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S & H International Recital Review

Morton Feldman, "Triadic Memories", Marilyn Nonken, Piano, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City, October 26, 2003 (BH)

According to the composer, this piece is "a bit like walking through the streets of Berlin -- where all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not." If that’s the case, perhaps we all should visit Berlin periodically, as Feldman’s distinctive sound world is unlike any other, and in marked contrast to say, the "new complexity," just to cite a genre at the opposite end of the spectrum. This work, like many of his others, is long (ninety minutes without pause) and very soft; the dynamic level rarely rises above "ppp." It is a remarkable piece, especially when performed with the concentration and artistry shown here by the talented Marilyn Nonken.

In her refreshingly straightforward program notes, she explained that she chose "to maintain a steady eighth-note pulse throughout that approximates the heart rate at rest." This is substantially slower than in some of the recordings (i.e., versions by Takahashi or Goldstein), and the result was an almost physical sense of tranquility that pervaded the performance and lingered for hours afterward.

The work begins with notes at either end of the keyboard, in the highest and lowest registers. These spare, delicate, but deliberately placed phrases are repeated with slight variations, and then slowly close in, collapsing, expanding, and breathing in mesmerizing patterns. Clusters of major and minor second intervals seem especially present in many of Feldman’s designs, but perhaps because I still had last week’s concert version of Pelléas et Melisande in my head, I heard a good deal of Debussy in the score. And despite the seeming simplicity, Nonken found colors that might have evaded lesser artists, and deployed an exquisite sense of timing to create Feldman’s grandly scaled surface. Watching her liquid, graceful hands hovering above the piano, about to rest on the next chord, I thought, What if a finger accidentally lands and produces a sound slightly louder -- say, mezzoforte? It is a tribute to Nonken’s stunning expertise that she maintained the crystalline, meditative mood for the entire span.

I eventually checked my watch -- once -- not out of impatience but because I was surprised at how much time had passed: about an hour’s worth. As with Cage’s work, one is aware of tiny sounds in the room: a ballpoint pen clacking as it hits the floor, a program dropped with that little swooshing thud as it hit the ground, someone’s stomach in a muffled gurgle, throats softly clearing. Perhaps miraculously, we were treated to a mobile phone-less occasion, unfortunately the exception these days.

Subtle lighting has become a hallmark of Miller Theatre in recent years, and in this case the design enhanced the slowly evolving, contemplative score. Wearing a stylish short black dress, Nonken was silhouetted against a dark, maroon-colored background, which gradually brightened to scarlet, with the hues then cycling through lawn-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and ending with a brilliant sky blue as the piece came to rest, exactly 87 minutes later. (Thanks to an anonymous listener sitting behind me, who supplied the timing.)

As a slightly amusing side note, Nonken noted that the score requires the pianist to depress the pedal halfway throughout the entire piece, an instruction that was completed with Nonken wearing calf-length black leather boots, with very high heels. I would have thought that a piece like this would mandate more comfortable footwear, but can only muse that in this case, it played some small role in the extraordinary success of the afternoon.

Bruce Hodges

NB: In addition to Nonken’s notes, I am grateful to Chris Villars, for maintaining the following immensely helpful page of links to Feldman’s work and commentary about it:



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