Friday, May 02, 2008

More Practical: Feldman

One large omission from the last post was the name of Morton Feldman. Feldman's notational practice was at once a very efficient means of achieving a form of ensemble complexity and paradoxical in its relationship between clarity of means and ambiguity of ends. Whether in the scores written on graph paper or the later works in which he drew all the barlines in advance of composing the music that would fill (or empty) those bars, he was setting up a rigid notational grid, the bars of which he could then proceed to dissolve, whether in terms of pitch (in the graph pieces) or time (in the later works).

I believe that one aspect of Feldman's musical sensibility was shared with the Skryabinistes,* if not inherited directly by Feldman via his piano teacher, Madame Press, who had been personally associated with Skryabin, and that is an emphasis on rubato, and a very broadly conceived rubato at that. But not only a rubato in terms of time, but also pitch (whether in the graph scores or in the later pieces with their finicky accidentals), and possibly, in the long works, with form.

In the later works, and especially the series of pieces for small ensemble (combinations of flutes, piano, percussion, often including celeste doubling) beginning with Why Patterns?), although the barlines go straight through the ensembles on the page, the individual measure in each individual line were often assigned different metres by Feldman thus erasing any simple vertical coordination. Feldman was able to work with vertical relationships on the page that would in turn be shattered and scattered, both back and forth, in the real time of a performance. The result is an ensemble texture that is polyphonic -- in the sense used by systematic musicology -- but not of an historic polyphonic sensibility, and -- again like Skryabin, who beat Schoenberg to this -- a tonal practice in which vertical and horizontal distinctions are unclear if not entirely irrelevant.
* Skyrabin's is a ghost-like presence and influence over much later 20th century music. Three important Skryabinistes who emigrated to France were Arthur-Vincent Lourié, Nicolay Oboukhov and Ivan Wïschnegradsky. Lourié is considered the first musical futurist, and after his departure from the Soviet Union, would make connections to Busoni and Stravinsky. Oboukhov, almost unknown, was a decided mystic, developed an idiosynchratic tonal system which, at least in part, was based upon a non-serial manipulation of twelve tone sets, composed for a Theremin-like electronic instrument, "La Croix Sonore, and devoted most of his energies to a large orchestral and vocal work titled The Book of Life. Wischnegradsky's contacts with Messiaen and Boulez -- largely written out of eithers' biographies, like the quartertones in Boulez's original version of Le Visage Nuptial -- deserve more attention.

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