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Morton Feldman: Voices and Instruments

by James Fulkerson

The following notes were written to accompany the CD of Feldman works entitled, Morton Feldman: Voices and Instruments, performed by Claron McFadden, soprano, Charles van Tassel, bass-baritone, and The Barton Workshop, released in 2002 on the Mode Records label (Mode 107).

This CD is comprised of works from Feldman's Early Period (late 40's until the late 60's) and Middle Period (late 60's/early 70's until the early 80's) of composing. In the beginning, like all young creative artists, Feldman was working through the influences he found alluring and the influence of his teachers, working for the moment that he would find his personal creative voice. With the previously recorded Only (Etcetera KTC 3003) and Journey to the End of Night (1949), The Barton Workshop has recorded the earliest works that Feldman chose to publish.[1] Leaving aside one's understandable curiosity in his Sonatina for Cello and Piano, "Night" for String Orchestra, Andante Moderato, Andante Tranquil etcetera, it is curious to note some of the choices which he made in these early works. The first work on this CD, Journey to the End of Night (1949) for Soprano, Flute, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon shows unmistakable influences from his study with Stefan Wolpe yet it also shows a clear command of this musical language! While the vocal writing is very high - and indeed, includes annotations to take the highest passages an octave lower, annotations which suggest that he had been told that this was too high for the soprano - it is a dramatically clear and forceful work. With these emphatic qualities, one would expect to find this work becoming a standard concert item as many of the Ives' songs have. The text has been extracted, presumably by Feldman himself, from the long novel of the same title by CÚline. Whether this assumption of how the text was assembled is accurate or not, the philosophy and critical stance of this text struck a sympathetic chord with Feldman.

Journey To The End Of The Night
(Based on the novel by CÚline)

I


Travel is a good thing.
It stimulates the imagination.

Everything else is a snare and a delusion.
Our own journey is entirely imaginative.
Therein lies its strength.
Travel is the search for this nothing at all.
This little moment of giddiness for fools.
Our own journey is entirely imaginative.
To have returned from the other worlds isn't everything.
You pick up the thread of your sticky, precarious life where you left it straggling behind you.
Travel is a good thing.
It stimulates the imagination.
Everything else is a snare and a delusion.
Our own journey is entirely imaginative.
Therein lies its strength.

III

You're going to die soldier boy - you're going to die.
There's a different life for each of us -
a different part for each of us to play -
a different death for each of us to face.
You're going to die soldier boy - you're going to die.
We shall soon forget all about you soldier boy -
Be kind and hurry up and die.
You're going to die soldier boy - you're going to die.

IV

Good, admirable Molly,
He should like you if you ever read these lines of his,
To know for certain that he has not changed towards you,
That he loves you still and always shall, in his own way.

Good, admirable Molly,
He should like you if you ever read these lines of his,
To know for certain that he has not changed towards you,
That he loves you still and always shall, in his own way.


In 1957, Feldman wrote Piece for Four Pianos in which each pianist played the same score, beginning simultaneously, after which each player utilized their own, slow tempo. The effect rapidly becomes one in which each event is heard once and then with three further repeats - it has been likened to throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the subsequent waves spin out from the center. Feldman used repetition of material within the score to make a homogeneous texture, static yet with small degrees of movement created through the use of new material. It is possible to describe this period of Feldman's music as being created by playing a chord, listening deciding whether to repeat it or not. If the chord is repeated, is it repeated exactly or with some new addition or arrangement of the voicing? If new material, how much should be new?

Feldman further developed this experience and began to conceive a music in which everyone began together but played their own individual part. Feldman controlled the music in such a way as to insure some pitches/chords or gestural material would be shared at times between the various instruments. By the early 1960's (Durations I-V and Vertical Thoughts I-V), he had also learned how to create timbral ambiguity by having all instruments play very softly, with a minimum of attack. His language for all of his music until c. 1970 was finally in place. In 1970, with the series, The Viola in My Life, Parts I - IV, Feldman returned to traditional notation and specifically to use meter and metrical changes within his canvas of time. The work, Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano, on this CD comes from this new period.

Playing very softly, sometimes needing also to play simultaneously with other instruments encourages the performers to become very, very aware of how each note begins and how it continues to sound - the sound quality is one's primary concern! In the series, Vertical Thoughts, Feldman began to focus the performer's (and the listener's?) attention to the decay of a note as well. Suddenly a player had to enter as someone else's note began to fade. This seems a small detail but in fact, it makes a completely new pacing to music and completes the journey into a pulseless time continuum. The music floats freely in an unmetered space. It is this subtlety which distinguishes the surface of Between Categories and Four Instruments from The O'Hara Songs and Intervals.

Between Categories (1969) for 2 Chimes, 2 Pianos, 2 Violins, 2 Cellos is a work which shares its title with a article/lecture by Feldman - and both indeed were composed contemporaneously. In his article, Feldman said:

"My obsession with surface is the subject of my music. In that sense, my compositions are not "compositions" at all. One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of music. I have learned that the more one composes or constructs - the more one prevents Time Undisturbed from becoming the controlling metaphor of music."
The piece uses two identical ensembles but separated in space. The ensembles, like most pieces from the 60's, begin simultaneously, but in the case of ensemble 1, they begin with a silence! Through the use of two identical ensembles and shared materials (chords and arpeggiated material), Feldman underscores one's sense of musical space.

He finishes his article:

"I prefer to think of my works as: between categories. Between Time and Space. Between painting and music. Between the music's construction, and its surface."

Intervals (1961) for Bass-Baritone, Trombone, Cello, Vibes, Percussion utilizes Feldman's compositional/notational system in which each instrument begins simultaneously but performs their own part independently of the others. Like other works in this period, Feldman creates situations in which pitches or tonal colors will be picked up between parts from time to time and indeed within each pieces the texture could be described as a stasis or prolonged chord/color.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of this work is that the only text used by the male singer is AHAVA - (Hebrew = Love). The instructions to performers for this work read similarly to nearly all of the works from Feldman's middle period of composition:

"The first sound with all instruments simultaneously. The duration of each sound is chosen by the performer. All sounds are to be played with a minimum of attack. Dynamics are very low. For sounds occurring on the same cello string, instead of re-articulating each pizz, drop fingers heavily to carry throughout the sound of the first pizz. Grace notes should not be played too quickly."

In Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano (1971), Feldman was thinking of CÚzanne, of painterly issues as they might apply to musical composition. The title is intentionally like the title of a still-life painting. In general, this work is considered a work in which he was returning to "flat textures" but I would venture that in the style of a still life, he has set the melodic work of Clarinet 1 and the Cello off as foreground materials against the flat textures provided by the other instruments.

A clarity of how and why he worked took some time to reveal itself both in his work and to Feldman himself. Although a student of Stefan Wolpe, Feldman was clearly heavily influenced by the work of Anton Webern. One hears the harmonic/melodic texture of Webern's music not only in many of the notated works within the following 2 years of Feldman's work - a period which includes the 4 Songs to e.e.cummings (1951) but to a large extent throughout Feldman's entire oeuvre. It is curious to note that as Feldman sorted through what Webern meant for him, he was also composing his "graph pieces" - in a sense the most free pieces which he composed and in every sense the antithesis of this music. Nevertheless, this period of working through Webern was to prove seminal in Feldman's artistic development. The 4 Songs to e.e. cummings (1951) for Soprano, Piano, Cello, with their extreme vocal demands, remind us firmly of Feldman's fascination with the surface of Webern's music.

4 Songs to e.e. cummings
(from 50 Poems(1940))

[Text of the poems omitted here]

Four Instruments (1965) for Chimes, Piano, Violin, Cello like The O'Hara Songs is composed utilizing Feldman's compositional/notational system wherein the players begin simultaneously but proceed at their own pace. In addition, Four Instruments and Between Categories, like the earlier Vertical Thoughts series, require the players to often listen carefully not only to the beginning and sustained parts of each note but also to play their next note just as another instrument is fading out. This is an extreme concentration upon the manner of beginning, sustaining and ending notes which no other composer has really explored. This resulting fragility in the moment of becoming, being and dying is the story in each sound which creates this very special music. Such an extreme focus by each player must of course be matched with attentive listening by the audience.

The O'Hara Songs (1962) for Bass-Baritone, Chimes, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, notated in the same manner as Intervals, never uses all the instruments simultaneously with the singer. Rather, Movement I uses only Violin and Cello with the Bass Baritone, while Movement II uses only Piano and Chimes with the Bass- Baritone and Movement III uses Solo Viola with the Bass-Baritone.

With regard to Frank O'Hara's poem, Feldman uses it in its entirety, without any repetitions of words or phrases in the outer movements, while the inner movement uses only 5 repetitions of single phrase of music/text: "Who'd have thought that snow falls". It is a poem of striking tenderness, again revealing something almost contradictory about the often gruff, bear-like Feldman to us.

The O'Hara Songs

[Text of the poem Wind by Frank O'Hara omitted here]

In a CD entitled Voices and Instruments, one might indeed have expected to hear one of the pair - or indeed all the works in the series Voice and Instruments (I or II) or Voices and Instruments (I or II). (Indeed, if space had permitted, I would have included one of these!) but I have chosen to title the album as such because, like his own "still-life" titles, this is a CD about voices and instruments - a collection of music which takes a careful look at exactly that - Voices and Instruments - enjoy yourself.


Note:

  1. Feldman was a composer who had every opportunity to publish anything he wanted through his contracts with C.F. Peters and Universal Edition (London). He chose not to publish some works, considered some works still student pieces and clearly wished to be judged by a certain published oeuvre. I think musicians should respect this decision. Now that his collected papers and manuscripts are deposited in the Sacher Foundation in Switzerland, the all too predictable pulling out works which Feldman had obviously chosen not to publish so that ensembles and festivals can have "premieres" has regrettably, already begun.

© James Fulkerson May 2001

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