Saturday, June 06, 2009

Feldman: Crippled Symmetry (Endymion, Kings Place)

It's redundant to dissect a performance of Feldman's music in a way: Not that there isn't great skill and musicianship needed to bring it off, but the music itself places itself so far outside the traditional notion of "performance" that it's very difficult to say anything of the performers beyond the bare facts that they turned up, played the notes, and had the stamina and concentration to get through the hour and a half (in this case) that the piece takes to play.

So at the risk of seeming to damn with faint praise (I don't mean to), I should say straight off that the three members of Endymion who performed "Crippled Symmetry" at Kings Place on Friday night turned up, played the notes and demonstrated the requisite stamina with aplomb. The thing is, this is music that one one level isn't about the performers at all, and yet on another is absolutely about them. The extreme duration, and the demands of playing so softly and slowly (much more tiring than playing fast, busy music) mean that it's all about the physical and mental stamina needed to maintain concentration. And yet the music itself demands the players to abandon the normal ideas of self-expression. Feldman's music lies beyond ideas of expression. It simply is.

This removing of theatrical display or gesture, the creation of what you might call a flat surface, like the canvases of his friend Mark Rothko, with whose work his has much in common, doesn't lead to an uninvolving experience though. The reduction of everything to the minimum actually makes the smallest detail assume immense significance. So it is that the flute's tonal pallor comes to seem sharp and piercing in contrast to its bigger, softer sibling, the bass flute. And the glockenspiel and piano likewise acquire a brighter presence next to their more muted doubles, vibraphone and celesta.

"Crippled Symmetry" is one of the few Feldman works to carry a title other than the names of the instruments it's written for. It's a title that could apply to most all of his work though: the small patterns that almost, but don't quite repeat. The sense of stillness that conceals enormous movement: like a glacier, it appears from moment to moment to be static, but in fact is moving with a power that can cut through mountains.

Feldman's music makes no claim to "meaning" beyond the fact if its existence and the actions that bring it into existence. But that doesn't make it meaningless. It simply makes that meaning something so vast that it can't be expressed in any terms than the sounds that make it. It's something best experienced live rather than on record. In your living room there are too many distractions. This demands, and deserves, your full and undivided attention. That's not easy over such a long span of time. It's music that conveys and demands quiet courage, for both its performers and audience.

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