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.