Our latest (Un)easy Listening post uncovers the music of Morton Feldman, ahead of our in-the-round performance at St John’s Smith Square on Saturday 10 October. Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, reveals some of the devices and techniques Feldman uses in this inspirational music.
Morton Feldman For Samuel Beckett
composed in 1987 l for 23 players l duration c. 55 mins
Iconic American composer Morton Feldman was 61 when he wrote For Samuel Beckett. It was the last piece he wrote and was commissioned by the Holland Festival for the Schoenberg Ensemble.
Feldman was a close friend of fellow New Yorker John Cage and in the 1950s and 60s, under his influence and that of visual artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston, experimented with graphic notation to write music that avoided the conventions of Western classical music.
In 1970 he wrote Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, a beautiful, hypnotic elegy for his childhood piano teacher. This short chamber piece marked a shift to more conventionally notated, and therefore precise, music. In this later period Feldman was fascinated with creating very slow, moving harmonic worlds that explore musical resonance, space and repetition with an incredibly concise and unique attention to orchestration. He also started to write extremely long works, in order to lift the audience out of conventional expectations when listening to a piece of music: his String Quartet No.2 (1979) is 100 minutes long and For Philip Guston (1984) is four hours long.
For me Feldman’s music sounds like nothing else, in the way it physically inhabits a musical space like a three dimensional object. It constantly sounds just out of reach, ungraspable and blurred but in the most exquisite way.
For Samuel Beckett is harmonically very static as it obsessively re-presents the same musical idea, but what is so fascinating is that it’s constantly shifting and moving, like a musical carousel. Different groups of instruments have different roles and co-exist, mirroring and echoing each other. The wind and brass have constantly overlapping chords, which shift and change in relation to each other. Harp, piano and vibraphone have constantly pulsing bell-like figures and the strings (mostly playing harmonics) briefly capture chords to create a resonance.
The only dynamic marking is ‘ppp’. Feldman liked quiet dynamics. He once said:
“…when it’s loud, you can’t hear the sound. You hear its attack. Then you don’t hear the sound, only in its decay”.
Concentrated listening is required to fully appreciate a piece of Feldman as it washes over you and I think it’s important to climb aboard as soon as the piece starts, to really notice the subtle changes. This recording comes in two parts, here are a few things to listen out for in the musical landscape:
- High Ab and Bb (a seventh lower) passing between clarinet, oboe and flute in the opening 1:00.
- Brass chords echoed in the strings and woodwind: 1:16 – 1:59.
- Ab/Bb ostinato in the piano, vibraphone and harp from 0:58 all the way to 13:36.
- At times the music freezes and loops around: 5:19 – 6:07 (listen out for the high G note in the flute at 5:31) and 6:48 – 7:40 (with the high flute note again).
- The entry of the tuba at 1:14 with a low D at the bottom of a brass chord is the lowest note so far in the piece. When it moves in other places it has a huge effect on the harmony: a tone up to E at 11:47, down to C at 12:49 and to a low B at track 2, 2:15.
- At 14:10 the music briefly coalesces then at 14:25 focuses on a gently pulsing piano and vibraphone chord.<
- Two oboes and string harmonics are briefly exposed at 16:03 – 16:10, two flutes at 15:56, trumpets at 18:03 – 18:21 then a chord consisting of only string harmonics at track 2, 0:00 – 0:13.
- Track 2, 21:01 this is an extremely important moment because it marks the beginning of the end, as a harp harmonic is left on it’s own to resonate. Moments of silence (with resonance) get more frequent from here on, until the piece ends.
At this point in the blog I’d normally include a list of composers influenced by Feldman. But on this occasion it’s impossible: almost every composer I’ve ever spoken to admires and is influenced by his music.