These three works were completed in a short space of time, between April and July 1976. Morton Feldman had accepted a commission to write an opera, Neither, on a text by Samuel Beckett, and these pieces were a preparation. Feldman said, “All three pieces contain what I call ‘Beckett material’ – a long, continuous melodic line that I planned to use in my Beckett opera. Now the opera Neither is finished, and I didn’t even use the ‘Beckett material’ there.”
The booklet describes the pitch sequence and structure of the music, but while they are a ‘family’ group they are not exceptionally different from Feldman’s other work in this period. Orchestra opens fairly dramatically, but the PPP tensions and changing timbres, the emergence of sound from silence and the occasional surprise of consonance amongst slowly transforming dissonances are all unmistakable Feldman features. The atmosphere deepens as the work progresses, with enigmatic piano chords calling each other gently from either side of the stage, surrounded in time by chilling clusters from winds and strings and fading into a deathly hush.
Elemental Procedures was commissioned by the WDR in Cologne for a programme of music entitled ‘New Simplicity’. Feldman “wrote, for me, an unusually complex piece. And I was very embarrassed by the fact that it was on a festival called ‘The New Simplicity’.” Elemental Procedures may be complex in content, but it is easier to appreciate in its manifestation. Chord progressions and choral textures that remind us of Rothko Chapel offer a sense of familiarity, and the soprano plus orchestra setting is equally unchallenging, with plenty of stunningly beautiful moments. Beckett’s text, not given in the booklet, is expressed ‘as abstract phonetic articulation’ with only occasional fragmented words being perceived. This text is from an obscure Beckett artefact called Film, in which Buster Keaton ‘plays a character who runs away from his self-awareness.’ Feldman’s collaboration with Beckett and the significance of their encounter is also outlined in the booklet.
Soloist Claudia Barainsky sustains the high lines of her part admirably, and the recorded balance between her and both the choir and the orchestra works very well. Feldman explained that the title Elemental Procedures refers to “basic compositional techniques like retrograde, repetition, variation, etc.”, but the work is by no means a bare-bones exposition of musical treatments. With potent atmosphere and Feldman’s signature suppressed drama and stretching of time, this is a work that holds you in its grip from beginning to end.
Routine Investigations is written for only six instruments, and with its simplicity of form is the smallest in scale of this trilogy by quite a margin. Distilled into single voices, this piece very much shares the mood of the other two, crystalizing the ‘breaths’ of those single chord phrases and sustained dynamic shapes into something more intimate and personal.
All of these works can be placed in the ‘realm of abstract research into material’, but in the end isn’t all composition a research activity – an exploration into the possibilities of your material and experimentation into its effects? This trilogy is a fine example of the value of such an investment, and listening to Neither you can hear where these works provide a platform from which the mood of the opera has germinated and flourished. There seem to be no other recordings of these ‘Beckett Material’ pieces available elsewhere, so this release fills a vital gap in Feldman’s discography. Neither was recorded on the hat[now]ART label (sic) and can be had from some quarters as a bargain fifty-minute single track download. For Samuel Beckett is easier to find on disc and is a deeply fascinating if somewhat grim ‘late-period’ Feldman experience.