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.
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.
One afternoon in my late teens, a friend put on a record that changed my life. We were sitting in his room, we had probably smoked a joint, and he took out a sleek black LP box set with a photo of a drum case and some drumsticks on the cover. In the top-right corner was the yellow symbol of the German label Deutsche Grammophon, which, at the time, represented quality classical music recordings. My friend took out one of the three LPs from the box and put it on. Twenty-four minutes later, I looked at music in a different way.
The piece of music we listened to was Six Pianos, by Steve Reich, which features, as the title suggests, six pianos playing together. At first, three pianos all play the same thing; a six-note figure, in an eight-beat pattern, over and over. Then three more pianos enter, playing out of phase; they play the same notes, but at different times from the first pianos. Then one of the pianos plays a different note. Then another one plays a different note. Then another. Then the rhythm changes, but still with the same pulsing beat.
At times, some of the pianos stop, then start up again, playing the basic pattern, or highlighting certain notes. The music shifts and morphs as the rhythms change, still over the same eight-beat, six note ground. Every now and then, new, short motives spring up, only to fade back into the rhythm after a while. This goes on, through three different sections, as the music revolves around not the usual tonal focus, but a rhythmic focus. The piano is a percussion instrument, and Reich uses it as such. At the end of the twenty-four minutes, the rhythmic playing stops abruptly; the music that started some time ago has shifted through several keys, and has landed back where it started. And the rest is silence.
I remember sitting quietly after hearing Six Pianos, wondering how this music could be so radically different from what I was used to. My musical tastes at the time were mostly rock – from the Grateful Dead to progressive rock – but I was open to a wide variety of styles, including classical music. But this was new. This was music that stripped away most of the music, leaving only rhythm and subtle shifts in emphasis of different notes. It opened up a new world to me; I didn’t think music could have this power.
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.
I first discovered the recordings of R. Andrew Lee when I heard his five-hour November, released on the Irritable Hedgehog record label. After that, I purchased many of his other recordings, including music by Tom Johnson, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, Anne Southam and others.
I’m particularly enamored of the kind of slow, gradual minimalist music that is November, and the other recordings that R. Andrew Lee has made cover other facets of what may be called minimalist music.
But I was especially interested when Mr. Lee announced a crowdfunded project for new recordings of “considerable duration.” I contacted Mr. Lee, and we conducted an email interview over several weeks.
Q: You seem to have staked out a space where you play very long works of “minimalist” piano music. You’ve recently crowdfunded new recordings of what you call Music of Considerable Duration.
And you also premiered a 3-hour work by Randy Gibson, last month, called The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of the Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield.
What attracted you to this idea of playing and recording very long works?
R. Andrew Lee: My interest in longer piano works was sparked by Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano. When I was in the early stages of my dissertation research, I came across a post by Kyle Gann called Sixty Minutes to Change Your Life. He wrote that, “By the time I played the final measures an hour later I was in a healthier and completely altered state of mind.” I was intrigued, so I decided to pull out the score (which I had thanks to my research) and give it a go.
As Gann writes, the piece isn’t technically demanding in any traditional sense, but I did find it difficult to maintain focus for so long. I don’t think I made it more than about forty minutes before my mind gave out and the notes stopped making sense. Still, I found the experience fascinating, and before long I gave a performance of the work for a small but appreciative audience. After that, I found myself increasingly drawn to works of longer duration. When looking at the website of a new (to me) composer, the first piece I’d listen to would be the longest they had available. It was a while before I jumped off the deep end on something like November, but I was finding enormous pleasure in the challenge of interpreting a continuous musical idea over a long time.
R. Andrew Lee is a pianist who records a wide variety of minimalist music for Irritable Hedgehog. Some of the music he records is quite long. There’s Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano, which, as its title suggests, lasts an hour. And there’s November, which is just shy of five hours.
Lee has launched a crowdfunding initiative to commission, as he says, Music of a Considerable Duration, specifically works by Randy Gibson and Adrian Knight. I’ve never heard of these two young composers, but so far, I’ve greatly enjoyed almost all of Lee’s recordings.
For this reason, I’ve chosen to support his project. It might be better to hear some of the music when deciding whether to donate to this project, but given what Lee has recorded, I feel confident that the music will be something I can appreciate. I do like long works of music – you’ve probably seen on this website that I’m a big fan of Morton Feldman, who wrote many works from one to six hours. So I look forward to hearing these recordings.
There are a variety of levels of funding, and some include EPs of music by the two composers and others, so you can donate the money and know you’ll get something unique.
The musical avant-garde has created a number of very long pieces of music. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, for example, runs for around six hours; other works by the same composer last from one to four hours. La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano runs around five to six hours. John Cage’s As SLow aS Possible runs from 20 to 70 minutes, but a performance underway in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and should take about 639 years. Other long works include Erik Satie’s Vexations, which runs somewhere around 28 hours. But the latter two works are more gimmicks than anything else; Satie’s piece is merely one minute-and-a-half piece played 840 times.
Length does not equal quality, but in the area of minimalist music – this is the minimalism of sparseness, not that of repetition, such as the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – the listener enters a sound world that moves at a different pace from the world around them. Listening to such works – Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet is an excellent example of this – forces the listener to rethink what music is and how it is heard and experienced. I like music of this type which slows me down and makes me listen differently. In many ways, November, as with many of Morton Feldman’s works, is as much like looking at a painting as it is like listening to a work for piano. It’s beautiful music that moves in slow motion.
I admit that I’m not that familiar with enough contemporary music – by living composers – to be able to make a long list, but I thought I would toss out a few works by composers of the 20th century that classical music afficionados should discover.
One of the problems for me, of 20th century music, is that much of it is dismal and anxious. From twelve-tone music to even more stressful works, such as the symphonies of Alan Petterson, dissonance ruled most of the century. I’m not a fan of dissonance as a rule, though I can put up with it in certain works (such as Ives’ Concord Sonata, or Ruggles’ Sun-Treader, which I mention below).
Here’s a list of works by composers who wrote in the 20th century. Some of them are still alive, and still composing. All of these works are interesting, some more than others, but they are all of a style that is clearly not that of the 19th century. This is a very personal list; I only include those composers whose works I enjoy, and who I feel are truly modern, that look to the future. This ignores such modern composers as Mahler, Sibelius, Britten, Copland, and dozens of others. I don’t mean this to be exhaustive, but simply a list of the great works of the past century that I return to over and over.
Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 2 for Piano, or Concord Sonata, is perhaps the most powerful piano work of the past century. In four parts, named for residents of Concord, Massachusetts in the first half of the 19th century – Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau – this sonata is sui generis. Two interesting recordings are those by Jeremy Denk (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Marc-André Hamelin (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).
Carl Ruggles only wrote about two hours of music, but in that small amount of sound, he created a style that is powerful and evocative. Highly dissonant – but not in a formulaic manner, as with the serialists – his 16-minute Sun Treader is a dense orchestral work that has all the power of an hour-long symphony. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
John Cage wrote aleatory music; music based on change. As such, his music is hit or miss. Nevertheless, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) remain one of the important works of the postwar period. His later Music for Changes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) was the first work to use his random compositional technique, which he would use for all of his future works.
Philip Glass’s 1976 Einstein on the Beach was an “opera” created with the director Robert Wilson. It’s an opera about nothing, with no real plot, but the music, mid-70s minimalism, is powerful and memorable. There was a revival last year, and it was recorded and filmed, so we should see a release of both discs and videos of the work. But the best approach is the 1984 version, which I was fortunate to see, available only by download from the iTunes Store.
Steve Reich wrote minimalist music that is different from that of Philip Glass. Reich was more interested in rhythm, and his 1976 work Music for 18 Musicians (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the quintessential work of minimalist music. And it’s got great melodies, and foot-tapping rhythms. His Drumming (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a vast piece built around simple rhythms which become complex and vary through phasing effects.
Olivier Messiaen wrote some very complex music, much of it based on the songs of birds he heard in the French Alps, where he lived. (Very close to where I lived for a dozen years.) While I find much of his music to be uninteresting, his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, written when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II, is an essential classic of the 20th century. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Morton Feldman was another unique composer of the late 20th century. His works, ranging from keyboard works to orchestral pieces, are slow and meditative, and often transcended time. His later works could be an hour or two, or even six hours long. One of the best ways to discover Feldman’s soundscapes is through his Piano and String Quartet (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a 1985 work that runs about 80-90 minutes, or his two-hour Triadic Memories for piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).
Einojuhani Rautavaara is a Finnish composer who, like Takemitsu, created unique soundscapes, but who owes more to western musical traditions. Nevertheless, he wrote a concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Cantus Arcticus. The best way to discover his works is in a four-disc set of his concertos. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Dennis Johnson’s little-known November (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a 1959 work for piano that runs nearly five hours. Similar in style to Morton Feldman’s music, this astounding work was recorded for the first time only recently. (An earlier recording was never released.) Johnson might have been influential had his work become known, and had he continued writing music (he stopped a few years after he wrote November), but this testament to him is a wonderful example of a certain kind of minimalism.
Toru Takemitsu was a Japanese composer strongly influenced by Debussy and John Cage, but whose work – especially from the 1970s on – developed soundscapes that combined Japanese music and Western music. His longest work, From me flows what you call Time, is a 30+ minute work for percussion – his longest work – and it’s available on an album with his seminal 1957 Requiem for String Orchestra, and Twill by Twilight, a work dedicated to Morton Feldman. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Arvo Pärt, from Estonia, writes music that is minimalist and tonally melodic. Partly based on Greorian chant, and partly based on standard western forms, Pärt’s music has, for me, become predictable, but his 1977 Tabula Rasa, for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano, is a powerful work which deserves attention. I recall hearing it performed live in the late 1980s in Paris, in the presence of the composer, by Gidon Kramer and musicians who recorded it for ECM. It was a memorable concert. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Brian Eno is not considered to be a classical composer, but contemporary classical music blurs the lines between different genres. His 1978 Music for Airports is the seminal work of ambient music, a genre that he essentially created. Based on phasing and tape loops, Music for Airports is a powerful work with piano, voices and other instruments. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
If you’re curious, but not willing to spend a lot, you’ll find that some of the above recordings are available fairly cheaply by download from Amazon or the iTunes Store. Check them out if you’re interested in 20th century classical music, but, remember, this list leaves out much more than it includes, because of my personal tastes.
Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach toured around the world recently, and there’s a video that’s freely available from the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet. So sit back and watch all four and a half hours of Einstein on the Beach.
Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)
I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.
The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”
This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.
I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.
Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.
Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.
As Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is currently undergoing a revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, I’m reminded of when I saw it there in 1984, the second series of performances after its initial run in 1976. This 4 1/2 hour “opera” is a combination of music, dance and visuals, and was truly unforgettable. Over the years, I’ve collected the different recordings of the work.
But until now, no recording was released of the 1984 performances. Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music has done that now, in two versions. The first, a CD and DVD set, contains a 77-minute CD of “highlights” of the work, along with a DVD of a documentary, The Changing Image of Opera, made during the 1984 production, but rarely seen. The second is a 217-minute “complete” recording, available only by download on the iTunes Store (at least for now), and is the most complete recording to date.
The 1984 recording has several advantages over the others. First, it’s a live recording, showing much better how the work actually sounded. Second, there is no attempt to make the sound lush and rich, as on the Nonesuch recording, which, again, brings it closer to its performance.
I’m certainly looking forward to both audio and video releases of the current revival of Einstein on the Beach. Finally, we will be able to see and hear the entire work. I just hope that it’s not too “smooth,” that the years between the first productions and the present haven’t led to too much perfection. One of the charms of minimalism in the 1970s and early 1980s is its spontaneity. This was music that went against the grain at the time, but which has now become more or less mainstream. I hope the radical nature of the original work comes through in the new performances.
Update: I received the “highlights” disc and watched the documentary today. If you care at all about Einstein on the Beach, you simply must see the documentary, with interviews with Glass and Wilson, and extensive footage of the 1984 production.