Morton Feldman: Three Pieces for String Quartet; Two Pieces for String Quartet; For String Quartet; David Toub: mf; David Kotlowy: Of Shade to Light; John Prokop: New England, Late Summer; David Beardsley: as beautiful as a crescent of a new moon on a cloudless spring evening
Rangzen Quartet, Christina Fong
This 95-minute audio DVD represents an enterprising project from OgreOgress Productions, whose every project is enterprising. The influence of Morton Feldman, after all, seems to be proclaimed everywhere these days, across a far wider range of time, space and aesthetic than one might have thought possible upon Feldman’s death almost twenty years ago. Accordingly, For Feldman presents first recordings of some early string quartet music by the influencer himself, juxtaposed with four relatively extended works by younger, lesser-known composers who claim that influence.
The headliners here, from a retail standpoint in any case, are the Feldman works. The Three Pieces for String Quartet are, as it turns out, For String Quartet followed by the Two Pieces for String Quartet; in other words, there are three string quartet pieces on this recording, each heard twice. These slight works, written between 1954 and 1956, hail from a time in Feldman’s career when variously indeterminate works (the graph pieces, the “free duration” pieces, and so on) were interspersed with the occasional fully notated score, giving evidence of an aesthetic turmoil from which Feldman’s mature style would only slowly begin to emerge.
It’s not clear how these pieces are notated, and David Toub’s brief liner notes are mute on the subject. One can only assume, given the preponderance of unison attacks, is that these scores are either fully written out or presented as a series of (mostly) verticalities to be performed in free tempo, like the Durations series or the later Christian Wolff in Cambridge. I thought the presence of each piece twice on the disc would help triangulate a hypothesis, but no such luck; these appear, oddly enough, to be the same performances simply included twice under different titles.
The music is typical of a certain subspecies of early-50s Feldman, very much in the vein of 1951’s Structures, his only previous work for string quartet. The familiar Feldman is here in the quiet dynamics, isolated gestures, and slow rate of change, but the particularly forward-looking passages in Structures“”the oases of slightly irregular repetitions that twenty years later would form nearly the whole of Feldman’s aesthetic universe””are not in evidence. Instead, relics of Webernian melody (particularly a pizzicato cello lick at the end of For String Quartet) testify to a soon-to-be-discarded approach to horizontal continuity.
For all these reasons and more, these pieces are of significant historical interest to the Feldman aficionado, although they are not in themselves his most compelling or successful work. A dryish recording that deadens even low-register pizzicati and muffles the resonance of harmonics does damage to the sonic surface, but the secure intonation and ensemble consciousness of the Rangzen Quartet provides a satisfactory and valuable documentation. Now there is one fewer dark unexplored corner of Feldman’s large and varied output.
The four other pieces on this disc share with each other and with Feldman a reliance on very slow rates of motion, and little else. David Toub’s mf follows a rocking diatonic ostinato for thirteen minutes, floating long, mostly stepwise melodies above and below it as it wanders through different instruments, ranges, harmonies, and finally timbres. The very narrow dynamic range (the only written dynamic indication is that alluded to in the title) results in an appealingly claustrophobic texture, independently creating knottiness and density despite open harmonies and widely spread registers. The punishing string writing””the resin on the bows is very much in evidence, since that ostinato requires two bow changes a second””sometimes taxes the quartet noticeably, so those rocking eighth-notes are not always as steady as one might wish, and the momentum flags at times as a result. The sudden switch to col legno battuto at the ten-minute mark is a pleasant surprise, though, providing enough contrastive power to propel the piece to a conclusive quasi-cadential apotheosis.
David Kotlowy presents a mostly hushed series of slowly stuttering ensemble gestures in Of Shade to Light. Movement through series of locally repeated, harmonically chromatic cells make this the most Feldmanesque of the four “homage” pieces, although the occasional appearance of a long-held low cello note that suddenly casts the surrounding harmony in the role of resonances is a distinctly “post-Feldman” idea. Particularly effective is the sudden yet subtle emergence of ponticello timbre after the halfway point, a striking means of ratcheting up tension and energy with a minimum of material. While Toub’s mf tested the quartet’s endurance and concentration, Of Shade to Light challenges the steadiness of their arms and their security of attack, with every flaw highlighted by a very close recording; but the consistency, clarity and force of Kotlowy’s writing overcomes these obstacles.
John Prokop’s gorgeous New England, Late Summer is broadly similar in timbre and texture to the Kotlowy; it was wise to separate them with one of Feldman’s short quartet pieces on this recording. Compared to Of Shade to Light, the cloudy repetitions here are more leisurely, more melodic than gestural in character, more uniform and more hypnotic. The whole thing breathes with a dense gentleness, and when everything is transported upward by a semitone seven minutes in the effect is a beam of sunshine. New England, Late Summer elicits the Rangzen Quartet’s best performance on this recording by some measure, and rightfully so, for it is the most affecting music here, Feldman included.
David Beardsley’s as beautiful as a crescent of a new moon on a cloudless spring evening is a half-hour essay in just intonation played by Christina Fong overdubbed upon herself. A low cello A serves as a reference point while a series of held tones over it produce microtonal beatings, audible overtones and unsettlingly pure intervals. I confess that this music falls between two stools for me: it depends too much on melody and dramatic form to achieve the paradoxically human rigor of Alvin Lucier’s wide-eyed sonic experiments, but nor is there enough other substance to propel the music out of the “wow, listen to this weird interval” territory. As an almost pugnacious essay in so-called “alternative tunings,” it may well appeal to listeners for whom that is enough to sustain interest.
The Feldman on this disc represents a valuable contribution to a fundamentally important historical legacy, but the highlight musically is the Prokop. In any case, this disc is worth a listen for those curious to hear what has become Feldman’s legacy””how his example of alternative ways of conceiving form, time, density and content have seeped their way into the aesthetic consciousness of a succeeding generation of composers who have little else in common.