Morton Feldman would probably have objected vociferously to anyone trying to associate any of his work with the adjective “monumental;” but he, himself, described his 1981 “Triadic Memories,” his longest work for solo piano, as “probably the largest butterfly in captivity.” When I first started to try to write about Feldman’s music, based primarily on recordings, I realized that one could track the progress of his work in terms of his ability to work with longer and longer durations. By 1980 he had composed a piano trio, entitled simply “Trio,” that lasted for about an hour and 45 minutes. “Triadic Memories” is a solo composition conceived on a similar scale.
Nevertheless, the actually duration of the piece seems to have much to do with the frame of mind of the performer. The work was jointly commissioned by Aki Takahashi and Roger Woodward, both of whom recorded it. Takahashi’s recording lasts slightly over an hour, while Woodward’s comes closer to 90 minutes. Last night Thomas Moore visited the Center of New Music (C4NM) to give his own interpretation of this piece, a work he has been performing for 30 years. His performance expanded to a little under two hours.
Commenting on the length of his later works, Feldman was once quoted as saying:
Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy—just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter.
Curiously, however, Moore’s approach served up a clear sense of that division into parts, suggesting that Feldman himself may not have been that clear about his concept of scale.
One way to approach “Triadic Memories” is to think about it as an answer to a question posed as the title of Feldman’s 1978 work for flute, percussion and piano, “Why Patterns?” Cognitive science has its own answer to that question: The ability to organize sensory inputs into patterns is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental) building block in the formation of the full cognitive capacity of consciousness. Ironically, this may not be far from what Feldman had in mind. His lengthier works often dwell on repeating figures that readily register with mind as patterns in their own right. Furthermore, when the repetition is not strict or when it is tweaked in ways that provoke (if not confound) expectation, one still recognizes the figures as patterns. Mind just as to work a bit harder to accept that they are there.
From this point of view, “Triadic Memories” is a journey through an extended sequence of patterns. Furthermore, the techniques that Feldman engages to move from one pattern to another lead to that “division of things into parts” that would suggest that “Triadic Memories” is, indeed, a matter of thinking about form. However, even the transitions have their own characteristic departures from the more “normative” approaches to form that we encounter so often in concert settings.
Feldman’s metaphor of the butterfly, however, may have suggested that he was not interested in a straightforward journey that goes from here to there. He may have had in mind that our perspective does not always see the butterfly as following such a direct path. Nevertheless, that path may have been a direct one for the butterfly! (A topologist once wrote a delightful essay for general readers entitled “Straight Lines of Many Shapes.”)
In terms of listening, one may say that “Triadic Memories” is not so much about going from here to there as it is a butterfly’s path that comes to rest to draw nourishment from a wide diversity of flowers. Each of those flowers is one of the elements of Feldman’s “form.” The listener need do no more than follow the butterfly from one flower to the next.
This raises the question of what it means for listeners to accept that role. In Davies Symphony Hall Feldman performances tend to be greeted with an onslaught of nervous coughing and program rustling. (For that matter, Toru Takemitsu got the same treatment in Herbst Theatre when Peter Serkin played his music there in November of 2006.) Last night’s audience at C4NM had no trouble accepting the quietude of Moore’s performance. Whether this was the silence of intense focus or whether it was just respect for letting the butterfly go its own way, this was an audience that knew not to shatter to delicacy of the occasion with their own petty discontents.
This was not an evening for remembering Feldman; rather it was an occasion to appreciate Moore’s efforts at keeping Feldman’s music alive and well.