This week I found on an mp3 blog the original recording of Morton Feldman’s Durations I-IV.  Originally released on a, now long out of print, Time Records split LP with Earle Brown.  Durations I-IV was written in 1960/61 and the record was put out shortly thereafter in 1962. Each of the Durations is its own piece but they flow incredibly well together and make for a beautiful 28 minute piece listened to in their entirety.  They are each scored for different instruments but there is always continuity between them:

Durations I: Violin-Cello-Alto-Flute-Piano
Durations II: Cello-Piano
Durations III: Violin-Tuba-Piano
Durations IV: Violin-Cello-Vibraphone

So from the quintet of Durations I, the ‘cello and piano carry on into Durations II, the thread maintained by the piano into Durations III and the violin carries us into Durations IV where the ‘cello makes a return. So there is a continuity between them and it sounds like a single piece with different movements.

What really struck me on listening to this recording is that it demonstrates that what many think of the late Feldman sound – that is the very slow, meditative pace with sounds created and allowed to fade away before the next. This recording has all of that and yet compositionally it falls more in line with his earlier indeterminate pieces.  It really only lacks the length to distinguish it from the canonical late pieces and of course plenty of those are about the length of this when all four pieces are played together like this (there also is a Durations V, composed after this recording that would obviously increase the overall duration of this suite). To focus on length to the degree of excluding the other fundamental aspects of Feldman’s compositional style would of course miss the essence of the work.

“It has often been noted now, that listeners are more willing to be generous to a long piece than to a short one, and to more easily assume that the long piece is more profound.” (4)

The point being that while Feldman’s work is hardly monolithic (there are massive stylistic changes from decade to decade after all) the essence of this so called late style was in place by 1960. In fact it was with the Durations that you find a lot of the key elements that gave those pieces such a timeless feel.  Namely it was the indeterminacy in the tempo and the duration of the notes. Feldman left this up to the performers: The duration of each sound is chosen by the performer.” (2) and while in the later pieces he wasn’t always quite so free, he often would indicate that the next sound not be generated ’til the previous one had died away, which of course is at the discretion of the performer.  It is this aspect that I conjecture really gives us the etherial, sounds placed in time

An additional feature of this particular version of these pieces is that there is an additional and ever present layer of record player noise. Not overly loud, never foregrounded it is just an additional set of sounds, more indeterminate but very pleasing to the ear. It is as if there was the most subtlest electronist performing the most sedate and and discrete version of Cartridge Music along with the pieces. The combination of these shifting and floating sounds of flute, tuba, piano, violin and cello with this additional layer is one that has kept me coming back to this recording over and over again this week.  Download it yourself and give it a listen.

The performers on this, as well as the Earle Brown on the flip-side (which is also well worth hearing) are: Don Hammond (alto flute)
, Don Butterfield (tuba), David Tudor (piano), Philip Kraus (vibraphone), Matthew Raimondi (violin) and
David Soyer (‘cello).  This is probably the closest we are going to get to hearing what David Tudor would have sounded like performing the great late Feldman piano works and it does make the fact that he didn’t record those a shame indeed.

References
1) Morton Feldman / Earle Brown – split LP (1962) [Time Records]
2) Feldman’s “Durations I”: a discussion, Frank Sani
3) Morton Feldman at Wikipedia
4) In Dispraise of Efficiency: Feldman, Kyle Gann