before the piece is over. But the performer on this occasion, Lynne Webber, had exceptional endurance and remained completely in control the whole time. Feldman seems to know just how much danger is possible within the context of a still singable role. But then, Feldman has been flirting with performance hazards for a long time. This might even be considered one of his chief stylistic characteristics, and it is clearly one of the reasons why he so often asks performers to play his pieces supersoft, way down on that dynamic level where one cannot be completely certain whether a tone will sound or not. While other composers are more concerned with making their music sound easy, and hunt for the most playable and singable lines they can find, Feldman prefers the kind of fragility he finds on the brink of the impossible. It is a risky but extremely effective way of writing music.

The orchestra of the evening consisted entirely of students from the Manhattan School of Music, but they had rehearsed the score intensively and had it well under control. Charles Wuorinen conducted with great ease, despite the constantly changing meters and obvious difficulty of keeping the dense texture sensitively balanced.

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