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Programme Notes by James Fulkerson
This programme grows out of a request from Norway for The Barton Workshop to do a Morton Feldman concert in a festival there. The idea to do a programme of music by Feldman raises a number of interesting questions - more difficult than the desire to do a single piece of Feldman which is often determined, rightly or wrongly, by the available instrumentation. My personal question was, "What is worth doing as a whole programme, what is really worth traveling to hear?" My response was that it needed to be something really special - by this very special composer. A programme of many works can have the problem that everything "glazes over" and becomes indistinguishable within a spectrum of sound which Feldman has created with his body of work. And yet ... this music is not at all "all the same". My response was finally to show the three pieces for viola which form also part of a larger whole - arguably the four completed parts to The Viola in My Life form a modern concerto for the viola. The fourth part is, in fact, for viola and orchestra which makes the whole project beyond our means - but perhaps the listener is going to be encouraged to seek out a performance of the final part. The were uncompleted sketches for The Viola in My Life, Part 5 left in Feldman's papers now kept in the Sacher Foundation in Switzerland. The sketches were not extensive enough to tell us what that part might really have become.
The Viola in My Life, composed for the violist in his life at that time, Karen Phillips, is unusual in Feldman's output in that it represents a major departure from his attempt to define a "flat surface" in his music. The very soft dynamics requested by Feldman sought to create a canvas in which musical colors were sufficiently blurred so as to confuse the listener as to what the instrument was actually playing similar to the technique in painting of washed water coloring. The viola is heard to make slight crescendos out of the flat texture - forming a solo line as a result. It however goes beyond that at times and actually plays melodies - most unusual in the whole output of Feldman. These melodic fragments appear throughout all four parts of the "concerto" implying a unity to the whole set of works which can be comprehended and considered by the listener.
As I was leaving New York to take a position as a composer-in-residence in Berlin for a year, Morty and I spent an evening together during which I asked him what he doing at the moment. He replied, "I'm writing melodies, BIG MELODIES!, PUCCINI - LIKE MELODIES!" I confess my mind boggled at such a thought - but the works were, in fact, The Viola in My Life series. Indeed, they were big melodies.
The second half of the concert is the final completed work by Feldman, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello from 1987. This work is part of the longer duration works which characterized his last period of composition. Indeed, like most of the other works, this can performed as an entire concert in itself - although I feel our appreciation of it benefits by the placement of the viola works in the first half of the concert. While Feldman eschewed melodic writing and a conventional musical rhetoric, he nevertheless created a continuum of awareness - an awareness of the listener herself/himself and their existence and a sense of the moment which often revolved around a simple questioning process: given a sound or chord - what follows - sound or silence, if sound the same one or a different one, if different, how different? (would some notes of the chord be the same, played by the same instrument or a different one, or would that chord appear in an inversion, for instance). The moment to moment questioning process is the basic process by which Feldman's music creates a consciousness of itself, the listener and the composer.
In later works Feldman became interested in patterns of reiteration - of repetition. Sometimes this placing of patterns is independent of the other instruments (Bass Clarinet and Percussion, Why Patterns?, or Crippled Symmetry) and sometimes, as in tonight's work it is coupled with the whole or within groups (the piano versus the string players). Feldman became a collector of eastern rugs during this period of interest in reiteration/repetition.
The interesting quality in Feldman's work is that while eschewing many of the primary factors of the musical experience - melody, contrast - he nevertheless created a rhetoric which enabled him to compose musical works on the scale of Tolstoy's War and Peace. What has become apparent to me during our current set of performances of the nearly 5 hour, For Philip Guston is that he has renounced earlier concerns for beauty and balance with his materials and has chosen to speak to us of the experience of the passing of time and our existence within time.
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