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Morton Feldman: Why Patterns? (1978) & Gérard Grisey: Vortex Temporum (1994-96), The New York New Music Ensemble, Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, November 15, 2004 (BH)


The New York New Music Ensemble
Jayn Rosenfeld, flute
Jean Kopperud, clarinet
Linda Quan, violin
Christopher Finckel, cello
Daniel Druckman, percussion
Stephen Gosling, piano
Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor
Guest Artist: Lois Martin, viola

 

Sitting in three discrete pools of light spaced apart on the stage, Stephen Gosling, Jayn Rosenfeld and Daniel Druckman delicately began Morton Feldman’s meditation on patterns he perceived in an Anatolian rug. The separate spotlights were an appropriate metaphor for Feldman’s idea here: the three musicians’ written parts coordinate at the beginning, but then diverge, with each part notated differently, and only converging again near the end. As with much of Feldman, this was a rewarding and very, very quiet journey, with Mr. Gosling uncharacteristically muted (an imbalance that would be addressed later in the evening), Ms. Rosenfeld meeting the challenge of making an alto flute speak quietly, and each melding beautifully with Mr. Druckman’s shimmering glockenspiel tones. As with much of Feldman, one should be prepared for the static, the hush, the sense of hovering about, that feeling that something is about to happen. One does not listen to Feldman for ecstatic forward motion, dramatic chord changes, or brutal rhythms. His language is serenely personal and delicately shaded. I sometimes find it jarring to enter Feldman’s world from busy New York streets, but once you are seduced, as here, you almost want the experience to last even longer. Why Patterns? lasts for just a half-hour, but I could have listened for twice that.


For much of the evening after hearing Grisey’s extraordinary Vortex Temporum, my head felt distorted, as if my brain had been slowly tugged out of its normal shape. This is not your father’s contemporary music, nor that of any of your other relatives. In the first section, dedicated to Gérard Zinsstag, the composer explores a sinusoidal wave, whose origin is Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. A few sentences from the composer will probably help give the reader a (very general) idea of what is going on in this music, which the composer somewhat modestly describes as “perhaps only a history of the arpeggio in time and space – from the point of view of our ears.”


“The title indicates the beginning of the system of rotation, repeated arpeggios [from Daphnis et Chloe] and their metamorphosis in various transient passages. In addition to the initial introductory vibration formula taken directly from Daphnis and Chloe, “vortex” suggested to me harmonic writings focused around the four tones of the diminished seventh chord, a rotational chord par excellence. Treating each of these tones as leading ones, we obtain the possibility of multiple modulations. Of course, we are not talking here with the tonal system but rather with considerations of what might still be relevant and innovative in this system.”


Earlier in the day, Mr. Gosling, had characterized the first movement’s uber-violent piano interlude as “crunchy,” and after hearing it, his understatement was amusing. He absolutely deserved the waves of adulation he received at the close of the evening. (After the concert was over, he received further cheers as he descended the stairs into the concert hall lobby.) Rather unexpectedly, the score asks the pianist to fairly leap from the top end of the piano to the bottom, hurling himself back and forth to negotiate the showers of notes. This is about as athletic a feat as we are likely to hear from a pianist. Mr. Gosling’s presumed accuracy in achieving Grisey’s effects meant watching him do exaggerated torso swings back and forth over the keyboard – movements that some pianists simply would not be able to do.


The second section’s dedicatee is Salvatore Sciarrino, and the movement uses the same material, but in “expanded time.” It is immediately perceived as slower, and indeed seems to draw out time into stretches that begin to play with one’s mind. In the work’s final section, a tribute to Helmut Lachenmann, the first fast section and the second slower one are combined -- the instruments bleed out tiny sound effects, such as scratches, semi-harmonics, tiny gestures, many of which use adjusted pitches, very slightly microtonal in effect. There are two ghostly interludes that come between the three movements, and as I watched Lois Martin carefully dragging her bow across her viola, producing just the barest whisper, and marveled at the composer’s showing us what exactly our ears are capable of discerning.


I’ve heard this piece just once before – the American premiere in 2003 – and this performance left me with a similar feeling of disorientation, albeit coupled with even greater admiration for the composer and the new territory he forged. This is a superb example of music that is so revolutionary, you can’t quite grasp what you are hearing, despite your mind continuously trying to plumb whatever files it can to come up with an answer. As one of the founders of the compositional movement called spectralism, Grisey’s priorities are unlike those of many other composers. Again, in the lobby following the performance, I felt slightly boggled, knowing Grisey’s mind had touched mine, but not exactly able to define exactly how.


The other outstanding members of the ensemble include Jean Kopperud, Linda Quan and Christopher Finckel, who should be strongly praised for their gutsy contributions to this extraordinary score. Jeffrey Milarsky, one of the most meticulous interpreters around, shaped this maniacally complex piece with elegance and aplomb. This is territory that few conductors would venture into, and Milarsky’s complete assurance, combined with the ferocious ability of the musicians, made Grisey’s masterwork spring to joyful, slightly mysterious life.


Bruce Hodges



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