Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet

performed by the Kronos Quartet and Aki Takahashi or below from the Midsummer Chamber Music Festival at the Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland

Morton Feldman was born on January 12, 1926 and is considered “a pioneer of indeterminate music, a development associated with the experimental New York School of composers also including John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown.” The only name many people may recognize from that list is Cage, but the New York School (as a group of artists) included more than just composers and was known for surrealist and avant-garde stuff.

Feldman’s connections to music are interesting. Per Wikipedia, he studied with Stefan Wolpe, another Jewish composer (German born) who was a student of Anton Webern, but Wiki also says “Feldman and Wolpe spent most of their time simply talking about music and art,” citing an interview with Feldman from a book in 1982. Interestingly, then, his apparent turning point in music was hearing the New York Philharmonic play Webern’s Symphony, op. 21, and in leaving before the next piece on the program, perturbed at the audience’s disrespectful reaction to the music, he ran into John Cage, who was ostensibly doing the same. This was a turning point for Feldman.

There are a few things I find interesting about this time period (and in many cases more interesting than the music itself) and what was produced as a result.

Put yourself in an entirely non-musical situation. You’re being asked questions by your teacher about a movie or homework assignment, to give your opinion on something, and the teacher is calling on students one by one. Unfortunately, you’re at the back of the class, so you’re the tenth or fifteenth to be called on. What’s your predicament?

Depending on the situation, you might be under some pressure to come up with something else to say. If you repeat what someone else has said, you may not be taken seriously, no matter how genuinely you meant it. So you can try to phrase your sentiments individually, make the expression a personal one; you could force yourself to come up with something that hasn’t been said yet; or damn the teacher and students and say what you want to say even if it is repetitive.

Well, in some ways, contemporary artists of any kind are in a bit of that same predicament. We’re coming off centuries of history of art and expression, and there’s maybe some difficulty in being true to yourself and what you want to express while also maybe trying to break some new ground. My personal opinion is that an answer given to be intentionally different from the others isn’t heartfelt, but that being under pressure to think differently may genuinely produce an analysis or realization that you wouldn’t have otherwise had.

So in the 20th century alone, there were some big innovations. We’re nearly half a century away from Wagner’s grandly Romantic innovations, and people like Debussy and Scriabin have entered the scene, but Schoenberg codifies his serialist principles in the early 2oth century and does incredible things with it; after World War II, Darmstadt takes another leap forward, but if you look at things from a reactionary standpoint, what’s the reaction to serialism? More non-serialism, and so what’s left to play with? Some of that answer includes the music like today’s work.

Feldman worked for a while with non-traditional notation to express ideas in different, arguably more subjective terms, to leave more up to the interpreters, but by the 1970s, had dispensed with a lot of the indeterminate music and other stuff and was just working on longslow music, with trajectories and developments that are like watching a stalactite and stalagmite ‘grow’ together in real time.

Today’s work is actually one of Feldman’s last compositions, and I think just about anyone can listen to the first five minutes of this piece’s 79 and get an idea pretty quickly what’s going on. There is almost nothing in the way of dynamic change throughout the work. The piano and the quartet stay at the same low whisper, like having a muffled conversation in a library where people are trying to read; the music ekes out, almost hesitantly, from the instruments in almost independent statements of the same little glimmer of sound. That’s about it.

Yeah, so it changes with each statement, and restatement, in small but noticeable ways. There are descriptions of this work’s “austere beauty” and how it’s almost like a meditation of actually not focusing on what came before or will come after, an exercise in appreciating the here and now, and I can appreciate that, but it doesn’t mean I love the piece.

It’s coma-inducing slow. That said, if you have nowhere to be, why would you be in a rush about it? So it’s a matter of expectations. If you’re in London and your cab driver aimlessly drove around taking whatever turns he wanted, I’m sure you’d be perturbed. But that same route, on a double-decker tour bus and some narration, makes for a wonderful tour.

Given some clear expectations about this work, perhaps the mental exercise of focusing on the color or texture or sounds of each independent, repetitive but slightly different cling of sound in this 80-minute work, perhaps you will hear some otherworldly beauty in the simple, crystalline textures created over this long but simple aural stroll. Try it, and stay tuned for the last installment of our series next week.

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