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Morton Feldman and Contrast

June 14, 2011

I had the wonderful pleasure to see some of American Sublime, the festival presented by Philadelphia’s Bowerbird featuring the late works of Morton Feldman this weekend. I was in town for the two performances on Saturday at the Fleisher Art Memorial, beginning with Patterns in a Chromatic Field, performed by Amy Williams and Jonathan Golove, and it ended with Crippled Symmetry, performed by Either/Or.

Since I was helping out at the event, I wasn’t able to catch Patterns…, but I did get to listen to some of the rehearsal which was absolutely gorgeous inside the sanctuary space at Fleisher. The house was also packed, which is beyond awesome for a 3pm concert of a single piece by Morton Feldman.

After the concert, I spoke to one of the enthusiastic attendees who said something really curious to me to the effect of “you know, there’s all of these people discovering Brian Eno out there, but this music, Feldman, is the Real Deal!” I’m not sure how I feel about that because I don’t hear the two musicians trying to achieve the same musical goals. Eno, and the ambient genre he fathered,  intends to be background, both in function and the types of musical ideas used. In other words, at moments it feels like “music minus melody” and is to be used for events like dinner parties or airport terminals. Feldman’s music, despite its sparse nature, isn’t missing anything. It resists our ear’s expectations to move towards grooves and decisive climaxes, but Feldman certainly didn’t intend for his music to fill in the conversational silences at parties.

The second concert, a performance of Crippled Symmetry was very much like a brain massage. For one thing, to be forced into that sort of analog acoustic space for 90 minutes is a thing of beauty in our 21st century digital world. Despite the therapeutic experience, I can’t say that I absorbed much more than a surface level understanding of the work because it is so expansive. That certainly doesn’t limit my appreciation of the work; this concert easily ranks among the top programs I’ve seen this year, thanks in part to the excellent playing by Either/Or.

Also, Feldman’s ability to create a sort melodic gesture by not using pitch but timbre is fascinating. The ending motif, a repeated note performed in turns by each player, becomes even more beautiful on each iteration. In particular, when played by the percussionist, the note is either played on the vibraphones, glockenspiel, or both, creating nuances of color.

These small nuances are nearly earth shattering after listening to the work for an hour because of the small range of contrast. Every day life desensitizes us to gigantic contrasts, like this image:

We’re tossed back and forth between extremes while watching dramas on television or listening romantic composers like Wagner, and Feldman’s music does the opposite. He gradually guides you to a place where a tiny shift, whether it’s a new dissonance or rhythmic gestures becomes a revelation, or visually more like:

That cream color, despite being a relative to the colors around is a strong moment of contrast. If Feldman’s music does anything for this world, I hope it helps us to notice these little changes around us and appreciate them as being just as wonderful as the pyrotechnic ones.

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