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Catching up with Morton Feldman on Mode Records’ Feldman Edition releases

Photograph of Morton Feldman at the 1976 Holland Festival
by Rob Bogaerts, from Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

From time to time I like to check in on the efforts of Mode Records’ Feldman Edition project. This is an admirable project to document the complete works of Feldman in recorded performances. This is an undertaking that has not always been easy to track, but continues to be consistently rewarding. Nevertheless, I find it interesting to think that, when Mode completes this project (and I am optimistic about their doing so), they will have also provided a viable catalog of Feldman compositions, thus contributing the same service to the Feldman legacy that Wolfgang Schmieder offered for the legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach. Because many of Feldman’s early compositions are indeterminate, this will not involve a collection of “authoritative” recordings; but there is no questioning the seriousness of intent on the part of the performers involved in the albums thus far released.

My last “progress report” came out in November of 2012, about a year after the release of Feldman Edition 11, which consisted of five pieces for orchestra composed between 1951 and 1979. In this article I would like to discuss three recordings that recently came into my collection:

  1. Feldman Edition 3: complete music for violin and piano, recorded in 1998
  2. Feldman Edition 6: String Quartet No. 2, released in 2002
  3. Feldman Edition 7: late works for clarinet, released in 2003

I should also remind readers that, while as a friend of John Cage and one of the “founding members” of what is now called the “New York School,” Feldman wanted to get beyond not only the restrictions of traditional approaches to teaching composition but also the constraints imposed by music notation, as he grew older, he became more focused on using that notation, often with meticulously constrained results and in compositions that occupied longer and longer scales of duration.

Those who follow the news probably know that this past April the FLUX Quartet gave a concert performance of the second quartet at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, described (accurately) by George Grelia in a report on the New York Classical Review Web site as “Six hours of one uninterrupted piece of music.” While this is a bit modest when compared with the nineteen-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” arranged by Cage in September of 1963, Feldman goes much further than taking a 108-note passage and playing it 840 times. Indeed, the closest basis for comparison would probably be La Monte Young’s “The Well-Tuned Piano,” given an uninterrupted five-hour solo piano performance that was recorded on October 25, 1981.

Young’s composition involved the exploration of the sonorous possibility of a grand piano tuned according to the intervals of just intonation. While just intonation was initially conceived for its attention to the consonant intervals in the natural harmonic series, Young was just as interested (if not more so) in the dissonances arising from that approach to tuning, dissonances that were particularly harsh to ears familiar only with equal-tempered tuning. The piece was conceived as a series of episodes; but each episode was developed through improvisation, meaning that there was no fixed duration to the entire composition. According to the notes accompanying the recording, this particular performance took place at a concert in a studio at 8 Harrison Street in Manhattan in which Marian Zazeela’s The Magenta Lights had been installed.

The notes accompanying the recording of the Feldman quartet make no mention of Young. Nevertheless, Feldman knew about Young; and, if he was not at Young’s concert, there is little doubt in my mind that he would have been aware of it. I also know from personal experiences in listening to Feldman talk about his work that the man definitely had a prankish side to his character. It would therefore not surprise me to learn that Feldman had composed his quartet as a “response” to Young, not only adding another hour to the overall duration but also writing out everything, rather than “falling back” on improvisation.

The FLUX Quartet has become a champion of this composition. According to Grelia’s article, last April’s performance was their thirteenth since the release of their Mode recording of the work. Nevertheless, this is the sort of achievement that is likely to be talked about far more than it is actually experienced, rather like Empire, Andy Warhol’s eight-hour slow-motion projection of a film made by pointing a camera at the Empire State Building. Still, it is worth noting that, according to Grelia, 140 seats were set up for the April FLUX concert, nearly all of which were taken; and about 80 of those seats were still occupied at the end. That is saying something about serious listening, particularly in light of Grelia’s observation:

Hearing the piece in its entirety is essential because every detail and moment matters.

I must confess, however, that the 90-minute “Trio” is the longest Feldman composition I have experienced without interruption. While my “piecemeal” approach to the second string quartet may brand me as a heretic among the “Feldman faithful,” I have to say that, over the course of any one of the five CDs in the Mode release, it is possible to appreciate how much Feldman can achieve while working with a relatively sparse set of materials. While I cannot say whether or not I shall ever commit myself to taking in the entire piece without interruption, I can observe that my own listening approach reminded me on some of the mushroom hunts I took with Cage back in the summer of 1968. The repertoire of “objects” encountered during those walks was very limited; but, once you got beyond simply classifying what you saw, you could take in the prodigious variety of the settings through which you walked, recognizing that each step led you to a new visual (and auditory) experience. This was entirely absorbing whether or not you eventually encountered any mushrooms. In that context I would say that I had little difficulty listening to each of the five CDs in the Mode set as a mushroom hunt unto itself.

Those who feel they need some preparation for this music, even for a single CD of it, may do well first to consult the violin/piano recording. There are six compositions presented on this two-CD set; and they cover the period from 1950 to 1982. The listener thus gets to experience some of Feldman’s earliest work, including his efforts to get away from notational conventions and restrictions. By 1977, however, Feldman has progressed to the fifteen-minute “Spring of Chosroes.” This is followed by “For John Cage,” composed in 1982 for a concert arranged to celebrate Cage’s 70th birthday.

It is because of “For John Cage” that I came to appreciate Feldman’s prankish side. By 1982 Cage had quite a few enthusiastic followers, so a rather impressive number of composers had contributed works to be performed at his birthday concert. I am not sure who actually made the decision; but Feldman told the story that someone said, “Let’s start with Morty, his pieces are short.” “For John Cage” lasted 80 minutes! (On the Mode recording it had to be divided across the two CDs.) While it may have frustrated (or aggravated) both performers and audience, all of whom had turned out to honor Cage, this piece remains an excellent example of how Feldman could unfold a small number of motifs through a prolonged variety of changing perspectives, leaving little room for repetition or even recognizable familiarity. The second quartet was composed the following year (1983), meaning that “For John Cage” does much to prepare the listener for the longer duration of the later piece.

The clarinet album is the most palatable in terms of duration. The longest piece was also composed in 1983. Called simply “Clarinet and String Quartet,” it lasts a little more than 40 minutes. It is preceded by “Bass Clarinet and Percussion” from 1981 and “Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano” from 1971. I have to say that I have a particular fondness for Feldman’s ability to explore the subtleties of soft sounds elicited by percussionists. Thus, considered solely for expressiveness through sonority, “Bass Clarinet and Percussion” had no trouble finding its way into my heart.

While I have not been trying to follow these Mode releases in any systematic way, I have to say that I think they do a valuable service in preparing those fortunate enough to be able to attend concert performances of Feldman’s work. It has been my experience that, for the most part, soft dynamics make concert audiences nervous, if not frightened. Confronted with the possibility of silence, they start to cough nervously or rustle the pages of the program book. I would hope that the possibility of just sitting still and listening to a Feldman recording would rub off on such folks when they are face a similar experience while sitting in a concert hall. Some may call this a vain hope; but, like Cage, I try to maintain a sunny disposition when I take my seat in one of those concert halls; and Feldman recordings do much to blow away any clouds that might threaten.

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