Philip Thomas has recorded a 5-CD set of all of Morton Feldman’s music for solo piano. We discuss with him one of the most interesting of 20th century composers and the unique nature of sound in Feldman’s works.
We talk with Brian Brandt of Mode Records about releasing recordings of avant garde music, and the difficulties of the music business.
Listen to The Next Track: Episode #69 — Brian Brandt of Mode Records on John Cage, Morton Feldman, and the Music Business.
Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.
Filmed at the Rothko Chapel in 2013, the Da Camera chamber ensemble performs this four-and-a-half hour work.
I’ve long been a fan of Morton Feldman’s unique form of minimal music. (You can read several articles about his music and writings.) I discovered today that there is a new recording of a work that Feldman composed for electric guitar in 1966, for Christian Wolff, and that had never been recorded.
Morton Feldman’s The Possibility Of A New Work For Electric Guitar iTunes Store is a brief work – especially for Feldman – at just under 5 minutes. Recorded by Seth Josel, for Mode Records, this “single” is one of two versions that Josel has recorded.
This work has a complicated history; this document by Chris Villars explains how it was created, and what happened after the manuscript was lost.
Feldman discussed the work briefly with John Cage, in on of their conversations that were broadcast on WBAI.
Morton Feldman: […] I wrote a piece for electric guitar, and I tried to overcome the fact of an electric guitar. And so Christian came over to the house and I had him try various things, very strange things and strange registers, and when it didn’t sound like an electric guitar, I wrote it down (laughs). I mean, it seemed too obvious just to write a piece for electric guitar. He plays it very beautifully, very hesitant.
John Cage: Merce Cunningham told me it was marvelously soft …
JC: … and yet it was coming through an electric sound system.
JC: And it was still very soft?
MF: Yes. It was very difficult to do (laughs).
JC: I know it would be. It must have been magnificent.
MF: I have to recopy it. I gave him the only score. I wasn’t sure about the piece. In fact, when they asked me for a piece for the program, I said, “Well, there might be a possibility of a piece for electric guitar,” and that’s what they wrote down in the program, “A Possibility of a Piece for Electric Guitar”.
JC: But it has another title now?
MF: No, I think I have to get it back and look at it and …
JC: Oh, I see.
MF: … go over it, and make, not a piece out of it, but copy it out.
It’s a brief work, but interesting. It makes one wonder what Feldman could have done with a longer work for guitar, in his later period, when many of his works are more than an hour long.
Reviewing recordings of Morton Feldman’s late works is never easy. With works that are often more than an hour long — some four, even six hours — it’s hard to judge the overall character of a performance or recording, and especially hard to compare recordings by different artists. This is the third recording of Feldman’s first string quartet; the Group for Contemporary Music has recorded it for Naxos, and the Ives Ensemble recorded it for HatHut. Both of these recordings were limited by the timing of a single CD; the Group for Contemporary Music’s recording is 78:33, and the Ives Ensemble plays the work in 76:57.
The Flux Quartet, however, gets all the time they need, playing it at nearly 100 minutes. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Why so much longer? The liner notes give no explanation, but in researching this review, it seems that the Flux Quartet respects the composer’s tempi, and, above all, plays all the repeats. I only have the recording by the Group for Contemporary Music, and the tempo doesn’t seem that different; however, if there are repeats, and the Flux Quartet is playing them, then this recording is clearly closest to Feldman’s intentions.
This is the first of Feldman’s long works, and, as such, bears the characteristics that he would develop in later works, notably those for keyboard (For Bunita Marcus, Triadic Memories), ensemble (For Philip Guston, Crippled Symmetry), or for other groups of instruments. These works generally feature short melodic motives that breathe; they come and go, they repeat in different ways as they vary; they return at various points of the work, in different rhythms, different tonalities. Much of this music is dissonant, but I find it to be a relaxing dissonance; it comes as intervals and chords, in brief passages, rather than in an Ivesian onslaught.
This string quartet fascinates, in part because it is perpetually asking questions. Rather than following a path that leads to a clear musical discourse, it constantly suggests potential music, sometimes following up on those suggestions, sometimes quickly aborting after a brief phrase and moving on to something new. The work begins with a few brief chords that sound like breaths, one slightly dissonant, the next with an added layer of dissonance, and the following chords moving away from and back toward that dissonance; and the work ends with some sustained notes that suggest that the questions haven’t been answered, but that it’s the journey that counts, not the result. The Flux Quartet gives a fine reading of this work, and the recording quality is excellent, allowing the listener to be absorbed by the music.
In addition to String Quartet No 1, there are four earlier works, from the 1950s. These works are not that different from the longer works; the techniques used are similar, without the sparseness of the later work.
Listening to String Quartet No 1– and to other pieces by Morton Feldman — raises one problem: that of volume. It seems that this score is marked ppp and ppppp, but how does a listener know what volume this should be? If you’re listening to, say, a Haydn or Schubert string quartet, you can adjust the volume to an approximate level, based on your listening comfort. But with Feldman’s quiet works, there’s no way to know exactly how to listen. If you’re listening on headphones, you can turn the volume down a great deal, but on speakers it’s a bit more difficult to find the correct level. This makes me think of recordings of the clavichord; this quiet instrument can be heard easily by a performer, but if you’re more than a few feet away, it’s hard to hear the notes. Should one set the volume to hear everything, or should the listener allow some of the music to stay in the background?
This set contains String Quartet No 1 on one and a half CDs, and also contains a DVD-Audio with the entire work, so you can listen to it without changing discs. (Of course, if you rip music to your computer, you can play it from the ripped files without any pause.) The DVD-A contains both a 24-bit stereo and a surround sound mix; I don’t have surround sound, so I can’t comment on the quality of that mix.
While price is not the main criterion for choosing one recording over another, it’s worth pointing out that this release is fairly expensive, selling for £33 at the time of this writing. (The Ives Ensemble’s recording is £20, and the Group for Contemporary Music’s disc less than £6.) This is, in part, because of the additional DVD-A. While it’s nice to have both versions, Mode Records might have considered two different releases, one with and one without the DVD-A; or, as they did with the String Quartet No 2, release the DVD-A separately for those who want it.
If you are a Feldman aficionado, you’ll want this recording, if only because it presents the entire quartet with all repeats, as Feldman intended. But if you’re new to Feldman’s music, the Naxos recording by the Group for Contemporary Music is a great place to start at a budget price.
Composer Morton Feldman was a voluble man, but he didn’t write much down. He taught and gave lectures, but his collected writings fit in this book, Give My Regards to Eight Street (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). At just over 200 pages, it contains articles about art and music, and liner notes and program notes for some of his works. While Feldman famously wrote many multi-hour works, in has later phase, his words are more concise. Unlike his friend John Cage, who wrote a number of books, Feldman never published any collection of his writings while alive.
As the publisher’s blurb for this book points out, “While his music is known for its extreme quiet and delicate beauty, Feldman himself was famously large and loud. […] Feldman’s writings explore his music and his theories about music, but they also make clear how heavily Feldman was influenced by painting and by his friendships with the Abstract Expressionists.” Feldman discusses music, but more often he writes about art. He was strongly influenced by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg, all of whom were his friends.
Art was, to Feldman, a way of life. But, as he says:
Art in its relation to life is nothing more than a glove turned inside out. It seems to have the same shapes and contours, but it can never be used for the same purpose. Art teaches nothing about life, just as life teaches us nothing about art.
He writes a lot about art, and how it influenced his music, and, in one lecture given in Frankfurt in 1984, goes into some detail about his music and the way he composes. But this is not a treatise, and there is little real insight into why he composed the way he did, especially in the longer, late works that have been so influential. He didn’t seem to want to go into much detail about those works. He explains some of his processes, but lets the music speak for itself.
This book therefore isn’t a key to Feldman’s music, but it is an entertaining read to better understand his influences, especially those that came from painting. If you appreciate Morton Feldman’s music, you’ll want to read this book to get a better idea of what made the man tick.
Listening to a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage today (on this new recording of his Works for violin and piano, I searched on the web for some information about Feldman and Cage, and found these very fascinating recordings of the two of them in conversation, recorded for WBAI in 1967, and available from Archive.org.
Interestingly, I started listening while playing Feldman’s For John Cage in the background, and this was strangely satisfying.
Here is a summary of the three conversations:
Part 1 (39:25):
This first of a three part conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York between October 18-25, 1967. The segment begins with Cage and Feldman discussing the various ways people perceive intrusion in their lives. The composers then spend some time on the occupation of the artist as “being deep in thought,” and what the goals or purposes of “being deep in thought” might be. A brief analysis of Black Mountain College follows before Cage and Feldman return to the idea of being in thought, and the role of boredom in life. The conversation ends with Cage explaining his hesitation towards taking on students.
Part 2 (49:41):
The second part of their conversation was recorded at WBAI in New York on October 24, 1967. Like the first installment, much of this conversation centers on intrusions in the life of an artist. Cage and Feldman look at how everyday tasks such as correspondence are affected by the artist’s desire to not disappoint the public once the public has recognized the artist. Cage and Feldman engage in a fairly philosophical discussion regarding the telephone, and recount some anecdotes about using the phone book. They also return to the topic of “thought” and whether there is a point in life where a person has thought enough. There is also some discussion of composing pieces with very particular challenges (e.g. a one-finger guitar piece).
Part 3 (43:48):
The third and final conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman was recorded at WBAI in New York in October 1967. Cage and Feldman’s discussion begins with Cage reading part of an article by the architect Kaufman on disposability. Cage seems fascinated by the idea that the large and small scale is becoming ever more prominent in society, while the importance of the mid-scale is dwindling. Some serious debate ensues when Cage expresses the opinion that we already have quality in the world, and what we are truly seeking is quantity. The two also touch on the role of artists in reaction to the Vietnam War, and how musicians seem frequently absent from the political dialogue. The conversation ends with Cage hypothesizing that the printing press changed the course of life activity toward material gain.
Synchronicity is such that I just received the latest issue of the New Yorker, which contains a very interesting article about Morton Feldman, who is now considered to be one of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century. I say synchronicity because it was only a few weeks ago that I discovered Feldman’s music, by browsing through the iTunes Music Store. I purchased his Triadic Memories, an astoundingly simple yet profound piano work, and his Piano and String Quartet, which pulses to the rhythm of human breath and is full of understated surprises.These later works by Feldman should be called minimalist, but they aren’t the same type of repetitive minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, two of my favorite composers. It’s more a minimalism of reduction, of stripping away the arabesques of music to leave only the salient parts that provide feeling and emotion. In Feldman’s music, the silence is as important as the notes.
Feldman also wrote some very long pieces in his later years: For Philip Guston, which is over four hours long, and his String Quartet 2, that clocks in at around six hours. (At the time of this update, in June, 2011, the String Quartet 2 is only $20 from Amazon in MP3 format.)
And while I’m rambling about minimalism, one of the most astounding recordings I’ve heard in recent years is Harold Budd’s As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), a 69-minute remix of a song on the Avalon Sutra album, which has great similarities to Feldman’s music…
There’s a lot of music to listen to here, but I felt the need to share this discovery. I just wonder why it took me so long to learn about Morton Feldman. Perhaps part of the reason is the scope of many of his works; you won’t hear hour-long works on the radio very often, or even in performance. But finally I have discovered his work, and it’s a very good thing.
Update: Since I first wrote this article in 2008, I have collected a great deal of Feldman’s works. Many of them are very long, but once you appreciate Feldman’s musical language, you are more than happy to take the time to listen to them.