[Morton Feldman Page] [List of Texts]

Morton Feldman on CD

by John Warnaby

This article first appeared in Tempo: A Quarterly Review of Modern Music (No 207, December 1998) pp 39-43. All quotations are from the liner notes of the relevant CDs, and all from Feldman's own writings unless otherwise indicated. The following CDs are reviewed in the article:

This review began life as an extension of my review of performances of Morton Feldman at the 1996 Huddersfield Festival (see Tempo No 200, April 1997) and evolved over the course of a year or more, during which an increasing number of Feldman discs have appeared. The tenth anniversary of the composer's comparatively early death has undoubtedly been a contributory factor, but equally important is the widening realization that Feldman is a genuinely unique voice, capable of appealing not only to advocates of minimalism in its various manifestations, but also to those who continue to value the intellectual content of music.

Feldman's compositional principles revolved around the creation of the purest form of 'absolute' music, and the need to define the relationship between sound and silence with the utmost precision. Webern was his starting-point, from which he elevated the pause to the same importance as all other gestures. Different kinds of notation were employed to create an exact equipoise between sound and silence, and to explore the interstices between painting and music; between time and space; between form and content.

The three Col Legno discs all feature the pianist Markus Hinterhäuser. In Crippled Symmetry (1983) he also plays celeste, while the percussionist, Robyn Schulkowsky, is heard on vibraphone and glockenspiel, and Dietmar Wiesner doubles on flute and bass flute. Such a sound-world may contain echoes of pieces for young performers, but, influenced by certain kinds of Turkish village rug, Feldman elevates it to the realm of high art by re-evaluating conventional notions as to the precise nature of symmetry - hence the title. This is a typical example of the composer's use of a visual image as the starting-point of an abstract concept: in this case, a disproportionate symmetry expressed through a 'symmetrically staggered rhythmic series'. The resulting asymmetrically repeated patterns, when transferred from rug-making to composition, enabled Feldman not simply to establish a sense of timelessness, but to sustain it for more than 90 minutes with no hint of the music descending into mere minimalism. Feldman's view of time is neither mechanical, nor solely concerned with stasis. It can only be appreciated by listeners who are capable of concentrating for long periods. It makes even greater demands on the performers: its full impact could only be realized by recording the composition at a single take, and the version on the disc was selected from four complete interpretations.

In Crippled Symmetry, Feldman cultivated a fine line between image and abstraction, repetition and transformation, intellectualism and a particular brand of mysticism; listeners are required to develop an equally subtle appreciation of the line between a passive and dynamic approach to the music. This is genuinely spiritual music - but emphatically not the sort described as 'holy minimalism', with its sepulchral atmosphere and limited range of harmonic progressions, which the marketing men have promoted in response to a popular conception of what constitutes a mystical experience. As we will discover, Feldman profoundly distrusted any art which functioned as a means to an end.

The essence of Feldman's creative personality is to be found in his piano music, where his ideas could be expressed in their purest form, without relying on varied instrumental colours. The other Col Legno recordings feature Hinterhäuser in two of Feldman's largest and most searching contributions to the repertoire.

Like Crippled Symmetry, Triadic Memories (1981) occupies two discs; it is even slightly longer. Primarily concerned with 'formalising the disorientation of memory', it is built from sequences of repeated chords, but by varying the number of repetitions unpredictably, a definite pattern is avoided. In this work, Feldman's attempt to create the aural equivalent of the 'picture plane', in which the line is sustained, establishing a precarious balance, without recourse to either a harmonic, or serial system, or to the distinction between foreground and background, shows the continuing influence of modern painting, as well as such composers as Satie and Varèse. Indeed, one of the ways in which a balance is achieved is by varying, through the use of gradations, the density of the chromatic field, and thus the ear is employed in a manner analogous to the eye. Yet Feldman was equally keen to exploit Robert Rauschenberg's idea of creating something between life and art - hence the work deals with other indefinable categories between 'material and construction ... method and application'.

For Bunita Marcus was written in 1985 for one of Feldman's closest friends and compositional colleagues, and represents a further distillation of his style, replacing the chordal repetitions of Triadic Memories almost exclusively with single pitches or diads. It is therefore much sparser, with the emphasis on the resonance of various intervals associated with diads, or with successive pitches. The result is one of Feldman's most disembodied scores; yet, having imposed such strict limitations, he contrived a remarkable amount of variety, not least by creating an illusion of different tempi without a hint of pulse. Feldman's intuitive judgment of the number of times a pitch or phrase should be repeated was remarkable, as was his timing of individual sections and of the work as a whole. He was equally effective at ensuring that the introduction of surprise elements, however slight, would carry the maximum impact, and as in Triadic Memories, Hinterhäuser's performance evinces a strong affinity with the composer's approach.

The Wergo disc from the Ensemble Avantgarde, covering pieces of the period 1962-73, emphasizes the extent to which writers and painters, in addition to composers, influenced the formulation of Feldman's aesthetic values. Stefan Wolpe, one of his principal teachers, enabled him to acquire knowledge of recent European developments, but it was the ideas, rather than the music, of John Cage which gave him the means to respond creatively to the paintings he knew so well.

For Franz Kline (1962) and De Kooning (1963) were probably the first pieces in which Feldman paid specific homage to painters. They were scored for similar ensembles, but whereas For Franz Kline included a soprano vocalise, and its concision reflected the painter's 'brusque, black brush gestures on a white background', as well as aspects of European modernism, the somewhat longer De Kooning contained the essence of Feldman's extended compositions, particularly the weightless quality which he admired in abstract expressionism. Indeed, the notational experiments, described in the leaflet, were designed to achieve a fluidity analogous to that in painting, but were not confined to works associated with painters. Thus, Four Instruments extends the procedures adopted in De Kooning, but by the time he wrote For Frank O'Hara (1973), commemorating the poet who had provided the text of The O'Hara Songs eleven years earlier, Feldman had returned to conventional notation. The leaflet even suggests that the piece includes a programmatic element. This Wergo disc is completed by the Piano Piece to Philip Guston (1963), thereby establishing a link with the first of Hat Art's two volumes of Feldman's shorter piano pieces. In his notes, Peter Niklas Wilson observes 'Morton Feldman's tonal aesthetic is pianistic', so recitals of his keyboard music represent the essence of his creative personality.

Volume 1 is performed by Marianne Schroeder, whose pianism - familiar from her interpretations of Scelsi's keyboard output - is equally well-suited to Feldman's style. In a brief injunction, she points out that as the music is predominantly quiet, it should be heard at a low volume.

As in the ensemble pieces, the density of the harmony and the spacing of individual gestures relates to Feldman's preoccupation with painting. This is certainly the case with the brief items of the 1950s and 1960s, and the much longer Piano begins in similar vein. But this is a transition work, dating from 1977, and as it proceeds, elements of repetition assume greater significance. Though there are some surprising outbursts, these are offset by quiet passages, where the texture is sometimes reduced to single pitches, and the work ends with the impression that Feldman has secured the basis of his late style. However, several works intervened before Palais de Mari was written nine years later, and in the interim Feldman's manner had become much sparer. In Palais de Mari there is a greater concentration on single pitches, or diads, and certain figures almost achieve motivic status. There is therefore an affinity with the much longer For Bunita Marcus, written a year earlier.

Volume 2 covers a narrower time-span, from 1950 to 1972. The principal protagonist is Steffen Schleiermacher, who is joined by four colleagues for the last (and easily the most extended) piece. The solo piano items, including the so-called Last Pieces of 1959, all date from the 1950s, and two are quite long by the standard of Feldman's early works, lasting more than eight minutes. They also offer some important hints of the composer's late style, especially Piano Piece, of 1952, and Intermission VI, written the following year. Above all, when performed as a sequence, like the ensemble pieces Durations I to V, they cohere into a single entity. Nevertheless, Five Pianos, of 1972, is the obvious highlight of the disc. It was probably influenced by Stefan Wolpe's Enactments, for three pianos, but it avoids Wolpe's contrapuntal complexity. Moreover, it's a long way from the clangorous din associated with recent compositions for multiple pianos. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this work belongs to the period in which Feldman produced many of his orchestral scores. Its 35-minute duration is similar, and it has a comparable subtlety, resulting from detailed attention to every nuance.

For those who remain unconvinced about Feldman's music, Clarinet and String Quartet (1983) provides an ideal introduction to his oeuvre in general, and his late works in particular. Within its 40-minute span, it distils the essence of his most extended creations, and shows how a discourse could be generated by systematically permutating basic patterns. Moreover, it illustrates, as effectively as Crippled Symmetry, Feldman's unerring instinct concerning the number of repetitions appropriate to each phrase. Indeed, both works were written at much the same time, and 'were attempts to reconcile the "the objectivity" of patterns with the "subjectivity" of Abstract Expressionism'. However, the most remarkable fact is that, having achieved his own kind of serenity in his early works, Feldman was able to extend it almost to infinity in his final phase, while avoiding any suggestion of tedium.

So the Two Pieces for Clarinet and String Quartet (1961) share the same spirit as the later work, even though they exist in more than one version and have a total duration of less than five minutes. The clarinet is allotted a less prominent role, and as a consequence, the distinction between foreground and background is less apparent. The material is also more ethereal, with occasional echoes of Webern, so that in comparison with Clarinet and String Quartet, the Two Pieces lean towards the 'subjective', or 'abstract expressionist' end of the spectrum. Yet the fact that both works share the same sound-world emphasizes the differences.

Feldman's orchestral works probably represent the least-known facet of his oeuvre, but the appearance of no less than three recordings of Coptic Light, and a double CD devoted to four of the concertos in cpo's Hans Zender edition, has helped to rectify the situation. The same label's version of Coptic Light is coupled with the five ensemble pieces of the Durations series mentioned above. In general, Feldman's approach to instrumental sonority was more varied in his earlier works - hence his experiments with graphic notation. The varied instrumentations of these pieces make them an excellent example of his questing spirit in this regard, while Coptic Light demonstrates the quest was never completely abandoned, notwithstanding the sonic uniformity of many of the later works.

Durations I to V reveal Feldman's relationship to Schoenberg and Webern as analogous to that of the 'abstract expressionists' to Kandinsky and Mondrian. His limited use of indeterminacy in respect of the duration of individual tones can be compared with the free application of paint on the canvas. Both techniques were attempts to achieve even greater refinement in the deployment of basic materials, and both showed the extent to which a particular American sensibility had been developed independently of its European origins. Above all, within his own sphere, Feldman had to confront issues concerning the nature of music and the value of his own contributions. Fortunately, Feldman's belief in his creative powers never wavered. (He even expressed an ambition to be the first great composer who was Jewish!) Likewise, he retained his commitment to a radical outlook, and thus Coptic Light, his last composition for full orchestra, is as innovative as regards instrumentation as any of his previous scores.

The choice of unusual forces in Coptic Light serves a different purpose than in the Durations series, replacing the clarity of the earlier work with unusually complex textures - hence the relatively brief time-span. The full orchestra is involved virtually throughout, with all the pitches of the chromatic scale divided between and within the instrumental 'families'. Otherwise, Feldman's compositional procedures are familiar from his other scores, as individual elements are gradually transformed. As the work unfolds, the listener becomes attuned to Feldman's strategy. Following the example of the 'abstract expressionists', he allows particular details of the music to emerge from the prevailing texture, and with repeated hearings, these can be discerned from the outset. Ultimately, the work demonstrates that the new approach to listening Feldman proposes is as effective for blocks of sound as for essentially linear conceptions.

An alternative recording of Coptic Light, by the Sudwestfunk Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Gielen, is included on the 3-disc set documenting the 1994 Donaueschinger Musiktage (Col Legno WWE 3CD 31882). This is well worth hearing in the context of other works, but the cpo version has greater clarity, plus the distinct advantage of forming part of an all-Feldman disc. Michael Tilson Thomas's Argo version is also convincing, presenting the piece in the context of two of the concertos featured by Zender.

Feldman's attitude to concerto-form had little to do with the 'classical', 'romantic', or even the modern era. The virtuosity demanded of the soloists differs from that of conventional concertos: they frequently share material with the orchestra, but assume the role of leading voice. Hence the soloist initiates the sound, or tone, and the orchestra's task is to provide an appropriately balanced response.

The Cello Concerto, of 1972, is typical of Feldman's approach. Zender has the benefit of Siegfried Palm - one of the most fervent advocates of new music and the work's dedicatee - as soloist, and he responds to Feldman's score with characteristic conviction; but Robert Cohen, emphasizing the work's lyricism, is also impressive, with the advantage of a more recent recording. In the Piano Concerto, by contrast, Roger Woodward, the work's dedicatee, offers the more lyrical reading, while Alan Feinberg's forthright and altogether crisper account reduces the playing time by over four minutes. A similar discrepancy obtains in respect of Coptic Light, with Tilson Thomas's meticulous account lasting more than six minutes longer than the other versions. It should be stressed, however, that the different versions capture the weightless quality the composer intended, though this is most fully realized in Roswitha Staege's performance of Flute and Orchestra, which alone justifies investing in the Zender discs. It has an ethereal quality, clearly stemming from Feldman's close identification with the flute, which became increasingly apparent in his later works.

In comparison, Oboe and Orchestra, with Armin Aussem as soloist, is less distinctive, yet it illustrates Feldman's skill at devising a specific orchestral accompaniment for each soloist, so that their interplay creates an unique sound-world.

Flute and Orchestra was completed in 1978, by which time Feldman had entered the transitional phase to his late works. The previous year, he had composed Neither, in collaboration with Samuel Beckett, whose brief text, dealing with the ambiguity of perception, enabled Feldman to extend his exploration of the borders between categories. Though Neither has been called an opera, there is only one character. The text she sings comprises 87 words of an internal monologue, set out like a poem. There are no staging instructions; consequently Feldman's substantial score could easily have been entitled Soprano and Orchestra, in line with the other works of the period. The score unfolds as a series of gradually changing episodes, in which either the motivic material is modified, or the context in which it is heard is altered. Sections featuring the soprano - sometimes singing only a single pitch - are interspersed with purely orchestral passages, and as with the soloists in his concerti, Feldman avoids any distinction between foreground and background. Hence, the atmosphere conveyed by the music is analogous to that of the text.

The American Masters disc features Feldman as conductor and performer of his music. The three pieces entitled The Viola in My Life received considerable attention soon after their appearance in 1970. Their revival is very welcome because, together with False Relationships and the Extended Ending written two years earlier, they encapsulate the composer's style at the end of the 1960s. By contrast, the compositional procedures in Why Patterns?, completed ten years later and involving a synthesis of graphic and conventional notation, definitely foreshadowed the late style. This is the first recording of the work, and Feldman's participation guarantees its long-term significance. However, if Ensemble Recherche commit their interpretation to disc, it should not be missed.

The Piano Trio was one of the works which inaugurated Feldman's final phase; it also belongs to a sequence of pieces exploring such traditional genres as the string quartet, piano quintet and piano quartet over an extended period. The Trio has been recorded by members of the Ives Ensemble, and it is soon apparent that while the harmonic language retains some elements from the later 1970s, the gradually changing patterns are the dominant feature, particularly as the work progresses. These are sometimes quite animated, so the work is not as uniformly tranquil as most of the subsequent scores.

Finally, Ensemble Recherche's excellent recording of Words and Music, which has been re-mastered and re-released. This is an example of the extreme concision Feldman achieved in response to Beckett's text, resulting in a perfect equipoise. The CD equivalent of ideal radio, it shows Feldman recapturing the economy of his early scores. The performance prompts the intriguing question as to what Feldman might have produced had he lived long enough to respond to further Beckett texts.

To return to the Col Legno recordings, where notes were taken from Feldman's essays. The essay included with For Bunita Marcus does not refer to the piece directly, but it outlines a fundamental aspect of his artistic credo, of which the work is a particularly apposite expression. Feldman's ideal was to create music which was completely neutral, existing independently of polemical considerations with regard to politics or art. Thus, he rejected Cage's 'socially-orientated' approach as rigorously as Nono's 'politically-orientated' music, opting, instead, for an esoteric art, which, however beautiful, he recognized as being useless. In this respect, he cited the example of Thoreau, whose actions - political or creative - were determined by moral values, rather than 'the mythology of a system'.

In fact, the esotericism of Feldman's creative achievement is precisely what gives his music its unique significance. At a time when, as he has pointed out, an artist's political 'disengagement' can be sanctioned and promoted by the cultural establishment, his own creative neutrality can hardly be over-valued. This was the ultimate 'fine line' Feldman explored, and the ultimate challenge he bequeathed his listeners.

These recordings are a vital addition to the Feldman discography, allowing his artistic progress to be charted with increasing accuracy. Ten years after the composer's death, it is surely time to develop an understanding of Feldman's legacy independently of his own writings.

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