Thursday, 27 March 2014

Morton Feldman, For John Cage [Café Oto, 25.03.14]

[performed by Aisha Orazbayeva (violin) and Mark Knoop (piano)]

Disregard any first-half record players positioned to ‘play’ suspended microphone-suspended violins as any old visual, cod-performance, cod-aural gimmick, complete with the dressing of quasi pop-songs spicing up the classical world in utter dilution –ok disrupt things, but for fuck’s sake do it well, not just some tolerated hoop everyone jumps through or watches someone else jump through because someone’s told someone that someone else thinks it’s cool, and everyone politely knows better. But no one really came for that, anyway. Listening to the Feldman, then, feeling the simultaneous sense of some sort of serenity, but that isn’t the right word, really, and some sort of despair or panic; things are held, things are slow and quiet but then suddenly they speed up like a tiny breathless race only to move back to something else. The piano and violin in unison or alternation unwind a scale, a unison which is always slightly morphing, always slightly off-centre. There are about four or five moves which get repeated, transitioned between: in one of them, the violin repeatedly bows a single note over piano chords, extremely high, like a constantly-repeated whispered scream, then moves back to a more conventionally varied scheme, hands execute a dance up and down the strings, the violinist could execute a note perfectly and it will still sound fluffed, edged with harmonics, scraping away at the instrument’s romantic cantabile capacity to get inside and beyond all that. At those moments of scream, the music almost gets unbearable, though it’s not a scream in terms of harshness of pitch, more in terms of long drawn-out held-in intensity which never fully extends itself, releases itself, always moves back into a repetition or a variation of a different kind of thing. Sometimes it’s actually actively funny, an obvious tonal repetition, a scale, a unison passage, a child rehearsing and repeating the simplest things with the patience a child would never have. Transposition, the return of the same material, movement without movement. It could go on. A particular scalar move starts to recur more and more towards the end, a refrain of sorts. The piece doesn’t feature much silence or many pauses, if any, the piano sustain-pedalled almost throughout, or so it seemed, not so much as a cavernous resonant quasi-religious ex-cathedra echo chamber easily posing as mystical aura, dispensing the gravity of aesthetic beauty and wisdom, extending in time that feeling of enlarged space, but instead a structural mode of slight extension and discontinuous continuity. Mostly the two instruments play together or in close proximity / alternation, sometimes one will ‘solo’ briefly. Material is shared, the players almost seem to try and trip each other up, are made to so, in tricky synchronicity, Knoop looks up each time they need to make a dual entrance, land on the same point. Orazbayeva’s legs on the floor extend into weird shadows, simultaneously extended and huge and miniaturized into a shadow-homunculus, both infinitely extended and infinitely reduced as Feldman’s late music might be said to be. Development, progression, the concerto argument of the subject extending in or against collectives, etc, the whole romantic bourgeois-revolutionary or religious tradition or nature tone-poems or what have you, has no place here, the music is not even a dialogue so much, though there are aspects of that, instruments are in the same place and the music is a whole, written for all of them. Is it a private music? In a sense it’s so familiar and so easily recognizable as a style that anyone could do it now, or think that they could do it, but what does it yield up to us or to each listener specifically and personally, what emotion is there or do I read in, shooed away for Yoko Ono to bring her jam to town when we just wanted to sit there to recover, still in that position of enforced physical stillness, the slowing down of breathing. Feldman’s music, at this length, is easy to follow, though there are inevitably moments of slight drift, even if its similarity of materials wouldn’t enable a reconstruction of the piece absolutely chronologically or in its entirety, that kind of summary. But the reduced set-up perhaps makes it less easy to get lost in, washed over, as, say, ‘Coptic Light’, the focus is easier, though equally absorptive. This is not music of drama, or struggle, except as that is, whatever, where it has come from, been distilled from, or not; not even like those moments in, bad comparison, Helmut Lachenmann, where you get musical history through the ruins, or that sort of thing – even, say, the comfortably regressive melancholy variant of that you might find in post-minimalists or post-Romantics like Valentin Silvestrov; not even that, or not at all, the concern above all with process, extension, limitation, temporal exploration, sticking with a thing and doing it, development of attention, not to some spuriously opened framework of the aesthetic beauty of hipster’s farts, toilet door squeaks, police sirens and passing trains in the extend intervals between a barely-sounded e-bowed squeak, but to the piece itself, listening to its expanded inwardness, inwardness of expansion, a room of people giving quiet regard to the work while people outside are looking in at the windows, the spectacle of a roomful of listeners to a sound you cannot hear highlighting some sense of social absurdity, open for everyone to see. You could valourize this discourse of enclosure, safety, a carved-out space against some vulgar monster outside, but would you really want to: the music is all those terms dropped out of the magic moments hat – patience, delicacy, fragility, monotony – but it is also extremely assertive, violent even, in its following-through of intention, or steadfastly pragmatic, whatever goal is or is not in sight, if that’s really the term to use – in, for instance, its insistence on extending a territory for longer than might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘comfortable’ and then, once that extension’s been settled in, moving on to something else again. Not boring, not sentimental or easily open but tender, not easy but absolutely there in its surface, being nothing else except what it is, you there, too, sitting quite still, not even sure what to think or what to feel.

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