Some people like to think that music is always somehow about something… usually them. My bad love affair, the world will never understand me, much less remember me. And lots of music — from the troubadours with their songs of courtly love to the meditations and dramas of the romantics to the skitterings and upheavals of the New Vienna School — have been a kind of narrative of this beleaguered self, or if you will, the audience’s identification with the composer’s ups and downs. But the New York School of Earle Brown (1926-2002), Christian Wolff (1936- ), John Cage (1912 -1992), and Morton Feldman (1926-1987) threw this book out the window. Like the abstract expressionist painters with whom they were friendly, they believed in the concept of art as abstraction, not a representation of something external. They wanted their listeners to experience music as sound unmoored from any story frame, an event in and of itself. Morton Feldman made a career out this approach and his focus on the specifics of sound was his calling card.
FOR JOHN CAGE (1982), which violinist Graeme Jennings, late of the Arditti Quartet, and and Christopher Jones performed here in mid-September as part of the sfSound Series, has all the stylistic hallmarks of his late work. It’s ultra soft – down to ppp – has an evenness of color, and its duration –78 miniutes– is roughly the same as a Bruckner or Mahler symphony, or the Beethoven 9th. But what happens in that time frame is an entirely different story.
Feldman isn’t after a logical dialectical continuity but an ahistorical present, and this can make his music, with its fragmentary gestures, seem odd, or even empty. But Jennings and Jones made that lack of “content “ convincing, and urgent. A slow steady sequence of quietly inflected piano chords sounded as if they were going somewhere, and Jenning’s playing of Feldman’s circumscribed violin gestures — cells, simple, spaced chords, harmonics -– was equally acute. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the composer achieved a kind of Brechtian alienation effect/affect by having the violinist use a leather mute, and the pianist play with the damper pedal half depressed so that the music appeared to disappear as it was being heard.
Classic masters like Brahms meditated on the past in the solo movements of his violin sonatas, but that past existed within a kind of narrative frame, whereas here only a present past survived. Feldman’s music is both annoying –- when will it change, and where will it end ? –- and transcendent, and Jennings and Jones came down squarely on the side of the latter. And the music seemed to gain much of its poetry from the place where it was played. A big mirrored dance rehearsal studio, with a spic and span Steinway grand where each sound had its tenuous, and all too fleeting life.