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Feldman memories 0015106KAI
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Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
For Bunita Marcus (1985) [73:24]
Palais de Mari (1986) [26:41]
Triadic Memories (1981) [87:01]
Alfonso Gomez (piano)
rec. 2021, Wolfgang-Hoffmann-Saal, Freiburg, Germany
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
KAIROS KAI0015106 [3 CDs: 187:00]

Despite their polar opposition in terms of duration, there is a similarity of purpose between the music of Webern and that of Feldman. Whilst Webern seeks to reduce the means of his music to the absolute minimum through extreme brevity, Feldman attempts something comparable through deploying very little means over colossal periods of time. I often imagine that Feldman’s late music is a response to a specific issue with Webern’s music. Whilst the Austrian composer succeeds at distilling his inspiration into its purest form, the same cannot be said of the busy, distracted listener weaned on music that grabs their attention and, in a sense, does a lot of the work for them. Webern’s music is always over before the listener is in the right condition to listen to it. Feldman’s music might be seen as a means of conditioning such listeners and I am as guilty as anyone of listening to music whilst sending emails or reading online articles and of being too distracted to really listen. It is inducing this intent, creative listening that is the true genius of Feldman, not his deployment of rhythm or melody or harmony. As the notes to this release point out, Feldman’s pieces are not ritualistic but are, in themselves, rituals.

In a strange way every performance of Feldman’s later music is the same and every performance is utterly different. Same because their scale and limited range of notes mean that they don’t or can’t linger in the memory in the same way that other music does but different because these pieces are as much about a ritual enactment as the notes. No two performances, even by the same performer, can be identical given the huge span of the music. The performer must go through the same experiences as the listener and each experience of that ritual is unique even as the quiet wandering notes appear to be going over and over the same phrases when in fact it is shapeless and floating. The performer’s role is to undergo the ritual of the performance so that we, the listeners, can undergo the enactment of the ritual.

Like the later work of Samuel Beckett or the paintings of Mark Rothko, these works of Feldman are open to accusations of pretension, of the emperor’s new clothes. With all of these artists there is a mismatch between the size of the claims made by enthusiasts and the apparent paucity of material.

So what is the nature of this ritual? The casual listener who abandons one of these pieces after a few minutes has not yet experienced what makes Feldman great. In a way the frustrated experience of the extremely limited range of his music is the way into it if the listener can stick with it. The listener is even robbed of the predictable hum of rhythm that one gets in the music of Glass or Reich. Everything is disconcerting but in a subdued way. There is no narrative and no drama. There seems to be little variation or even colour. The ritual begins by limiting the field of possibilities to point of testing the listener’s patience. Eventually as the music progresses a shift takes place in the attentive listener. It is a kind of surrender, a giving up of searching for the usual consolations of music. Bunita Marcus is quoted as describing it as a floating feeling. In this state we are finally ready to really listen with proper attention and in doing so we begin to hear what we previously resisted. At this point we start to hear what Feldman’s music is all about. The magic emerges from tiny details our impatience made us deaf to.

As a consequence of all of this, comparisons between performances of these pieces is almost impossible. Each artist brings their own unique experience to the music just as, at each listen, the listener brings theirs. The only issue is does a recording take the listener on that attentive listening journey and this recording most certainly does. In fairness, I have not yet heard a recording of these pieces which failed to do so but I treasure the subtle differences in the ways each succeeds. In Feldman’s music, tiny differences that might otherwise be overlooked become wonders.

This is an exceptionally gentle performance and Gomez pays great attention the sonic penumbra that so often floats like a haze around Feldman’s notes. Pacing is an other essential element of this music and I enjoyed Alfonso Gomez’ calm, steadiness which whilst slow reminded me of a Buddhist breathing exercise or the movements in Tai Chi. All of this gives this recording a beautiful naturalness. Very quickly the mind drifts away from the processes of Feldman’s art to a different kind of contemplation where the music seems to evolve like the opening of the leaves on a tree. Obviously it helps that Kairos have afforded him such a limpid recording. The image the piano sound evoked in my mind was of ripples on an otherwise perfectly still lake. One entirely typical curiosity of performing Feldman is that even though Gomez’ performance of Palais de Mari is quicker than probably the most high profile recording of a Feldman piece, by Igor Levit, it feels slower than the Russian’s version.

If you have yet to discover the magical world of Morton Feldman then this recording is an excellent introduction. If you are already an aficionado then be assured that this is a recording that goes deep into Feldman’s unique oeuvre.

David McDade

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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