Morton Feldman at the 1976 Holland Festival (photograph by Rob Bogaerts, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)
This past spring I wrote about how the Swiss HAT HUT label has been reissuing its earlier recordings. The reissues are being given what amounts to a “paperback” treatment, replacing the traditional “jewel case” with simpler (and much thinner) cardboard packaging. The latest round of these reissues took place this past October, and I was glad to see that it included an album consisting entirely of music by Morton Feldman.
If Feldman’s music received relatively less attention that it deserved during his lifetime, his scores saw an increasing number of champions after his death in 1987. Here in the United States, Mode has a “Feldman Edition,” whose releases have not been particularly systematic but have been consistently valuable for those interested in listening to informed performances of Feldman’s music. Mode has never been afraid to take on his long-duration compositions, the most massive of which was his second string quartet performed by the FLUX Quartet with a total duration of a little more than six hours.
That album was released in 2002; but in 1998 HAT HUT released a four-CD album of a performance of “For Philip Guston,” recorded at the Slee Concert Hall at the University of Buffalo in August of 1991. The performance was given by Eberhard Blum (piccolo, flute, and alto flute), Nils Vigeland (piano and celesta), and Jan Williams (glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, and chimes) and lasted about four and one-half hours. Last month’s reissue was first released in 2000, based on recordings made in October of 1997. The original Web page on Amazon.com still exists and presumably is now being redirected to the reissue.
The title of the album is Atlantis, which is also the title of the last of the three pieces on the recording. All three are scored for large orchestra; and, on the recording, Lucas Vis conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. The two compositions that precede “Atlantis” are “String Quartet & Orchestra” and “Oboe & Orchestra.” Those two pieces were composed in 1973 and 1976, respectively, by which time most of Feldman’s titles had more to do with instrumentation than anything else.
“Atlantis,” on the other hand, was composed in 1959 and may well be Feldman’s earliest effort in working with a large ensemble. (I only encountered Feldman’s name for the first time when I was an undergraduate in the mid-Sixties. Leonard Bernstein tried to conduct one of his pieces at a New York Philharmonic subscription concert. All I remember is that the music critic for Time described it as sounding “like noodle soup going down the drain.”)
During the Seventies Feldman tended to take a mosaic-like approach to composition. In the time I spent with the score of “Piano” (completed in May of 1977), even though I never felt that I came even close to being able to play the music properly, I developed an appreciation of how the score had been constructed from a relatively limited set of “tiles of different colors,” which were then subjected to a wide variety of different patterns arising from collocation. The differences among those patterns, however, could often be so subtle as to escape the attention of “real-time” listening, particularly when the overall duration demanded more than an hour of attention.
In the 1973 and 1976 compositions, one can acquire some basic awareness of those tiles; but what is more likely to draw attention is the way in which Feldman creates and then resolves tensions between “concertante” sonorities and those of different groups of instruments in the ensemble. The respective durations of these two pieces are about one-half and one-quarter of an hour, making for manageable experiences that may well alternate between attentive listening and meditation. Indeed, because these durations are “manageable,” the compositions serve as useful exercises to engage before approaching Feldman’s more extended approaches to duration.
“Atlantis,” on the other hand, comes from a time when Feldman was using graph paper for his notation. The horizontal axis would represent time, and a number in a square would indicate the number of notes that would sound in the duration corresponding to the length of the square. The result amounts to a study that seems to reflect the pointillist technique of painting. However, while painters like Georges Seurat could use that technique to group the “points” in the interest of creating “shapes;” Feldman is clearly more concerned with the points themselves, particularly in how, through both superposition and succession, they may be distributed across the resources of a chamber orchestra. Since the duration is only a little more than ten minutes, the listening experience can be highly engaging due to the imaginativeness of the diversity of sonorities. On the other hand, once the listener “gets it,” (s)he will probably recognize that Feldman could go only so far with this technique, which is why the music composed in the Seventies is so different in its underlying logic.