Posts Tagged ‘Christian Wolff’

I need to take a minute to thank my friend, the composer Nicholas Chase, for explaining to me how Third Angle got SQ2 down to 4 hours. While I could see the computer display of the score from my seat, and I thought it was a great idea, I could not actually always read the score. That’s the downside of bad eyes. Nick could; and he told me that two basic performance elements affected the duration of the piece. One, they did not perform all the repeats; two they counted beats almost robotically for at least 2 hours and in doing so limited the possibility of the durational extension that comes from asynchronous counting.

I tend to agree with what Nick told me about the repeat issue when, in his email to me, he said: “Feldman added repeats to create proportion within a piece, they weren’t mindlessly added to generate scale. It’s a common mistake of groups unfamiliar with Feldman’s *methods* (even if they’re familiar with his music) to believe that the repeats are superficial and not an integral part of the whole work….” In other words, skipping repeats isn’t really true to Feldman’s intent. I agree with that but I stand behind my contention that, while not the most “true-to-Morty” SQ2 performance, it was a very strong performance of a very difficult work. Personally, I hope that Third Angle will ask for feedback from some of the Feldman experts in their audience and will take what they have learned and parlay it into a world-class performance. I think they have the capacity to do that and I hope this is not their last attempt.

Now, as for the second Feldman performance, I have almost nothing bad to say. What I do want to mention is that I don’t think that a 5 minute excerpt of a 4 – 6 hour piece is effective. I would rather have heard one of Feldman’s early short pieces than an excerpt of SQ2. We used to have these crazed intellectual discussions, when Phil Glass started writing short pieces like those on “Glasssworks”, about whether minimalism could work in short duration pieces. For 35 years my answer has been “no” and I think that contention applies to Morty’s long pieces too. The POINT of SQ2 is it’s SCALE. In 5 minutes, you can’t get that point. With that minor opinion stated, I will say that the “Rothko Chapel” concert was a stunning event. If the biggest complaint I have is that I got to hear 5 minutes of SQ2, you should be PROUD. THAT is how I hope that the Third Angle Ensemble, The Resonance Ensemble, and The Portland Art Museum all feel. It was a GREAT night.

I told you that the “Rothko Chapel” performance was unique and I promised to tell you why. Here it is:

Third Angle subtitled their concert “a conversation in words and music”. Their use of “words” was fabulous. Instead of simply performing 8 pieces of music, the concert couched all 8 works in the context of the 1966 – 67 Cage/Feldman “Radio Happenings” from WBAI New York. In between each piece of music they played excerpts of the radio broadcasts of Cage and Feldman in conversation. Then the music reflected some aspect of what was said.  For example, prior to performing Webern’s “Sechs Bagatellen” was an excerpt of Cage and Feldman discussing how they both first experienced that piece (so overwhelmed that they did not want to hear the remainder of the concert). That piece began the program and what followed were Cage’s “Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard” and “Imaginary Landscape #4” (that wacky piece for 12 radios); “Violist Piece #1” and part 1 of “Burdocks” by Christian Wolff; and three examples of Morty’s music – one five-minute excerpt from SQ2,” Projection 4″ for violin and vibes, and the glorious “Rothko Chapel”. All of the performances were well executed and, I have to say, “Rothko Chapel” was a fine performance that was true to Feldman’s aesthetic. The vocalists were wonderful. They all came from a group called the “Resonance Ensemble”, a new ensemble lead by Dr. Katherine FitzGibbon. This is a complete non sequitur but I kept listening to one of the sopranos with the déjà vu feeling that I was listening to Cathy Berberian. I’m telling you that because I love Berberian’s voice and I don’t lightly compare it to others. So, whichever of the 6 of you it was, you are a lovely vocalist and I think you should sing some Berio! 🙂

There was a visual aspect to the show as well. The room was laid out in such a way as to feel like a space similar to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Not dark and sacred but still comfortably and reverently enclosed. Bruce Guenther, the museum’s chief curator (who I have praised in the past) did the lighting design. Curtains surrounding the space displayed a variety of lighting with colors derived from many of those used in Rothko’s paintings before he turned to his final period of dark panels. The lighting was pleasing and the environment very conducive to experiencing the concert in a Rothko-laden context. Nice work Mr. Guenther!

Let me finish by simply saying that Third Angle (along with PAM and Resonance) deserve a very heartfelt congratulations. True, I came to hear Feldman and I don’t like Cage. But it was an exceptional program. Besides, I’ve been in Portland for nearly 23 years and I can’t remember a single performance of Christian Wolff. So, it’s clear that Third Angle is dedicated to bringing critical new music to Portland and that they are essentially the only ones who so effectively will take the risk.

Superb work and a wonderful augmentation of the Rothko show. John and Morty are no doubt smiling!

The visual artists who formed the New York School are, often, more well-known than their contemporaries from other creative disciplines. That, however, does not mean that the “school” was limited to painters. The choreographer Merce Cunningham was there with them. So too were a number of widely respected contemporary composers; specifically Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Earle Brown. I had the great honor of knowing, and studying with three of the 4 composers I just mentioned: Cage, Feldman, and Brown.

In the case of Cage, I must say that I don’t really like his music. No matter how many times I went out to pick yarrow stalks, I just can’t get into composing by random application of the I Ching.  But, know this, I may not like what he did, but I have enormous respect for the seriousness with which he did it. I remember once at CalArts when we composition students were preparing a performance of “Cartridge Music” and someone decided that we should end it with a crescendo that had not come from our I Ching tosses. Lucky Mosko made it really clear that we should NOT do that because it disrespected John’s work and, equally important, because John would know we’d taken liberties and he’d be hurt. I may not like everything people call music. But, if they do it seriously and they know what they are doing, I’ll respect them. That’s Cage.

Earle Brown was the one of the three who I knew best. He actually stayed at CalArts for an entire term as guest composer. I remember exactly where I was standing and what I was doing, following my graduation recital, when Earle came to tell me that he’d liked my percussion trio. I though my life was complete! He was a fun guy and his music was fun as well.

Feldman was the one who came to CalArts the least often. But, I have to say that he had among the greatest impact. Morty (everyone called him “Morty”) was a BIG guy: heavy-set, loud, chain-smoking, bearing a very strong NY accent, and adorned with huge hands. Everyone already knows this, because everyone says it, but I can tell you from experience that you would never in your wildest imagination think that this guy would be the delightfully kind soul who’d write a 6 hour string quartet or would use ppppp as a common dynamic marking. He and his music were diametrically opposite. Feldman was a truly amazing man. He was a simply lovely human being and he took his music VERY seriously. A case could be made that Morty’s second string quartet could have had the same effect that it has, whether or not it was completely notated. Yet, at least by his mid- to late-music, Morty definitely notated! He was specific and he was exacting. Whether his music was 20 minutes or 6 hours, Morty never gave in to a sacrifice of precision.  He CARED about every single note.

The other thing I remember about Morty was that he was a superb jazz pianist. More than once I can remember gathering in Music School Dean Nick England’s office to drink beers and to listen to Morty and Mel Powell jam together on Nick’s office Steinway. Both Morty and Mel had hands that spanned well over an octave and both of them had amazing chops. Mel played piano for Benny Goodman while still a child. I don’t know where Morty became the pianist he was, but he could kick some serious ass on the keys.

My point in telling you all of this is to explain why I an excited that Third Angle is performing Feldman’s music in conjunction with the Portland Rothko Retrospective. I really liked the guy and was very, very sad when he died of pancreatic cancer in 1987, at only 61. Third Angle could have made a variety of other decisions. They could have decided to do Earle Brown’s “Centering” or Cage’s piano music, or a whole range of amazing music by Christian Wolff. But they chose Feldman; this makes me happy but it is also the most obvious and by far the most àpropos choice.

You see, of all these American composers, it was Feldman who was closest to Rothko. They were dear friends. In fact, after Rothko killed himself, Feldman was one of the original 5 board members at the Mark Rothko Foundation. Morty was one of the only 2 ethical guys who cared more about Rothko’s wishes and Rothko’s family than about the monetary value of Rothko’s paintings. Morty is the perfect composer to pair with Rothko.

Third Angle could have chosen from myriad works by Feldman and, in my estimation, they selected the 2 perfect ones. This is because they picked one work that is directly related to Rothko (Rothko Chapel) and one that demonstrates an amazing dedication to Feldman himself.

On Friday February 24, 2012 Third Angle chose to perform one of the most daunting pieces of Chamber Music ever conceived. Feldman, toward the end of his career, had created works of immense scale. By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s pieces like the 80-minute “Piano and String Quartet” and equally long “String Quartet #1” were among his SHORT pieces. More typical were pieces like the 4-hour long “For Philip Guston”. Simply, listening to a Feldman piece had become a project in and of itself. But even “For Philip Guston” pales in comparison to Feldman’s String Quartet #2″. Generally the quartet clocks in at 5 – 6 1/4 hours (but, seriously, by then who’s counting!). You see, with this much music, the difference between a quarter note at 63 or 66 beats per minute makes a pretty big difference! The Third Angle performance was actually the shortest I’ve heard, at exactly 4 hours; and, frankly, I could not figure out what they did to trim it down. But there is something special about “Quartet #2” that, even at a brief 4 hours, makes it more difficult than other Feldman mega-pieces. That is the small size of the ensemble (a quartet) and the difficulty of holding string instruments for an extended period. What makes SQ2 so difficult is that, whether it’s 4 hours or 6 1/2 hours, it can wreak havoc on your hands. In fact, the famed Kronos Quartet prepared it once and then refused to ever play it again. That’s why I think it’s amazing (and amazingly wonderful) that Third Angle took on the task. So…. Bravissimo for that!

As for the Third Angle performance I really hesitate to try to write a critical review. First, as I said, I don’t know how they got the duration down to 4 hours. Second, they made several artistic decisions that I don’t understand. I won’t criticize some of those decisions because I don’t know what went into them. Specifically, aside from the 4 hour duration, the ensemble seemed to occasionally take what I can best describe as “stretch breaks”. I don’t know what to think about that so I won’t speculate on the relationship to the score. One thing that I think added a lot to the performance was the use of computer monitors to display the score for the performers. Among other things, 4 hours of page turns can be annoying and they got around that elegantly. For another, the performers had one less thing to worry about. And, for a third, it was pretty cool that, in the small space of the Ellyn Bye Studio, the audience could watch the score. The one artistic decision that I will comment on is the invitation to the audience to “come and go as you please”. From the perspective of getting an audience on a Friday afternoon from 2 – 6 PM, I get that. What surprised, and deeply disappointed, me was the general level of inconsiderate behavior of the audience members who did come and go. Audience members let their seats make an awful lot of noise when they chose to go, they talked, and they generally came and went with very little consideration for those of us who were there for the duration. I don’t disagree with the “come and go” idea. What I do think is that it should have been couched in the caveat to “not disturb others!” I found the rudeness of some attendees to be amazingly annoying. Were this a John Cage performance, the ambient noise might have been okay (in fact it may well have delighted Cage). But this is Feldman – the man who cherished every single note. I don’t think that audience noise is true to, or respectful of, Feldman. I don’t blame this on Third Angle. But, I do think that asking audience members to be quiet in their comings and goings would have made for a better experience. Then again, part of the experience of a 4 hour Feldman quartet is how you as a listener are affected by the scale of the piece and, being annoyed is as much a part of experience as anything else! Besides, the bottom line is that they DID THE PIECE and should be acknowledged for taking it on.

The performance more directly related to Mark Rothko occurred on Saturday evening March 10th. In this concert, in the Mark Building at the Art Museum, the Resonance Choral Ensemble joined Third Angle in the performance of Feldman’s piece “Rothko Chapel”. Knowing from past posts that I love both Feldman and the Chapel itself, it should come as no surprise that I love this piece. And, of course, it’s the perfect piece to accompany the Rothko show! Not only that but, unlike the second quartet, “Rothko Chapel” is accessible and, shall we say, “easy”. In some respects, in a very big departure from most of the NY School composers and even from Morty himself. Parts of the piece almost sound (dare I say) like late impressionism. So, in a sense, it’s the perfect introduction to Feldman. It is beautiful music, composed for a beautiful space, gifted (at least conceptually) from a nice guy to his dear friend, rich in its instrumentation and use of vocal resources, and an easy listen.

The Third Angle performance was unique for a variety of reasons (all positive) and, in my next post, I’ll tell you why. Stay tuned!