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Feldman at Edinburgh International Festival 2004

by Graham Urquhart

Principal Sound and Rothko Chapel (Monday 16 August, 10.30pm)

String Quartet II (Wednesday 1st September, 6.00pm)

Note: These reviews were originally posted on the online Morton Feldman discussion list, Why Patterns?

Principal Sound and Rothko Chapel (Monday 16 August, 10.30pm)

It was a pleasant surprise to find two concerts of Morton Feldman's music programmed at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. The first performance opened a series of late night concerts where every ticket was priced at a very reasonable five pounds. Other concerts in this late night series included performances of music by Messiaen, Kurtag, and Lachenmann so at this price audiences could afford to experiment.

I have to confess that despite an evolving appreciation of Feldman's music, over many years, this was the first time that I had ever experienced it as live performance. The first concert opened with a performance of Principal Sound, performed by David Goode. Principal Sound is a relatively late piece (1980) for solo organ that Feldman composed for the 1981 International Contemporary Organ Music Festival. The organ is a difficult instrument to rein in to Feldman's 'extremely quiet' aesthetic and as such, this piece relies on a dense canvas of swirling overtones which create more obvious rhythmic textures than in the pieces for piano and strings where the volume and decay of the note can be controlled much more easily.

Goode looked physically far and distant from the audience as he took his position in the newly refurbished organ gallery in Edinburgh's Usher Hall. This is an excellent venue for full orchestra and rock concerts - Patti Smith visited recently – but as became increasingly clear, arguably not conducive for experiencing Feldman's music. The organ creates a huge sound that really filled the space and I felt that Goode's delivery was a touch bombastic. (Not a word normally associated with Feldman!) As a result, it was all over in fifteen minutes rather than the eighteen to twenty minutes that the score would suggest. The visual memory I retain was when Goode was taking his bow, a single light shone in a triangle of light from above and I was conscious of a moth (butterfly?) fluttering up towards the apex of the light. Perhaps some form of metaphor for Feldman's taming of the great organ beast into something distinctly Feldmanesque. I have subsequently been listening to the piece on CD performed by Friedemann Herz and it does repay repeated listening.

The other piece of the evening was Rothko Chapel which, I suspect like a lot of Feldman fans, was my initial entry point into his music. My view of this piece (as experienced on a recording) has always been of an aural canvas that transforms the space of a room into a contemplative environment. In a live concert hall setting, I felt that music of this delicacy struggled against the relatively cavernous space. The delivery was immaculate and in particular the choir of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama was magnificent. However, I found viewing the performance almost a distraction, and came to the conclusion that I actually prefer not to see how the sounds are generated. It seemed to 'anchor' the sound too much. These are not meant to be criticisms of the performance delivery, more the recounting of an actual response to hearing this music in a particular live environment. Interestingly, after the concert I was reading Feldman's notes on the piece in Give My Regards to Eighth Street[1]. He refers to Rothko's imagery going right to the edge of the canvas and wanting to create a similar effect with the music: 'that it should permeate the whole octagonal room and not be heard from a certain distance. The result is much what you have in a recording – the sound is closer, more physically with you than in a concert hall'. So after this concert, I was grateful that I had had the opportunity to experience Feldman live but left with thoughts about performance, sound, space and environment. It had raised questions about how Feldman's music should be experienced and whether the 'concert hall' can ever do it justice. Was Feldman much more suited to the reproductive recording rather than the live experience? I wondered whether these questions would be resolved when I went to see the Auryn Quartet perform String Quartet II.

String Quartet II (Wednesday 1st September, 6.00pm)

My lingering doubts about Feldman and live performance were completely swept aside by this experience. The venue this time was The Queens Hall, altogether a much more intimate and satisfactory venue. The audience was not large – around 60 - the vast majority of whom stayed until the end. As the evening progressed, some physically stretched out lengthwise on the seats, staring up at the ceiling, whilst others adopted meditative poses. Those that did walk around did so without footwear, silently walking through the sound.

The performers were the Auryn Quartet who have performed this piece before in Munich and Salzburg. Their stamina and intense concentration justified the standing ovations at the end and I felt their delivery was equally comparable to the Flux Quartet and Ives Ensemble's recorded versions. If anything I preferred their tempo with the piece clocking in at around five hours, slightly slower than the Ives recording, but a good hour less than the Flux version.

The concert commenced with Webern's Six Bagatelles for String Quartet Op 9, which in their entirety take around four minutes twenty seconds to perform. These jewel-like, reductive miniatures are perhaps the perfect amuse-bouche to sample before Feldman's vast memory canvas. Feldman's admiration for Webern is well documented and perhaps it is not too fanciful to view SQII as a reductive miniature on a more extended scale!

Having listened to both the Ives and Flux Quartet recorded versions, it was a totally different experience to witness this live. I confess to not having sat through the recorded versions in one sitting and it was only doing so here that the architecture of the piece became more apparent. After, the angular introduction, I noticed a more pastoral sense emerging at around 50 minutes and the room itself seemed to have settled into a deeper level of listening and breathing. As time progressed, I began to visualise the piece almost like a tree, road or even maze where detours are taken either very briefly or into extended new exploratory realms. Some parts using plucking techniques conjured up a declamatory spider-crab walking, a swarm of bees and at one point almost a banjo hoedown. However, as time unfurls, there is a return to the trunk or 'the way' and sonic colours remerge as orientation points. This is not to suggest a linear evolution over time, more of what Feldman calls an assemblage of a sonic environment. The effect is perhaps a meditation on remembering. Towards the end of the work, predominantly chordal textures emerge for extended periods creating great slabs of quiet introspective sound, haunted by the ghost of melancholy - the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl.

I can honestly say that this did not feel like five hours to me. Feldman almost deconstructs our contemporary experience of time. How often do we sit still for five hours, not rushing, not trying to fit things in and get on to the next activity. This is music that like John Cage's 4'33" makes you self aware in time and space. Thoughts gently slowing down as the music draws you in and you become increasingly aware of the minute changes in tone, texture and repetitions. And yet we remain connected to our fellow travellers – the musicians and the audience, and to the murmurs of the wider world that encroach from time to time with police sirens, and the throb of passing traffic. What I also experienced was how the piece lingered with me over the next few days. As if there had been some cumulative intake of musical breath that slowly exhaled as memory of the music faded.

As the last notes faded into silence the Auryn Quartet were greeted with a number of well deserved standing ovations and they in turn applauded the crowd recognising the demands that a piece like this also makes of the audience. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde who would attend the first night of his plays to see whether 'the audience was a success'. Tonight there would be an emphatic yes! This was perfectly encapsulated when someone behind me said to a friend…'well shared …well shared…' a perfect sentiment to end a unique experience that firmly transcended the musical. I would urge anyone interested in Feldman's music to share in the live experience of SQII should they ever get the opportunity.

© Graham Urquhart 2004


1.    Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, edited and with an introduction by B.H. Friedman, afterword by Frank O'Hara (Boston: Exact Change, 2000)
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