Monday, January 28, 2008

Feldman: museum soundtrack

In retrospect, I am not sure getting up bright and early to attend a day long Morton Feldman marathon was the best way to spend a Sunday.  One person contended my time would have been better spent tracking down another recording of Mozart's wind concertos.

In any case, as I mentioned earlier this week, the Seattle Chamber Players ended their Icebreaker festival with a series of three lectures on Morton Feldman and a four hour marathon of Feldman's music in the Seattle Art Museum's contemporary galleries.  The goal of the festival and lectures was to tie Feldman to the inspiration he found in abstract expressionist painters.  The music would be surrounded by the vestiges of his inspiration. 

The lectures explored Feldman in three ways.  Kyle Gann's lecture offered an expansive look at Feldman, his music and how the composer fits within the modernist and minimalist schools.  Alex Ross was more topical. Ross compared Feldman and the composers of the New Viennese school - Schoenberg and Berg in particular.  The middle presentation focused on Feldman's obtuse notation style. 

After the second hour of the lectures, I had to wonder if the audience was really extracting anything useful from the presentations.  During the question and answer session, one women, who attested to her own unfamiliarity with Feldman and his music, asked a simple question about Feldman's graph notation and how if what is to be played is indeterminate how would anyone know if the music is being performed as intended.  The question elicited a curt response that probably made the subject of Feldman's notation more perplexing.  I appreciated the woman's question, her honesty and her willingness to struggle with the topic even though she didn't fully understand what she was hearing. 

Even if others were having trouble wrapping their head around the subject, the substance of Gann's talk was the most interesting.  Gann attempted to place Feldman outside of all classifications, distinct from both the minimalists and advocates of noisy atonalists.  A composer who tried to embody nothing specific but something uniquely profound.  In an intriguing line of thought, Feldman was linked to generations of classical composers who had come before because Feldman had rediscovered the value of intuition.  The result,Gann argued, was music that was sparse but overflowing with meaning and complexity.  This simplicity contrasts with the minimalist trends of the 70's and 80's, in that Feldman's music follows an evolutionary process that demands the listener's attention.  According to Gann, If my attention wavered for even a moment, I would miss a valuable insight.  Nothing short of rapt attention will do for one of Morton Feldman's pieces. 

Gann's vigorous defense of Feldman readied me for the afternoon's performances.  Feldman's music doesn't come naturally to my ears.  In rare instances, as is the case with Rothko Chapel, I do find myself opening up to the music.  However, over the entirety of the Feldman music I have heard, my openness is rare.  Ross' honesty on this point was a relief.  Ross admitted to admiring Feldman's music because of the emotional response he feels.  To conclude his own talk, Ross treated the audience to a recording he made for college radio.  In the recording, Ross poignantly juxtaposed an interview with Feldman over Rothko Chapel.  Feldman is heard wondering out loud about the mournfulness of his music.  All the while, Feldman's own lugubrious music perfectly matching each thought.  

Yet, as I rode the escalator to the third floor galleries, spied the carefully roped off area where the Seattle Chamber Players would play, and observed the art gawking crowd, I wondered how anyone could actually give Feldman's music the attention that arguably it demands.  Plenty of people and abundant background noise threatened to drown out Feldman's occasionally barely audible sound world.  If Gann was right, the surroundings would not compliment but distract from the music.  Rather than demand the rapt attention of SAM's patrons, Feldman's music was relegated to an inferior position.  If Feldman's music of the 70's and 80's is as pivotal as Gann believes, then it deserved more than to serve as a museum sound track.  Sadly, this was the end result.

The idea of the all day Feldman festival was a good one.  Link the music, the composer and the artists he found inspiration in.  However, its execution was hampered by a space that would have been ideal without the distractions implicit in a gallery and an audience unwilling and in most cases unable to devote the attention Feldman's music requires.        

No comments: