Saturday, November 09, 2013

Morty and Me: Appartment House perform Patterns in a Chromatic Field at the Purcell Room

Patterns in a Chromatic Field was the second piece by Morton Feldman I ever heard, and it remains one of my favourites. The first time I encountered it was in Huddersfield in 1996, in a late-night concert straight after the one that featured the first Feldman piece I'd ever heard, For Samuel Beckett.

I was there because I had a piece in contention for the festival's Young Composer Award. (I didn't win, although I did get beyond the workshop stage and get a proper concert performance alongside the piece that did win. Long story.) Feldman was one of the featured composers that year (the first time a dead man had been featured this way in Huddersfield, I believe), so there was quite a lot of his music to hear. Being a provincial boy who'd been to a provincial university, I'd never heard of him before. Hearing For Samuel Beckett was an extraordinary experience. I'd read about him beforehand and so had an idea of what to expect (slow, quiet, goes on a long time), but I really wasn't prepared for how it would feel to sit through something like this. It started off well; Feldman's music has a sound that's immediately attractive. So for the first few minutes it was great. As it progressed though, the sheer apparent stasis of it began to get to me. By about 20 minutes in it began to feel like some form of torture. After that confusion and disorientation began to set in. And then something odd happened. The music seemed to be putting me into a kind of trance like state, not entirely unlike the state of mind you might find yourself in after a low dose of hallucinogens. By about the 50 minute mark when the piece finished, I couldn't decide whether it had gone on far too long or not nearly long enough. We left the hall and walked over to the venue where the late-night gig was happening. This was Patterns in a Chromatic Field, and here everything clicked into place, I experienced that rare sense of revelation that classical music delivers rather more rarely than it promises, and I became the devote of Feldman's music that I remain today.

So Patterns holds a special place in my heart. It's where I "got" Feldman, and it came into my life at a very exciting time when it briefly seemed I might amount to something. It's also a piece for cello, so I also get to have the (probably futile) notion that one day I might play it myself. In my mind it's become a rep piece for cello. I've heard a good four or five recordings of it since then, but last night's performance by Anton Lukoszevieze and Philip Thomas of Apartment House is only the second time I've heard it live.

That's important, because Feldman's is a music that feels significantly different in concert. It's something to do with commitment. Listening to a recording in your own living room, there are always distractions, the possibility of doing something else while the music's playing. Going to a performance requires a higher level of commitment. You're there for an hour and a half of quiet, often superficially uneventful music that demands a level of concentration that's almost superhuman. (This goes for everyone there, whether they're performing or listening.) At the same time, the fact that there's nothing else but you and the music (well, and the rest of the audience), makes it easier. It's just you and this intimidating experience ahead of you, and the only thing that can distract you (apart from the rest of the audience) is whatever thoughts spring into your mind as it struggles to maintain its focus on the moment.

I say superficially because of course there's actually a huge amount going on. You hear a lot of music written under the influence of Feldman, and what most of it fails to grasp is that although tiny motifs and ideas return and reiterate again and again, over and over, there's actually very little repetition in Feldman. Like walking into a dark room, once you've acclimatised yourself you find there's actually a huge amount of detail to appreciate where initially there seemed to be nothing. Patterns is unusual in late Feldman in that it's often quite antsy and fidgety in texture, and has a sense of nervous activity that only periodically dissipates to reveal a more glacial texture. Lukoszevieze and Thomas's performance tends towards the slower end of the range I've heard (they come in at just over 90 minutes), and yet they still mange to convey this jitteriness, a quality that I think often gets lost in the race to play Feldman as slowly as possible. This is quiet and defective and profound music, sure, but there's also humour to be had, another element of Feldman's personality that often gets neglected, and which they convey deliciously here in the the throwaway ending, for instance.

One of the startling things I find listening to this piece on the flesh again after all those years is how much of it has seeped into my own music. Feldman's been a huge influence on me, of course, but it's startling to sit listening to Patterns and real is how much this specific piece has left its mark on my own work. Sometimes this is the result of initial enthusiasm and half-absorbed lessons: you can hear this in Infinite Breathing, where a Feldmanish texture jostles for supremacy with passages in thrall to Ustvolskaya, whose music I discovered around the same time as Feldman's. Later on in Le tombeau de Feldman it's a more deliberate allusion, but it's startling to realise how what I thought at the time was a kind of generalised ersatz-Morty was a half-memory of this particular piece, the main difference being that my figures tend more towards the diatonic than Feldman's (that at least was a deliberate thing).

I sometimes wonder if Feldman, who twenty years ago was a fairly marginal figure, isn't now becoming too pervasive a figure. I certainly worry that it's become  cliché to write music under his influence (albeit often without a real understanding of what he's doing and why he uses those textures and strategies), and periodically try to kick the Feldman habit in my own music. Having said that, he's clearly not edged quite so far into respectability that some people won't walk out before he's done. Five did last night. One of them was a woman who heroically and selflessly sneaked out as quietly as she could before she succumbed to a coughing fit. I salute her. The other four confuse me (why on earth stick it out for over an hour and disappear with 20 minutes or less to go?) and annoy me (if you are going to duck out early, couldn't you at least try to leave quietly?).  But to come back to this piece, to her it live in that situation where you're stuck in a hall with it, and just as you settle in having made sure you went to the toilet first, you experience a momentary frisson of exhilarating fear as you register what you're committing yourself to, banishes thoughts like that. What's wonderful, what makes it great music, is its capacity to come out and startle you, and (particularly in a well-judged performance like this one) make you feel like music you've been listening to for years is music you've never properly heard before. You thought you had it figured, and then you realise that you've hardly scratched the surface.


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