Morton Feldman

Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Morton Feldman – Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety

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To begin the final week of my Lent Series, i’m turning to a curious little miniature by Morton Feldman. Composed in 1970, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety is a work for a small, unusual ensemble of 2 flutes, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, celesta, bells, 2 cellos and 2 double basses. The titular dedicatee, Vera Maurina-Press, was in fact Feldman’s childhood piano teacher (from the age of 12), about whom he spoke very affectionately in a short essay from the early 1960s: “It was because of her – only, I think, because she was not a disciplinarian – that I was instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship.” And a decade later, his warmth for her remained strong: “Radical composer, they say. But you see I have always had this big sense of history, the feeling of tradition, continuity. With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni and thus with Liszt. . . . They are not dead.”

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New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin

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It’s been good to get back to the plethora of new releases that have have found their way to my door in recent weeks and months. While i don’t like to make spurious connections between disparate pieces of music, i’ve been fascinated at the way various composers explore the interplay between what we might call the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. In Morton Feldman‘s 1976 ‘Beckett trilogy’—comprising Orchestra for orchestra, Elemental Procedures for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra and Routine Investigations for six players, released together on a CD from Wergo titled Beckett Material—this interplay manifests itself, as it so often does in his work, in the implications of a tension between the aurally deliberate and coincidental. In Orchestra, for example, we hear a collection of seemingly disjointed bursts of material, brief slivers of ideas, as though Feldman had extracted a load of ‘salient points’ from a host of sources and strung them together. The result is music that constantly seems significant yet what it signifies is moot, continually reconfigured by context. In tandem with this is one’s perception of what constitutes a ‘connection’ between ideas, prompting a continual reappraisal of whether imitation and continuity are actually taking place or are imagined by-products of Feldman’s placement of materials. This extends even to something as simple as a melody; a recurring idea in all three pieces involves the irregular cycling of a small group of pitches that at first appear melodic but soon seem either arbitrary or subject to a more unpredictable type of permutation. Read more

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New releases: Stefan Fraunberger, Michael Moser, Morton Feldman, John Wall

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Easily the most sonically remarkable new release to have passed through the jukebox in the last month or so is Quellgeister #2 ‘Wurmloch’ by the Austrian sound artist Stefan Fraunberger. This ongoing series of works (#1 came out two years ago, #3 is in progress) focuses on what Fraunberger summarises as “semi-ruined organs discovered in deserted Saxon churches in Transylvania”. Precisely what he does with these dilapidated organs isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that of a Frankenstein-like in extremis battle to resurrect the instrument and enable it, for one final time, to speak. Aural narratives really don’t come more stunningly heroic than this. Having wheezed into life, the organ’s reanimated corpse unleashes barrages of chords that constantly sound unnaturally forced, only sustaining as long as its innards are being ‘squeezed’ (try singing a note for far too long and you’ll get the idea). Weird tangential pitches and upper harmonics regularly bleach these chords, even occasionally suggesting there’s a melody trying to escape from beyond the grave; elsewhere the struggle (for both man and machine) becomes so intense that vast dissonant slabs of compressed noise erupt. On the one hand, it’s shambolic and desperate, but there’s an uncanny beauty both to Fraunberger’s seemingly absurd actions and to the, frankly, amazing results. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Morton Feldman – Piano Four Hands

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Not everything performed at HCMF is brand new, yet there are occasions when it feels as though one’s hearing a familiar piece for the first time. This happened last year with Morton Feldman‘s Piano Four Hands, a work that dates back over half a century, composed in 1958. One of a series of works experimenting with notation and interaction that Feldman composed during this period, it’s a piece that had hitherto left me entirely cold, a response that, having heard it in a variety of interpretations, i’d assumed must be something to do with Piano Four Hands itself. That belief was overturned on 25 November 2014, when Philip Thomas and John Tilbury began their afternoon concert with the piece, and finally everything coalesced. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Shorts, Feldman’s Pianos, asamisimasa

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Yesterday was HCMF’s annual day of ‘Shorts’, concerts of between 20 and 40 minutes, affording the opportunity to hear an exceptionally diverse range of music. Taken as a whole, it’s a cross between an Aladdin’s cave and one of those machines with the grappling hook that you find in amusement arcades: you’re not really sure what you’ll get, but every now and again it’s something really special. Among the highlights was guitarist Diego Castra Magaš‘ rendition of Michael Finnissy‘s Nasiye, a passionate work that transmits both dignity and authenticity, the Kurdish folk music that inspired it running like a thread throughout, movingly brought to the surface in its intense closing climax. Double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister gave a stunning account of two pieces by Catalonian composer Joan Arnau Pàmies, the latter of which, [k(d_b)s], set about forging a new musical language from scratch, de-coupling performance parameters and working with them independently; it began sounding like a swarm of bees angrily trying to sting their way out of a jiffy bag, but where it went from there is impossible to describe—suffice to say it was truly remarkable, and the same goes for Schulmeister’s performance, turning an ostensibly ungainly instrument into a writhing white-hot crucible. Read more

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Morton Feldman – The Swallows of Salangan (European Première)

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One of the most beguiling and enigmatic premières i’ve encountered in recent times took place at Birmingham’s Frontiers Festival in March, heard for the first time outside the USA no fewer than 54 years after its composition. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for this considerable feat of procrastination; Morton Feldman‘s The Swallows of Salangan lasts a mere nine minutes, and even though the instrumentation is unusual—a chorus, plus 5 flutes (4 regular, 1 alto), 5 trumpets, 2 tubas, 2 pianos, 2 vibraphones and 7 cellos—it’s not something that would tax any established ensemble or orchestra. There must be another reason for such lackadaisicality, and one can’t help wondering whether it has more than a little to do with the nature of the music itself; i described it ‘beguiling and enigmatic’, but there’s equally a kind of aloof impenetrability that one can imagine many listeners might find not merely unappealing but downright off-putting. Yet if knees can be convinced to bend rather than jerk, there are—as always with Feldman—strange and unfamiliar rewards aplenty to be found. Read more

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