A Very Feldman Christmas

Thursday 21 December 2006

Having just blabbed on about Morton Feldman below, YouTube has some video of the concert I attended: Debora Petrina performing Three Dances (1951). This is not typical Feldman! An early, unusually sparse work, even by his standards: it was composed with choreography in mind, and Petrina has managed to combine her own choreography with the musical performance. Not the best video quality, and not Feldman at his best, but this is rare stuff.
If you don’t know anything about Feldman’s music and want to throw yourself in at the deep end, Radio Tonkuhle in Germany is playing his String Quartet II on Christmas Day, as performed by the Ives Ensemble. The live stream starts at 23:00 (GMT+1) on 25 December.
If, for some reasons, you have other plans that day and miss the broadcast, Princeton’s WPRB is playing the same piece, performed by the Flux Quartet, on 29 December ( live stream at 11:00 GMT-5).
String Quartet II (1983) is Feldman’s most notorious work: a single movement for quartet, quiet and slow throughout, and long enough to go beyond the standard considerations of structure and form, into an immersion into a sustained, unique soundworld without a past, a future, or a sense of scale. The Flux Quartet play the full six-hour version, while the Ives Ensemble take the “easy” route with the trimmed-down, four-hour version. Have fun justifying this to any relatives you have staying over for the holidays.
This will probably be the last post until new year. Have a good one!

So wrong it’s right: Morton Feldman

Thursday 21 December 2006

I missed the concerts dedicated to Morton Feldman, my second-favourite composer, at the Huddersfield Festival last month. I’m not exactly sure where Huddersfield is – I suspect it’s Up North somewhere – and events conspired to keep me confined to London throughout.
The Guardian published a neat little overview and discussion of Feldman’s career, including this interesting comment:
There are those who hear in Feldman little more than a sort of high-art easy listening. The music is quiet, it’s quite repetitive, it uses pretty sounds, so how is it different from any of the other ambient soundscapes that help people to chill at the end of a busy day? The Huddersfield retrospective should help to clear up the confusion. For anyone prepared to listen in the attentive way that Feldman expected, his work is full of surprises, the flow of events enigmatically unpredictable and the grain of the music always changing – the antithesis of easy listening.

This description of the mishearing of Feldman’s music is accurate as far as it goes, but the misconception of Feldman as a proto-New Age holy minimalist can be partly blamed on the way some performers play his music these days. Over the years, as Feldman has become more popular, more performances and recordings have been made and many of them prefer to play his music as if it were, in fact, “high-art easy listening.”
Yes, Feldman’s favourite instruction on his manuscripts was “as slowly and softly as possible”, but too many people are interpreting this as a licence to play pretty and precious, pious and bland; warping his unique style into an imitation of the more homogenous idiom of later, more conspicuously popular composers.
(To a certain extent, this has happened to a lot of post-war avant-garde music: recordings of performances from the 1950s and 60s tended to sound sharp, spiky and “difficult”. The same pieces played today tend to sound softer, serene, and meditative. John Cage, in particular, seems to get a lot of this treatment in his more austere, contemplative pieces; as though he were a Zen guru first, and composer second.)
Earlier in the year, I went to a concert of Feldman’s music given as a book launch for a collection of Feldman’s lectures and interviews. It was an old, small hall in Holborn, used as the headquarters of the London Free Thought Society, so the corridors were posted with flyers advertising forthcoming talks such as “The Middle East Crisis: Education or Barbarism? by Mr Elijah Sittingbourne (B.Div., Cantab.)”. The hall itself bore an inscription across the proscenium, quoting, apprarently without irony, Polonius’ “To thine own self be true.”
One of the musicians in the concert was the pianist John Tilbury, who had first met and worked with Feldman on his first visit to the UK in the 1960s, and on several subsequent occasions. He first played an early work of Feldman’s, Piano Piece 1952, a slow, steady succession of single notes, each identically notated with the duration of exactly one and a half beats. Yet Tilbury made no attempt to disguise that he was giving a very different emphasis to each note: some were dramatically prolonged, others almost rushed, relatively speaking.
A purist would sniff that this was an erratic, indulgent performance; but here was a musician who had known and worked with Feldman. Could we presume he knew first hand what the composer wanted? I have a recording of Roger Woodward playing Feldman’s Triadic Memories: his rhythms are nothing like those Feldman carefully notated. Yet Feldman had dedicated this piece, amongst others, to Woodward, and had previously praised his playing.
Perhaps, as we would expect of interpreters of music from the romantic era, these performers are comfortable taking liberties with the score, understanding the idiom well enough to take license with what is written down to get closer to the music the score represents, instead of retreating from the music’s challenges into a sound-world more familiar and comfortable. Tilbury didn’t take the score literally (every note to be played the same), but grasped at the truth behind it (every note is to be treated as a unique, independent event). In music, there’s a difference between accuracy and authenticity.
Tilbury also played a very late Feldman piece, Palais de Mari (1986), which I heard Rolf Hind play last year. My notes say I was surprised at how “overtly beautiful, even romantic” it was. Tilbury’s performance added more drama and expressivity, presumably straining the limits of what was permitted in the score – the hint of restrained climaxes and crescendoes, in a composer who treasured the “flat surface” in his work. It also had a better sense of phrasing and overall shape than Hind’s interpretation: without that, so much later Feldman can sound like just one damn little thing after another.
As far as “wrong” performances go, it’s worth mentioning that at the book launch there were readings from Feldman’s essays and lectures. It was very strange hearing his classic Brooklyn turns of phrase spoken in a plummy English accent, particularly once you’ve heard Feldman’s distinctive Noo Yawk speaking voice. (Note to self: post some soundbites of Feldman talking in 2007. He was good value as a guest, so long as he didn’t take an immediate dislike to you.)

Update Your CV!

Monday 18 December 2006

Congratulations on being chosen Time magazine’s Person of the Year! Use your powers wisely. And spare a thought for the ad executives about to get fired for thinking up this ad for Chrysler, after it spent millions of dollars securing sole sponsorship for this issue of the magazine.

Yours sincerely,
Ben.H
Time Magazine Person of the Year, 2006.

Zen and the art of Magic 693

Sunday 17 December 2006

Circa 1.00 am on Monday (local time) Magic 693 1278, the world’s greatest radio station, played the following set of songs, keeping shift-workers alert with the mental whiplash-inducing combination of:
  • The Everly Brothers: Cathy’s Clown
  • Nana Mouskouri: Four and Twenty Hours
  • Elmo and Patsy: Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
  • Southern Sons: Hold Me In Your Arms
  • Scott McKenzie: San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)
  • Deodato: Also Sprach Zarathustra
Someone at Magic has obviously grasped the concepts of henka (change) and atarashimi (newness, refraining from stepping back) as practiced by ancient masters of the Japanese renga.
To cap this off, they followed with a plug for their traffic reports (generously sponsored by Mobility Aids Australia) which was backed by everybody’s favourite, “Tijuana Taxi”.
Unfortunately, they later blew it by playing Johnny Farnham’s “I Saw Mommy [sic] Kissing Santa Claus”, adding insult to injury by referring to him as an “Aussie Icon“. And by calling him “John Farnham”.
Gene Pitney Watch: I’m Gonna Be Strong

Index update? What index update? (Equine Remix)

Sunday 17 December 2006

Hello to TimT, who guessed that the mystery location was the White Horse of Uffington, seen here again from a more comprehensible angle. If you plan to visit between September and May, bring wellingtons! Chalk mud is a bastard.
The Scalagna debacle, as promised, keeps rolling along. In the latest news, Roberto Alagna has been staging a one-tenor picket outside La Scala, singing (badly) and reminding everyone that his last wife died, and appearing on TV playing up his Sicilian roots by singing a traditional song about a dead donkey, complete with hee-haw noises. No, it’s not about the donkey’s head ending up in a theatre manager’s bed.
Also, an expanded version of Contextualising the Contemporary Artist Yadda Yadda Tracey Emin is now posted at Sarsaparilla.

Filler by Proxy XLIII: How long until someone makes an opera out of this?

Thursday 14 December 2006

There’s a big crossover audience in the fanbases for opera and for giant, train-wreck hissy fits, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy in the ongoing scandal at La Scala after tenor Roberto Alagna walked out of a performance of Aida on Sunday, after just ten minutes on stage. As over-reactions to mild booing go, they don’t get much bigger or better than this.
Opera Chic has the most frequently updated chronicle, as the surprises keep coming thick and fast, as well as the juciest details. Scroll back to 10 December to savour the unfolding mayhem in its chronological glory. YOU WILL SEE:
Video of the walk-off and switcheroo is, of course, on YouTube. It’s worth watching just to see mezzo soprano Ildiko Komlosi pull a double-take worthy of Margaret Dumont as she’s suddenly confronted by a pharaoh in shirt and jeans.

The cosmopolitan rush of Surrey; the interminable Peter Holm.

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Yes, it’s a placeholder. Today’s post about Morton Feldman has been held over until tomorrow, because it’s late and I suspect it’s gibberish.

A bitterly cold morning at a famous landmark somewhere in England.

Friday 8 December 2006

No time to write anything substantial, so in the meantime please enjoy the above photo. Feel free to speculate on where it was taken.

Contextualising the contemporary artist within capitalist society: a case study

Tuesday 5 December 2006

(Fournier Street, Spitalfields. Evening. A TOUR GUIDE is leading a small CROWD on a Jack the Ripper tour. He stops to point out the sights.)

TOUR GUIDE
Here we see Christ Church, the masterpiece of Nicholas Hawksmoor, known as “the Devil’s Architect”. People have spent decades trying to decipher the occult symbolism behind its mysterious design.

CROWD
Aaah!

TOUR GUIDE
Opposite, we stand before the infamous Ten Bells pub, where the Ripper would select his unfortunate victims from among the ladies of the night.

CROWD
Oooh!

(Concluding his lurid peroration, the CROWD continues its walk up the street a little further, when the TOUR GUIDE stops again to call attention to another place of similarly sordid interest to the tour. He gestures at a doorway in a modest row of brick houses in the shadow of the church.)

TOUR GUIDE
And this house is the residence of the notorious modern British artist Tracey Emin, who paid one million pounds for the house several years ago.

CROWD
Whoah!

(On one of the upper storey windows, a wooden shutter suddenly bangs open. The head of TRACEY EMIN appears, leaning over the sill to yell into the street below.)

TRACEY EMIN
One POINT ONE million!

FINIS

Also published at Sarsaparilla.