Entries tagged with “Seattle Chamber Players”.


Lou HarrisonThursday March 27th, 2009
Drums Along the Pacific Day 2: The Music of Lou Harrison

While I was more familiar with Lou Harrison’s music going in to this then I was with Henry Cowell, this program was again almost entirely new to me.  Harrison was a contemporary of John Cage and he also was a student of Henry Cowell (and Schoenberg as well).  Like Cage he caught the percussion bug from Cowell and continued to work with it throughout his life.  During the 30s he and Cage fed off of each other using each others interests, innovations and developments.  Cage’s interest in metallic percussion instruments was taken up by Harrison as was Cage’s Water Gong and prepared piano.  While Harrison continued with percussion throughout his life his interests in the musics of other cultures became dominant and the use of alternate tunings became a primary feature of his music. Of the three musicians presented in this festival Harrison’s music is the least performed so this really was a rare opportunity that I was thrilled to have.

I determined that I was going to be able to attend this show only about an hour before it started and I left for Cornish immediately upon confirmation.  I arrived about a half hour before the curtain to find it sold out and they were putting people on the waiting list! I was about eighth on that list and I hung around ’til a few minutes before showtime to hear if I’d get in. I did and it seemed they also opened up the balcony which means everyone got in. I got a great seat, second row center and the seats next to me never filled in.  Due to filling in all of the wait list the show started a bit later then it had the previous night, but around 8:15 the lights dimmed and the show was announced. This time special thanks went out to people who had helped with all of the tuning needs.

The first set began with Double Music which was jointly written by John Cage with each composer writing parts for two percussionists.  The Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, operating unassisted for this piece had a vast array of materials including the ubiquitous brake drums and Cage’s water gong along with a thunder sheet, tuned cowbells, tam-tams and so on.  The piece had a really Gamalan feel to it, much more so even than Cowells similar percussion works. The water gong had a fantastic wavery sound to it as it was moved through the water and the mostly metallic percussion instruments gave this the feel a a junkyard band.  The piece was quite uptempo and fascinating, a really great start to the night. This was followed by May Rain for prepared piano, tam-tam and baritone, which came across as a Henry Cowell song with Cage like accompaniment.  The piano reminded me of the more lightly prepared pianos of  Cages earlier prepared piano pieces such as Perilous Night. The song was low, slow and very rich, but thematically I didn’t find much there.

The first chamber piece of the evening was The Perilous Chapel for flute, harp, tom-toms and ‘cello.  This was an interesting composition that was apparently inspired by Persian miniatures but it contained elements that reminded me of certain trends in contemporary composition. It began with the flute playing a short scale, which was then joined by the ‘cello doing likewise and then finally the harp entered.  This movement went on for a while with these three interlocking scales which was interrupted at one point by a brief rather tribal tattoo on the drums.  Later movements were more drum oriented with the harp providing glissando effects, arpeggios and the like. The end of the piece was percussion free with the ‘cello providing a slow drone as the flute and harp floated above it with rather wistful melodies.  A nice piece with interesting elements.

The final piece for the first set was the lengthy Suite for Percussion featuring the percussion quartet along with Bonnie Whiting Smith also on percussion.  This piece made extensive use of the brake drums to provide the melodic content and also had a section that featured the springs from a clock (originally Harrison’s own).  Its three movements were quite different beginning with what seemed like all five percussionists following their own rhythmic structure that interconnected with each other.  This varied in density and it was in the middle of this first movement that there was a very soft section with the aforementioned clock spring accompanied by bells and chimes. Very charming. The second movement opened with just the thunder sheet and a gong whose sound was allowed to decay before being struck again before moving on to a long section of solo wooden blocks.  The final movement again began with a slow, loud rhythm this time set by a big bass drum.  The metallic instruments came back in and the piece came to a head at the end with all members vigorously playing.  I found this piece fully engaging with lots going on, incredible textures and a wide variety of sounds.

Set two began with the most dramatic, energetic and aggressive piece of the night, Simfony #13 composed in 1941. To quote from the program notes, for this piece:

“The orchestration is a mix of instruments in typical Harrison fashion. Players one and two have three sets each of five or six wood and metal instruments: woodblocks, water buffalo bells, and cowbells for one; suspended temple blocks (dragon’s mouths) and muted brake drums for the other. The third player has an elephant bell, a triangle, a suspended cymbal, a gong, and a tam-tam, and the fourth, seven tom-toms and a bass drum. This performance marks the Seattle premiere of this work.” -Matthew Kocmieroski

The Seattle premier of this piece was preformed by the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet who deftly weaved this dense and driving piece.  Like most of the Harrison percussion pieces the use of polyrhythms was quite apparent giving this the feel of both locked and shifting patterns.  The piece concluded with a super loud assault on the drums which stopped dead and was repeated.

Following this dramatic entrance was a piece for a single upright piano, Incidental Music to Corneille’s ‘Cinna’. The piano had a really metallic sound and the piece had an almost player piano feel.  Reading the program description of this piece it turns out that the piano was tuned into 7-limit Just intonation and had tacks added to the hammers to create what is known as a “tack piano”.   This music,  which was scored for a play, was in three distinct movements each with its own character. The first was almost rag-time like, the most Nancarrow feeling, whose tempo shifted constantly throughout. The second had a fugal character to it which the tacks gave almost a harpsichord like flavor thus strongly evoking the baroque. The final movement was more melancholy and romantic with a strong classical feel.  A real varied piece that took full advantage of this strange instrument and its non-standard tuning.

Two shorter chamber works follow, the first In Memorium of Victor Jowers for harp and bass clarinet was defined by low, slow melodic lines from the clarinet punctuated with single plucked notes from the harp. Very melodic and simple as it developed the harp played simple octaves in an ascending scale.  Music for Remy which followed directly afterward was for clarinet and percussion and was written for a long time friend of Harrison’s who was a professional dancer. It began with an almost snake charmer like sound, the clarinet weaving through the simple, but steady, percussion.  It developed from this into a very klezmer feeling piece perhaps utilizing the hijaz scale. It concluded gently, almost soporific, which nicely wound down an interesting and different piece.

The concert concluded with the Concerto in Siendro with a full stage including two tack pianos, trash cans, ranch triangles, gongs, washtub, violin and celesta. The lead violin from the Seattle Chamber Players was right out front and performed with his typical exuberance. He literally bounced around as he played and waved tempo in parts when he wasn’t playing a big grin on his visage the whole time.  The piece opened big with a massive percussive blast which then shifted into a rollicking, almost Russian flavored melody driven by pyrotechnics on the violin. The middle movement of the piece was much less dense, quite sentimental with the violin evoking a nursery rhyme sang by a keening voice and answered with rather staccato interplay from the piano.  For the final movement the energy was brought back up, with dramatic little solos from the violin and answering missives from the percussionists. In the very end all of the musicians were playing and the combination of the percussion, tack pianos and celesta was like a demented mechanical music box.  Very entertaining piece and a stunning conclusion to a great evening.

Following this evenings performance was a champagne reception next door to the recital hall which I briefly attended. The show had run well after 10pm due to the late start and as I was going to be quite busy all weekend with family activities I was not able to linger.  It was a nice affair though with the performers, organizers and staff mingling amongst the audience and supporters.  These first few days of the festival had been really well done, very professionally put on and musically rewarding. I’m really glad I got a chance to see these two rarely performed composers and regret missing the rest of the festival. I’m sure that the rest of it was as great as these first days.

Drums along the Pacific

Drums along the Pacific

Early this spring, Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts put on a four day festival, Drums Along the Pacific, celebrating the music of Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and John Cage.  While I am usually quite aware of what is happening vis-à-vis new music performance in the Seattle area this one took me completely by surprise. I actually first heard about it a couple of weeks before the festival as a sponsor on my local NPR station.  While I was happy to learn about it I was devastated to find out that it corresponding with some family business that I was not going to be able to work around.  I was free for the first night of the festival and circumstances aligned themselves so that I was able to attend the second day as well.  The third day was four sets of the music of John Cage and it kills me that I wasn’t able to attend that.  Ever since the Vancouver New Music’s Silence: John Cage festival I have become increasingly obsessed with his music and I have found so much of interest and enjoyment.  Even though I have seen performances of the bulk of the Cage pieces they were going to play, it is still a fairly rare event to get to see his music  live. Also they performed Ryoanji which is a piece that I love that I have not yet seen performed. The fourth day featured Gamelan Pacifica performing Cage and Harrison gamelan pieces which I also would have loved to have seen.  Additionally there was a series of presentations on Saturday and Sunday that it was a shame to have missed. The two days I was able to attend were highly interesting and they were important music historically both in the development of contemporary composition in America and as influences on Cages music.

The basic background to this festival was John Cages stint as a professor at Cornish College of the Arts from 1938 to 1940.  It was here that he developed the prepared piano in an attempt to bring the sounds of percussion into confined spaces, for at this phase in his musical development percussion was the focus of his interests.  One could argue that this planted the seeds of much of his later musical development but that is another post.  Percussion was a major interest of many American composers at this point in time, with Henry Cowell being in the vanguard. Percussion music is of course inherently sound oriented and the diversity of sounds available from the basic notion of striking an object is limitless.  Historically percussion was used as punctuation, as a rhythmic device and for sound effects. When you work with percussion on its own there has to be a shift in focus as it must provide all the elements that the music requires.  Cage and Harrison both turned their attention toward percussion in the late 30s inspired by the classes they had taken with Cowell which had introduced them to the sounds of Gamelan, Gagaku, Kulintang and other percussion traditions.  They organized a series of percussion oriented music festivals first at Cornish, then at various Pacific Northwest colleges and finally all up and down the west coast which Henry Cowell dubbed “drums along the pacific”.  Cornish put on this festival in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of these concerts.

While the original “drums along the pacific” concerts inspired this festival they did not exclude the performances to just the featured composers works for percussion.  For these concerts Cornish relied on both local and nationally recognized performers.  Local groups, the Pacific Rim Percussion Quartet and Gamelan Pacifica represented the percussion side of things while  Seattle Chamber Players, NYC pianist Stephen Drury and opera singers John Duykers and Kathryn Weld were brought for the other elements. All of the performances were in Cornish’s Poncho recital hall which is a very nice sounding small theater that was packed on both of the nights that I attended. The stage wasn’t overly large but it was deep and between each piece they’d transfer instruments from backstage to the front and close a curtain behind it.  All in all I found the musicians, the space and the organization of the event top notch.

Thursday March 26th, 2009
Drums Along the Pacific Day 1: The Music of Henry Cowell

Going into this festival it was the music of Henry Cowell that I was least familiar with. I’d heard a few of his pieces here and there and I was aware of his influence on the early music of Cage but I had yet to really explore his oeuvre. This night was to give a nice taste of a number of his musical concerns: songs, of which he wrote nearly two hundred, the string piano, which pioneered inside piano playing, the music of other cultures and of course his percussion works.

The first set of music began with an announcement that the first and last pieces of the program would be swapped which is not reflected if you check out the excellent online program notes.  Also a note of thanks was given out to an antique automotive associate for help in finding period appropriate instruments. The first piece was thus Ostinato Pianissimo performed by the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, Stephen Drury, Jarrad Powell, Paul Taub and Adrienne Varner. The pianos were played on the inside (thus “string pianos”) often muted by the performers and were mostly used as additional rhythmic elements  The percussion was hypnotic and driving led by melodic figures on the marimba.  The piece had a driving rhythmic pattern that continued until right before the end in which the tempo changed and all the musicians were playing for a a dense and energetic conclusion.

The stage was cleared of all of the percussion elements leaving only a single piano which Stephen Drury came out to play. He was joined by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld for three of Cowell’s songs.  Cowell wrote songs throughout his life many of them virtually lost or buried in obscure publications.  This first set of songs, Sunset, Rest and Night Fliers was interesting in that Drury would use his arm to crush dozens of keys in the lower register emitting  thunderous roar which contrasted strongly against the rather typical operatic singing.  I wasn’t very taken by the  content of these songs, most of them from obscure poets. This trio of songs was followed by a second set of songs based on the poems of Langston Hughes: DemandMoonlight Night: Carmel and Fulfillment. For these the piano was replaced with a trio of flute, clarinet and ‘cello from the Seattle Chamber Players. While the source material was a lot stronger for these, the music was much less interesting; it mainly was used to underscore thematic elements, or echo the melody line of the singer.

Following the songs was what I thought was the highlight of the first set: three pieces for solo piano preformed by Stephen Drury. He began by telling us that “there will be no exultation, hopefully only a program change and not a metaphor”. The first piece, The Tides of Manaunaum, began with massive, often dissonant,  bass clusters generated by the whole hand and forearm but eventually became much more melody driven with a hymn-like character. The following piece, The Banshee, was the first piece Cowell wrote for the string piano, which was played entirely by stroking, rubbing and occasionally plucking the strings  while an assistant kept the sustain pedal down the entire time. This was a wonderfully dreamy piece of overlapped shimmering sounds, rich with overtones and colliding sounds. This was my favorite piece from this night of music. The final solo piano piece, Aolian Harp,  was nearly as engaging, with Drury standing in front of the keyboard playing both the keys and the strings while he worked the sustain pedal.  This piece had a really charming combination of tentative melodic fragments and ghostlike shimmers. The way he worked the pedal would damp the sounds and perhaps was meant to evoke the wind that an aeolian harp depends upon.

The final piece of the first set was Homage to Iran an example of Cowells integration of the music of other cultures into his compositions.  This piece was written for piano and violin and three of its four movements featured a “middle eastern drum” that  in this case looked to me like a djembe. The first movement began with this drum solo sounding ever so much like your typical hippie drum circle. The violin entered with a jaunty melodic line and the two play together for a while until they come to a sudden stop. At that moment the piano starts up and plays for a couple of measures in an equally jaunty manner. The other two join in again and shortly the piano drops out again. The second movement does not feature the drums but retains the poppy character of the previous movement at one point a little rhythmic turn even brought appreciative chuckles from the audience. The third, short movement was just the violin and djembe while the entire trio played in the final movement. This movement was the most energetic, with a much less relaxed and driving rhythm. It had a dervish quality to it, joyful and in constant movement. It ended with a flourish that brought much applause from the audience.  A good way to end a set.

After a short set break in which the percussion instruments were brought back to the stage (this is where my sad cameraphone picture above comes from) setup for Return, which features three percussionists and a “wailer”.  This piece was quite active, with the percussionists changing from item to item as it progressed.  There was a section where there was a lot of bowed metal including a music stand.  The wailer was a no-show until the very end where a member of the audience in the front row let out a long warbling “whoaaaaaaa”. This was followed by a shake of a rattly object to conclude the piece.  The next piece, 26 Simultaneous Mosaics, from 1963 is indeterminate in form, making one wonder if the bi-directional influence between Cage and Cowell continued beyond percussion (Cowell also composed for Cage style prepared piano) though an earlier Cowell piece also allowed for a changeable structure at the group instead of this pieces more variable indeterminacy at the  individual level. This piece for piano, percussion, violin, ‘cello and clarinet made up of  the aforementioned 26 parts which the instrumentalists can play in the order of their choosing thus causing each performance to be unique. In this realization the piece was spacious and meandering with the various mosaics taking on many different characteristics.  A nice piece with hints of romanticism here and there.

We return to songs at this point, this time with tenor John Duykers accompanied by Stephen Drury. The Donkey, The Dream-Bridge and Spring Pools, weren’t too dissimilar from the songs heard earlier again based on published poems the last by Robert Frost.  Unlike the earlier piano accompanied songs, the music for these was on the whole uninteresting.  Rather staid and for the most part simply underscoring what were rather traditional vocal melody lines.  John Duykers though was quite charismatic, opening up by addressing the audience informing us that there would be no changes to the program. This laugh-line was of course in response to all the program change announcements that had preceded him. After these three songs he then introduced the final set of songs, Three anti-modernist Songs. These songs, written while Cowell was in prison on morals charges, were based poems sent to newspapers collected in Nicolas Slonimsky’s,  Music Since 1900.  These songs were hilarious:

A sharp, where you'd expect a natural,
A natural, where you'd expect a sharp;
No rule observed but the exceptional,
And then (first happy thought!) bring in a Harp!

No bar a sequence to the bar behind,
No bar a prelude to the next that comes;
Which follows which you really needn't mind --
But (second happy thought!) bring in your drums!

For harmonies, let wild discords pass;
Let key be blent with key in hideous hash;
Then (for last happy thought!) bring in your Brass!
And clang, clash, clatter -- clatter, clang and clash!

As the song progressed, song in a declamatory style, the piano music would underscore the sentiments expressed by the author – strumming sounds for the harp, crashes for the drums and brass and so on. Definitely the most entertaining of the songs, read the full text to all three on this site.

The final piece (formerly intended to be the initial piece) was Pulse written in 1939 for the original Drums Along the Pacific tours. This piece is for five percussionists each whom have two sets of three similar sounding objects.  The sixth performer moves throughout the ensemble and damps instruments presumably in a scored manner.  This piece, like the first piece, utilized melodic percussive elements to setup a rhythmically structured melodic line. While it was marimba in that piece that drove the melody in this one it was tuned drums.  Other players added more accents to this structure using their blocks, gongs, bowls and brake drums (another Cage invention that Cowell utilized). I had definitely noticed the “dampening” performer but it was hard from the audience to see what he was actually doing, it wasn’t until I read the program notes that I figured that out.  This piece had a real driving rhythm and you could clearly sense the influence of gamelan and other Asian percussion traditions in its nature. I thought this was the most engaging and successful of the Cowell percussion pieces played, a really enjoyable piece.

A really nice night of music, most of which I was entirely unfamaliar with.  Prior to this I’d heard some of his string piano and songs and it was the later that rather turned me off to his music.  I’m definitely interested in exploring more, first with more of his solo piano music and then through some of his percussion works. In general I tend to prefer to go right to the source (gamelan, gagaku, etc) as opposed to musicians “inspired” by such musics, but I think there is something in Cowells mix of traditional musics and modernism that is pretty appealing.  As this ended up being quite long, I’ll report on day 2 tomorrow.

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.