Morton Feldman did not compose much music for violin and piano.
This two-disc set contains all of his music for this duo, together
with one work for four pianos. Most of these are from the 1950s
and 1960s, with the exception of the 1977 Spring of Chosroes,
which dates from the beginning of Feldman’s “late”
period, and the long 1982 work, For John Cage.
The earliest examples are from the period when Feldman experimented
with graphic notation and indeterminacy. While the style of
these works is somewhat different from the music for which Feldman
would come to be known, they generally feature the same type
of quiet, sparse structures as his later output. Vertical
Thought 2 is a good example of this. Occasional notes and
chords penetrate the silence, creating a mysterious sound.
The 1981 work, For Aaron Copland - short for the pieces
that Feldman composed in that period at just over four minutes
- features a series of single violin notes that slowly explore
the range of notes the instrument can play. Sketching out unexpressed
chords, this work for solo violin contains a breath-like rhythm
that sounds as if it would be at home with a piano accompaniment.
The 1957 Piece for Four Pianos is composed in a way that
each of four pianos plays the same notes, but at their own slow
tempo. In some ways, this prefigures Terry Riley’s In
C, where musicians would each play a number of melodic phrases,
deciding when they wanted to move on to the next. The listener
is constantly hearing echoes of what came before, but never
at the same rhythm. On this recording, Steffen Schleiermacher
performed each of the parts on a separate track, and they were
then mixed together. This leaves me wondering how much of the
music depends on the actual interplay of four pianists as opposed
to one performer playing each part on its own. That said, this
is a haunting work that is, in some ways, too short at just
under 12 minutes.
The 1977 composition Spring of Chosroes is short and
marks the beginning of Feldman’s late period. At just
under 16 minutes, one finds here the type of work that Feldman
would compose for one hour or more until the end of his life
For John Cage, at over 76 minutes, is one of Feldman’s
longer pieces. It has been recorded many times, notably by violinist
Paul Zukofsky, who premiered it, with Marianne Schroeder on
piano. Similar to many of Feldman’s late works, this starts
out with a simple two-note interval played alternately on violin
and piano. This then shifts to different octaves and different
notes, and different forms. This simple phrase gives birth to
a variety of variations that increase in length, that explore
different shapes and notes, and that continue their changes
throughout the work. Played at a minimal volume, this piece
is one where the silence between the notes is, perhaps, more
important than the notes themselves. It’s quite hypnotic,
like many of Feldman’s other long works, one that builds
up over time yet fades away at the end as though it never was.
This is an interesting set, dominated by the disc-long For
John Cage. Any fan of Feldman’s works should own a
recording of this piece. The other, earlier pieces, are interesting
for completists, though the Piece for Four Pianos is
certainly a discovery for me.
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog