The Ambiguous Chords of Affirmation
It was an evocatively strange and ambiguous experience to hear Anton Batagov play Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories last Sunday evening in the newly restored Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory. The room is stunning, beautiful and elegant in a way that speaks not just of easy riches but of plutocracy and power. It’s the size of a studio apartment, and sitting in it is like being in the intimate quarters of the people whose riches ensure their legacy in and on buildings across the city.
And there we heard Feldman, the last of three concerts to inaugurate the Armory’s chamber music series. Fitting and strange — a born and raised New Yorker from a middle-class that won’t exist for many more generations, and one of the great and most uncompromisingly avant-garde composers in the Western classical tradition. A Jew in what is essentially a castle for old-money WASPS, making music that utterly ignores conventions of form, structure, development, harmony, melody and rhythm.
By the time in his career of Triadic Memories (1981) Feldman was not avant-garde anymore, that’s what my composer’s sensibilities tell me. He was, as the piece tells me both on paper and in my ears, a great composer in both history and craft; making music that developed and spread ideas important to the continuing development of knowledge about how to compose music, and notating those ideas with imagination, concision and profound skill. It’s a great piece of musical aesthetics and a great piece in the piano literature, pianistic in a way that makes it an absolute peer to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Shostakovich, Ravel, Nancarrow, Carter and Ligeti.
Batagov dedicated the concert to Lou Reed — we had heard news of his death that morning — another ambiguous element. Reed is important and rightfully beloved, but his status in rock music and pop culture was, just before his death, cemented by his licensing of his song “Perfect Day” to sell PlayStations. Rock is part of mass culture and has never been able to escape commodification, selling is part of the point of its existence. Feldman is never going to sell any product, the three evenings of performances probably sold about 400 tickets. That many people heard Batagov’s transparent, affecting performance.
His concentration, his thinking, were exceptional. The music is terrifically challenging in a way that the likes of Lang Lang would never dare approach. The pianist must be on the knife’s edge of awareness, keeping a strict tempo for ninety minutes and placing notes in rhythms that are both exact and exceedingly finely varied. The technical point is to keep many pulses going at once through a specific period of time. Harmonically the music is tonal and dissonant, but there’s no predictable harmonic rhythm and there are few phrases, a handful of tightly confined one-handed patterns in the middle and towards the end. The physical demands are rudimentary, save for stamina, the intellectual demands are daunting. His measured tempo, slower than most of the recordings I know, shaded the experience with an initial and enticing feeling of tension: could he make it work at this pace?
Unerringly. I praise Batagov when I write that his playing never made the demands of tempo, thought and action noticeable. These are the things I did notice: uncanny and rich timbres of difference tones and especially overtones morphing out of the piano (the pedal is halfway down throughout the piece) — the first octave and fifth were almost as strong as the fundamental pitches — and demonstrating the great acoustic of the room, which gives even the softest notes fullness and presence; the audience so quiet that the sound of a second-hand ticking on a watch somewhere in my row was noticeable (although several people left during the performance, highly disruptive and puzzling — why did they come?); the sense of time not passing but accumulating. There are intellectual and mystical depths to Feldman, paths through those can be explored by each listener. What is objectively true about the piece is that it defines time not as notches on a line but a container to hold a set of events, it beings, proceeds through action and ends, and the arbitrary points that mark the first measure and the last could just be windows into something that is eternal. That’s as great as it gets.