Saturday, June 04, 2005

Arm-Wrestling Mr. Feldman

for R.F.

The circumference of my upper arm is eight and a quarter inches, almost. Imagining me and Morton Feldman going palm to palm in an arm-wrestling match thus elicits much laughter. (Bets, anyone?) Performers quite naturally build physical relationships to the musical score--muscles must make memories--but sometimes the specter of the composer commands our attention, too. Such is the case with Mr. Feldman, whose music has long proven irreconcilable for me. I find mystery in the malnourished measures--staves of emptiness cued by soft directives--and I admire the lean lines of single notes. I appreciate the surprise of a delicate chord and the hilarity of grace notes with no antecedent, yet when I sit down to play I grow self-conscious, nervous, unsure of what to do. Nothing seems to indicate or predict, notes at the beginning are not harbingers of the end, and I am without direction. Is Feldman laughing behind my shoulder, lighting up a cigarette and shrugging indifferently, "you're the pianist, you figure it out. That's your job, eh?" What else is one to do but turn away from the score and attempt to make amends with the man himself?

But Feldman is not a man with whom to sit and discuss the big picture. A tone or chord in one of the piano pieces, for example, does not imply or hint at a future; it simply is what it is in that moment. The measures of silence, too, are not meant to be interpreted as expectant or impatient; they are just their own moments, love 'em or hate 'em, but let them go. Favoring the moment, however, is a less than straightforward approach; although the notes (even the quiet ones) sound with clarity, their meaning remains enigmatic. This is musically counterintuitive for someone who cut their teeth on piano repertoire 1720-1915 (from Bach's Inventions to Bartok's Sonatina). Countless lessons were spent discussing musical direction, developing a lengthened awareness of phrase structure, mapping formal plans and figuring out ways to execute an overarching sonic picture. In the best of performances, I proceed from measure 1 with self-assured confidence, guiding the listener from point A to point B. "Follow me, I'm the leader," is the role a classical player must assume.

Feldman avoids the obvious, childish game. A moment of delicate filigree might catch one's attention early on but does not indicate the path the music will take. Feldman does not aggressively "work things out" towards some predictable climax, and one cannot actively pursue what might happen, where the music is going, what it might mean. To experience Feldman is to let go; listen to a chord or single note, allow the silence to speak its own mysteries, and then ready those ears anew, without expectation. Does Feldman's aesthetic seem noncommittal, or unrequited? The sparse stillness does create a certain melancholy and breaks the heart easily. From the performer's perspective, however, playing so softly and delicately requires a deliberate and practiced touch. The pianist cannot be lazy or lackadaisical, cannot sit on the bench and casually deliver these "moments" of sound. Instead, controlling those fine finger muscles alerts all the senses and makes one acutely aware of the music taking shape without being pursued. The magic of that is as electrifying as any predictably schmaltzy, Romantic (capital "R") roll in the hay.

mr. feldmanI ease my grip and cease wrestling Mr. Feldman. Asking for direction, needing to attach meaning, seeking the master plan...those things are unimportant. Instead, we sit back and chat like old friends, with no expectancy, no assumptions, and no subliminal persuasions. We argue amicably, tentatively agreeing that living (and experiencing music) "for the moment" is challenging, sometimes not entirely satisfying. In some respects, a draw is the best a performer can hope for: whether engaged in a wrestling match, secret tryst, or worshipful state of idolatry, a performer needs to find their peace with the ghostly presence of the composer. Speaking more practically, trusting the composer and their music--whatever the style--comes with familiarity, with repeated practice and performance. Though I feel somewhat more prepared to begin to the process of learning (familiarizing myself) with one of Feldman's great works, he is no less a mystery to me. On that, Mr. Feldman and I are willing to shake hands and part.

Feldman's music is published by C.F.Peters. Although I own the scores I took pictures of, neither the images (nor the photographs of Feldman) are used with permission.


Feldman has even his own discussion list, "Why Patterns", and there is a complete resource Feldman website.

The truly tragic thing is that he died too soon. But quite a lot of listeners and composers take Feldman's music and writings quite seriously. (And, I guess you could count me in their numbers.)

--Richard Friedman

By Blogger Heather, at 8:28 AM  

Wow! Curiosity about Feldman and performance from Florida, New York and California! I find this highly encouraging. There are pockets of my life full of people who have never even heard of Feldman or Cage, Berio or Nono, Monk or Tower, or if they have, there is such uncuriosity, as if "that modern music" is just a blip on the screen that we're all waiting out. Interest IS out there; well, now I really want to go practice!

By Blogger Heather, at 8:28 AM  

I doubt if Morty would have joined you in an arm-wretling match. He probably would have paused at the suggestion, letting a lot of silence pass, until he lit yet another cigarette, paused, and returned the offer with a question.

I always found it strange that so brutish a man as Feldman could produce such delicate music. One can not imagine this large person playing quiet music. And yet there are recordings of him playing his own pieces. They sound as if his arms had no weight, his touch is so light (like Cage's). Altho I never heard him play in person, I did meet him a few times, and suffered the same disorientation that everyone did, trying to reconcile his physical body with the body of his work.

It looks so simple on the page, yet I'm sure that to perform any of Feldman's works, even the early graph scores, must be agonizingly difficult. How slowly can you play? And when do you breathe?

And what about that 6 hour string quartet?

But I'm probably not alone in saying that these experiences, however mysterious, are valuable because the music is, in its own strange way, extremely beautiful when played as intended.

I second Steve's wish above. I hope to hear you play Feldman sometime soon.

And there's to be more from Morton Feldman on Music From Other Minds later in the month. Stay tuned.

--Richard Friedman

By Blogger Heather, at 8:29 AM  

I had a good experience getting into Feldman by learning the first of the Last Pieces. Since the durations are left to the performer, it really forces you to figure out his language in order to play it well. I won't spoil all the fun for you, but it's worth thinking about the "thickness" of each sonority. In order to follow Feldman's dictum of not "pushing the sounds around," you have to let each sound resonate as long as it "needs" to. This in turn helps shape a lot of the phrases.

In the case of Palais de Mari, issues of sound thickness play a similar role, but the durations are notated for you. Compare the length of the silence following the first measure with the silence following the restatement of the first measure taken down an octave.

As far as the form goes, I would say there's one there, but it's connected more to the qualities of sound than the specific pitches in them. I'll leave it at that, but if you remain baffled, I'd be happy to talk more about the piece with you.

--Adam Baratz

By Blogger Heather, at 8:29 AM  

Excellent post, Heather. I look forward to reading more and, hopefully, hearing you play some Feldman.

--Steve Hicken

By Blogger Heather, at 8:29 AM  

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