Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Approaching Morton Feldman

I cannot remember when I purchased my copy of the Universal Edition publication of Morton Feldman's "Piano." It had to be after 1981, since that was when publication took place, even though the composition was completed in May of 1977. (Next week will be its 30th anniversary!)

Feldman played a major role in my music education. I first became aware of him when Bernstein gave a "new music" concert at the New York Philharmonic at which he tried (I use that verb carefully) to conduct "… Out of 'Last Pieces.'" I was an undergraduate at MIT at the time; and my mother sent be the review from Time, whose critic described it as sounding like "noodle soup going down the drain." It was only later that I learned that this was one of his early experiments in indeterminacy, for which the score had been written on graph paper and consisted on numbers in the square boxes. Later, when MIT launched their "serious" approach to teaching music, extending beyond "music appreciation" history to theory and analysis, I remember the professor (I shall omit the name out of respect for his memory) behind this initiative describing Feldman as one of the worst living composers. Not too long after having been confronted with that declaration, I had my first encounter with John Cage. (I had agreed to serve as teaching assistant for one of my mathematics professors for an invited summer position he had at the University of Colorado. This was the summer of 1968, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was there to get their lungs in shape before performing in Mexico City in conjunction with the Olympics there. Cage had put up signs around the campus announcing a course in "Music and Mushrooms." I was one of two who showed up for the course.) Cage was responsible for my first positive impressions of Feldman, and it is one of many things he did for me for which I shall always be thankful.

By the time he wrote "Piano," Feldman had moved away from graph paper to conventional notation. If I do not remember when I actually purchased the music, I do remember that the first time I tried looking at it was when I was in Singapore. That would make it somewhere around the time the piece was fifteen years old, definitely after the Etcetera recording of Roger Woodward's performance had been release but probably before I had purchased it. About all I remember from my Singapore attempt is that, if I had tried playing any notes at all, I gave up before getting beyond the first page!

In the graph paper music the horizontal axis was always time; so the music always had a steady pulse, even if that pulse could not always be discerned in the clouds of indeterminately selected pitches. "Piano" has a metronome marking; but very few of the events occur "on the beat," to the point where the concept of "beat" barely makes any sense. The timing is further confounded by radical changes in metric indication (for example, from 2/2 to 7/8) and numerous rhythmic embellishments through tuplet notation. I gave up because, at the time, there was just no way I could get my head around that notation; and my "day job" did not afford me the time to go about it systematically (say, by programming the whole thing for my MIDI keyboard). So the music just sat there, waiting, along with countless other pieces I had purchased, for the "right time" for me to make a serious approach.

I have William Winant to thank for bringing about that "right time" (although he does not know it). On April 29 my wife and I went to hear him talk about and perform Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Vibra-Elufa" for solo vibraphone. Stockhausen is another composer whose rhythmic notations are positively maddening; and, unless I am mistaken, his first experiments predate Feldman's graph-paper experiments. My first real exposure to Stockhausen's rhythmic complexity came from examining the published (also by Universal) scores of his piano pieces around the time that Columbia released performances of those pieces by Aloys Kontarsky. Many years after those performances were recorded, I remember hearing that an interviewer had asked Kontarsky how he had managed to get all those rhythms right, to which Kontarsky replied, "Oh, that's just Karlheinz' way of writing rubato!"

I do not know if Winant had heard this story, but much of his talk had to do with that same problem of getting the rhythms right. What he said, however, was that Stockhausen had advised anyone interested in performing the work to listen to the recording that had been made and "internalize" (my word choice) the rhythm through intimate familiarity with the recording. This is not as outrageous as it may sound at first blush. As a matter of fact, anyone who takes jazz seriously is pretty convinced that there is no way you can learn to play bebop by looking at music notation. Ultimately, you can only "get it" through a similar intimate familiarity with recordings of Bird, Diz, Bud, and all the "old masters" who "got it" by "making it." Furthermore, since "Vibra-Elufa" is actually an arrangement of an excerpt from the Freitag opera in Stockhausen's Licht cycle, I was even less surprised that he should have given this advice, since, in my last blog, I tried to make a case for the extent to which the lion's share on the music from Licht now available on recordings seems to have been inspired by performances by jazz greats such as Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, and Jimmy Knepper. (I have a personal fantasy of Stockhausen keeping a "secret stash" of all the old Blue Note vinyls in his basement! Besides, Stockhausen's son Markus seems to be as seriously involved in jazz as he is with his father's music; so the "stash" may actually belong to Markus!)

The point is that this story of Stockhausen's advice finally put my head in a place where I could approach Feldman again. I have begun to examine the score while listening to the Roger Woodward recording. To my ear this is not always clinically accurate; but it is definitely helping me home on the "feel" of the work. Besides, the work is dedicated to Woodward; so, if clinical accuracy is not the highest priority in performance, he should know! (Once I have a bit more command of the work, I may even work up the courage to try to find him at San Francisco State and ask him about it!)

Back when I was writing dance reviews, I had a few occasions to meet Feldman. He was extremely modest, always telling me that I would get a lot more out of talking with Christian Wolff (which may just have been his polite way of saying "go 'way kid, ya bother me")! Towards the end of his life, he delivered some introductory remarks before Ursula Oppens played one of his pieces at the Schoenberg Institute, back when it was based at USC. He had a strong cerebral element that did not fit with his gruff Brooklyn exterior; but I think it was the Brooklyn in him that recognized that, however deep one's thoughts get, one should never take them too seriously. Having learned this lesson in how I listen to Stockhausen, I now seem to be learning it in how to play Feldman!


Pete said...

When Morton Feldman came to Johannesburg in 1984 he played us "Piano" (the Woodward recording) and handed the score out. It astonished me that a piece which was so fastidiously notated as regards the rhythm should have received such an inaccurate performance - with Feldman's approval! - as we heard that morning. Or was it a case of "anything goes"?

Stephen Smoliar said...

On the few occasions when I either met Feldman or heard him speak, he was always pretty reticent and tended to share Cage's good-natured-Zen acceptance that "what happens is what happens." Nevertheless, there are a couple of alternative explanations to "anything goes." The less likely it that Feldman was playing around with categorical perception, which is the way the mind maps stimuli into familiar categories even when, by physical measurement, they really do not satisfy the criteria. Thus, when we hear microtones in a melody line, we tend to hear them as well-tempered chromatic pitches that have been slightly "inflected" (or "off-pitch," if you prefer). (This is why, in my own opinion, microtones work better harmonically, where they can provide better approximations to natural overtones.)

A more likely alternative to "anything goes" is that Feldman was trying to capture in notation the sort of effect of "indeterminate timing" that we find in, for example, his 1957 "Piece for Four Pianos." Here is the description from the original Columbia liner notes: "All four pianists play from the same page of music which is notated in stemless noteheads on staves, with a few grace notes (played not quickly) and a few numbers indicating silent beats. There are no bar lines, not time or key signatures. The pianists begin more or less at the same time but then each proceeds, quietly and calmly, at his or her own internal tempo." As I spent more and more time working on "Piano," I realized that it was mostly "about" a few basic "cells" of sound that would keep appearing, almost as if each time they came from a different source. From this point of view, my comment about using MIDI to get an "accurate" representation of all the durations would miss out on the "spirit" of the work, even if it was as faithful as possible to the "flesh."