As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline and restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focused (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.
Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet and the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre and technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch and octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in and out with rounded edges.
The opening episode is typical of the piece as a whole, the clarinet placing solitary notes within a narrow pitch space, the interval from one to the next typically a semitone (a significant interval throughout the piece) and never more than a tone; different altitudes of pitch space are explored, but this only seems to accentuate the clarinet’s cramped melodic movement, even more so as, despite some occasional large leaps between registers, its manner remains defiantly neutral. Around this, the percussion at first form a kind of aureole from soft, overlapping suspended cymbal rolls, and later imitate the clarinet’s notes with tremolandi on a marimba. What’s particularly interesting is the relationship between the two voices; while the bass clarinet initially seems dominant, there soon develops a distinct sense of back and forth between it and the percussion, one being motivated (if that’s the right word) by the other. At times this interaction becomes especially important, as in the second episode where the clarinet plays a downward chromatic scale to the accompaniment of vacant marimba clusters; both parts seem indefatigably ‘blank’, yet their rhythmic toing and froing is anything but. One senses a blurring of whether the relationship between the voices is sympathetic or antagonistic; there are times where the clarinet seems determined to disrupt any ‘unison’ attempted by the marimba, resulting in emphatic semitone and major seventh clashes. Elsewhere, it’s hard to know who (if either) is being the more obdurate in lengthy passages where both voices play the same note or motif or chord again and again. On the other hand, the work’s culmination finds both clarinet and percussion giving a semblance of cooperation, twin drum rolls blending surprisingly well with the bass clarinet’s isolated closing notes.
The pervading air of solemnity and unyielding nonchalance in Feldman’s late music can take some getting used to, but the more time one spends with it, the clearer it becomes that something unique is going on, very much more than the notes being played. The space and the simplicity of the music combine to create a kind of contemplative space, and while it’s arguably futile to search for ‘drama’ (or even ‘inner logic’) in music like this, the quiddity of the material, for all its ostensible expressive remoteness, somehow heightens one’s own sensibilities. It may not be emotional or spiritual music per se, but what it opens one up to, as well as the response it elicits, is both of those things.
This performance was given by members of the ensemble Plus-Minus at a concert at Kings Place in London last October.