Morton Feldman Vol 2
Morton Feldman: Patterns in a Chromatic Field and Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello
Once I tried to trace Arnold Schoenberg’s saying to source about there being plenty music left to be written in C major, and found the task unexpectedly frustrating.
No one seemed prepared to clarify where Schoenberg said, or wrote this statement, or anything about the context that led him to articulate an idea, which if read literally, could be the gainsayer of everything his life’s work was about. With internet searches unable to agree even on what Schoenberg said, or wrote, I realised how bizarre it is this statement central to New Music mythology should have become so marooned in history. And the one resource we now lean on for instant historical clarification, the internet, merely added to the misreadings and muddle.
Sitting down to begin these booklet notes some twenty minutes ago, I googled “Morton Feldman said”. I was interested; interested to know what was out there, and how many Feldman quotes I thought I knew might be implanted inside my brain in some garbled, out-of-context form. And like tablets of New Music scripture, Feldman’s wise and wisecracking words poured into my browser. For what it’s worth, “Morton Feldman said” generates many more ‘hits’ than “Arnold Schoenberg said”. Not bad for a composer who even ten, fifteen, years ago was still underground and largely misunderstood.
In my day-job as music journalist, I’ve come to appreciate how addictively quotable Feldman can be. That totemic quote about his music aspiring to be about scale, not form – which actually reads “up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour-and-a-half it’s scale” – is a very useful, written by somebody who would absolutely know, quote to have at your disposal to insert into an article about any music that questions the timeframe over which music normally flows.
“What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment – maybe, say, six weeks – nobody understood art.” Again, Feldman’s incisive, tangentially waspish prose puts a frame around an otherwise nebulous idea: that most artists know the parameters and boundaries of their art perhaps just a little too well, a thought backed up by another quote “Do we have anything in music that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?” Some statements – “Polyphony sucks!” – are brutally blunt, others – “I can live without art, but not the myth about art” – are wantonly enigmatic; Feldman’s anecdote about telling Karlheinz Stockhausen not to push sounds around, and Stockhausen’s apparent reply ‘what, not even a little bit?’, was designed to tell us where Feldman’s attitude to sound stood vis-à-vie European Modernism…and to lance Stockhausen’s bulbous ego.
Why am I telling you this? To make the point that, as these performances of Patterns in a Chromatic Field and Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello amply demonstrate, however well we think we know Feldman through his statements, his music is impossible to carry in your head and remains essentially unknowable. ‘Essentially’ in the sense of: that is the essential thing about it.
Feldman the man was a showman; Feldman the composer was an aesthete whose compositions were secret and private. He died in 1987, twelve years before I started writing about music, but had I been fortunate enough to interview him, I’m sure he would have provided brilliant copy – the sort of interview that fills one with joy during the arduous ache of transcription; fully-formed sentences, his compositional nuts-and-bolts convincingly explained, one-liners delivered with the facility of Woody Allen. But would he have let me past the mask, even an inch? His own Patterns in a Chromatic Field note suggests not. Programme notes are meant to illuminate; but I wonder if Feldman used the opportunity to compound, not clarify, the riddles and enigmas?
The basics are simple enough. Composed in 1981, Patterns in a Chromatic Field is for cello and piano. Feldman prefaces his note with: “Take an object/Do something to it/Do something else to it/Do something else to it” before outlining the patterns he places within a ‘chromatic field’: the raw data of pitch groups, time signatures and chord durations. Riffing off Gertrude Stein’s genesis of a language – “In the beginning was the word. Then they put two words together, then they made a sentence, then they made a paragraph and the forgot the word” – Feldman then ‘tells’ us how he assembled his piece. “Do it one way and do it another,” he writes. “Spell it one way then spell it another. Orchestrate it one way, orchestrate it another way. Use this kind of rhythm and then use another kind of rhythm. Do it on a chain one after the other, do it less on a chain, do it in a simultaneity”….
…in other words, what’s the fuss? Composing’s easy! You need material and you need number-crunching techniques that guarantee you permutations of that basic material and, bingo, there’s your piece. Feldman even provides a failsafe ‘good composing guide’ – “My definition of composition: the right note in the right place with the right instrument!” But had he indeed constructed his music like flat-pack furniture I doubt we’d be interested in it today – which is why I don’t believe a word Feldman says. The intensity with which he engaged with his material is clear in the deep listening it imposes upon us, his listeners – the mind-boggling ‘rightness’ of his instinct about how a semitone shift either way can completely change the timbre, or not; how seemingly insignificant motific developments might impact on the structure an hour later, or not.
Far from a Pot Noodle approach to compositional technique – just add boiling water and stir – Feldman wasn’t happy unless he pushed himself towards devising a new recipe for every project. Many of his pronouncements feel designed to deny, or deflect attention from, the complexity of his relationship to his material. To twist one of Feldman’s statements against himself – he understood that understanding his art too clearly was a potential creative compromise. There was value in hiding the mystery from others, and to an extent, from himself.
Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello was his last piece. The motifs are arguably sparser, and certainly there are less of them than Feldman typically used; but the relationship between text and sound remains characteristically inscrutable. The published score has 34 pages paginated with orderly consistency: three systems, each with nine bars. But this visual uniformity bears no correlation to what we hear. Displaced, changing time signatures and double-bar repeats torpedo the rationality of the grid. Into that equation factor in those imponderables of structure and sound I mentioned in relation to Patterns in a Chromatic Field, and a fundamental truth about Feldman’s music emerges – however faithfully one analyses his scores, however forcefully Feldman persuades us that his music could be a sonic adjunct to the New York School painters he admired, experiencing his sounds is always quite different. The link between perceptible systems and the sound of the music itself breaks. Then all you’ve got are your ears.
Which leads to a final consideration: why Feldman on a label primarily concerned with the documentation of British free improvisation? There are, of course, personal reasons. Label founder Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury have an association that goes back to the mid-1960s. In 1981 Tilbury joined AMM, the improvisation collective of which, in 1965, Prévost was a founder member. But there are robust musical reasons too. Feldman’s concerns about sound and structure – ears fantastically adrift, while keeping alert to the surroundings and open to the possibility of change – is second nature to improvisers. Feldman has more in common spiritually with AMM than he does with, say, Elliott Carter or perhaps even John Cage; and AMM with Feldman than it does with other approaches to improvised music.
As Morton Feldman famously said: “You need a little drama. Not much. But you need a little drama. Just a little bit.’
This second volume of ‘Music for Piano and Strings by Morton Feldman’ brings together two fairly lengthy pieces for piano & Strings. Both pieces on offer here date from Feldman’s latter work in the mid to late 80’s, and both pieces here are played with wonderful precision, feeling & angular grace by pianist John Tilbury & The Smith Quartet.
This release comes in the form of a DVD, so both pieces could be fitted on one disc. The two pieces on offer here are: ‘ Patterns In a Chromatic Field’ from 1981, and ‘Piano, violin, Viola, Cello’ from 1987- which was one of the last pieces Feldman wrote. The wonderful performances of both pieces were recorded live at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary music in 2006. The DVD comes in a cd sized gatefold slip sleeve which also includes a eight page booklet, which features an essay on both pieces by The Wire writer & composer Philip Clark. The DVD offers up a total running time of two hours & fifty six minutes.
First up we have ‘Patterns in a Chromatic Field’ which brings together pianist John Tilbury with cellist Deirdre Copper, for an hour & twenty seven minute version of this Feldman piece from 1981. The piece is quite active & shifting, by Feldman standards, with the pair altering the pace & patterns in a effortless manner. It all starts with a fairly fast angular/ rhythmic mixture of sawing cello work & stabbing/ jerking piano notation. But as the piece progress the pair slip from: eerier ‘n’ slowed piano pitter patters & cello drifts, onto to cello string picks & jaunting yet haunting piano runs, through to low end piano runs & sawing cello textures, onto creepy ‘n’ tumbling piano patterns that brood on a angular sea of cello dwell, and beyond. The patterns seemingly shift from one to another every few minutes or so, but sometimes a single pattern with stay in place as long as five minutes- this seemingly un-predictable nature of the piece really makes it a wonderful ride, and the near on hour & a half runtime seems to fly by.
The second & last piece here is ‘Piano, violin, Viola, Cello’, and as it title suggest it’s built around: piano( played by John Tilbury), Violin( played by Darragh Morgan), Viola( played by Nick Pendlebury), and Cello( by Deirdre Copper). This version of the piece runs for one hour & twenty eight minutes, and compared with the first track this is a lot slower, less shifting & more haunting in its feel. The piece drifts into sonic view with a wonderful slow-mo mixture of the carefully placed, eerier & spaced piano notation, which are hovered under by a brooding & skeletal string drifts/ebbs. The whole track drifts along in a captivating & chillingly slow ‘n’ ebbing manner, with sparse piano notation either drifting on it’s on or been wrapped in a sad/ contemplative slowed/ thin string saw or ebb. Later on in the tracks life time the string elements seem to hover more on their own creating sombre sustains. Once again there are patterns present here, but they stay at the same deeply slowed & considered pace through-out, so you literal find yourself slowing down to the tracks lingering & sombre pace.
Both tracks here are played with both wonderful precision, feeling & thoughtfulness- I’ve heard quite a few of Feldman’s pieces played by John Tilbury in the past, and he really does seem to nail the slow, sad yet captivating feeling of Feldman’s work perfectly. Yet he’s also very at home playing the composer more angular & rhythmic work too- which of course both of these tracks showcase. And of course the other players here also manage to put on great considered & controlled performances too.
All told this is a wonderfully recorded & played collection of Morton Feldman’s later pieces, and I can see this of course appealing to fans of the great mans work. But it’s also a excellent introduction to the work of one of the 20th century greatest and most dramatic minimalist/modern classical composers.
Roger Batty June 2012
One can hardly think of a musician more in tune with Morton Feldman’s expansive approach to compositional structure than John Tilbury. His seminal work with Cornelius Cardew first exposed the pianist to the music of Feldman in the late ‘50s and he was amongst the first to perform Feldman’s work in Europe. Then, of course, there is Tibury’s long association with AMM, where he joined with like-minded improvisers to create and refine radically unique approaches to collective invention. Tilbury has cemented himself as one of the preeminent performers of the piano music of Feldman, having performed his music extensively since 1960 and, along the way, slowly amassed an impressive, and thoroughly thought out collection of recordings of Feldman’s music. There is the monumental 4 CD collection of the solo piano music on the London Hall label (regrettably out of print but well worth searching out) as well as a definitive recording of “Triadic Memories” on the Atopos label.
A series of releases on Matchless documenting the performances of Feldman’s music for piano and strings performed by Tilbury and The Smith Quartet at the 2006 Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music can now be added to that list. The first volume, which came out a few years back, offered up a mesmerizing performance of “For John Cage,” a duo for piano and violin along with “Piano and String Quartet,” a hyper-focused dive into the resonances of the five instruments. This, the second of a planned three volumes, features performances of two more pieces from Feldman’s later work. A third volume will collect pieces from ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. All three are on DVD, requiring playback on a computer, but allowing a full immersion in 90+ minute compositions without requiring the shuffle of CDs or flipping of records.
First up is “Patterns in a Chromatic Field,” a piece for piano and cello from 1981. Over the course of nearly 90 minutes, Feldman’s score places motivic kernels voiced by the two instruments across a long arc with an organic sense of movement. Rather than the slowly unfolding striated lines of much of Feldman’s later work, “Patterns…,” as its name would imply, utilizes phrases voiced by the two instruments which are refracted, inverted, and stretched out with hypnotically subtle micro-variations. What distinguishes Tilbury and cellist Deirdre Cooper’s playing is their unwavering attention to attack and sustain, willing the notes into existence and then raptly measuring their presence within the context of the unfolding flow of the piece. There are sections where they place sharply articulated clusters into the sound space with crystalline angularity and others where tones seem to emerge from the sonic ground. But in both cases, the music is shaped by the directed decisions on the part of the performers in the measurement of dynamics and touch, from the quietest wafts of sound to sharp explosiveness moving along parallel paths and then converging with almost contrapuntal interwoven insistency. This is demanding listening, tracing the memories of patterns as they emerge and evolve throughout the piece. But Tilbury and Cooper’s keen sense of phrasing, duration, and the evolution of the underlying cells never flag for a moment, providing a steadfast thread for the entire duration.
“Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello” from 1987 was the last piece that Feldman composed and it is infused with the slowly moving, methodical pacing that the composer utilized in his final years. As with “Patterns…,” Tilbury and his companions – violinist Darragh Morgan, violist Nic Pendlebury, and cellist Cooper – fully immerse themselves in the structure of the music. The score is constructed around a more measured phrasing and protracted flow, maximizing the timbral depth of resonant, bell-like chimes of piano and the dark sonorities of the massed strings. Here in particular, Tilbury’s astonishing control of touch is in full display as attack is minimized, letting the notes appear fully formed and then gradually dissolve. The string players respond in kind, with richly nuanced bowing, shaped by meticulous attentiveness to the sonic space. There is a processional stateliness as the four judiciously place their hanging dissonances, letting the harmonics ring against each other and then decay with breath-like pacing. And that feel for pacing is particularly critical in this piece, as the tempo and dynamic range hardly varies across the 90 minutes, focusing one’s listening instead on the subtle modulations of pulse and tonalities. The four musicians are savvy enough to develop an elusive drama as the various layers drift across the collective undercurrent.
Michael Rosenstein — Point of Departure — September 2012
At the 2006 Huddersfield contemporary music festival, pianist John Tilbury and the members of the Smith Quartet gave a remarkable series of 10 recitals that included all of Morton Feldman's works for piano and strings. A disc of Feldman's For John Cage, and Piano and String Quartet, taken from those concerts, appeared two years ago, and this second instalment pairs the cello-and-piano Patterns in a Chromatic Field of 1981, with Feldman's last completed work, the 1987 Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello. The two recordings are strikingly different: the surface of Patterns in a Chromatic Field is much less smoothly contoured than usual for late Feldman, the gestures more irregular, the dissonances more astringent, but like Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, in which the smallest changes of emphasis or pitch become seismic events, it demands enormous concentration on the part of the performers over such timespans. The performance of Patterns by Deidre Cooper and Tilbury is wonderfully dedicated, while Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello seems just as compelling on disc as it was live in Huddersfield.
Andrew Clements — 18th May 2012