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.’