Sunday, May 15, 2011

Further Adventures with Morton Feldman

Is Morton Feldman becoming mainstream?  The last time I wrote about him at any length on this site was back in May of 2007 when I felt a need to document my struggles with trying to play his rather massive “Piano,” which he had completed in May of 1977.  Since that time, however, he has (justifiably) occupied a fair amount of attention on my sites, not only because of recordings of his music but also because that music has now graced the San Francisco Symphony subscription series in Davies Symphony Hall.  I have also written about the first part of The Viola in My Life being performed at a San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert in October of 2009, but I would have expected Feldman to get more than a fair shake from that ensemble.  I remember when Leonard Bernstein tried to bring Feldman’s music to Philharmonic Hall (as it was then called) in Lincoln Center;  and the result was nothing short of a fiasco.  The fact is that Feldman gets respect here in San Francisco even to the point of now being embraced by the mainstream.

In this context I think it is valuable to look back on recordings that were made back when he was “not ready for prime time.”  These recordings came into my hands in unlikely locations, not all of which I can remember.  Some of them still have price tags, however, which are not in United States currency.  The good news is that some of them are available from Amazon even without leaving the American site.  Even if all Amazon offers involve mediating with other sellers, it is still a good place to explore for learning about Feldman’s early efforts.

One of my favorites is an import from Italy that has no title other than the composer’s name.  The label is Edition RZ, and I am not sure I have seen any other recording that they have released.  However, the Feldman CD is a real goodie not only for the selections but also for the performers.  Here is the Product Description from its Amazon Web page:

Beautiful collection, primarily made up of Feldman's earliest, shorter piano works from the early 50s, going through the late 70s. A much needed compendium to all the essential documentation of his later, intensely long works that have been coming out (mainly on Hat Art). Performances here by Feldman himself, David Tudor, Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury and others. "In his compositions for piano, which make up a central part of his oeuvre and in which all of his experience is accumulated, it is the play of Feldman's hand whose touch is intended precisely for the 'untouchableness' of sound. The clear character of the 'attack' thus displays the paradox of such playing: it is just as much about concealing the idiosyncrasy of the piano sound, the precise point of attack while, at the same time, the structure and tension of those sounds are formed by the hand." --Stefan Schadler. Track list: Piano Three Hands, Intermission 5, Vertical Thoughts 2, Extensions 3, Four Instruments, Intermission 5, Piano Piece 1956 A + B, Intersection 3, Instruments 1.

The only thing missing from this is the time frame.  The earliest works on the recording are the “Intermission” pieces, which were composed in 1952 (as was “Extensions 3.”  The latest is “Four Instruments” from 1975.  In terms of my thinking about Feldman in terms of his working with longer and longer durations, these are all relatively brief works, some of which involve his use of graph paper for indeterminate specification and others involve the beginning of his “durations” phase.  Those who have followed by writing know by now that there are many paths to getting to know Feldman, but this Italian CD is definitely one of the best of them.

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