In Search of Morty
(written for the program booklet of a 70th Birthday performance of For Philip Guston in the Berlinischen Galerie, Martin-Gropius-Bau, January 21, 1996)
Eberhard Blum, flute Jan Williams, percussion Nils Vigeland, piano/celeste
Eight years after his death, as the vital presence of Morton Feldman recedes in my experience, I am increasingly aware of the expression of his personality in his music, especially that of his final years. Feldman was never so categorical as his friend John Cage, whose 'sounds are only sounds' aethetic articulated the basis for Cage's composing techniques after 1951 - the liberation of choice from taste. Nor did he suffer a crisis of the meaning of music as Cage did in the late 40's. Feldman was remarkably true his entire life to a methodology for composing (imagine a sound;test it;write it down) and a resulting aesthetic - the contemplation of the beautiful absent of rhetoric.
As one who was fortunate to spend a great deal of time with Feldman in the last fifteen years of his life, I was often struck, as were others, by the contrast between his persona - loud, joking, verbally explosive and fully receptive to life's pleasures - and his music - quiet, infinitely subtle and tender. The music does operate on its own terms but Feldman is present -if not his complete self, then partially but significantly.
For Phillip Guston begins with a musical cryptogram - C G Ab Eb - which Feldman described as a representation of the person (Cage) who introduced him to the subject of the piece (Guston). This kind of cryptology has a long history in music from BACH to ASCH (Schumann) to the Second Viennese School and in itself is not particularly unusual in this regard. However, as a sonority, its presence is remarkable. These four tones, in diatonic harmony the third inversion of a major seventh chord in closed position, lie outside the normal orbit of Feldman's intervallic world.. They represent in the structure of the piece the perfection of the early friendship of Feldman and Guston, a friendship which ended in bitterness over Feldman's reaction to Guston's return to figurative painting. How extraordinary is their orchestration and texture in these first luminous measures. I remember Cage telling me in Frankfurt in December 1987 after Eberhard Blum, Jan Williams and I gave a memorial performance of the piece of his astonishment with the opening - an example of what he called Feldman's "radical poetry". Rather soon though the alto flute transposes these tones to another register, devoid of any common tones, and the image of perfection is shattered -a painful disfiguring. Then the piano and chimes combine the figure while the piccolo detaches itself from the motto - two bird-like chirps over a ruined landscape. I know of nothing like this in all of music.
Yet, of course, the piece goes on for four and a half more hours. And this has become for me the embodiment of Feldman's personality, the necssity of this nearly unendurably long piece. The length grows out of what Feldman called the "anxiety of art" - that after the the experience of art's exaltation we return to our original state. This is not only true for the listener but for the composer too. The Rabelasian aspects of Feldman's personality are absent from his music because they are transitory, subsumed in the larger constant of his life: his loneliness.
I once asked him what the "form" of the piece was. He was not surprised by the question and had an immediate answer, as he so often did. He related how upon returning to this work after a summer of concert tours and travel he examined the then two hours of completed music and asked himself the question;"If I had my life to live all over again, would I live it the same way?" He then composed the first two hours of music again.
The descending intervals, again diatonic, which close the first two hours and the final two represent - at least I am sure of this - Feldman's blessing of his friendship with Guston. That these poignant overlappings are also deconstructed is a clear symbol of the friendship's erosion.
Each time I have concluded playing this piece, I have been struck by a contradictory sensation - release physically from the act of playing and shock from the emptiness of the silence - a palpable void. One notes Feldman's absence. Morty - wish you were here.