MFCP Presents Short Works Inspired by Morton Feldman

Detail from the  Rothko Chapel  score

Detail from the Rothko Chapel score

Morton Feldman Chamber Players
Sunday, April 19, 2015
Constellation, Chicago
Tickets: $12 (18 and over)
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I am very pleased to be included on the program for this Sunday's concert by the Morton Feldman Chamber Players at Constellation in Chicago. Entitled "Hors d'Oeuvres," the program features short works (incl. 3 world premieres) by Thomas Carr, Anthony Donofrio, Marti Epstein, Jacob Gotlib, David Grant, Morgan Krauss, Ryan Packard, John Rea, and yours truly. All of the selected composers have been influenced to some degree by Morton Feldman.

My own long-standing interest in Feldman's music began with one of the other featured composers on Sunday, Marti Epstein. Marti, who was my first composition teacher, once recommended I listen to Rothko Chapel. I was immediately captivated by the way in which the incredibly simple gestures that open Rothko Chapel (rolls on the timpani and temple blocks, chords in the vibraphone and celeste, long tones in the viola), combine to generate a surprisingly sensual, expressive atmosphere.

This reductive approach to gesture, in addition to Feldman's fascination with resonance (Cornelius Cardew states that the sounds in Feldman "do not die away, but recede from our ears"), are clearly present in National Anthem, my contribution to Sunday's program. Scored for solo piano, National Anthem proceeds at a slow tempo, allowing the listener to hear each sonority fade and elide with the next. The piece also features an underlying political element, something that stands in stark contrast to Feldman. I won't go into the details in this post, but you can learn more about the political inspiration for National Anthem and listen to a recording here.

Sunday's program also includes works by two of my close colleagues here in Chicago, David Grant and Morgan Krauss. Their music, like that of Feldman, immediately transports you into unique and often unexpected environments and it is this quality that makes hearing their work so special.

I hope to see you at Constellation on Sunday for what will undoubtedly be a truly unique experience. And speaking of unique, courtesy of the one and only Andrew Tham, I leave you with the official concert video:

Zorn and Feldman at The NYC Opera: How Do You Stage Abstraction?

The piece takes its name from a drawing by Antonin Artaud created during his last days in the asylum at Rodez...I describe it as a monodrama because it is scored for only one singer...there is no text, no plot, and no stage directions predetermined whatsoever...the drama is contained in the music and the title...the visual interpretation of it is left up to the imagination and creativity of the director, stage designer, and singer to is my hope that the stage presentation somehow draws inspiration from the spirit of Artaud, his art, philosophy, and writings...but from there on the possibilities are wide open...

-John Zorn on his monodrama, La machine de l'être

Watching John Zorn's La machine de l'être and Morton Feldman's Neither at The New York City Opera left me wondering how one goes about staging works that are so highly abstract? Both "monodramas" seem inclined toward a dramatic setting, especially given that each incorporates an extremely virtuosic solo soprano part. But the complete lack of text in the Zorn and the elusive quality of Beckett's words in the Feldman, offer little in the way of direction. Who do you put on stage? What will the performers do?

In the case of La machine de l'être, the following occurs:

Two manequin-like figures, male and female, both dressed in dark suits, stand silently at the lip of the stage as the audience takes their seats. The house lights dim and the curtain rises revealing a large group of people wearing black burkas standing perfectly still against a dark background. The suit-clad figures who had previously stood at the front of the stage now quizzically walk around and eventually remove the burkas from two people, exposing a man in a bright red suit and a woman (the solo soprano) in a black dress. All of this occurs before a single note is played.

When the music finally begins, two large screens, both in the shape of cartoon thought bubbles, emerge from beneath the stage and hover above the burka people. Adaptations of Artaud's drawings are projected onto the screens. Another person is deburka-ed, this time it is a woman wearing what appears to be a very short, white night gown. Odd choreography ensues including burka people executing movements that bizarrely resemble voguing. Eventually the man in the red suit, along with one of the thought bubbles, disappears into the rafters. The other thought bubble bursts into flame. Fin.

Some of the visual elements (the thought bubble screens in particular) are clearly taken from the Artaud drawing of the same name. That said, much of the staging, regardless of relevance to Artaud, comes off as campy in a way that distracts from Zorn's score. It seems odd to incorporate such overtly political imagery into a wordless piece. One is automatically compelled to search for specific meanings and context. And yet, at the risk of cattiness, I must nonetheless confess that the the depth of inquiry here could be summed up in the following manner: Q. What's under the burka? A. People.

Zorn's statement that "the drama is contained in the music and the title" would seem to call for a staging that, at the very least, finds a way to both complement and elevate the overall sonic intensity. The notion of severely limiting the interaction between composer and choreographer/director is not new (i.e. Cage/Cunningham). Regardless, it is a very dangerous scenario that can easily go awry as evidenced here.

Thankfully the production of Feldman's Neither was devoid of political imagery. Before discussing the staging, I must say that this is some of the most stunning music I've ever heard. An entire orchestration class could be taught using nothing but this score. Unlike the Zorn, where I found myself distracted by the staging, Feldman's music continuously drew me in and had me staring into the orchestra pit throughout. With the noted exception of soprano Cyndia Sieden's mesmerizing performance (worth the price of admission alone), the visual happenings on stage almost seemed unnecessary.

That said, the set for the Feldman was certainly striking. The stage walls reminded me of the silver, reflective material used on fire-retardant suits. Mirrored boxes on wires were raised and lowered at various points throughout. The overall vibe leaned toward the surreal, as though entering the champagne room of a nightclub with lights swirling around a cluster of catatonic-looking people. James Holt on Twitter (@myearsareopen) appropriately likened it to a David Lynch film.

All in all I found the lighting to be the most effective staging element. One moment that truly stood out featured a flickering strobe beautifully integrated with syncopated wood block strikes bouncing back and forth around the orchestra. More problematic was the choreography. In addition to the solo soprano, a group of dancers moved about the stage (at times a bit noisily) throughout. Similar to the Zorn there were hand gestures that that seemed straight out of 80s pop culture, perhaps not voguing, but far too close. Other moments were more reminiscent of Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach choreography. I was particularly bothered by the way in which one by one the dancers exited the stage as the piece came to a close. Feldman's music is essentially without beginning or end. It is more akin to a cloud formation that floats into your consciousness and slowly moves on to parts unknown. To choreographically signal the end seems wrong.

Criticisms aside, it is indeed difficult to maintain visual engagement for 50 minutes. Part of the genius of Feldman is his ability to create textures that may seem static or repetitive, but upon closer listening are constantly shifting. This puts a clear onus on the director to find a visual correlation, a setting that is equally subtle and varied. I don't know that the New York City Opera's production succeeded from this standpoint, but unlike the Zorn, the avoidance of extramusical, political themes kept the focus where it should be, on Feldman's music. Perhaps the best staging would be total darkness.

Note: The New York City Opera's Monodramas production also features Schoeberg's Erwartung. I chose to focus on the Zorn and Feldman given that the former is receiving its world stage premiere while the Feldman is being staged in the U.S. for the first time.

Bunita Marcus Lectures on Morton Feldman

Over the past decade, Morton Feldman's music has been steadily recorded (an iTunes search brings up 89 results) and performed. Two collections of his essays and interviews, Give My Regards to Eighth Street and Morton Feldman Says, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Still, there is much to learn about his compositional technique, a topic that Bunita Marcus recently addressed in two lectures.

Marcus met Feldman in 1976 and was a student and close associate until his death in 1987. Over the course of those years, she absorbed Feldman's unique compositional approach, particularly his use of grids.

Prior to elucidating the specifics of the grid, Marcus traced Feldman's notational evolution from the early graph pieces, to works in which pitch and orchestration were indicated but durations were free, to his eventual return to precisely marking all parameters. She emphasized that regardless of notational approach, Feldman always injected a profound ambiguity into the sound, disguising exact timbres and even pitch. This is clear throughout his oeuvre, but was nicely illustrated during the lectures when Marcus played what is perhaps the only recording (not commercially available!) of The Swallows of Salangan for chorus and chamber ensemble. The performance was conducted by none other than Mauricio Kagel.

In conjunction with his return to standard notation, Feldman began to experiment with composing on a grid. Using vellum manuscript paper, he would divide the page into a set number of measures (usually between 9 and 13) that would constitute the grid. Each measure was drawn to be equal in size (width) regardless of meter, tempo or general pitch activity. According to Marcus, most grids were one page in length and the exact number of bars was determined only after Feldman had heard the sounds and sketched out the ordering. The sound would further dictate how Feldman distributed meters across the grid. Thus, the duration of each grid (or page) varies depending upon meters and tempi.

Marcus showed examples of grids in a number of Feldman works including Flute and Orchestra, Violin and Orchestra, Neither and the First String Quartet. It is striking how some of the grids are reminiscent of traditional phrases. One can often see and hear a beginning, middle and end. Speaking from her own experience, Marcus talked about how, in addition to generating structure, the grid approach slows down the overall process of writing, enhancing the composer's ability to track the progress and pacing of a piece.

Feldman's use of the grid seems to have even impacted his text setting. Marcus recalled that upon receiving Samuel Beckett's two-stanza text for Neither, Feldman immediately covered all but the first line. After setting the first line, he moved the paper down to the reveal the second line. This line by line technique clearly parallels the process of constructing an instrumental work grid by grid.

In addition to examining formal concerns both local and global, Marcus made a number of interesting observations about surface details in Feldman's music. He often creates a sense of rubato via the careful deployment of polyrhythms. His use of slurs results in irregular rhythmic articulations. Similar out of synch moments occur when he assigns a percussive roll to multiple instruments rather than just one. One of my favorite slides from the lectures showed a sketch containing a series of pitches, each with a number written above. The numbers represented how many instruments Feldman planned to assign a given pitch. As Marcus pointed out, this careful distribution of forces is an effective way to naturally generate extreme dynamic subtlety without relying on dynamic markings alone.

Feldman's capacity to cleverly extract nuanced sounds from players is a virtue that Marcus continually extolled throughout her lectures. She talked at length about how complexity in Feldman results not from the individual part (horizontal), but rather from the vertical alignment of all parts. Furthermore, Marcus emphasized the fact that Feldman's scores rarely include sounds that a traditionally trained Classical musician cannot execute. This last point seems a bit misleading. While it may be true in the sense that Feldman generally avoided extended techniques and utilized fairly clear notation, his works nonetheless require unprecedented physical and mental endurance. As someone who has performed Piano and String Quartet, I can attest to the fact that Feldman's fondness for pulseless, shifting meters makes ensemble coordination quite challenging. I agree that composers must often find work-around solutions to seamlessly render dense passages. This is especially true given the fact that we are are rarely afforded the luxury of endless rehearsal time and patient, willing performers. While Feldman's notation may not be nearly as prohibitive as that of other contemporary composers, considerable demands lurk.

Marcus wrapped up her lectures by encouraging more scholarly investigations of Feldman's music. Indeed, the grid technique alone strikes me as the perfect subject for a book or thesis. Marcus stated that scholars must consult the original vellums because the measures in the printed editions are redistributed, thus eliminating one's ability to clearly see the grid. While it seems unlikely that publishers would be willing to print new editions in accordance with the grids, I hope that some of the vellums might be reproduced in a special volume. 

If over the course of her lectures Marcus occasionally took on an evangelical tone, it was understandable. In addition to knowing Feldman personally, I can imagine that she feels a certain frustration with the lack of attention given to his music in the United States, especially on the part of mainstream orchestras, ensembles, scholars and pedagogues. What many fail to realize is that Feldman was not merely "experimental." There is a profound dialogue with the past that permeates his sound world. All composers must contend with this inescapable continuum, a fact that I am reminded of every day when I walk out of my apartment in Woodside, Queens - the same place where Feldman grew up. While Roosevelt Avenue may not be the Rue Fürstemberg, I can clearly see Feldman walking down this loud, steel-roofed street much as he saw Heine while wandering the Left Bank.

Nothing had changed in the street. And I saw Heine up at the corner, walking toward me. He almost reached me...What I feel the most is not in respect to the public, or even to myself. I have the feeling that I cannot betray this continuity, this thing I carry with me. The burden of history.