Philip Thomas playing Feldman and Wolff, live and on record

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Everyone has been raving about Philip Thomas’ box of pretty much all of Morton Feldman’s solo piano music which came out late last year – with good reason. So much has already been said about it elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on hearing him play it live. There was a launch gig in London a couple of months ago: the programme closely matched the first disc of this set. A survey of Feldman’s piano music will naturally split discs between long pieces and short, but Thomas has chosen a less obvious sequence than straight chronology or grouping of like with like, emphasizing the breadth of Feldman’s supposedly attenuated range. I presume all Feldman fans have experienced the same phenomenon: you think you’ve got his measure and then you hear another piece that throws you for a loop. This set steadily delivers in that respect, both in presenting some rare outliers and newly-recovered works, and in smartly placing contrasting works in a new context. It’s a close recording with high gain in mastering, emphasising detail and focussing on touch and texture. Thomas plays with a care and felicity that strongly reminded me of Feldman’s connection with the abstract expressionist painters.

That emphasis on touch comes through in the first disc, starting with two less-heard compositions, Last Pieces from 1959 and 1977’s Piano. These, followed by Extensions 3 and the late Palais de Mari, made up the programme of the gig at St Mary at Hill. Composed without an audible reliance on his famous techniques such as graph notation or reiterated patterns, the subjective sensibility at play in Feldman’s music comes to the forefront. Last Pieces is unusually slow, allowing greater contrasts and variety, particularly evident in the shifting textures of the faster sections. Never heard Piano played live before, knowing it only from Roger Woodward’s old recording (my fixation on Feldman came from that double CD so it was gratifying to read Thomas’ discussion of the waywardness in Woodward’s approach to rhythm in Tridaic Memories). Piano is a masterful extended study in dynamics and shading, with complexities that offer up something new on each listening. Thomas does it justice, acknowledging the impossibilities in Feldman’s score – as he explained in his brief but illuminating introductions to each piece. On disc, the sudden dynamic changes of this recording seem less jarring than when heard live, but then the contrasts in Extensions 3 are more prominent.

As it’s one of his most ‘accessible’ pieces, I keep thinking I’ve heard enough versions of Palais de Mari, but it keeps coming out different. After the gig, Thomas commented (correctly) that it sounded different when he played it live as opposed to in the studio. It needs an audience present, to humanise the otherwise cloying sweetness. It’s entirely forgiveable as an honest work of true sentimentality, with its mixture of tenderness and sadness.

A month later, at Cafe Oto, Thomas presented two nights combining Feldman with Christian Wolff. I caught the first one, with brief, early works by the former followed by Wolff’s large compendium Incidental Music. The Feldman included some of the noisier works, such as Illusions and a particularly assured take on Intersection 3, together with Thomas’ transcription of the music from the film Sculpture by Lipton. Incidental Music collects 100 very brief sketches written by Wolff in the early 2000s for him to play as accompaniment to Merce Cunningham’s improvised events, with the implication that Wolff may also use them as a basis for improvisation if needed. It’s a particularly intriguing example of Wolff’s later music, already based in discontinuities as it is. How can you tell the part from the whole? It may be considered as a large modular work, a mosaic of mosaics, as played by Thomas complete with detours into the insides of the piano and solos on a melodica.

Old Masters: Babbitt, Nono, Feldman

Friday 26 October 2018

“Babbitt?” One of the punters at the All That Dust record label launch party looked incredulous. As well as issuing CDs, the label is releasing extra titles as download-only. The first two are stand-alone revivals of works for solo voice and tape, Milton Babbitt’s Philomel sung by label co-founder Juliet Fraser and Luigi Nono’s La fabbrica illuminata sung by Loré Lixenberg. Both pieces have been mastered in binaural stereo, particularly suited for headphone listening. It’s a low-key but highly significant start to the online series.

I used that word revival for several reasons. The musicians have been perceptive enough to notice that certain pieces, certain composers, get taken for granted and start slipping into obscurity, right under our noses. Babbitt is a composer who was appreciated just enough to be accepted as a great artist in his lifetime, but not understood well enough to attract sustained interest of a type that sheds new light on his music. There is the sense that due obligation to the artist has been fulfilled, leaving one free to move on. In the great 20th-century critic Stephen Potter’s terminology, Babbitt is not presently “OK”. For punters with an innate allegiance to the experimental, the minimal, the ‘downtown’, Babbitt was a convenient figurehead of the anathema and in that respect Philomel was the one piece of his for which they would make an exception.

I tried searching for a link online to back up that last statement and found Kyle Gann asserting that “Philomel exists only in one incarnation, and may not even be repeatable in performance, so intimately is it based on Bethany Beardslee’s voice.” Fraser’s new recording renders this opinion nonsensical. As with her somewhat controversial performance of Feldman’s Three Voices earlier this year, she remakes the piece in her own character, with an intimate vulnerability that can change with the slightest inflection to icy, judgemental distance.

While Nono is more “OK” than Babbitt right now, most attention seems to be focussed on each end of his career, particularly the open expanses of sound in his late work and the light they cast on his early serial compositions. La fabbrica illuminata dates from 1964, the same year as Philomel, when his incendiary music and politics were at their most confrontational. Once a defining characteristic of his work, it is now a side of Nono too often effaced (at least in the UK). As Fraser had examined Babbitt’s notes to reconstruct a performance score, Loré Lixenberg returned to Nono’s manuscript to prepare her interpretation of La fabbrica illuminata. Her flamboyant, declamatory style suits Nono’s political indignation well: a futurist burlesque held fast by righteous anger. The sleeve notes don’t go into detail about the binaural mastering but the 54-year old tape parts sound great here. (I’ve only heard the older version of the Nono by Carla Henius before, on a Wergo recording that seemed a bit lo-fi.) Two fine compositions liberated from their status of recorded relics and reinserted into a living tradition.

Morton Feldman does not need to be revived, especially not late Feldman, but smart and skilful interpretations keep on drawing up new ways of hearing what he has to say. This 75-minute CD release of his 1982 violin and piano duet For John Cage is played by Aisha Orazbayeva and All That Dust co-founder Mark Knoop. I’m not looking up how many recordings have been released of this piece and I don’t know which, if any, are considered particularly outstanding but this one is now my favourite, for distinctive reasons that will persist even if I hear other great interpretations*.

It’s more colourful that any interpretation I’ve heard, more so than most late Feldman. The notoriously unhurried pace of this music often comes with sombre playing attached, but Orazbayeva creates a narrow but perceptible dynamic range to complement the greater variation permitted in her attack. Paired with Knoop’s piano acting at times like a foil, at others like a goad, their interplay can seem almost sprightly at times – relatively speaking. When things fall away again, the feeling of loss is almost palpable, with the violin reduced to frail keening or cut off altogether by an abrupt piano cluster. A lament carries through the entirety of the piece, in various guises ranging from a baroque sighing to nasal folk-song. The bold characterisation in the playing here makes the latter stages of the piece sound even stranger, when alien, rising harmonies take over. The playing between the notes is so good that I hope they’re taking some interpretative liberties with the score; the kind that are routinely taken with old masterpieces from previous centuries. Informed deviation from the notation can bring you closer to the music as well as uninformed deviation can take you further away. “Play it like Death and the Maiden,” Feldman helpfully suggested once to a daunted string quartet. It’s about time.

[* Disclaimer: my experience of this piece is limited to hearing Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea play it live once, the typically astringent Zukofksy/Oppens recording and The Hat Art One.]

Words and Music: Opera?

Wednesday 28 February 2018

There’s a CD rip of Samuel Beckett’s play Words and Music in my MP3 player, with the music composed by Morton Feldman. I’ve tagged it as an opera. Earlier this week I replied to a tweet asking what composers think of Philip Pullman’s comment that “Structure is a superficial feature of narrative”. My hot take was that narrative is really a subset of structure. Thinking about it now, Beckett’s dramatic works exemplify this concept beautifully. Beckett wrote several radio plays that juxtapose words and music and, even when there is no specific musical content much of his later writing eschews development of plot or character in favour of structural procedures such as repetition with variation, elaboration, transposition and recapitulation.

Last Thursday the new music ensemble An assembly, directed by composer/conductor Jack Sheen, presented a double bill of words and music that may or may not be opera at the Round Chapel in Hackney. Beckett’s Words and Music, conceived as a radio work, was given a live, stage performance with Feldman’s accompanying music. Beckett wrote the play in 1961 but was never fully satisfied with the music that others composed for it. Feldman’s music was composed in 1987, the last year of his life. Some ten years earlier, the two had consciously collaborated on an opera, Neither. Both men shared an expressed dislike of opera. The opera had one singer, no characters, no plot, no specified staging and almost no libretto.

The staging of Words and Music in Hackney was a fitting counterpart to Neither. The musicians, singer and dancer from the first half of the programme vacated the space and the audience in the balcony looked down onto the large empty room below as the drama between the music and two voices played out, unseen. If it is not opera then it is, at least, as Luigi Nono described his Prometeo, a “tragedy of listening”. In alternation and then, reluctantly, together, the voices of actors Alex Felton and Peter Clements and the musicians of An assembly search for a way of giving meaning to sentiment. Listening with an ear for music, one is struck by the musical aspects of the words; not just in vocabulary but more particularly in construction. The counterpoint between one voice and another, between voice and music, the introduction of themes, reoccurence of phrases, turns and changes of subject. The words are heard as part of a joint composition with the music. Feldman’s unusually brief musical interjections are surprising in the way that each presents such a distinct contrast in mood from the preceding one. Like his last work, it suggests ways in which his music may have developed had he lived longer. It also makes you think it’s a pity he got fired from his job as a soundtrack composer.

The first half of the evening was the premiere of Anton Lukoszevieze’s Opéret OPERA Operec. Better known as a cellist, Lukoszevieze’s piece is perhaps unsurprisingly composed for four cellist, supplemented by a keyboard player, percussionist, singer and dancer. It has ‘opera’ in the title so let’s say it is. With the dancer and coloured floor lighting, the staging recalled Lukoszevieze’s chamber arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s fluxorum organum, adding a layer of oblique theatre and ritual. With voice provided by Josephine Stephenson, the collage-like nature of the work also suggested a connection with the realisation of Tom Phillips’ opera Irma from last year.

Opéret OPERA Operec juxtaposes, through no objective necessity, the words of Georges Perec and Benjamin Péret. Perec is presented through dance, composed out of material from Perec’s Species of Spaces and performed here by Rachel Krische, ranging far and wide across the available space, at times part of the ensemble before striking off on her own again. Péret’s poetry was presented in music: the singing was fairly plain and simple throughout, while the musical accompaniment was, according to Lukoszevieze, generated through “phonetic patterns, voice pitch translation, braille and puns”. This may explain the strange sense of collage throughout the work, despite the absence of diversity in the material’s sources. The music was by turns arbitrary and incongruous, redolent of other genres yet never confirming to a recognisable model. It had the air of old-school dada, as an insolent travesty of a salon recital or cabaret show. Rather like Satie’s theatrical music, an array of familiar objects were subjected to some capricious outside force to create something more unnerving than amusing. Then the work unexpectedly ended with a long litany intoned over a harsh, juddering wall of sound as the percussionist displayed and discarded a series of posters containing progressively more complicated spurious equations. Make sense who may.

My only complaint is that at times the words could be hard to hear, but this is the consequence of playing in the boomy acoustics of a church, coupled with balcony seating and, thanks to the late onset of cold in February, a head full of gunk. Most punters kept their coats and scarves on, but it was worth the trouble to hear and see such and imaginative and thought-provoking programme.

Principal Sound: Feldman and Nono in particular

Wednesday 21 February 2018

In the days when information was scarce, one of the few readily available recordings of Morton Feldman’s late work was the CD of Joan La Barbara singing Three Voices. It was an invaluable, but unusual, entry point. A rare example of Feldman working with tape – the only one outside of his experiments in the early 50s – and a long work for voice alone, with other small curiosities that set it apart from his other pieces of the time. Last weekend, the Principal Sound festival at St John’s Smith Square presented a chance to hear this strange music in a new way.

Having just written about the importance of seeing/hearing music performed live, Juliet Fraser’s performance of Three Voices was a perfect example of what can be gained from the concert experience. I haven’t heard Fraser’s recording of the piece from a couple of years ago, but her performance on Friday night showed this piece and Feldman’s musical qualities in general at their finest. Imperceptible shifts in shading to the voice(s) kept the music hovering in an ambiguous emotional space, between tender and cold, sensuous and forbidding. Fraser’s perceptive programme notes mentioned that she chose to disregard the score’s instruction against vibrato; this had the added effect of softening the edges of the notes, slightly blurring the distinction between the live voice and the ‘tombstoney’ loudspeakers at each side, inviting a connection to be made between them. Working, unusually, with such a ‘full’ sounding instrument as the human voice, Feldman’s constricted harmonies cause beatings and overtones to emerge between the voices – this was clarified somewhat by the spatial distinction across the stage, particularly when the three identical voices hocket back and forth on the same pitch.

It was a smartly-programmed concert. Feldman is the source of inspiration for the concert series, but the programme this year focused on Luigi Nono, particularly his late works, which share Feldman’s need for hushed expanses of time searching for a form. Each work contained an elegy or dedication of some sort, and the choice of Feldman’s work echoed Nono’s use of electronics and spatialisation of sound. The series began with Nono’s A Pierre. Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum: flute and clarinet hidden away in the upper reaches of the church, swathed in trailing streams of harmonic resonances and echoes that circled around the audience below.

Over the weekend I got to hear the Quatuor Bozzini play again, after hearing them play Jürg Frey so well in Huddersfield, years ago. Their rendering of Nono’s Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima was a telling contrast to the interpretation I heard the Arditti Quartet give ten years ago. In his late works, Nono contructs fragile webs of sound out of the most meagre of materials. Stark, unpolished, often rudimentary instrumental gestures, broken off from any phrasing or context. With Arditti, Nono’s quartet became a transcendence of musical refuse into thwarted lyricism. With Bozzini, it became more coherent, like remnants of an ancient culture that has endured the ravages of time, faded but still refulgent. The following afternoon, the Bozzini’s two violinists played the duet “Hay que caminar” soñando. Nono’s last piece remains one of my favourite works, for its miraculous capturing of sonorities in the same realm as his electroacoustic works, produced entirely through acoustic means. Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung’s use of bow pressure, placement and angles brought out colouration of the violins’ sound that rivalled the electronics heard on the first night.

I don’t want to run down a checklist of everything that happened, so I’ll just mention a few more things that stick in my head now. Hearing Exaudi premiere a new work for unaccompanied chorus by Linda Catlin Smith, getting to experience Aisha Orazbayeva and Mark Knoop playing Bryn Harrison’s Receiving the Approaching Memory live and relishing that it’s as labyrinthine for them as it is for us, the Bozzini Quartet playing something by Claudia Molitor that has finally made me start to pay attention and, conversely, something by the wonderful Aldo Clementi that I found, to my surprise and shame, dull.

Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 14 September 2016

You wish Morton Feldman’s life hadn’t ended so soon; not least because his work was still revealing unknown territory. For all that his late works give the impression of having arrived upon a truly unique understanding of music, there’s always an element in them that suggests there’s still further to explore. Pieces from his last couple of years such as Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett imply that he had distilled his musical language to an unbroken, monadic surface; but then his very last work, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, treats what’s gone before as a starting point for something new.

It had been played in London only once, 1999. Last night at Cafe Oto Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played it for a second time. It was the hottest September day anyone could remember. Oto is a small concrete box with a bar up the back and passersby in the street just outside. The gig was sold out. For seventy-five minutes, we all sat or stood in stillness. It was an actual example of “if you build it, they will come”.

We stayed focused in the airless heat and humidity partly to avoid any excessive movement, mostly to follow the music, and partly out of respect for the imperturbable stoicism displayed by the musicians. You could see the conditions were taking their toll but they never let their heads drop. They carefully balanced their pacing and tone to enable the piece to unfold in a state of suspension, outside of typical musical concerns of linear time.

Feldman’s last piece draws on the lessons learned from his preceding work and wears its wisdom lightly. Its material is allowed to appear and evolve in what seems to be a more natural, organic way. For all the well appreciated subtleties of his music, the lack of obvious sections and cycled repetitions in this piece makes his other late works seem almost crude in comparison. When an obvious change is introduced – a short sequence of piano arpeggios, an exchange of pizzicato notes between the strings – it doesn’t come as a shock, but as the deepening of a plot. Each motif that appears, whether familiar or new, feels like a piece of a puzzle falling into place, revealing more of an image realised only on completion. The music feels more open, to the listener and to the world, without ever sacrificing its profound ambiguity of mood. Like John Cage’s best music, seeking to imitate nature, nothing’s a surprise but nothing is expected.

Evidently I will freeze my arse off for Philip Guston

Monday 25 February 2013

I spent Saturday afternoon in an empty art gallery in Camden listening to a live performance of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston. In a high-ceilinged back room of the gallery, twenty folding chairs were set out in front of the musicians from the Guildhall School: Siwan Rhys playing piano and celesta, Alasdair Garrett and Martha Lloyd tag-teaming on the flute parts, and finally George Barton on the tuned percussion (once he’d finally turned up, wearing an inside-out jumper and clutching a stack of a hundred-odd dog-eared pages of the score.)

The first four notes sound almost too hushed, like one voice heard amongst the hubbub of the crowd in the other rooms of the gallery. Eventually, but quite quickly, all other noises from the rest of the gallery fade away. I’m assuming everyone else has left us alone, musicians and audience, in the back room. The playing is beautiful and I relax, knowing that I’m going to be hearing a piece of music and not a bystander in an Art Stunt. At times the playing is a little rough around the edges. I can only assume that in writing such unforgiving parts, and making the whole piece four hours long, human frailty must be considered as part of the work itself. The piccolo sections – all soft, sustained notes – must be especially Not Fun.

Every time I hear For Philip Guston I hear something else. Last time I noticed how the piece fell into large sections that repeated the same process, of starting in an even flow and then gradually winding down into stasis. This time I hear how Feldman tricks you into hearing individual sounds outside of their continuity. There’s always the suggestion of those opening four notes returning – and they do, but never in quite the same way. As the pattern gets passed from one instrument to another, you find yourself waiting to hear each sound, and then weighing it in your mind.

The two flautists take one-hour shifts, which unfortunately signposts the passing of time. On the other hand, the sky outside is getting steadily darker and the room starts getting cold, so this feeling is inevitable. I start dozing off a little about an hour into the piece, but that feeling passes and for the rest of the piece I’m more attentive than before. The ensemble passages are beautifully written but today I’m less interested in these more complex effects and become transfixed when the music dwindles to nothing. For minutes on end the piece can be silent, articulated at intervals by a single, repeated note. So little needs to be done. Polyphony sucks.

I think John Cage first described Feldman’s music as heroic, and there is something heroic in the way he can break away from such simple silences after lingering on them for so much time. A minimalist could build a career on them. When the sky is dark and the audience is chilly and the music finally ends it’s like a blanket’s been taken away. Everyone hovers uncertainly in the silence, a little apologetic that it’s over, a little embarrassed that we can’t bring ourselves to applaud. Not just yet, just a little bit longer.

Morton Feldman’s early piano music at Cafe Oto

Thursday 13 December 2012

I’ve complained about the piano at Cafe Oto before. Just about everybody has, particularly John Tilbury, who refused to come back until it was replaced. The new piano’s been there for a while now; there’s just the question of paying for it.

Tuesday night’s Tilbury concert was intended as a fundraiser for the instrument. Instead of angling for broad, populist appeal, the programme consisted entirely of Tilbury playing Morton Feldman’s early solo music. With the exception of his last piano piece, Palais de Maris, and an arrangement of Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety, all of the music was from the Fifties. Before playing, Tilbury announced he would be playing the entire programme without a break and requested no applause between pieces. The chairs had all been gathered around closer than usual, in a tight huddle around the piano and away from the bar. This was a Serious Concert.

Amazingly, for a freezing, foggy December night in London, no-one in the audience had a cough. It was like the end of the John Cage Prom all over again.

At the start of the evening Tilbury said something that I’m sure a lot of us were thinking: that Feldman is still an overlooked composer in that attention is focused almost entirely on those long, late works from the last decade of his life. He added that “early” Feldman was where he started with this music and mentioned ruefully that “you can’t make a career out of playing early Feldman.”

Cafe Oto is not the best place for concentration, but everyone knew that they needed to give full attention for this music to be heard properly (even the punter in front of me who fell asleep during Palais de Maris.) The first piece began abruptly – short notes, isolated, no pedal, so that it sounded accidental – inconsequential but obtrusive all the same. Hearing Feldman’s early music is a reminder of the idea in the air at the time, as expressed by Cage, that this music existed in the now-moment alone, where all you can do is suddenly listen.

The sounds are simple in themselves, but the effect they produce is complex – both reasons working against this music as a career vehicle. So much of the music’s affect comes from the placement of the sounds in a given place and time, instead of the usual uninterrupted flow of musical rhetoric that tries to shut out its surroundings.

I’ve heard Tilbury play the last two pieces on this programme before. This night’s performances were very different; more restrained, less variable, less… not less romantic, less demonstrative. Interpretations can change over six years, but it seems likely that this is music to which the performer intuitively responds and allows to emerge differently, as clear as possible in consideration of its surroundings.

Golden Fur played Morton Feldman’s “Patterns In A Chromatic Field” at Cafe Oto.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

All the elements were in place for a disaster. Cafe Oto can be hot and stuffy in the best circumstances but after several intense summer days, followed by an evening of clouds and rain, the room became a sweaty, airless torture chamber. The musicians were jet lagged, having flown in from mid-winter Australia the day before. They’d had about 40 minutes of rehearsal since arriving, which is about half the length of the piece of music they were meant to play. Outside, a DJ was entertaining partygoers on the rooftop of the building next door.

On top of all that Patterns In A Chromatic Field is one of Feldman’s most recondite pieces. Added to its length and awkward rhythms, which are to be expected, the texture abruptly switches back and forth from relatively frenetic thickets of notes to prolonged moments of absolute torpor. The cello part demands extended passages of artificial harmonics, written in perverse note spellings that seem to insist on microtonal inflection. Finally, as mentioned before, the piano at Oto is frankly b0rked.

Was it rough around the edges? I suppose it was, in a way. The players themselves certainly thought so. But then the venue’s pretty rough too. This is no concert hall, what with next door’s party leaking through the windows and a bar still serving punters at the back of the room. I don’t think anyone went to the bar during the performance. One or two loo breaks, a couple of people going out for fresh air; apart from that, no-one in the place moved once Golden Fur started playing. As everyone settled in, musos and punters alike hooked into the same concentration, the same determination, and never let go. There’s no need for signs here like at the old Luminaire telling everyone to shut up.

Patterns has always been seen as an anomaly in Feldman’s oeuvre. It seems that Feldman wasn’t entirely happy with it, and this may have been down in part to the wrong-headed performances it received in his lifetime. Whatever the flaws Golden Fur perceived in their performances on the night, they were quite rightly overlooked as trivial by everyone else, in favour of the understanding and interpretation the musicians brought to such a contrary score. If he could forgive the conditions, Feldman would probably not have regretted staying to listen.

The One Prom of the Year: Cage, Cardew, Skempton, Feldman

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Finally the British are starting to play Cornelius Cardew. First Autumn ’60 in May, and now Bun No. 1 has received its first performance in London, a mere 45 years after it was written. This was part of an excellent programme, tucked away at the Proms as part of a late-night Friday session.

The impression of Autumn ’60 sounding like Earle Brown’s music played in slow motion was repeated in Bun No. 1, although this later piece was more conventional, both in its fully-determined form and its harmonic material. The language of Darmstatdt, carefully picking its way from one unresolved dissonance to the next, was all too familiar to anyone who has heard a lot of the Fifties’ avant-garde. It’s something of a consolation that the programme notes discuss Cardew’s own reservations about the compromises he made in this piece to meet the expectations of an orchestra and his academic supervisors. Despite these shortcomings, Cardew’s proffered Bun to the institutions uses its ostensible material as a vehicle for contrasting instrumental groupings and timbres, which become particularly effective toward the end of the piece, with the use of long-held chords and silences.

The opening performance of John Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) was played as neatly as you could expect, by the percussionists of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It’s fascinating to hear this piece once in a while and realise what a talented young composer Cage was and how he might have ended up like other American avant-gardists of his generation, regurgitating washed-out folk tunes for movies and orchestras. The First Construction has an ingratiatingly flamboyant character and regular muddles of percussion sounds getting in each other’s way. It wasn’t until the mid-Forties that Cage worked out how to focus his music by jettisoning sensation.

Before the Feldman piece the orchestra played Howard Skempton’s Lento, a piece in danger of becoming a modern chestnut, like a bite-sized morsel of Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. This would be a shame, as Skempton is playing a much more subtle and complex emotional game on the listener than the “holy minimalists”. People frequently liken Feldman’s music to a Rothko; Lento is like a Morandi.

Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, with John Tilbury as the soloist, was the highlight. Whenever I hear this piece I come away thinking it must be his finest work, because it leaves such a vivid impression in my mind without being able to recall any specific part of it. So much of Feldman’s approach to composing seems to have been a process of negotiation between paradoxes, and in this piece he most successfully reconciles the opposing forces he sets in play. The instruments are everything, and yet they are always held in check. The soloist’s part seems negligible: a single, repeated note, two gently alternating chords. The writing seems so fragmentary, like a voice struggling to finish a sentence for an unformed thought; the piano and orchestral groups are so often separated, yet form a coherent whole. The overall effect is both sombre and luminous. I’ve just realised this is the first time I’ve heard his orchestral music live.

Mark Knoop plays Morton Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus”

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Where is that buzzing coming from? It sounds like a small piece of machinery grinding away. I’m sure other people are noticing it too; from time to time they’re looking up and around. I don’t think they’re doing it as a stretching exercise. I’ll tell myself it’s the wind blowing outside, even though we’re in the basement of Kings Place.

Is it a coincidence that there’s a second performance in quick succession at this venue of one of Feldman’s long, late pieces? It’s a pity this gig is in the smaller hall – the seats aren’t so good. After a warm afternoon and a couple of glasses of red I’d felt like indulging myself by dozing off during the concert.

For Bunita Marcus is a piece I find by turns ethralling, boring, infuriating, captivating. Long passages of single notes, usually displacements of semitones, turn with the slightest change of inflection from elusive to banal, from fluid to stiff and then back again. With equally trivial shifts in nuance, sudden changes in the score can sound either revelatory or manipulative. Then, with a few casual arpeggios the music becomes lush, even lyrical compared to the surrounding austerity – but only for a short while. Yet still these fleeting moments seem as indifferent to the listener’s attention as any passage in the piece.

Whenever I hear Feldman being played I wonder if it’s too loud. Is this just because my ears have adjusted to the low level of sound? The fading sound of the piano is just enough to cover that mysterious whirring, until the silences become too long. I’m not sure if this is distracting me from the music or making me concentrate on it. Is this the composer’s problem, the pianist’s, or mine?

John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet play Morton Feldman

Monday 26 April 2010

Piano and String Quartet, at King’s Place last Thursday. How little you need to make something beautiful, elusive; not just the material, the subject, but how it is articulated. It takes so little from each instrument to keep the music alive.

Timbre and range are the same problem, and both are more important than pitches. When one knows exactly the sound he wants, there are only a few notes in any instrument that will suffice. Choosing actual pitches then becomes almost like editing, filling in detail, finishing things off.”

This isn’t minimalist music – it isn’t making the most of limited means. It’s music composed with the richness of a certain set of timbres and instrumental sounds, for which only certain pitches will suffice.

Playing this softly, this slowly, the sustained chords of the piano seem to chime on forever against the string instruments.

Hearing it live, you notice how the musicians are living within the piece, so large are its dimensions. Two thirds of the way through you can feel them tiring, getting a little faster, a little louder; then someone attacks a note with a little frailty and the mood changes and a sense of quiescence returns. In its small way, a gentle climax has been achieved.

Tilbury’s playing seems more constant in his approach than other times I’ve heard him play Feldman, but on those occasions he was playing solo. Balanced against the quartet, the two forces alternate between sound and silence for the opening section of the piece, each framing the other. By the end the quartet is playing constantly, with the piano disturbing the otherwise still surface of the music.

The fatigue, the compromising of styles to accomodate others: to what extent did Feldman anticipate the frailties of musicians when writing this music?

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.)