Thursday, November 16, 2006

beta feldman

I moved to New York presumably to get closer to fine art and other cultural pleasures, to see performances of living legends like Steve Reich and Cecil Taylor on a nightly basis, and yet I keep finding myself at turds like the Zune launch party or being forced to attend an exclusive performance by Eagles of Death Metal at Irving Plaza instead. In part, it's due to my broke ass no longer paying attention to events (much less paying for them), as it's just like shopping at ABC or down in SoHo at a certain point, a stratospheric level of fiscal existence that I can never hope to attain and so I cease to delude myself.

So I consider myself fortunate to check Alex Ross's blog and read about a celebration of composer Morton Feldman's 80th birthday (had he not died at age 61) with two piano performances by his longtime interpreter, Aki Takahashi. Triadic Memories, one of many pieces written specifically for Ms. Takahashi, is a late work I return to often, always shocked by its turbulence.

Adjusted as I am to dragging myself to rock shows as late as possible so as to avoid the opening bands, such a strategy leaves my ass locked out of the first piece, "Piano." I am resigned to sitting right outside the steel doors of Merkin Hall, focused intently on what notes make their way through. In the hush of the lobby, these furtive notes are tiny yet steely; I picture needles pushing through this solid door. If only I could hear their disintegration from the interior of the concert space. I read the program notes instead by Feldman:
As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind...different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about the form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy -- just the division of things into parts. But scale is another requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now they're like evolving things.
At intermission, I make my way inside and settle myself for the 80 minutes of "For Bunita Marcus," thinking of how Feldman served as a gateway for appreciating late-era classical music. It helped that he had fans in folks like Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, in Gastr del Sol and Jim O'Rourke, or what friends in Austin were doing with their organic sound art, to say nothing of techno producers like Basic Channel and their emphasis on negative space, on the nimbus that surrounds each hit, every event, its phantasmal presence as important as either. But what Morty did, or was doing, still eludes capture. Critics and words and emulators don't quite grip all of the man's girth, and sitting here only accentuates that feeling, making it all the more profound. Bearing witness to Feldman's music here (along with other audience members like Phill Niblock and LaMonte Young) makes me realize that this is still very much a living entity, as live as rust, as cumulative as drips culled from a rainstorm, much as a flower through the green fuse, Feldman mindful of both the bloom and the unnameable root. No matter how revered or studied, Feldman's still not touched some twenty years since his death.

For as gorgeous and gentle as his music sounds on the surface, there are odd notes and dissonance rumbling underneath, suggesting an unplumbed depth through the entire evening. Her right foot depressed on the damper pedal, each note struck by Ms. Takahashi lingers, and I note a curious phenomenon that I miss on disc, or when locked outside of the hall: on the verge of dissipating completely, at the absolute edge of aural perception, the dying notes suddenly converge into something solid once more, just as a new cluster appears and buries it irretrievably.

Listening has never been this challenging, to where your stillness determines how much you can perceive. Firmly entrenched in the middle registers of the keyboard, any low or high moves becomes a profound event, almost shocking as little changes occur. Despite his reputation for stasis, for creating the musical equivalents of tapestries, there is dynamism to this work. This must be what watching evolution is like. Randomness to the point of no longer feeling random, but determined, if not still unpredictable.

Submerged or else bobbing on the surface of "Bunita Marcus," I keep envisioning rain falling on a puddle in the street, how droplets hit and ripple in its confined space, every possibility and configuration explored, each grouping worked through. Perhaps if I had a better theory of harmony and structure, I could perceive something beyond puddles. Maybe I would see Feldman's creations as water lilies arranged on wider ponds, but I am stuck on puddles, on the play of light and rain, on rings and ripples.

And as puddles, it also suggests the idea of ground and dirtiness. While home listening makes Morton Feldman's music act as an alembic, clarifying the soot and noise of New York within the room, sitting here reveals the exact opposite. Feldman wrote pieces of such purity, of such quiescence and stillness, that any other event sullies it, clouding it. A deep sigh, an uncrossing of legs, the rasp of pantyhose, a muffled cough, a whisper that's little more than a breath, a considerate shifting in a seat as slowly as possible, all of it stains the sound with its presence. All of it is as loud as "Bunita Marcus," the noise the equal of the performance. The listener destroys the music with his/her every move. It suggests not just Cage but Heisenberg, the audience affecting the sound by the very act of just being here to hear it. One thing is clear, as I continue to sit as still as possible through its hour-plus duration, as I continue to perceive that metaphor of rain falling in ever more constricted patters and patterns, continue to witness such a gentle, insistent mizzle of droplets, continue to stand out in its aural downpour: much like standing out in the rain, it rinses the head clean.