Morton Feldman - Feldman Edition 4: The Straits of Magellan - Indeterminate Music

Morton Feldman

(1926-1987)

mode 103

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Mode Records - A Record Label Devoted to New Music Feldman Edition 4
The Straits of Magellan - Indeterminate Music


The Straits of Magellan (1961) 5:11
    for flute, horn, trumpet, amplified guitar, harp,
      piano & contrabass


Two Pieces for Six Instruments (1956) 2:14/1:44
    for flute, alto flute, horn, trumpet, violin & cello
    *First Recording

Projections (1950-51)
    1. for cello solo (3:42)
    2. for flute, trumpet, violin, cello & piano (5:55)
    3. for 2 pianos (1:49)
    4. for violin & piano (5:18)
    5. for 3 flutes, 3 cellos, trumpet & 2 pianos (2:37)

Durations (1960)
    1. for alto flute, violin, cello & piano (8:30)
    2. for cello & piano (3:24)
    3. for tuba, piano & violin (8:31)
    4. for violin, cello & vibraphone (3:39)
    5. for violin, cello, vibraphone, celesta/piano & harp (8:04)

      The Turfan Ensemble
      Philipp Vandré and Thaddeus Watson, directors


A unique collection of Feldman's "indeterminate" works; which incorporated new types of notation (including graph scores) and involving a considerable degree of indeterminacy in regard to pitch, dynamics, etc.

This is the first time the complete Durations and Projections series have appeared on a single disc. It is a rewarding experience to hear the Durations and Projections played together, imparting a sense of Feldman's mastery of instrumentation and timbre while savoring the metamorphosis of its shifting colors, weights and densities of sound.

The Two Pieces (first recording) reveal techniques which evoke a piano's resonance, as Feldman uses chords in which most tones immediately fade after their entrance, leaving only one or two sustained tones.

The Straits of Magellan focuses on static the and "vertical" experience, as well as on the constantly changing and fluctuating density of their sonic events - allowing one to relish the subtlety and sensuousness of this music which, startlingly, also conveys a jazzy character.

The superb performances, recorded in Germany, are by acclaimed pianist Philipp Vandré and the Turfan Ensemble. Gramophone magazine said of his recording of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes: ".Vandré's thoughtful choice of preparations and loving approach to the music make this the definitive recording of the Sonatas and Interludes".


Reviews:

Morton Feldman
Three Clarinets, Cello, and Piano.1 Bass Clarinet and Percussion.2 Clarient and String Quartet.3
Carol Robinson (cl & bcl). Pierre Dutrieu and Olivier Voize (cl), Elena Andreyev (vc), Vincent Leterme (pn);1 Frnaçoise Rivalland and Peppie Wiersma (perc);2 Quatuor Doitoma [Eiichi Chijiiwa and Nicolas Miribel (vn), Franck Chevalier (va), Pierre Morlet (vc)].3
Mode 119 CD (67:23)

Morton Feldman
The Straits of Magellan
Two Pieces for Six Instruments. Projections. Durations.
The Turfan Ensemble (Philipp Vandré and Thaddeus Watson, dir.)
Mode 103 CD (62:17)

These two Mode releases present a beautifully balanced portrait of the arc of Morton Feldman's career. By now recognized as one of the most important American composers of the second half of the century, Feldman occupies a position in relation to his mentor Cage somewhat analogous to that of Berg in relation to Schoenberg, i.e. a "disciple" who received a radical re-imagining of musical practice and adapted it to his own personal ideal of sonic beauty. Feldman found particular inspiration in visual art, both the abstract expressionists and color-field minimalists. Mark Rothko and Philip Guston were important friends and influences. While for decades typecast as the composer who wrote slow/spare/soft music, it's becoming increasingly clear that his music has enormous range, albeit disguised by the subtlety of his craft. These discs help to expose that diversity.

The second disc in the headnote deals with early works. The Two Pieces date from 1956 (and are a first recording), and have a distinctly Webernesque feel. Projections is from 1950-51, and exists for five combinations (solo cello; flute, trumpet, violin, cello, and piano; two pianos; violin and piano; three flutes, three cellos, trumpet, and two pianos). These are among Feldman's indeterminate works, which involve beautifully rendered graphs, indicating the range (high/middle/low) within which a composer may choose a note. (While spatial rather than metric, rhythm is still precisely indicated, as a function of duration.) The result is a perfectly "neutral" music---without any evidently intentional "expression", like changing patterns of weather. And as such it has a "natural" beauty that is more closely akin to Nature than many works which seek consciously to evoke it.

The Durations are from 1960, and despite a surface similarity, are quite different. (And again, they fall into different configurations: alto flute, violin, cello, and piano; cello and piano; tuba, violin, and piano; violin, cello, and vibraphone; violin, cello, vibraphone, celesta/piano, and harp. One sees in the instrumentation Feldman's taste for distinct, unlikely, and magical color combinations.) By this point Feldman had moved to precise notation of pitch, but had loosened up the rhythmic grid, so that the music was open to the performers' rubato. And this music is more like the Feldman we have come to known, as his exquisite ear for the intersection of timbre with harmony comes into its own. If I compared the Projections to a natural phenomenon such as weather, the Durations are like a set of natural objects, such as a sprinkling of precious gems over a desert.

Finally, there are two shorter works for larger ensemble. Two Pieces for Six Instruments dates from 1956, is precisely notated throughout, and has a distinctly Webernesque feel. The Straits of Magellan, on the other hand, is another indeterminate piece, from 1961 for a mixed sextet, and at least in this rendition, has a skittery quality that suggests Feldman was not immune to the bebop and emergent free jazz percolating around him in the New York scene (an impression reinforced by the cover photo showing the composer at the piano, omnipresent cigarette dangling from his lips, topped with porkpie hat.)

The second disc takes up almost where the first left off. By the 1971 Three Clarinets, Cello, and Piano, Feldman had perfected his mature language, consisting of isolated blocks of sounds, floating in time's amniotic fluid. This work is austere, and largely non-repetitive, even though it is highly static. A decade later in Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981) and Clarinet and String Quartet (1983) the music has advanced a step further, in that now slowly repeating textures are allowed, and its scale is expanding. The work with clarinet is not on the level of the gargantuan Second String Quartet, but its more-than-forty-minutes duration certainly evokes an image of timelessness. And the work for bass clarinet is quite simply a masterpiece, suggesting a deep mystery in its dark rumbling sounds, its barely audible whispers from the clarinet, and its periodic delicate "tickings". One thing that emerges from these pieces is that by this point (near the end; the composer died in 1987 at the too-early age of sixty-one), is that Feldman had become a master in his manipulation of motive, which ironically links him with the great German tradition through Schoenberg, Brahms, and Beethoven. The simplest ideas repeat and mutate effortlessly, hypnotizing and drawing the listener through a dream that is the music.

I don't believe that the two quintets are among Feldman's greatest music, but that doesn't keep me from singing the praises of this extraordinary recording. Part of it is the sound itself---the full sensuous weight of the ensembles' sonorities comes through with immediate presence throughout. The other factor is the breathtaking artistry of Carol Robinson. (Full disclosure---I knew her professionally early in her career in Paris, more than two decades ago, and had lost touch. I'm delighted to discover how her early promise has been justified). Her control of dynamics and tone is stunning. And even more importantly, she seems to have an instinctive interpretive understanding of Feldman. This allows her to bring the core musical values of these works to the fore. In her hands, we can actually hear both why they are important, and just how difficult they are! (The latter fact being emphasized by how easy she makes them seem; in Robinson's hands, the old virtuoso paradigm is renewed and transferred to this seemingly anti-virtuosic music.)

Taken as a pair, these two discs are definitely Want List material, and essential listening.
--- Robert Carl, Fanfare, issue 27-2, Nov/Dec 03


Morton Feldman
Indeterminate Music
The Turfan Ensemble
One of Art Lange's "Top Five of 2002" in the November/December issue of Fanfare year-end review.


Morton Feldman
Edition Volume Four "The Straits of Magellan"
The Turfan Ensemble
#2 in Dan Warburton's "10 BEST OF 2002" in The Wire


Morton Feldman
Indeterminate Music (Feldman Edition Vol.4)

Mode 103

For the scores of the five "Projections" (1950-51), Feldman abandoned staff notation in favour of graph paper, the vertical axis for pitch (performers choose notes within loosely defined ranges) and the horizontal axis time, the composer providing "time-boxes" (equivalent to standard bars), each containing four icti (beats, if you like), thereby rendering precise rhythmic coordination possible and retaining the feel of tempo - especially in "Projections 2" - without having to notate minute rhythmic details. Note-duration is represented by the length of the rectangle, and dynamics (low) and other aspects of timbre (mutes, mode of attack) clearly specified. Feldman's aim, quoted in Sabine Feisst's admirably informative and intelligent liner notes, was "to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here."

In 1956 he returned to traditional notation for the "Two Pieces for Six Instruments" (this is the first recording thereof), which sustain single pitches from chords to create "interval fields" (Martin Erdmann), both horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic), close in feel both to Webern but also to the predominantly diatonic Cage of the "String Quartet".

In the "Durations" series (1960: the first written was "Durations 2", but Feldman's numbering invites all five to be heard as a cycle, as presented here), staff notation is also used, Feldman specifying pitch but only writing note-heads: instruments begin together but are then "free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo". The music, played at low volume and with minimum attack, seems to float - Feldman's ear for pitch is exquisite; notes fall gently on top of each other, like leaves. The sensation of tempo is looser than in "Projections", but it's there nevertheless: the division of "Durations 3" into four movements (slow - very slow - slow - fast) is clearly audible. Special mention should be made of David Glidden's remarkably agile tuba playing, and pianist Philipp Vandré's mastery of the pianissimo attack (as impressive as Feldman himself on the few recordings that exist of him performing his music).

For "The Straits of Magellan" (1961), whose instrumentation includes "amplified" guitar, adding an almost West Coast jazz splash of colour to the ensemble, Feldman returned to graph paper, specifying the (considerable) number of notes to be played, simultaneously or otherwise, but leaving their placement within the time-boxes and their pitch register much more open. Other details of attack and timbre are meticulously notated, however, and the piece fairly rolls along. It's fantastically difficult to bring off, but the performance by Vandré and the Turfan Ensemble is exemplary.
--- Dan Warburton, The Wire


Morton Feldman
Feldman Edition, Volume 4 - 'Indeterminate Music'
The Straits of Magellan. Two Pieces for Six Instruments. Projections. Durations.
The Turfan Ensemble / Arndt Heyer
(62 minutes: DDD)

Morton Feldman
Feldman Edition, Volume 5 - 'Voices & Instruments'
Journey to the End of the Night. Intervals, Between Categories. Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano. Four Songs to e. e. cummings. Four Instruments. The O'Hara Songs.
Claron McFadden sop, Charles van Tassel bass-bar, The Barton Workshop, James Fulkerson tbn
(71 minutes: DDD)

Morton Feldman
Rothko Chapel. For Stefan Wolpe. Christian Wolff in Cambridge.
Kirsten Drope sop, Ulrike Becker contr, Barbara Maurer va, Meinhard Jenne perc, Markus Stange cels, Boris Muller, Martin Homann vibs
South West German Radio Vocal Ensemble, Stuttgart/ Rupert Huber Hänssler
Faszination MUSf 93 023 (61 minutes: DDD)

Projections, Durations-selected comparison: Barton Workshop, etc (ETCE) KTC 3003 Rothko Chapel-selected comparisons, Berkeley Univ Chbr Ch, Brett (10/92) (NALB) NA 039 CD Saarbrucken Radio Sym Ch and Orch, Furrer (3/01) (COL) WWE1CD 20506

Two varied Feldman banquets to tempt 'gourmet' and newcomer alike and one to kill the appetite altogether.

The Feldman feast continues, with two more volumes in the admirably planned Mode Series. The fourth is called "Indeterminate Music" and involves pieces such as the Projections series, where the score is laid out like a graph and the performers choose the specified number of pitches in high, middle or low registers. In the Durations pieces each player has a written part; they start together then proceed independently in what has been called racecourse design.

A good example of this is Durations 3 for violin, tuba and piano. Everything is soft: 'dynamics are very low,' Feldman says. The first three movements are slow, with only the higher notes of the tuba protruding like a distant fog-horn. Then the fast fourth movement is a surprise.

It's extraordinary that both these techniques result in the unique Feldman sound and atmosphere but the players naturally bring a sense of the right style - Feldman once rebuked a student of mine for choosing a minor triad in the graph notation of Projection 2 when, as he put it, she had 'all the sounds in the world to choose from'. It's a good idea to have all the Projection and Durations pieces together, fastidiously played and recorded - plus the more lusciously scored Straits of Magellan and Two Pieces. However, there's a three-CD set on Etcetera (listed above) which provides both of these plus the Vertical Thoughts series and much more.

'Voices and Instruments', the fifth volume in the Mode survey, is full of delights, including three first recordings. Now we can compare Feldman's response to e. e. cummings with that of John Cage 13 years earlier. By 1951 Feldman is the more pointillistic, showing the influence of Webern but Claron McFadden is in complete command of the angularities of his extreme tessitura both here and in Journey to the End of the Night, which has a text from the novel by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Charles van Tassel also feels exactly right in a more subdued role with The O'Hara Songs.

How rewarding to hear Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano (a British commission written for Alan Hacker) where every detail, including the plentiful silences, is precise - Feldman's finesse requires that kind of dedication. Since so much of Feldman is soft and slow, the sole fortissimo in the work is a poised shock. Feldman enthusiasts will continue to buy the Mode series, which benefits from well-informed CD booklets with full texts, and it ought to make new converts.
(portion of the review covering the Hanssler release has been deleted here)
--- Peter Dickenson, Gramophone, December 2002


Morton Feldman
Indeterminate Music

Performed by the Turfan Ensemble
Mode 103

For over 300 years, European classical composers devised scores to tell musicians exactly what to play and how to play it, in order to reproduce as accurately as possible the music they imagined in their head. But by the 1950s, some American composers -- most notably John Cage and his circle of friends, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman -- looked to break away from the ever-more-complex systems of composing that began with Arnold Schonberg's patterns of 12-tone organization, led through Anton Webern's meticulous, microscopically calculated musical relationships, and culminated in Pierre Boulez's call for total serialism (a mathematical computation of every aspect of the music: pitch, duration, rhythm, and attack).

Inspired to a large degree by the freedoms suggested by the Abstract Expressionist painters that they knew, Cage and the others decided they were willing to sacrifice complete control over their scores, in order to create something truly new and unconventional. They wanted sounds that would surprise them, as well as the audience. By involving the performer in the decision-making process, they knew that every time the music was played, it would sound different.

"Indeterminate music" occurs when composers provide musicians with material to play or instructions to follow, without knowing exactly what the resulting music will sound like. It differs from "improvisation" in that the musician's responses are not spontaneously and freely generated, nor is what they play intended to interact or align with the other musicians in a recognizable, common or mutually dependent structure. Instead, the musicians must each individually create a "realization," or crafted interpretation, of the verbal instructions, drawings, fragmented notation, or other non-specific material that the composer has provided in the score. This may include choosing their own notes when none are supplied, deciding how long to play certain notes, how loudly or softly they should be played, and how they should be connected into phrases and shaped into forms. When several players make separate choices at the same time, without knowing what each other will do, the music becomes unpredictable and constantly changing -- like the shifting, elusive structure of a mobile, which alters our perspective of its shape as the air moves it, and we view it from different angles as it perpetually re-forms itself.

John Cage spent his lifetime working on ways to break the habits of performing and listening with various types of indeterminate scores. Morton Feldman investigated the degrees of freedom available to indeterminate scores for only a few years early in his career, before developing his own style of conventional notation that allowed him to construct music that ranged in size from just a few minutes to several hours. However, the scores that he created during those early years of experimentation are especially attractive and provocative to performers and listeners alike, because of the challenges they propose and the malleable colors and textures they provide. Four of these pieces -- each offering a different strategy for music making -- can be heard on 'Indeterminate Music' (Mode, out now), in versions by the Turfan Ensemble directed by Philipp Vandre and Thaddeus Watson.

One of the reasons why Feldman stopped working with indeterminate scores is that he came to feel uncomfortable with how much of the compositional impulse was left in the hands of the performers. In fact, it is the nature of indeterminate scores (and those that allow improvisation) that the music will ultimately reflect not only the composer's original context, but also the personality, technique, experience, and conception of the players. At first, in the '50s when these scores were new, they were played by either New Music specialists -- musicians who were familiar with the scores of Webern, Stravinsky and Bartok, among others -- or by musicians who had little or no experience with modern music or improvisation.

Feldman understood that on the one hand, over-familiarity with new music would influence the performers to play things that sounded like what they already knew, or on the other hand, lack of experience would cause them to find awkward or uninteresting solutions to the choices they were confronted with. But over the past 50 or so years, new generations of musicians have developed a broader range of training, listening, and performing experiences, and today are often more open-minded and better equipped to deal with their direct participation in the organization and details of the music making than many of their predecessors.

Listening to this recording, it's apparent that the members of the Turfan Ensemble are familiar with Feldman's "style" -- a focus on the quality of isolated, individual sounds, and an awareness of the effect they have on the sounds around them; detached details that hover or move without alluding to a particular goal; transparent textures, discrete dynamics. Other than by remaining faithful to the context that Feldman has established in each of these works, there is no "right" or "wrong" way to play them, and the effectiveness of each score goes beyond its inherent musicality to areas of individual preference.

By way of comparison, the Turfan Ensemble tends to take the five "Projections" (1950-51) slightly slower than do other performers, and the five "Durations" (1960) much quicker. In the "Projections" (which are scored on graph paper, with numbers inside the boxes representing notes of the performers' choice to be produced in relative registers, and including a solo cello piece, two duos, a quintet, and a nonet), there is a delicate arrangement of details, a fragile web of sounds are suggested, as longer tones project out into space, and short attacks puncture it.

The thicker instrumentation of the "Durations" (where all of the notes are explicitly given, but their duration and phrasing are open to the players) implies a denser fabric, with the overlapping tones woven in amongst each other. At their quicker pace, the Turfan version replaces gravity with momentum, losing some of the static, other-worldly quality of Feldman's music, but making a generally more comprehensive object.

Also on the disc are the first performance of Feldman's brief "Two Pieces for Six Instruments" (1956) -- whispered string harmonics, muted horns, airy flute tones that sound isolated from each other -- and a careful, moody reading of the rarely encountered "Straits of Magellan" (1961), in which the influence of Edgar Varese's music is audible in the sound masses which congest, evaporate, or bubble up sporadically. In these, and the other works, Feldman offers colors and textures like a painter (he said he wanted these indeterminate scores to be "as precise as Pollock") which the musicians shape and set into permanent relief; every tonal combination or disjointed line is a surprise, and each will be different the next time around.
--- Art Lange, Tower epulse 8.14 [indeterminate], April 5, 2002


Related Resources:

Philipp Vandré on Mode:
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (mode 50)
                 Complete Short Works for Prepared Piano (mode 180/181)
Morton Feldman: First Recordings: 1950s  - with the
     Turfan Ensemble (mode 66)

Morton Feldman on Mode:
Vol. 1:  Piano works played by Aki Takahashi. (mode 54)
Vol. 2:  First Recordings: 1950s - with the Turfan Ensemble (mode 66)
Vol. 3:  Complete Works for Violin and Piano - Sabat/Clarke Duo
     (mode 82/83, 2-CDs)
Vol. 5:  Voices and Instruments (mode 107)
Vol. 6:  String Quartet No. 2 (mode 112)
Vol. 7: Late Works with Clarinet (mode 119)
Vol. 8: Marilyn Nonken plays Triadic Memories (mode 136)
Vol. 9: Composing by Numbers (mode 146)

Morton Feldman Profile/Discography
The Turfan Ensemble profile


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