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MORTON FELDMAN'S For Philip Guston

Royal Academy of Arts 6 March 2004 6.30pm- 11pm

Mario Caroli - Flute
Richard Benjafield - Percussion
Nicolas Hodges - Piano

"The performance will last approximately four hours. Seating is provided but feel free to walk around the exhibition to view the paintings."

Horses for courses, and venues for concerts!

Once again it is necessary to stress how essential it is for organisers and musicians to check out unusual concert venues well in advance of a project. It sounded a good idea to give a major Feldman work amidst the pictures of the artist friend who inspired it. It proved a disaster!

Norman Rosenthal, RA Exhibitions Secretary, introduced the event, telling us how costly it had been (gold painted chairs and a grand piano had been specially imported to one of the galleries) and he reminded the large audience, twice, how grateful we should be to those who had sponsored it.

Musa Mayer, Guston's daughter, recounted how Feldman had become estranged from her father after he deserted abstraction and returned to figurative painting; she saw this unique bringing together as a posthumous reconciliation between 'soul mates'. Richard Bernas, musical consultant, gave a characteristically succint introduction to the four hour composition, which "examined things over time, elements rotated to different angles, different perspectives".

In a recent review I wrote " - - it takes five to make a trio - three to play, a turner-over for the pianist, and an independent pair of critical ears to advise - - at a preliminary run-through in an unfamiliar auditorium."

If during the planning weeks there had been any experiments with those musicians who might have been available (the virtuoso flautist Mario Caroli was coming especially from Strasbourg) some hard decisions would have been required. In the "silence" before the galleries opened, or after they closed, it would have become painfully obvious that the Royal Academy 's air conditioning and Feldman's pianissimo could not mix!

So they might all have had to decide, instead, that the trio of musicians should ignore Feldman's trade mark dynamics and settle for mezzo forte, so that the seated audience (not to speak of those who responded to the invitation to feel free to walk around the exhibition to view the paintings) could listen to the music.

(This problem, and its insolubility, was brought to the attention of the RAA's organisers of another - far louder - concert of Portuguese music given at the Royal Academy by the Arditti Quartet and Ian Pace last year. Apparently the air conditioning in no part of the building may be switched off, even briefly, for the well being of the pictures. In similar circumstances at the Museum of Modern Art in Strasbourg, Zoltán Rácz refused to begin Amandida's percussion concert until the problem was addressed, and the frustrated audience waited patiently for half an hour.)

For half an hour I was absorbed by the mathematical exercise of following a score, with its unimaginable notational complexity and repetitions to keep track of (some short sections marked to be repeated as many as five times!). By then we had reached page 12 of 102 pages, so I joined the drift away, leaving me unqualified to give a definitive critical opinion of For Philip Guston? I don't know how many, or few, stayed to complete the four-hour course set up by Morton Feldman to test so cruelly the endurance and physical welfare of players and listeners alike (Mario Caroli told me that he had found preparing the piece 'extremely stressful' and a complete run-through - elsewhere - prior to the performance left his lip and back sorely troubled).

I would finish by saying that cult music of this ilk is probably best heard at home on CD, with its mercifully silent background and freedom to take breaks at will. *

For Philip Guston is available from Amazon for £50 (BRIDGE 9078), and you can listen to three one-minute samples on line and appreciate how beautiful this strange music might have sounded.

Mario Caroli can be enjoyed at full stretch in an exceptional CD of 'cutting-edge' solo flute music by Dillon, Ferneyhough, Kurtag, Sciarrino etc on SvaNa SVN001.

'The Art of Philip Guston' exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is open until 12 April 2004.

*The 4-hour CD of For Philip Guston (BRIDGE 9078 - c. $50 from Amazon) has now been received for review and listened to (well, half listened) for the first hour.

I doubt if I shall ever "get it" or get through it, though understanding Feldman's reasoning as rehearsed in the notes (Alan Rich) does help. He describes a performance with rough-hewn rock seats for the audience (common folding chairs for the 'posteriorly disadvantaged'!) - not many lasting the course.

During my first hour I found myself enjoying its quite soothing and pleasant effect, rather like sitting on a beach and watching the waves on a calm day; a similar pattern repeating, but never quite the same - small variations of tempo and size from wave to wave - pleasing in their near repetition, but not compelling anough to stop looking at the newspaper from time to time. An acquired taste and I am too old and impatient to acquire it...

PGW, July 2009



© Peter Grahame Woolf