Turn It Down: Morton Feldman's Silent Revolution

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 4:30 pm

The intrepid pianist Marc-André Hamelin has a reputation for embracing the toughest, strangest music. His new recording of For Bunita Marcus by Morton Feldman is a fine example. For nearly 75 minutes the music never rises above a whisper and the damper pedal is always pressed down, allowing single notes to ring out into vast, silent spaces.

Feldman is tied to the New York School, a group of experimental composers who gravitated to John Cage beginning in the 1950s. Before Feldman died in 1987, his music became increasingly expansive and more silent. His Second String Quartet lasts up to six hours.

Hamelin thinks of For Bunita Marcus as a kind of "alternate reality." He loves its colossal breadth and quiet beauty, but he realizes the music may not appeal to everyone.

In a condensed and edited interview about the music below, Hamelin says he often tells people, "It's going to be the most aggravating thing you've ever listened to, either that or the best migraine medicine you've ever had."

I was struck by a line in the album booklet that says, "Note from the performer: This album should be listened to at a much lower level than usual." This must be the first time a musician requests that the listener actually turn the volume down.

The reason why is simply because that is the nature of an overwhelmingly large part of Feldman's output. He was mostly into very, very soft dynamics. He often criticized performers for not playing softly enough. So it's better if, I think, you have the help of the actual volume control.

Although I found I kept turning it up to hear all the nuances.

I'll take that as a compliment.

You're known for playing finger-twisting pieces with explosions of notes. But this piece, For Bunita Marcus, couldn't be more opposite.

I have this reputation for playing pieces which are very fulsome, quite dense, quite orchestral and contrapuntal. And I like these things very much. But, I also have a taste for great simplicity. And I've always admired composers such as Schubert, who are able to express, somehow, the intangible with very few notes, with a great economy of means. To me, that can only inspire wonderment.

Although in a rather different way, this is the same with Feldman. In the case of this piece, you have 72 minutes of triple piano. There's one [soft] dynamic at the beginning. It doesn't change, and apart from two short pedal lifts, the damper pedal is always down. So there's a constantly, slightly evolving texture of resonance. Also the metric aspect of the piece is actually quite detailed. You're always counting like mad. But in a performance, it should not seem like it. But it still gives the piece a certain backbone within its appearance of great freedom.

We know you have a tendency to root around in the dusty corners of the repertoire, but how did you come across this particular piece in the first place?

In the early 2000s I came across a four-CD set by the British pianist John Tilbury of everything that Feldman had ever written for solo piano. And of course it included this piece. I remember having the score around the same time, but I listened to it independently of the score.

It wasn't until, maybe 2010, that I really sat down and sight-read the music, and I was transformed because then I really started to see all of the possibilities. All kinds of imagery started suggesting itself to me, and I realized what a colossal statement this piece was in its soft dynamics. I mean, it's very simple in appearance, but the intricacy of it is awe-inspiring.

You've described the piece as being "no longer about the performer, the performance, the pianistic display, the social occasion. We're now dealing purely with sound, time and space."

Well, I think the remarkable thing in this case is that he has completely exploded the framework of the piano recital. You cannot include this piece in a traditional recital because I think the actual concert-going audiences are not really prepared for this kind of thing.

But you have played it in concert though, right?

I have played it so far twice: once in Toronto at a contemporary music festival and once in San Francisco.

How were the audiences during those performances?

Blissfully quiet, which is of course what you need. I think I had one person in the front row in Toronto who snored, but that was brief, thankfully (laughter). Although it makes the snoring sound particularly poetic. You almost feel like you're performing a duet with this person with the nature of this music.

Without getting too technical, tell us about the mechanics of the piece and, in broad strokes, how it works.

If I were to prepare anybody for this piece who was not used to this kind of language — and I think this kind of language is pretty much peculiar to Feldman only — I would say be prepared for anything. This is not going to sound at all like what you're used to. But I'm trying to get you into a world that I think is really, really fascinating.

It has many repeated patterns, and one can perceive certain sections which deal with just the same few repeated notes. But just view it as anything you can care to imagine. You can see it as the immensity of space and looking at the irregular patterns of stars. In the liner notes, I referred to it as watching the swing of a four-dimensional pendulum.

One of the most remarkable things about the piece I find is that about three quarters of the way through it starts to become a lot more static and a lot more rarified — just one chord maybe every few seconds, and that more than anything else reinforces the impression of spatial immensity of the piece.

Let's consider the very opening of the piece. This music may be unlike any other. But for me, I actually hear some history, some forebears. I'm thinking especially of Debussy's Prelude "Footprints in the Snow."

Interesting. In the three notes, we're in exactly in the same register as the beginning of that prelude, actually. You're right. But very quickly, you realize that this isn't about melody. And in a sense, it's not about harmony either.

So what is it about?

Sound, time and space, reduced to their bare essentials, their barren nature.

I sat down the other day and listened to the piece all the way through and I did find myself fidgeting a little bit.

Well, I often tell people that it's going to be the most aggravating thing you've ever listened to, either that or the best migraine medicine you've ever had.

It is beautiful. It can be something that could accompany meditation, for instance. But it also has this claustrophobic feel.

I think what may give it a claustrophobic feel for certain people is that the piece is so much its own universe that nothing else exists. You have the feeling that nothing else exists.

What is the most difficult part of performing this piece in a single setting?

Digitally, it hardly could be simpler. There are no muscular problems and no problems of physical stamina whatsoever. It's really rather the opposite of that, as a matter of fact. But if one has anything like a conscientious streak, one wants to interpret everything as exactly as possible, rhythmically. So you spend basically 72 minutes counting like mad because there is a change of meter at almost every bar. So the concentration aspect, I think, is by far the greatest challenge. The audience should see a motionless performer, hardly doing anything. But the music is doing everything.

Does anything resolve in the end? Or could Feldman's music just keep going into infinity, not unlike it started?

Yes, you could see it as something that is playing, has been playing and will be playing for eternity. And this is just a slice of it.

This piece has been a wonderful experience in my life. It took me a little aback when I first was exposed to it as a performer. But I am thankful that it is in my life, and I will continue performing it whenever I can, which won't be very often of course. But it's very special. I invite listeners to try it.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin has a reputation for embracing the toughest, strangest music. Here's how he describes his new album.

MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN: Well, I often tell people that it's going to be either the most aggravating thing you've ever listened to or the best migraine medicine you've ever had.

SIEGEL: He's talking about "For Bunita Marcus," a piece by the late Morton Feldman. NPR's Tom Huizenga sat down with Hamelin to find out why it's worth a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 11")

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: For Marc-Andre Hamelin, it's all about the unknowable.

HAMELIN: Be prepared for anything. This is not going to sound at all like what you're used to. But I'm trying to get you into a world that I think is really, really fascinating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 8")

HUIZENGA: The world of Morton Feldman is tied to the New York School, A group of experimental composers who hovered near John Cage beginning in the 1950s. But Feldman's music, by design, sounded like nobody else's, past or present. He couldn't relate to Bach, Mozart or even some of his fellow modernists. And he got defensive in a 1967 interview when radio host and composer Charles Shere brought up Feldman's critics, who carped that his music was too soft and too slow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORTON FELDMAN: I don't know what they mean.

HUIZENGA: His work, Feldman said, exists on its own terms. He thought his detractors simply brought personal baggage to their listening experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FELDMAN: So when they say about my work there's a limited palette - and, immediately, they're thinking of something else.

HUIZENGA: And maybe they were. In the very opening bars of "For Bunita Marcus," I hear echoes of an older composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDE DEBUSSY'S "FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW")

HUIZENGA: That's "Footprints In The Snow," one of Claude Debussy's preludes. Now here's the Feldman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 1")

HAMELIN: Well, here we are in these three notes - we're exactly in the same register as the beginning of that prelude. But very quickly, you realize that this isn't about melody.

HUIZENGA: Right.

HAMELIN: And in a sense, it's not about harmony, either.

HUIZENGA: So what is it about?

HAMELIN: Sound, time and space reduced to their bare essentials.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 31")

HUIZENGA: Fifty-five-year-old year Marc-Andre Hamelin has quietly cultivated a reputation as a thoughtful piano virtuoso with a gargantuan musical appetite. That doesn't mean concert presenters are busting down his door, begging him to play Feldman. Especially in his late works, the composer makes significant demands on the listener.

HAMELIN: He completely exploded the framework of the piano recital because the actual concert-going audiences are not really prepared for this kind of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 26")

HUIZENGA: Yet Hamelin has played "For Bunita Marcus" in concert twice. At one performance, though, someone in the front row snored.

HAMELIN: But that was brief, thankfully (laughter). Although, it makes the snoring sound particularly poetic.

HUIZENGA: Morton Feldman's experiments and sounds seem to render melody, harmony and rhythm as we know them irrelevant. For Hamelin, every moment in the music is a window toward the infinite.

HAMELIN: You could see it as something that is playing, has been playing and will be playing for eternity. And this is just a slice of it.

HUIZENGA: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 16") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.