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CRI American Masters - Morton Feldman

by Nils Vigeland

CD cover The notes below were written to accompany the CD of music by Feldman in the "American Masters" series on the CRI label (CRI CD 620). The CD includes recordings of The Viola in My Life parts 1, 2 and 3, False Relationships and the Extended Ending and Why Patterns?, all in performances involving Feldman himself, either as conductor or pianist.

The music on this recording illustrates the essential integrity of the work of Morton Feldman and one of its fundamental strengths - that of a continuously unfolding unanimity of purpose. There are few composers of his generation whose first and last published work (in Feldman's case Journey to the End of the Night of 1949 and Piano and String Quartet of 1986) span youth and final years with such a concentrated viewpoint.

There are, however, landmarks in the music of Feldman which are largely technical and notational. There are the graphic pieces, the first from 1950 and the last from 1964, in which some parameter of composition is not specified (often pitch). There are the "free duration pieces," both solo and ensemble, in which the instruments proceed without fixed time instruction either for sections of the piece or for its entirety. False Relationships and the Extended Ending (1968) is a late example of this kind although Why Patterns? (1978) is a variant of the principle. Then there are the conventionally notated works which run throughout his entire output of which the Viola in My Life pieces are examples.

Feldman wrote WhyPatterns? for himself to play with Eberhard Blum, flute(s) and Jan Williams, glockenspiel. The score consists of three completely notated but metrically unaligned parts. Theoretically one could say the notation is thus fixed but in playing the piece many times, one discovers a fair degree of latitude concerning vertical coincidence. The musical material consists largely of differentiated, overlapping ostinatos, hence the title. Originally it concluded when the last player completed their part. This was always Feldman, not only because the piano part is the longest but also because he invariably played the slowest. The present ending (the vertically aligned pulsing with the glockenspiel playing a descending chromatic scale) was added after the first performance.

One of the mysteries of Why Patterns?, as well as False Relationships and the Extended Ending in which two groups of instruments (violin-trombone-piano and cello-two pianos-chimes) go their separate ways, is how Feldman manages to maintain his sense of harmonic control given the flexibility of alignment. I can only begin to suggest an answer to this question by pointing out two characteristic solutions. One is to reiterate a tone in a fixed register for the entire duration of the piece. Though the tone is constantly recombined in many formations, it achieves primacy by virtue of its constancy. In False Relationships and the Extended Ending this tone is E-flat/D-sharp, a minor tenth above middle C. Another way is to stratify the instruments registrally so as to make clear the independence of their voice-leading. This reduces intervallic tension. Such stratification is handled with great virtuosity in Why Patterns?

If I regard The Viola in My Life as the exceptional work on this recording it is because these pieces (along with the same-titled piece for viola and orchestra as well as Rothko Chapel of 1971) represent about the only music of Feldman which suggests some equivocation on his part concerning the extraordinary absence of traditional concepts of contrast and development in the rest of his music.

There is in this music a 'melos' unusual for Feldman - groups of notes which are quite rhapsodic. In Rothko Chapel the viola concludes the piece with a melody written when the composer was fifteen, a modal cantilena which would not be out of place in the music of Ernst Bloch. The end of The Viola in My Life 2 is close to this also. There is a decidedly tonal quality, often diatonic, to this melodic writing. It would take a whole book to discuss pitch relation in this music of Feldman but there is certainly no other composer of his prominence in the post-war 'avant-garde' with such an imperial unconcern for the quick rotation of the twelve tones. I think he retained some vestige of the diatonic-chromatic division of older music which would make sense in discussing, for example, the last movement of Brahms' First Symphony and Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. I would go further to say that these diatonic, tonal passages in his music are associated with expressions of loss, highly personal in character. Feldman himself tells us that the soprano melody towards the end of Rothko Chapel (E, D, A, C) was written the day of Stravinsky's funeral. Then there is the opening and closing of the four-hour long For Philip Guston (1984) which is surely the most autobiographically revealing music of his life.

Feldman often spoke of his intention to create in music the sonorous equivalent of the 'flat surface' he admired in the American painters of his generation he knew so well, particularly in Mark Rothko and Philip Guston. In his music there is primarily an awareness instrumentally and texturally of a composite sound. The role of the instruments is to contribute their unique timbral capabilities towards the achievement of this unity. Seldom is the Schoenbergian concern for 'hauptstimme/nebenstimme' (primary voice/secondary voice) evident. Thus, the way the viola stands in relief to the other instruments in The Viola in My Life is remarkable in Feldman's music.

The search for the musical 'flat surface' led Feldman to explore very subtle differentiations in the speech and interaction of instruments. This is one reason why most of his music is quite soft - it is only at low dynamics that seemingly contradictory timbres (as in False Relationships and the Extended Ending) can achieve a union. He was fond of the expression "room noise" in describing his orchestration - a not necessarily negative evaluation of the ambient sounds made by and during musical performance. His percussion writing in particular, like the drum and timpani sounds in The Viola in My Life 1, is a form of the orchestration of room noise not unlike Ives' concept of "shadow counterpoint."

Feldman was after something which had never before been attempted in music - the utilization of the widest possible vocabulary of tonal and instrumental combination unconfused by polyphonic, dynamic or sequential alternation/interruption. Not for him the fabulous interplay of parts in Boulez. Not for him the gnomic succession of sound and silence in Cage. Not for him even the architectural cathedrals of Ligeti. His music is exceedingly straightforward in its procedure - choose a sound, then another and follow this example without recourse to events which would imply an opposition. By and large, he was true to this technique his entire life.

It may be that Feldman's music will always strike a certain kind of listener as idiosyncratic - a denial of the time-honored ways in which music articulates itself. I think that Feldman was deeply offended by this response, by this notion that his music was singular because it was "missing something." Though, it is true that his values of gradation can be exceedingly fine, when one enters this scale and comprehends it, something truly new and wonderful opens up in the art of music - a world in which the relative and the absolute become engaged with themselves.

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