Morton Feldman

MORTON FELDMAN: The Viola in My Life; False Relationships and the Extended Ending; Why Patterns?

The music on this recording illustrates the essential integrity of the work of Morton Feldman and one of its fundemental strengths - its continuously unfolding unanimity of purpose. There are few composers of his generation whose first and last published work (in Feldman's case Journey to the End of Night of 1949 and Piano and String Quartet of 1986) span youth and final years with such a concentrated viewpoint.

There are, however, landmarks in the music of Feldman that are largely technical and notational. There are the graphic pieces, the first from 1950 and the last from 1964, in which some parameter of composition is not specified (often pitch). There are the “free duration pieces,” both solo and ensemble, in which there is instruction either for sections of the piece or for its entirety. False Relationships and the Extended Ending (1968) is a late example of this kind, although Why Patters? (1978) is a variant of the principle. There are also the conventionally notated works in his oeuvre, one of which is The Viola in My Life.

Feldman wrote Why Patter n s? for himself to play with Eberhard Blum, flute(s), and Jan Williams, glockenspiel. The score consists of three completely notated but metrically unaligned parts. Theoretically one could say the notation is thus fixed, but in playing the piece many times one discovers a fair degree of latitude concerning vertical coincidence. The musical material consists largely of differentiated, overlapping ostinatos - hence the title. Originally the piece concluded when the last player completed his part. This player was always Feldman, not only because the piano part is the longest but also because he invariably played the slowest. The present ending (the vertically aligned pulsing with the glockenspiel playing a descending chromatic scale) was added after the first performance.

One of the mysteries of Why Patterns? and False Relationships and the Extended Ending, piecesin which two groups of instruments (Violin-trombone-piano and cello-two pianos-chimes) go their separate ways, is how Feldman manages to maintain his sense of harmonic control given the flexibility of alignment. I can only begin to suggest an answer to this question by pointing out two characteristic solutions. One is to reiterate a tone in a fixed register for the entire duration of the piece. Though the tone is constantly recombined in many formations, it achieves primacy by virtue of its constancy. In False Relationships and the Extended Ending this tone is E-flat/D-sharp, a minor tenth above middle C. Another way is to stratify the instruments throughout different registers so as to make clear the independence of their voice-leading. This technique reduces intervallic tension, and such stratification is handled with great virtuosity in Why Patterns?

If I regard The Viola in My Life as the exceptional work on this recording, it is because it (along with the same-titled piece for viola and orchestra, and Rothko Chapel of 1971) is the only composition where Feldman equivocates for his oeuvre's absence of the traditional concepts of contrast and development.

There is in this music a `melos' unusual for Feldman - groups of notes that are quite rhapsodic. In Rothko Chapel,the viola concludes the piece with a melody written when the composer was fifteen, a modal cantilena that would not be out of place in the music of Ernst Bloch. The end of The Viola in My Life 2 also shares this quality. There is a decidedly tonal, even diatonic nature to this melodic writing. It would take a whole book to discuss Feldman's pitch relations, but suffice it to say that there is certainly no other composer of his prominence in the post-war avant-garde who had such an imperial unconcern for the quick rotation of the twelve tones. I think Feldman retained some vestige of the diatonic-chromatic division of older music that would make sense when discussing, for example, the last movement of Brahms' First Symphony and Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. I would go further to say that the diatonic, tonal passages in his music are associated with expressions of loss that are highly personal in character. Feldman himself tells us that the soprano melody towards the end of Rothko Chapel (E, D, A, C) was written the day of Stravinsky's funeral. Then there is the opening and closing of the four-hour long For Philip Guston (1984), which is the most autobiographical music of Feldman's life.

Feldman often spoke of his intention to create in music the sonorous equivalent of the “flat surface” present in the work of contemporary American painters who he admired and knew so well; in particular, Mark Rothko and Philip Guston. Throughout his music, there is an awareness instrumentally and texturally of composite sound. The role of instruments is to contribute unique timbres for the sake of unity. Seldom is Schoenberg's concern for hauptstimee/nebenstimme (primary voice/secondary voice) evident. For this reason, the viola's relief against other instruments in The Viola in My Life is remarkable.

The search for a musical flat surface led Feldman to explore very subtle differentiations in the speech and interaction of instruments. This is one reason why most of his music is quite soft; it is only at low dynamics that seemingly contradictory timbres (as in False Relationships and the Extended Ending) can achieve a union. He was fond of the expression “room noise,” which are the ambient sounds made by and during musical performance, when describing his orchestration. Feldman's percussion writing in particular, like the drum and timpani sounds in The Viola in My Life 1, is a form room noise not unlike Ives' concept of “shadow counterpoint.”

Feldman was after something that had never before been attempted in music: the utilization of the widest possible vocabulary of tonal and instrumental combinations unconfused by polyphonic, dynamic, or sequential alternation/interruption. Not for him the fabulous interplay of parts in Boulez. Not for him the gnomic succession of sound and silence in Cage. Not for him the architectural cathedrals of Ligeti. Feldman's music is exceedingly straightforward in its procedure. Choose a sound, then another, and follow this example without recourse to events that would imply an opposition. By and large, this was Feldman's technique throughout his life.

It may be that Feldman's music will always strike a certain kind of listener as idiosyncratic - a denial of the time-honored ways in which music articulates itself. I think that Feldman was deeply offended by this response, by this notion that his music was singular because it was, as some might say, “missing something.” Though it is true that his values of graduation can be exceedingly fine, when one enters this scale and comprehends it, something truly new and wonderful opens up in the art of music - a world in which the relative and the absolute become engaged with themselves.

- Nils Vigeland

The Viola in My Life

Producer: Carter Harman. Recorded by David Hancock at CAMI Hall, NYC on December 7, 1970. Published by C.F. Peters (BMI).

False Relationships and the Extended Ending

Producer: Carter Harman. Recorded by David Hancock at Judson Hall, NYC on June 8, 1970. Published by Universal Editions, London (BMI). Original recordings were made possible by an annual award of the American Academy-National Institute of Arts & Letters, which Mr. Feldman won in 1970.

Why Patterns?

Producer: Carter Thomas. Recorded by Thomas Swift at the State University College, Freedonia, New York on December 17, 1978. Published by Universal Editions, London (BMI).

Executive Producer: Joseph R. Dalton

Art Direction/Production: Brian Conley.

Cover Art & Design: Bernard Hallstein.

Digitally remastered by Joseph R. Dalton and Tim Tiedemann, engineer, at Sony Classical Productions, Inc. NYC using the DCS 900 20-bi a/d converter.