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Morton Feldman:

For Christian Wolff (1986)


California Ear Unit: Dorothy Stone, flute; Vicki Ray, piano, celesta


BRIDGE 9279A/C (Three Hours, Three Discs)


Every late, long Feldman CD represents a tremendous luxury. To have the time, the silence and the comfortable surroundings to listen closely and carefully for several hours to a single piece of music is not something everyone can afford these days.


A full afternoon in the company of Feldman is not, however, a luxury like a trip to the spa. It is hard work, frequently tedious, and exhausting without even the endorphin compensation of running a marathon. The luxury comes from the transgressive indulgence in something that runs so spectacularly contrary to the social, political and commercial demands of contemporary art. The mood of these pieces is stubborn and remorseless. Just think what 6 hours’ continuous playing does to the members of a string quartet, their arms, fingertips and instruments; their concentration, their control; the balance of sound, the way their brains re-order musical and physical priorities just to get to the end; the shattering effect this has on how we hear Western music’s most sacred and inviolable genre.


Although shorter than the second string quartet, For Christian Wolff proposes its own set of extremities. Composed solely for flute, piano and celesta (one player) it is the most austerely scored of the late pieces. Many of the repeating, crippled loop patterns are built from just one, two or three notes. There is often no harmony, and the registral envelope is usually very restricted. For long, chilling passages the piano and celesta double one another, only slightly out of synch. The difference in tone between the two instruments is narrow and easy to miss without careful attention. The ease by which Feldman thus essentially erases one third of his already impossibly sparse resources is almost frightening, but the effect is impossible to tear the ear away from.


There are moments of transcendent beauty, as the rotating clouds of sonic motes collapse unpredictably into intense white stars, but Feldman’s strategy of blocking sections abruptly against one another so as to erase the memory of what had come before, to question the conventional foundation of musical experience; this leaves one feeling almost guilty for succumbing. The music certainly isn’t interested in how you feel: it has moved on, and will continue to do so for much longer than you can imagine it will.


But those moments happened nevertheless: the possibility of their return haunts every minute of this music. Occasionally that faith is repaid, but not in a way that allows for easy satisfaction, a resting on familiar aesthetic laurels. Nothing is meant to be easy. The instruments in this recording are close miked, placing the listener just slightly too close to the sound: the effect is not to provide comfort, but to make the listener aware of the performers’ investment of diaphragm control and wrist tension, an investment matched by the listener’s patience and concentration. The indulgence lies in such superhuman expenditures, all for the sake of a piece of music. Doesn’t that sound worth it?


Tim Rutherford-Johnson


Trio (1980)

Aki Takahashi, piano
Rohan de Saram, cello
Marc Sabat, violin

mode Feldman Edition 10; DVD 216 [1hr 45mins]

This has been an unique listening experience, one that I urge everyone to try, and definitely on DVD rather than the CDs alternative...

Not as long as the 4-6 hour String Quartet No 2, the playing of which entails "natural physical and mental exhaustion, muscle stretching and tiredness, even possibly cramps caused by holding instruments for six hours, not to mention other natural discomforts..." (Evis Sammoutis) it still needs patient capitulation to its unique sound world in a sympathetic environment (I was banished from our usual listening room...).

Superficially, it is mostly very quiet, and there is a lot of repetition of small figures. But the repetition is deceptive, the notes may stay the same for a while, but there are continual subtle rhythmic alterations to which you will only gradually latch onto.

One is gradually drawn into the studio and you find yourself identifying with the musicians who are directed by Rohan de Saram "from the cello", indicating the beats and their deviations with clear head movements, we sharing their concentration, hearing simultaneously what is the same and what is ever so slightly different, to the extent that some of the major landmarks strike as quite a shock.

Perhaps one can be forgiven for taking it in several listening sessions during which Feldman "blurs the listeners' sense of time"; the recording itself was spead over two days in April 2006. The filming is excellent, giving you different perspectives in the Berlin studio with its forest of microphones, finally taking you into the control room.

The project is fully documented, with extensive notes by Sabine Feist, who quotes deatils from the score which, alas, we don't see... Brian Brandt celebrates the sensuality he finds in this music and describes the two sound mixes for the surround and stereo versions. A labour of love from all cocerned.

Peter Grahame Woolf