Archive for January, 2008

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.


AMM in 1968

 

A couple of years back a collection of AMM boots appeared online that came with no documentation but were clearly from the same source. The 60’s AMM was the most exploratory and really revolutionary version of the group and while they kept up their uncompromising approach to music making, during this period there was no limitations. You could argue that eventually they created their own set of limitations, while AMMMusic may once have been defined by what it was not, in later years AMMMusic was clearly its own sound. The fundamental nature of what AMM is and more importantly isn’t was only really obliquely discussed outside of the group. The fact that they did reject many conventions of music is known, but there is no list of what was “in” or “out”. The musical documentation gives us the clues toward this and in the 60’s material you can hear things being removed and added between the recordings. So in these posts I’m analyzing the AMM recordings from this perspective: how do they fit into what we know, and what else can we learn from them. This post examines a recording from 1969 the only other AMM bootleg that I have from the 60’s. At this point Lawrence Scheaff would have left the group leaving the quartet of Rowe, Prévost, Cardew and Gare with the addition of Christopher Hobbs and possibly also Christian Wolff.

AMM – London 16 March 1969

 

The tape begins with the group already in the midst of a  maelstrom of percussion at that reminds me of the tribal organized chaos of the mass percussion sections of Cardew’s The Great Learning. From this peak it slowly backs down and sounds of flutes, metal percussion and a wandering hum perhaps from Rowe’s guitar become audible. This eventually works its way all the way to silence with the minutes before being small percussive sounds and various rattles, scrapes and buzzes.With the space now opened up a variety of sounds twinkle out of the darkness. One amusing bit is what sounds like recorder (or flute I suppose) playing a bit of an advertisement jingle. Another sound is a very electronic tone, almost sine wave like most likely from feedback. Bell like percussion, a distant grinding sound that reveals itself to be sax and bits and pieces of traditional drums and percussion. This all increases in frequency becoming a swirling stew of sounds that are still isolated and not overly dense.

The density begins to increase with snare rolls, long low tons on the sax and a sustained wind like electronic wail that’d either be Rowe or amplified cello. Again this fades away this time down to near silence with the quietest bowed cello and rare taps on a drum. The cello picks it up, with a kind of melodic sawing that is then complemented by a sustained electronic tone. This part hums along with a barely controlled malice that explodes in short burst of dry loud bowing, drum bashes and electronic squiggles. Eventually this loud moaning sound is brought in and out, never sustained too long but wholly dominating when it does. Again things mellow out, this set really is a roller coaster of density this time with hollow percussive sounds, either a mallets on cymbal or faint electronics and what sounds like whistling in the far background.

Back into spacious territory around the half way point some really interesting sounds are placed into near silence. Some very low sax moans that hover right on the edge of sax feedback. Later squeaks from the sax as drum rolls come and go while Rowe’s guitar evokes a metal object being dragged across a cement floor. Quite a bit of this half of the show is in this territory of isolated sounds, small swells and perceptible gaps. There is a pointillistic nature to this section, different from the “insect music” of some EFI as the sounds themselves can be of long durations. It is much more an element of restraint, not feeling a need to play. Putting a sound out there without consequence of what ever else may be going on. The last few minutes of this show feature some much more dramatic sounds, but still fairly isolated so not leading toward any sort of wall of sound. Some frantic electronic wails, muscular drumming and assaultive percussion in the main. These elements layer on top of each other at the very end and just as it becomes mass of serious density the tape ends.

“In 1965, AMM began a radically different kind of Music-making. The prevalent notions of musical theory, practice, hierarchy and structure (thematic reference, jumping-off points — for example the ‘head’ arrangements from which improvisation lifted off — and even the relatively informal criteria of the then ‘free jazz’ movement) were replaced by the creation of, and engagement with, a soundworld in which there was not even a formal beginning and ending.”
– Edwin Prévost (2, p.9)

 

Structurally this piece differs from the earlier piece. That one really had these clearly defined segments where they would work at one dynamic level for some time. In this one it is much more roller coaster like as I think my attempt to describe its changes above indicates.  This in fact is a constant in the other early bootlegs that I have. I think that it is reasonable to imagine that a tendency toward an obvious structure was noted and was added to the list of things that should be discarded. This is an aspect that you would see especially in the later AMM, often described as “timeless”, “floating” and “nearly static”. It is in these early pieces that you can hear them developing and discarding things as they work from what they know and from what they are hearing in others to a total disconnection to that.


References

1) Notes on AMM: Entering and Leaving History Stuart Broomer, CODA Magazine no. 290. 2000
2) Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent, Copula, 1995
3) The AMM page at the European Free Improvisation Home
4) Keith Rowe interview by Dan Warburton at Paris Transatlantic