Friday, January 13, 2006

Feldman's 80th

The first performance of Morton Feldman's String Quartet and Piano (played by Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet during New Music America 1985 in Los Angeles at the LA County Museum of Art) remains a totally vivid experience for me. I can still play back long passages of that piece with some precision at the piano, although I've never heard a second performance. (I went to that concert with my father. The first part of the afternoon was spent together at a USC football game, the second part at that concert. Both the composer and my father fell asleep during the concert.)

Later, during two months spent in San Diego in early 1987, I got to know Feldman a bit. He was guest teaching at UCSD, and I ran into him and his companion Barbara Monk in the music library. I introduced myself, mentioning Wesleyan (where I was dissertating) and he enthusiastically recalled that "there's a pianist there -- he plays like a philosopher" and then invited me to sit in on his seminar, which I did, in violation of all bureaucratic propriety. The philospher-pianist he mentioned was Jon Barlow, both a fine musician and an astonishing musical mind.

Although this was only a few months before his death, Feldman looked great -- he was slimmer, smoke-free, dressed for Southern California weather, and would happily dash down to dinner at the Hotel del Coronado with Barbara after his UCSD duties were done. Then he'd fly back to Buffalo for the rest of the week. He held forth in the seminar in his best style, although I suspect that the students disappointed him; they just didn't know enough -- or care enough about -- the musical repertoire that he valued most. A reference to Schubert or Scelsi or Delius would just drop like a iron.

I am second-hand witness to a couple of Feldman anecdotes I'd like to share, with the caveat that they are second-hand, and I'll be delighted to correct them if need be.

The two anecdotes take place at one of those legendary cocktail parties. At one , thinking that Feldman was out of earshot, a young composer said to a friend: "Morton Feldman? But he's so boring!" Feldman was, in fact, in earshot, and immediately sprang into the conversation, tapping the young composer on the chest with his forefinger, saying: "You, sir, should be so boring". At another party, Feldman made a personel offer to Milton Babbitt, speaking as one team owner to another: "We'll trade you Charlotte Moorman for Ben Boretz", a perfect exchange of each team's most embarassing public exponent.

One aspect of Feldman's music that strikes me as particularly valuable is his constant search for practical, technical means to remove the edge from discrete events. Low dynamics, the coarse pitch selection of the graph pieces, independent durations or tempi, metrically non-alligned scores, alternative note spellings -- such devices conspire to shade the music away from black and white towards a continuum of grays. The parallels to the techniques used by his favorite rug makers are obvious. There is always a grid of some sort, the verticals on the loom are like Feldman's pre-drawn barlines on his scores, and the single tones, like single threads, are discrete events, but subtleties of timing, color, distance transcend that grid. Too, with Feldman's scores, like those rugs, one is always aware that the score at hand is itself a performance, and, as unique as that performance may be, that it belongs intimately to a repertoire.

Ron Kuivila once told me that Feldman thought of his own position in music history as "nudging Debussy". I believe that now, especially with the local and universal qualities of Debussy's achievement made clearer by historical distance, Feldman's own self-asessment is a reasonable one.

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