As an addendum to the post below, Kyle Gann has put his entire lecture online, including several of the score examples that he used.  This lecture is definitely worth reading for the Feldman devotee and it is no coincidence that I spent the bulk of the below post on this lecture. Read it here on Kyle’s blog.

Rothko at SAMAfter the lecture ended I had about 45 minutes before the performance. The museum cafe was packed, so I headed out for lunch.  I went to a local Japanese restaurant and had a decent lunch of Udon noodles and sushi.  I made it back to SAM about ten minutes before the performance to find a lengthy line at the admission counter.  Clearly I should have bought a ticket before I went for lunch but I didn’t even think that there’d be this sort of crowd. Turned out that most of them were there for the Gates of Paradise exhibit which I was informed had an hour wait.  No problem, as I was going to the contemporary gallery to see Feldman performed amongst twentieth century abstract expressionism.

Due to the line I ended up in the gallery about 1:35, five minutes after the published start time. They were already playing so I imagine they must have started within a few minutes of the published time and so I missed a couple of minutes.  They were setup in the middle of the gallery, amongst a couple of abstract metal sculptures.  There were a dozen or so chairs but most patrons were standing or sitting on the floor.  I found a spot where I could see the performers pretty well and staked out some floorspace. From where I sat I could see the above Rothko (or one very similar) just behind the piano. To my left was an early Pollock that I quite liked, it looked almost like a bluish gray piece of sandpaper, but with incredible details at closer view.  A stunning black and gray piece whose painter I forget was my view to the right.  Not bad surroundings for an afternoon of music.

People of course freely wandered in an out of the gallery, perhaps watching the performers for a perhaps moving right on. A low murmur from the gallery crowd was always present as were more dramatic interjections of random cell phone jingles, kids and scraps of conversation from those just outside the gallery.  Personally this didn’t bother me too much, I have come to accept all sounds and in some cases it was a nice juxtaposition. But I can understand the argument of wanted a more focused environment, especially as Feldman is so rarely performed in Seattle.  The hall below where the lectures were held would have been a great venue for this, with better acoustics and of course less external noises.  The more major downside for me was three and a half hours sitting on a wooden floor.

Morton Feldman Marathon performed by the Seattle Chamber Players
The Third Floor galleries, Seattle Art Museum

Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981, ~15min)
This was the piece that was in progress when I entered the gallery and secured some floorspace.  Not one I’ve heard before and really a pretty interesting piece, in terms of instrumentation alone. Feldman always had a pretty adversarial relationship to percussion and when he used it, it was often completely against traditional percussion techniques. Always low volume, he used a lot of shimmering sounds and usually pitched percussion. This piece was all cymbals and gongs for the percussion instruments all played softly and in such a way that the fit right in with the repeated low tones of the bass clarinet.

Nature Pieces (1951, ~15min)
A guest performer with the Seattle Chamber Players was Ivan Sokolov on the piano. He had just played a diverse program in the Chapel the week before and here he played almost every piece.  A really nice player, I wouldn’t say he compares to my favorite Feldman interpreters but his playing was impeccable. Nature Pieces, as I mentioned in the lectures post, was receiving its first US performance on the restored score.  This piece jumped around and was quite different in each of its seven parts. Definitely in the vein of his other earlier pieces it lacks much of the features that people associate with Feldman. It even had a section where Ivan was pounding at the piano — easily the loudest section of the program.  This was another Feldman piece I hadn’t heard and it was again interesting and rewarding.

For Franz Kline (1962, ~15min)
This piece is scored for cello, violin, percussion, piano/celeste, French horn and solo soprano. Little sounds just sparkle out into the air in this piece. The percussion is exclusively chimes, which along with the wordless sing of the soprano gives this almost a sacred weight. The French horn adds an interesting texture to this piece, as per the other instruments its sounds are projected into the space, but its tonalities are quite different from the other instruments and add a richness to this piece. The strings are almost continuo like, add accompaniment though of course not ever present as continuo would be.  Another nice piece, again one I hadn’t heard before and I really enjoyed the different sonorities.

Piano piece (to Philip Guston) (1963, ~5 min)
The shortest piece on the program at only about five minutes, it has much more the feel of Feldman’s longer piano pieces. That is it is short phrases allowed to decay before the next one comes in. Unlike the other piano pieces of this era, it doesn’t feel like a graph paper composition, it seems through composed like the later works. Rather melancholy it does make one wonder what aspect of Philip Guston that was for.

De Kooning (1963, 15min)
This piece scored for French horn, percussion, piano, violin didn’t seem too far off from For Franx Kline. The absence of the cello did make the string seem less like an accompaniment and singular dry tones from the violin came into the space. This piece (if I recall correctly) was the one where there was an actual drum played by the percussionist but it was super soft malletting on the drums. Again the horn was of the French variety which both stood out and yet complimented the other instrumentation. Another nice piece that this performance was my initial exposure to it.

Spring of Chosroes (1977, 15″)
A large amount of my favorite Feldman is his piano based works. The late solo piano is probably my favorite of all, but I love the pieces that add another instrument (or more) to the piano. This piece, again one I’d yet to hear, was for violin and piano and I have to say was really nice.  Almost like a sketch for the much longer For John Cage, the combination of Feldman’s attack free violin combined with the ethereal floating piano sounds is one of my favorite combinations. Getting to hear a number of these middle period Feldman pieces that I hadn’t heard before was an added bonus for this concert.

Crippled Symmetry (1983, ~1’15)
I have a recording of the California EAR Unit’s performance of this piece and so I knew that this was the one piece of longish duration that they’d be playing. Scored for flute, piano/celeste and percussion this piece, especially because of this instrumentation really places bright little twinkles of sound into the space.  The percussion is all mallet percussion; vibes, glockenspiel and chimes and the flute alternates between normal and bass flutes. When the pianist is playing celeste the sounds are all in this metallic, upper register and it is almost cold, like music from space. During this performance the music critics Alex Ross and Kyle Gann both stretched out on the floor right in front of me. As I so often play Feldman when I go to bed at night I find that an understandable impulse. Overall I found the experience if listening to a piece for well over an hour to be very rewarding. It really is a suspension of time, the sounds run in these long, slow patterns to long, too slow for one to fully grasp or even really understand except in flashes as one repeated phrase seems to evoke something you think you heard before. The piece ends with with this long repeated note from the percussionist and during this the flute and then piano ended. Finally there is a series of repeated phrases on the glockenspiel that ends the piece. Absolutely stunning and definitely the highlight of the performance.

During this piece the museum crowd seemed to thin out a lot and there was a lot less ambient noise then during the bulk of the proceeding pieces. At the end of this there was a lot of applause and people standing up perhaps in ovation perhaps just in dire need to stand up!

Palais de Mari (1986, 20min)
Ivan, after so much playing already, came back almost immediately for the final piece. But the crowd hadn’t settled down when he started playing and didn’t seem to notice for a while. But eventually they faded away and the sedate tones of this solo piano piece were allowed to fill the now much emptier space.  I am more familiar with this piece then any other on the program  due to my love of John Tilbury’s All Piano set.  While not as stunning a piece as the epic For Bunita Marcus and Triadic Memories, this is still a wonderful piece and Ivan did a very nice performance of it. Given how much he’d already played it was pretty amazing to me that he was able to still have the patience and presence to play this as it should, with each note allowed to die out before the next one comes in. A really nice way to conclude the afternoons performance and a piece I’m happy to have seen live.

The concert ending about 4:45pm and I figured I’d have a chance to check out the paintings in the gallery. They then announced the museum would be closing in fifteen minutes! I was rather bummed about this, but obviously nothing I could. I did a quite survey of the contemporary galleries and determined that I’d definitely need to return and give this some real time. There was paintings by Duchamp, Guston, de Kooining, a couple Rothkos, the aforementioned Pollock, a Rauschenberg, a Calder sculpture and four Cornell boxes along with intriguing unknown to me painters.  I’ll definitely be back.

MortyYesterday was the Seattle Chamber Players Morton Feldman Marathon at the Seattle Art Museum and it was indeed an all day affair.  I arrived at SAM downtown about five minutes before 10 am (after finding free parking only a few blocks away) and though the museum doesn’t open till ten they were letting people in for the lecture.  The lecture hall wasn’t very full so I was able to take my pick of seats. Kyle Gann, Alex Ross, Elena Dubinets and some tech guys were just to my right and were working out some details for the program. They weren’t going to start for fifteen minutes or so, so as usual I was early.  But start they did with, after some introductions and thanks (and even an oddly bombastic trailer for an upcoming SAM exhibit) the lectures began

Feldman and the Artists
Though the title of the lecture series was Feldman and the Artists there wasn’t actually too much specifically about this subject. The usual mention of the artists that were close associates (Guston, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Pollock and so on). The first lecture was by Kyle Gann and his focus was on Feldman’s innovations. He listed four aspects of Feldman’s work that separated him from the other composers of the day. This are: Dynamics (which is soft), Duration (which is long), Intuition (freedom from system (see also here)) and Notation (which is subversive). Gann’s perspective on this was pretty interesting, he had met Feldman been at lectures and performances of his when he was not too well known beyond his association with John Cage. He was at a lecture where Rothko Chapel was performed and he said this was the first piece of Feldman’s that seemed outside of the influence of Cage. A transitory work really in that it was the first step toward what we would really associate with Feldman and one he quickly stepped past.

The innovations of Feldman Gann argued have influenced almost all of the current generation to the degree that the level of Feldman’s influence is almost immeasurable.  The Post-Minimalists in particular, they took Feldman’s narrow focus (always soft dynamics) and would focus on one thing. The issue of duration has become so tilted toward the direction of longer works that is is shorter works that are met with skepticism. Finally on notation Gann spent some real time and put up some examples from scores to illustrate this. He pointed out that even beyond the graph paper scores, within so called traditional notation, Feldman’s scores were inherently subversive. He’d have say three parts in three staves but they’d be timed such or use instructions to the point that they wouldn’t be synchronized. And yet he’d put in features of the score that would make the players think as if they were. For instance one part had two tied notes for one instrument and between those would be a downbeat by another instrument. However those notes from the second instrument would not ever actually occur right at that point. The point of this, Gann argued, was that Feldman was psychologically manipulating the performer to add nuance to performance. A good bit of the issues of this part of the lecture were raised in this post on Gann’s blog. Some great stuff in the comments as well.

After Gann’s lecture the artistic director for the Seattle Chamber Players, Elena Dubinets, took the stage. She focused on Feldman’s Graph Paper scores and how he developed this technique. She has done serious research into the Zucker Archive in Zurich Switzerland which apparently is the largest archive of Feldman’s papers. It includes a large amount of unpublished material as well as early versions of many of his scores. She also looked into the Tudor archives at the Getty in LA as Tudor was the original performer for so much of Feldman’s material from the fifties and sixties. She had several interesting slides where she demonstrated how Feldman tried to get to the concepts used in the Graph Paper scores but on traditional staff notation. In this case the staves are misleading as the “notes” only indicate relative pitch and not specific notes which are left up to the player. So while his famous anecdote of coming up with the graph paper notations while waiting for Cage to cook up some wild rice is probably true it is clear that he more accurately found a format for existing ideas.

Elena also spent some time going over the history of the Nature Pieces. This  had only been performed once by David Tudor as part of a dance piece. The score wasn’t published until fairly recently and it seemed at odds with the dance piece and some stated information about. For instance the score was in 5 parts where there clearly was 7 listed. By digging around the Getty Tudor Archive Elena found Tudor’s original performance score which had the seven parts and in different order as well. So this restored score was going to get its first performance in the US tonight. Overall Elena’s lecture was quite interesting with lots of examples of Feldman’s compositional techniques and the development of these over time. The information in the Zucker archive really needs to be published. Elena has written a book about but so far it is only in Russian and there is no plan for translation at the moment.

The final lecture was from Alex Ross and he focused more and Feldman’s place in twentieth century composition.  While I’m a ardent follower of his blog and quite enjoyed his book, The Rest is Noise, this lecture was the least interesting of the three.  It also should have been first as it was much more of an overview then the other two. Also I tend to think that it displayed what is perhaps the main criticism I have of his book: he seems to prefer the post-romantic music of the 20th century and thus he works overly hard to fit Feldman into his subset of “outsider” composers. He made the statement that Feldman is the last, the absolute last romantic. But I think this in an inaccurate assement, based more so on his emotional responses as opposed to Feldmans. There is no grand gesture in Feldmans music, no restrictions in tonality, no emphasis on virtuosity, no wearing of emotions on his sleeve.  Sure one can find romantic elements here and there, I suspect you could of even the most ardent modernist, but it is really stretching to put Feldman in this tradition. In his own way he subverted, reacted against and was actively opposed to “the canon”.  Gann’s enunciations of how Feldman “innovated” I think stand in direct contrast to this position.

Ross began by connecting Feldman with a tradition of west coast composers from Cowll, through Partch to Cage that eventually led to the minimalists. Familiar again to anyone who has read his book, this was decent background material. This aspect of his lecture is why it really should have been first. Gann talked about minimalists and more importantly the post-minimalists and this would have been good background material. Where Gann started with Rothko Chapel, This was where Ross ended and was in fact where he spent the most time in actual Feldman discussion. Rothko Chapel and Viola in my Life, while both excellent pieces, are outliers in the the Feldman oeuvre, pieces that people who don’t really like Feldman seem to take. Still Ross read some of the ever amusing and informative Feldman quotes and anecdotes and his examination of the different parts of Rothko Chapel was informative. He played several fragments of Rothko Chapel and compared them to various Schönberg pieces as a demonstration of how Feldman was not necessarily outside of the tradition. He concluded with a nice overlay of a recorded Feldman interview and the final movement of the piece.

There followed a brief Q&A but not too much was revealed in this. Overall the lectures were very informative and well worth attending. I only scratched the surface in what was gone over in these, over two hours of information is hard to summarize in a single post.  Ross and Gann both spent time connecting Feldman to the other composers that were part of this festival, Gann going so far to say that Feldman was the major influence of post-minimalism. Not having attended the rest of the festival I can’t really comment on this aspect.  With the lectures concluded there was a forty-five minute break and then the music.

King of Denmark Score
King of Denmark score (first page)
from Aspen Magazine no 5/6 on UbuWeb

January, 11 2008
Dale Speicher, Music for Solo Percussion
Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle WA
The beginning of this year is looking particularly good for music in the Pacific Northwest. Feldman at SAM, Lachenmann in Vancouver, the massive SIMF and so on. It is particularly a good year for new composed music as there has been somewhat a drought of modern composition here. The cavalcade of great music began with a solo percussion night at the Chapel performance space. I’d seen Dale Speicher in a few ensembles in the past but this night of music brought him squarely into the limelight. I went based on the strength of the pieces that were being played by some of my favorite composers: Feldman, Wolff, Xenakis and Ashley. The three other pieces were by composers I was unaware of and one of them only a couple years old. So I chance to see new music as well as some old favorites live was not to be missed.
The stage of the chapel had several percussion “stations” scattered around it, plus a collection of percussive objects right among the front row of the chairs. A vibraphone, gongs, hand drums, a huge red-white-n-blue bass drum, various cymbals, triangles and objects were among the large collection of percussive tools on stage.  A little leary of being right in front of one of these stations as sat in the second row. Not too long afterwards the lights dimmed and the show began.

Links No. 1 (1974) Stuart Saunders Smith
Basic 10 (1987) Robert Ashley
Delusions of Grandeur (1975) Charles Lipp
King of Denmark (1964) Morton Feldman

The first piece was one I was unfamiliar with by a composer I was also unfamiliar with. The first of a series of eleven percussion pieces this one was for solo vibraphone. A nice piece that utilized the shimmering tones of the vibraphone well and seemed to mostly rely on the sweet harmonic possibilities of this instrument. It rather reminded me of wind chimes mixed with the piano noodling of Mister Rogers. I don’t recall much dissonance and overall I found it a little saccharine. Next up was Ashley’s Basic 10, a piece I was not familiar with from a composer that I am fairly familiar with. Dale moved to the far right edge of the stage and picked up a single snare drum. He began tapping this with his fingers as he walked around the stage. Usually a pattern of four fingers individually then a more resounding downbeat. He slowly made his way to a chair in the center front of the stage where he sat down and continued playing with his fingers. He’d turn the snare wires on and off, rotate the drum on it’s side all the while tapping away. The piece ended with the same pattern repeated on his chest.  Again Charles Lipp is a composer, whom though being active for a number of years, was one I was unfamiliar with. This piece used the vibraphone and several smaller drums primarily as well as some other percussive elements. It seemed to rather switch between instruments, at least at first, beginning with the vibes and then a set of mounted hand drums. Toward the end there was some overlapping sounds between these but it mostly seemed to be one thing after another. Not too memorable a piece, or perhaps just overshadowed by the final one.

The final piece was the King of Denmark by Morton Feldman, which along with the Wolff piece I was most excited to see performed live. I have recently been listening to the Max Neuhaus, The New York School cd so I had heard this piece several times in recent weeks. In order to play it, Dale first moved the bulk of his percussion arsenal to the station in the audience. The vibes, the hand drums, a xylophone and a set of bells and triangles were all mounted in a tight circle around a space where Dale stood. He told us a story of performing this at a living room concert which was his impetuous for doing this as close as he could to the audience. The piece, the only percussion one that Feldman wrote, is for a number of percussion instruments all played by hand. As Dale states in the liner notes: “In many ways the King of Denmark is an anti-percussion piece. It is to be played very softly using only the hand and fingers – no sticks or mallets.” He began by tapping a glass bottle and other objects; little bells, the triangle before moving on to drums, the vibes and occasionally the gong. Little sounds, twinkling out of the space, the very faint hum of traffic and rustling of the audience as a backdrop.  The dynamics were uniformly low, as called for by the score, but of course there would be the occasional slip or miscalculation and sound would rise above the normal levels to stunning effect. In a way it reminded me of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis with these little sounds coming out of space and overlapping and colliding in seemingly random, but satisfying ways. The performance was gorgeous and could have gone on twice as long as far as I was concerned.


A Slightly Evil Machine (2005) James Romig
Pairs (1968) Christian Wolff
Rebonds Part A (1987/8) Iannis Xenakis

There was a short intermission (during which I took a look at the King of Denmark score a bit of which is reproduced above) during which Dale reorganized the stage a bit. There was now three stations, the big bass drum with five other drums descending in size from right to left, on of the center of the stage was the vibes and then on the right a set of african drums and wood box of unknown objects. The show began with another new to me piece one from only a couple of years ago. Appropriate to the title the piece sounded like a machine that had something off-kilter about it. There was this constant rhythm of hitting a wood block (perhaps) and the drums but it was constantly subverting itself in an almost sickening kind of way. It takes advantage of our expectations in how something rhythmically works and by subverting that is almost disorienting. The next piece was the other one I’d been highly anticipating and it was the only one that wasn’t solo percussion. This piece is for 2,4,6 or 8 players and is one of the Wolff score’s with these disconnected little modules that the players work through in (IIRC) an indeterminate fashion. Dale was center stage with a clarinetist, on the far right was bass clarinet,  and double bass on the far left was a french horn and guitar. I love Wolff’s music and this piece had those features I so often associate it with it – these little passages fading in and out amongst gaps of varying lengths, almost random seeming harmonies and disharmonies, complex and simple at the same time. The wide separation of the players really worked to great effect in this piece I think it really made the sounds come from all around the sound stage. If you didn’t look at the players as you listened it almost was like listening on headphones so separated were the sounds. The final piece was again for solo percussion and Dale cleared the stage and finally went to that All-American Bass drum that had dominated the stage like a refugee from a Souza event.  This Xenakis piece began slowly, with a a pattern of hitting the bass drum and then two or three smaller drums. It slowly built up to greater and greater density till it became quite a tour-de-force of playing. Definitely the most energetic and dense piece of the program it was a good way to conclude the evening. Symmetrically the piece slowed down and ended as it began and this concluded our evenings program.

A real fine evening of music and I have to say I was impressed by Dale’s performance. As I said at the beginning I’d only seen him a couple of times before in ensembles so really I was pretty unaware of him. He played brilliantly and he selection of programs was right up my alley. Perfect music to for the acoustic space of the Chapel. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on Dale’s upcoming activities. You can hear a bit of his playing and keep up on his activities yourself on his myspace page.

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