Friday 22 May 2009

Morton Feldman - For Philip Guston [I-II] (1992)

"This monolithic four-plus hour work, composed very late in Feldman's career, is among his longest; only "String Quartet No. 2" (at six hours) and "For Christian Wolf" (at over three) are in its company. But it is this work, and in particular this performance, that reveals Feldman's particular obsession with discovery. However, his means are far different than most composers, yet not unlike those of the namesake of this piece, Philip Guston, a father of abstract expressionism, to whom Feldman had also dedicated a short piano piece in the 1950s. Feldman's "abstract" music, with its insistence on sparse passages and quiet, was also one of total control. Listening back to a music he had created in which strict adherence to a score was necessary for the players, Feldman found himself, and what he found was known only to him. But listeners are set free to wander these long hours wherever the eyes of the soul may take them. An earlier recording of this piece by Eberhard Blum and company on the Hat Art label was stilted and academic; it came off as if the composer himself was attempting some gargantuan exercise, which didn't ring true when placed against the body of Feldman's work. This version, by members of the wonderful California EAR Unit, is far more relaxed, a necessity given the score's restrictive architecture. Perhaps the most striking thing about this piece is that, in the 104 pages that comprise the score, no two passages bear the same time signature! It doesn't matter whether there is a notated silence, a cluster of short chords on the celeste or piano, or a single note or two spaced within the same measure; each passage, by nature of its place in stretching the notion of time itself, is given an identity so unique that it appears as whole and disappears as fragment when the next passage begins. Proportion is everything in this work, and the players seem to understand this implicitly. Each note is precise in pitch and timbre; each is played without a hint of the enormous tension in the score. At no time is the strident pursuit of the score's demands relaxed. In the last bars, after over four hours of music, the time signatures run 7/4, 6/4, 5/4, 9/8, 11/8, and 13/8, followed by a silent measure (which sounds perfectly welcome as an instrument here) of 2/2, 5/4, 5/4, and 6/4, which moves directly into another silent measure of 2/2, 13/8, 9/8, and 11/8, and the final, disappearing 2/2 (so quiet that it almost wasn't played). Feldman has created an "abstraction of exactitude" in this homage to his friend, which is exactly the manner in which Guston the artist extracted everything from himself. Silence plays its usual pivotal role here, not as ether to emerge from, but as the platform to which all notes are held in the end. They emerge from and add immeasurably to the previous silence, as a meditator's breath disappears into the universal stream of emptiness and becomes one with it.
The sound here is phenomenal, clean and clear throughout.
This is the definitive performance of this work to date and, given its length, will probably be for some time to come." [in ~all music]

Morton Feldman

"The relationship between Feldman and Philip Guston was perhaps the strongest mutual influence in the New York School of Painters and Musicians. Feldman was friends with all the New York School Painters, but with Guston there was a deep aesthetic bond. Guston's love affair with color in his Abstract Expressionist period is similar to Feldman's love of sheer sound...interestingly, both men were criticized for creating works that were "too beautiful" in a time when beauty had become suspect in Art. But later in life, the two men became estranged. Guston returned to figuration in his late, ominous cartoon-like works, and Feldman never quite forgave the betrayal of the Abstract Expressionist ideals by his friend. Though they never officially broke the friendship, the close bonds they had once had cooled.

"painting, smoking, eating" [painting from Philip Guston, 1973] & Philip G. at his atlier

But when Guston died in 1980, the floodgates poured out for Feldman. For Philip Guston, completed in 1984, was one of a series of late works that were tributes to Feldman's friends, both living and dead. For Philip Guston is one of the longest of these works, clocking in at around four hours, depending on tempo chosen. By the time of these late works, Feldman was more interested in "scale" than in form, and For Philip Guston is one of his longest works, topped only by the Second String Quartet. It is scored for one of Feldman's most common instrumental groupings, flute (doubling alto flute) percussion (mostly mallet percussion) and piano (doubling Celeste). The work unfolds in an almost timeless manner. Beginning with a haunting "theme" of four notes, the three instruments circle around each other, floating in and out of tonality, at barely a whisper for the full four hours. Feldman's ear for complex harmony and the unique sounds of his instruments is astounding. And his balance between sound and silence is almost hypnotic.

The ensemble on this disc has an incredible pedigree in this music. Both Blum and Williams played regularly with Feldman as a trio and the work was written for them. There is never a sense of hurry, nor of the incredible concentration that is required to interpret the rhythmic complexities of this work. All three players show a great sense of tonal balance and control, essential for this music, and Vigeland coaxes warmth out of the piano that approaches the unique sound of Feldman himself on piano. The other competing set for this work, The California EAR Unit on New Albion, is also an excellent performance, but to my ear, this Hat Hut recording has the edge, both in performance and in sonics." [in ~amazon customer review]

click on the back cover CD pict for info about the tracks and musicians.

Digital recording 19-21 August 1991, Slee Concert Hall, University of Buffalo, New York.

Released in 1992 by Hat Hut's records : HAT NOW SERIES :

linkCD1 | linkCD2 @320


grasprelease said...

Heya J! I haven't been to your blog in ages, but it's a nice one. It's nice to see all your sfrp contributions side by side, with the significant added bonus of all the descriptions and images and whatnot. Really adds to the sound-exploration experience! Ok, enough for now....cheers!

stefan said...

Yeah, Feldman is THE man! Many thanks Juju!

KRENG said...

This stuff is just perfect. Thank you for confronting me & other listeners with real challenges. Great blog!

LO said...

First of all, congratulations for this excellent choice. I found the contradiction between reviews very interesting and revealing, but I must say this interpretation does sound strangely stale for someone who first had contact with the piece through the Albion EAR edition. One guesses it would work otherwise if it had happened the other way around, so I'd still say this piece is as perfect as it gets.

>>>>> said...


Anonymous said...

and great work on the blog. kepp it up!

guston said...

thanks for these shares! late call, but would be happy if you could provide disc 3 and 4 of the set as well.

Anonymous said...

how about discs 3 + 4? that would be lovely.

Amber said...

Yeah, Feldman is THE man! Many thanks Juju!

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