Arm-Wrestling Mr. Feldman
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.
I 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.