Saturday, January 14, 2006

Rubato, Gut City-style

Sometimes it takes me a while to figure things out. Writing my last item about Morton Feldman, I might have solved a mystery that had been in my head for about 16 years. In the late eighties, the two central figures at Darmstadt* were Brian Ferneyhough and Morton Feldman, a pair that made absolutely no sense to me at the time. But in recognizing that an important quality in Feldman's music was the loss of the hard edge of discrete events, I could immediately hear that Ferneyhough was after much the same. In particular, part of Ferneyhough's project is the extension of the written-out rubato tradition to all parameters of music (I don't really believe in "parameters" myself as anything more than a useful metaphor, but that's my problem and something for another post) . I believe that this project can be heard as part of a tradition going back to Busoni, on the one hand (whose Bach transcriptions are absolutely all about removing the hard edge) and to Skryabin and the Skryabinistes, especially Wyschnegradsky, and the other.** I also think that this tradition has a lot to do with the sublimation of improvisation through notation (I don't believe in improvisation, either, but that's still another post), and from there you can get to some very mysterious connections. From Richard Barrett to free improvisation, for example. I once asked Ferneyhough about the relationship between Babbitt-style and Darmstadt-style serialism, and he said immediately that the European serialism was also about mysticism, something either not present or deeply sublimated in the Americans. (I do believe in the little man who blows out the light when you shut the refrigerator door, but I'll spare you a post on that one). A mystical aspect is present in Feldman's music, but one more to do with practice rather than belief. I think an appeal to Kabbala, as some writers have made, as a source of Feldman's technique, for example, is probably misplaced, but an appeal to the Orthodox practice of simultaneously reading scripture in subtly varying tempi , intonations, dynamics is getting close to the source of Feldman's music. He always stressed that writing music was a performance, and frequently mentioned some of his favorite painters in that connection. The ink-thick scores of Ferneyhough are performances, too, although quantity is a minor measure of quality in this business. I suppose, in the end, that the binding connection between Feldman and Ferneyhough is a search for subtlety. For Ferneyhough, the surface complexity is the means towards that subtlety, while Feldman had several techniques towards that end, sometimes even including surface complexity which he selected and applied with impressive efficiency.

And, yeah, an unreasonably impressive percentage of Feldman's pieces sound beautifully, but you know that already...
* Darmstadt, literally Gut City, town in South Hessen, and home to the biannual Summer Courses for New Music.
** Feldman had, of course, his own connections to Busoni and Skryabin, through his piano teacher Madame Press.


Mary Jane Leach said...

Sorry to ruin your "aha" moment about why Ferneyhough and Feldman were both featured, but the reason is much simpler - there were two sets of curators at Darmstadt. One was the artistic director at Darmstadt (or some such title). The other was the new music director at Hessicher Rundfunk (Ernst-Albrech Stiebler for a while). The Darmstadt director favored the more rigorous academic style, and HRF favored the more experimental, especially American composers. And the two sides were quite antagonistic to each other - there was a lot of booing and disrespect going around.

Daniel Wolf said...

I have to disagree: there was indeed a serious and spirited split among the participants in the course, but the management was committed to what they viewed as as a "pluralistic" approach to the course and there were a number of young composers who found themselves drawn to the music and personalities of both Feldman and Ferneyhough. The director, Friedrich Hommel, was always upfront about his personal enthusiasm for Ferneyhough but his invitations remained catholic and always included composers that did not fit easily with the "complexity" camp. In the end this policy may have meant that everyone was officially "equal" but Ferneyhough was "more equal" and computer music, for example (in the person of Clarence Barlow), was "less equal", but Feldman was never the least in these equations. In fact, in this scheme, Feldman played a key role, on the one hand perhaps as a fig leaf for the pluralism idea, but also because Hommel personally had both a musicological interest in Feldman (especially as a student of Wolpe) and held Feldman personally and musically in high esteem. This does not compensate much for his negative treatment of other experimentalists, but Feldman's position in the courses was definitely part of Hommel's program. After all, if he had been brought only by HR, he could have been easily shut out of the lecture series and famously, he was not.

Too, Ernstalbrecht Stiebler has indicated to me that had there been any serious objections from the side of the Ferienkurs leadership, programs could have been changed or HR could have simply not participated. HR support was -- and continues to be -- essential in supporting concerts that go beyond the tastes of the direction at Darmstadt, but it's impossible to say what would have happened had HR support been withdrawn.

In the courses immediately following the Feldman era (84-86), the fig leaf over the Ferneyhough hegemony became rather transparent, and the disadvantage for the experimentalists probably reached its zenith during the year that Walter Zimmermann moved his lecture to the farmhouse inn at Hundertmorgen in the Odenwald, south of Darmstadt. (That was also the year that Hauke Harder and I founded Material Press, and we handed out scores and pieces of Fotomaki on the steps of the Buchner School... but that's another story).

Mary Jane Leach said...

I was never there while Feldman was alive, so you may be right (and about the surface similarities - not superficial, surface, as well). Officially, the management was open, but the hostility to the HR curated composers was manifest among the participants. Of course, I may be biased, since I"m friends with Clarence Barlow, Walter Zimmerman, Musiktexte (Rheinhard Oelschlagel and Gisela Gronemeyer), and E-A Stiebler. They were trying to explain why the audience was booing Larry Polansky (who looked scared to death when it happened), and why people wouldn't go to hear Jim Tenney give a lecture (which was great, by the way). For some reason Feldman was performed a lot In Germany, certainly more than in the US, so perhaps he was that bridge at Darmstadt.