Tuesday, April 21, 2020

An Introduction to Morton Feldman from SFCMP

Those following the concert offerings of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) probably know about the pre-performance demonstrations and discussions that are prepared by Artistic Director Eric Dudley under the title How Music is Made. In response to the current shelter-in-place imposed in the interest of social distancing, Dudley has taken How Music is Made into cyberspace with “ONLINE series” programming enabled through the SFCMP YouTube Channel. Each of these programs will involve a video document of the performance of a single composition preceded by an introduction presented by (as SFCMP has put it) “some of contemporary music’s most inspired personalities.”

The first offering in this series was released this past Friday, but today provided my first opportunity to check out the viewing/listening experience. The performance was of Morton Feldman’s “For Samuel Beckett,” which was captured on video when it was conducted by Steven Schick in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on January 19, 2016. The introductory presentation was delivered by the young composer Amadeus Regucera. Regular readers may recall that percussionist Andy Meyerson played Regucera’s bass drum solo, “IMY/ILY” as part of the “Humble Servant” concert he presented this past September.

The Feldman selection was definitely a bold choice for launching this series. For over half a century I have been listening to Feldman’s music going all the way back to the early pieces he composed in his days with John Cage as part of what is now called “The New York School.” That was a time when Feldman was exploring indeterminacy with scores consisting of rectangles on graph paper, allowing performers extensive opportunities for choice.

In his “post-Cage” period, Feldman would return to working with conventional notation. He tended to conceive structures that seemed repetitive on the surface but were distinguished by subtle differences. As his work progressed, his compositions took on longer and longer durations, leading to the completion of his second string quartet in 1983 that requires a little over six hours to perform.

Olesya Aleksandrovna Denisova’s portrait of Mark Rothko standing before one of his paintings (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Rather than taking a historical perspective, Regucera chose to focus on Feldman’s relationship to the painters of his time, dwelling particularly on Mark Rothko. He drew attention to the large dimensions of the paintings that Rothko began to create during the mid-Fifties. Regucera observed that, when one stood close to one of these paintings, one no longer saw large masses of color but could, instead, attend to the intricacies of texture emerging from evidence of the brushstrokes. The “message” from that observation is that a sensory impression that seemed almost uniform “in the large” concealed no end of subtle details “in the small.”

That observation may have provided the best possible frame of mind for approaching “For Samuel Beckett.” Images of specific score pages suggest that the music involved relatively short repetitive structures that would endure for considerable time. However, where the actual listening experience is concerned, Feldman introduces subtle interruptions to repetition. These interruptions are separated by significant intervals of time, so long that one cannot develop viable expectations for when they are likely to occur. Rather, they keep the listener attending to the small as the only way to appreciate change when it occurs.

In this context I found that, while listening to this music, I was recalling the penultimate sentence that is narrated at the end of the third movement of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia.”
We must collect our thoughts, for the unexpected is always upon us.
Repetitions are disrupted by unexpected changes, but those changes establish impact precisely by being unexpected. Feldman did not want listeners to approach “For Samuel Beckett” with the same confidence that faces the disruptive out-of-key recapitulation that undermines the flow of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major (which almost all listeners enjoy by virtue of expecting it)!

One can probably say that the best way to approach compositions like “For Samuel Beckett” is with attentive patience. Sustaining such patience over the duration of an hour is no easy matter. On the other hand a video document of a performance may have the upper hand when it comes to encouraging that approach.

One is not obliged to maintain a high level of attention for an entire hour. One can begin by acclimating to, say, about one quarter of that duration. Then one might extend one’s capacity for attention to roughly half an hour. In other words, like Feldman himself, the curious listener can adjust to sustaining durations of attention for longer and longer periods until one can stand before “Feldman’s canvas” (so to speak), aware of both the overall scale and the subtleties of detail.

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