Feldman within Brown: a.pe.ri.od.ic at Constellation 6/26

by Tamas Vilaghy, photos by Tim Porter

I rush into Constellation late, right as the last few stragglers trickle into the concert hall. A lot of people have come out for this show, and a lot of them are musicians. This puts Ryan Dohoney, the Feldman scholar charged with introducing the program, in a tough spot. He doesn’t want to go into a deep lecture at 8:30pm, but this crowd obviously gets the basics. So he lays the groundwork: much of this program uses graphic scores, or otherwise open-ended notation, and there are a variety of ways to deal with this. He also makes some claims about the New York School, which I’ll get to later. In the meantime, the whole band sits, taking up most of Constellation's vast stage, and the concert begins.

Nora Barton performs her version of Feldman's Projection I. Her cello rendition is quite lively in comparison to the composer's usual glacial demeanor, but does retain his textural discontinuity; singular notes interrupt almost-phrases, low ones trample high ones. Nora's eyes are fixed on her score in tremendous concentration. A third of the way through the three-minute piece, a smile of mischief gleams on her face, then disappears. I wonder what she thought.

No clapping until the end: the program is continuous, despite its infamously disjointed content. I have a feeling this is unconscious, like the ironic misnomer of a title (it's Brown within Feldman, after all...), but it's understandable to want to move the concert along. 

So the first of the four Four Systems begins, with bass clarinet, bass recorder, French horn, and unamplified electric violin. The arrangement provides interesting sounds, the sharpness of the clarinet and violin contrasting nicely with the horn and recorder's dull tones. Their interpretation is sparse and slow, focused on the tone of single sounds. Breathy or clear, overblown or not, but no gliss, or even sequential sounds, really. It's almost Feldman-esque. 

Then a bit of melodicism. Really just a bit: Feldman's O'Hara Songs II, for bass-baritone, piano and tubular bell, lasts just under two minutes. Mid-range chords stiffly punctuate treble notes and the bell, left to ring as an icy veil around the single repeated, descending vocal line. Kenn Kumpf intones with a churchly air of chant: "Who'd have thought that snow falls?" The audience ponders this as well, dressed in T-shirts and shorts. 

I should confess that I think the 60s are treated with a humorless reverence which I find to be a travesty. Inherent Vice should be the model for interpreting the culture of the mid-20th century. Feldman, a famously boisterous New York Jew, might have written supremely quiet music, but he wrote this in loud opposition to notions of formality. The few instances of genuine reverence in his music (Rothko Chapel's "quasi-Hebraic melody played by the viola at the end," for example) are not really Feldmanian: he wrote that when he was fifteen. Brown's Systems, too, should not be over-respected. He was interested in jazz, and few would think of performing-- no, recreating-- Kind of Blue in its entirety, besides high school trumpet aficionados. And why should anyone? That's not cool, man.

Refreshing then, to hear Jeff Kimmel's interpretation of Four Systems for bass clarinet: he's somehow both more dissonant and more melodic than the quartet before him. Sure, this is no Eric Dolphy solo, but the energy of jazz is there, wild notes and all. He only lets up about halfway into his six-minute rendition, shaking the place with long didgeridoo vibrations. I like this guy.

And then beautiful polyphony! Nomi Epstein briskly plays Feldman's Last Pieces I, a sequence of chords without fixed duration. Easily the prettiest, most elegant piece of the night.

This serenity is immediately ruptured by Eliza Bangert and Matthew Oliphant's Four Systems. Alto flute and French horn overlapping around the same range; long, ugly notes played aggressively; this is a punk update of Brown. Maybe the ensemble just needed to get into the groove.

Even Feldman's O'Hara Songs I gets a menacing treatment. Kumpf reprises his medieval role, with support from Barton's cello and Billie Howard's (acoustic) violin. The voice, plain and ethereal, starts each phrase, which the strings then embellish with skittering notes and cold overtones. The only thing missing is the caustic wink in O'Hara's last line, "I love evil." It somehow comes across as an anti-amen ending an anti-mass, which is to say it cannot escape the religiosity we tend to read into Feldman. See above.

Now things get loud. Everyone who's played up to now (with the exception of Isaac Stevenson, tubular bell maestro) launches into an octet rendition of Four Systems. The extended notes which proved somewhat uninteresting on their own now provide a dense textural background, while Nora wails on the lower register of her cello. She inserts a rough melody beneath the unsettling chords, like fabric tearing. It is the perfect slap in the face. I am fatigued in the same way that following a great trumpet solo tires you out. Even the ensemble suspends the previously adhered-to continuity, and pauses for a second to catch its breath before embarking on the final piece of the night: Feldman's 20-minute Bass Clarinet and Percussion.

This is a late Feldman piece (1981), entirely notated. There is almost no melodic content, as the clarinet plays either slow scales or repeating notes. The two percussionists both start with rolled cymbals, split into toms and a single note on marimba, join to play marimba chords, separate, join on the vibes, and separate again. These shifts in texture are drastic, striking, and occasionally quite beautiful. 

They were also the subject of some discussion after the concert, when someone pointed out that Feldman can start a new section seemingly out of nowhere, and still have it sound continuous. Dohoney stated roughly the same in his intro: the composer's works are fragmentary, but retain a sense of coherence. This is indeed a fruitful paradox. 

What went unmentioned, however, is the primary theoretical preoccupation of the 60s: the relationship of form and sound, and the problem of tradition. While Boulez, whose work Feldman saw himself diametrically opposed to, obsessed over construction, his counterpart delved into sonic quality as such. People noted that Bass Clarinet and Percussion was more textural than other Feldman pieces, but this an unwarranted reversal: the string quarters are overwhelmingly textural themselves!

The tragedy of the 60s is the naturalization of the New York School's tonal framework. I want a 21st century interpretation of Four Systems, fully capable of grasping the work's open-endedness. a.pe.re.od.ic’s various interpretations hinted at differing approaches, but remained museum pieces. Brown today should not sound like Feldman five decades ago.

Feldman himself wrote in 1965: "Up to now the various elements of music (rhythm, pitch, dynamics, etc.) were only recognizable in terms of their formal relationship to each other [...] Only by 'unfixing' the elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music could the sounds exist in themselves -- not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with."

I wonder if this holds true today. I wonder if we're remembering something that it would be better to forget.