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A Note on "The King of Denmark"

by Steven Schick

The following programme note was written to accompany the concert series "Three Nights of Percussion" given in New York in 1998.

In many ways, The King of Denmark is an anti-percussion piece. It is to be played very softly using only the hand and fingers - no sticks or mallets. Its notation on a graph indicates how many sounds are to be played per beat and whether they are to be in high, medium, or low registers. Even though a tempo runs throughout, no rhythmic coherence emerges. Sounds simply float out, detached and weightless. One instrument has no more sonic gravity than another does. A small bell weighs the same - takes up the same acoustical space - as a large gong. An auditory illusion follows: close your eyes and you can imagine that the instruments are being played at their natural volumes. They are sounds in many different loudnesses, but they are being heard from different distances. The gong is really forte but it is heard from the distance of fifty yards. It sounds as soft as the little bell six inches from your ear. Mirages of distance appear and evaporate again into music. It is like rain or the sound of rain.

These illusions come from Feldman's love of the pulsating but rhythmically directionless canvases of Mark Rothko and other American Abstract Expressionists. Directionlessness is key here. The King of Denmark is music that refuses to dictate the way it should be perceived. It does not light a particular way nor lead you by the ear like an angry headmaster along a corridor of preferred comprehension. It simply floats in timeless ether to be looked at from any angle, any proximity, any point of view. Samuel Beckett, writing much later, in 1975, with no particular thought towards Feldman, comes closest to the heart of the King of Denmark:

"only dust and not a sound only what was it it said come and gone was that it something like that come and gone come and gone no one come and gone in no time gone in no time." [from That Time (1975)]

© 1998 Steven Schick

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