CD Review: Morton Feldman, Piano & String Quartet

06/22/2012

When music is at its best, it can take us places. It can transport us to other worlds. It can elicit new feelings within us, and it can change the way we see the world. Music is much more than just enjoyable sounds, if we are willing to let it enter into our inner selves. Not all music has this power. Some music is too simple, too predictable to have any effect other than to provide simple entertainment. Some music contains multitudes, is full of complexities that connect with us on a deep level. Sometimes it is a tune, one that has just the right intervals, twists and leaps on a scale, that enters into our minds at the right time, becoming memorable. Sometimes it is a texture, the way instruments interact, that reveals something profound.

Morton Feldman’s music has that second characteristic: it is often about texture, about interaction, about a fabric that is woven by the music. His melodies are sparse, and they build up over time, notably through repetition. They become familiar, until, at each appearance, we greet them like acquaintances. Throughout Piano and String Quartet, one of his last works – it was composed in 1985; Feldman died in 1987 – a simple arpeggio, which is the first thing one hears in the piece, becomes a repeating rhythmic motif which is repeated over and over with different chords. This arpeggio could recall Satie’s piano music. Each time we hear this arpeggio, it is another brick in the huge edifice that is the 80-minute work. And that’s not long for Feldman; some of his late works last three, even six hours. At times, it is the piano that plays the arpeggio; at times the string quartet. Its actual form – the spaces between the notes – varies over time, and the time signatures of the work vary as well, almost imperceptibly shifting from one to another for brief periods.

At other times, the string quartet comes to the front, playing slightly dissonant chords, with just enough bite to be chromatic, in a rhythm like that of our breath. Yet that arpeggio is still there, in the background, deconstructed, as the piano comes and goes, its own rhythmic structure altered slightly from its first appearances. The six notes of the arpeggio seem to by trying out all the possibilities that the piano could play with these pulsing strings.

Feldman’s music is that of gradual change. It could be called minimalist, though “minimalism” is generally considered to be music that has stricter, more rigid repetitions, notably based on regular, sustained rhythm. Feldman’s music is not like that; there is no rigidity. In his later works, there is an almost mystical feeling, as though the music is trying to touch eternity through its silences, its amorphous rhythms, and its sparse sounds. It also challenges the listener: at 80 minutes, Piano and String Quartet demands a great deal of attention. His String Quartet II, at around six hours, is essentially beyond attention. But the investment one makes in listening to a work like this is paid off by the discovery of something new, something hidden, something inside the listener that has been waiting to be exposed to the light.

A work like this is not for everyone. If your preferred type of music is, say, Mozart or Haydn, then Feldman’s music is the antithesis of the lively, strictly organized music of the classical period. If you find twelve-tone music attractive, Feldman’s melodic approach may be too diatonic. While he uses chromaticism, it is not extreme, and is, in some ways, attenuated by the slowness of the music.

In the liner-notes to this work, composer David Lang says, “This is music without a tune. This is music without a traditional sense of harmonic motion. [...] This is music that is intensely repetitive but completely unpredictable.” Feldman created unique sound-worlds unlike those of any other composer. They require listeners who are prepared to make a commitment over time, but also to adopt a musical approach that is beyond conventional rules and habits. In stripping music to its degré zéro, Feldman brought listeners face to face with themselves, with their expectations of what music could be.

So this recording – how does it fare? There are a few recordings of this work, notably one by Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet, released in 1993. As to be expected with music of this type, there is little latitude for performers to “interpret” the music, but Vicki Ray and the Eclipse Quartet provide an impeccable performance, with a crystalline sound from beginning to end. Their recording is a bit louder than the Takahashi/Kronos recording, but just a bit. The score is entirely in ppp, and this music is meant to be listened at a very low volume.

While I say there aren’t that many differences between the two recordings, I also feel that the world needs more recordings of Feldman’s music, if only so that more people can chance upon it and discover this composer’s realms. As such, kudos to Bridge Records for recording this, but also for having released several other Feldman works, notably such long works as for Christian Wolff, Crippled Symmetry and for Philip Guston, all multi-disc releases.

Feldman’s music is an acquired taste, but if you have never listened to it, this work is an excellent place to start. If you do know his music, and don’t have this work, then you should. Period.

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This review was originally published on MusicWeb International.