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Morton Feldman - Violin & String Quartet

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Artist: Morton Feldman

Album: Violin & String Quartet

Label: Hat Hut

Review date: May. 5, 2003

Assiduous Subtlety

Morton Feldman's music is hardly easy listening, but you probably already knew that. Even his earliest pieces from the 1950s, which were clearly tied to radical New York School methodologies, are captivating, rather than just thought-provoking. Feldman’s world of long durations, overlapping tones, and elusive harmonies is one that stills the listener, leading her gently away from the noise, speed, and pressure of daily life into a world of sonic secrets. From the beginning, Feldman purposefully avoided ostentation, pomposity and cheap resolutions, eschewing those conventions for a stillness and slowness that requires a different kind of concentration, an adjustment of listening sensibilities.

The epic two and a quarter-hour piece here explores the raw properties of sound and the particular possibilities presented by investigating pauses, inverted intervals, and repetition. As always in late Feldman, pitches shift slowly, at times almost imperceptibly, creating a hypnotic effect akin to gazing at the reflection of the sun on the nearly still surface of a pond. I’ve long thought that string instruments – with their naturally grainy qualities and propensity for lush overtones – were perfectly suited for Feldman’s music in general (and this work is perfectly idiomatically suited to strings, just as “For Bunita Marcus” is to piano). Some have criticized this recording as being too cold; I find it to be quite the opposite.

The lovely oscillations of Feldman's music, his subtle pulses and tonal relationships, would, if they were visible, be as incandescent as the paintings he loved. His music does lend itself to seeing sounds as colors: luminescent yellows, smoldering oranges. And yes, I'm drug free. Changes – in the tonal center, voicings, articulations, and so forth – come glacially. Violin and String Quartet breathes, and if you are still when listening, it almost seems as if your bodily rhythms slowly acclimate themselves to the piece.

It is impossible – and pointless – to meaningfully discuss this piece in terms of the critic’s tendency to isolate “hot moments.” Still, there are points in the piece that stand out. Near the halfway mark, the cello moves to the fore and anchors a section that is similar to a canon. Towards the final quarter of the piece, the strings play some pizzicato statements over languorous chords, before the piece shifts, its floating chords sounding somewhat ecstatic. And there is an unexpected (for Feldman) resolution and fulsome harmony in the conclusion of the piece; it’s not sappy, not obvious, but it’s there.

But overall, what matters is the feel of the piece, the sense of being immersed in it, of being suspended amidst Feldman’s ever-oscillating tone field. His method, incorporating chance and improvisation, yields mysteries that linger in the mind. What’s more, the piece has a dynamic unity but nonetheless seems completely new each time one listens. Feldman was one of the true geniuses of new music, and this lovely recording presents one of his finest works in vivid sonic detail with a masterful performance.

By Jason Bivins

Other Reviews of Morton Feldman

Last Pieces

The Viola in My Life

For Bunita Marcus

Triadic Memories

Read More

View all articles by Jason Bivins

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