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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Darragh Morgan and John Tilbury - For John Cage (Diatribe Records, 2020) *****

By Taylor McDowell

Morton Feldman’s influence over modern experimental music and composition cannot be understated. Indeed, it seems that I frequently encounter his name used as a descriptor for certain musical qualities. A piece of music might be described as Feldmanian, or Feldman-esque where it inhabits the quiet realm of slow, spacious development. Legacies aside, Feldman’s music does remain wholly relevant, and modern interpretations of his compositions continue to reveal the striking subtleties in his writing, even decades after the fact. It seemed that Feldman, and among him his contemporaries like John Cage or Christian Wolff, were always writing music for the future. Certainly, their embracing of indeterminacy in their writing, or as Cage puts it, the “the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways,” results in an ineffable and eternal quality where the music refuses to grow old or stale. But Feldman’s visionary works are only effectively realized when in the hands of the right interpreters. Fortunately for us, we are privy to a performance by two such interpreters of Feldman’s music.

John Tilbury is one of the precious few who has so rigorously interpreted and recorded Feldman’s music for piano . Furthermore, Tilbury and violinist Darragh Morgan have thoughtfully explored Feldman’s music together before - their recorded works featured on the three-volume DVD, Music for Piano and Strings (Matchless Recordings), from the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music in 2006 (Morgan performed as a member of UK’s Smith Quartet). The first volume even included a performance by Tilbury and Morgan of For John Cage. Fast forward to 2018 where we witness this epic rendition played with breathtaking clarity. For over 80-minutes, the music unfolds quietly, slowly, incrementally - much like observing the stillness if you could watch fog lift from a valley on a cold, quiet morning.

At the time Feldman wrote For John Cage (it was dedicated to Cage for his 70th birthday, in 1982), Feldman had been preoccupied with hand-weaving techniques and the kinds of patterns or imperfect symmetry they employ. Indeed, For John Cage, appears to be built by successive patterns - repetitive sequences, usually little motifs, that, rather than develop, are simply succeeded by a different pattern. The change from one sequence to another might be dramatic (relatively speaking; Feldman’s music was rarely overtly dramatic), but more often these transitions are modest alterations to shade and order. Even recurring sequences do not escape Feldman’s tactile manipulation - a single note omitted, patterns are inverted, slight alterations to tempo, duration or pitch - like inconsequential blemishes that inevitably happen within hand-woven fabrics. Initially, there is an overriding sense of stasis, that the music isn’t progressing in the traditional sense. However, the gradual unfurling of sequences over the long performance eventually betrays the notion of stagnation. The reemergence of familiar sequences at later times makes us realize that these aren’t nihilistic exercises headed nowhere, but rather the stepwise creation of something whole.

Tilbury and Morgan create something truly wonderful on this recording. Their two voices, piano and violin, float through the sequences in perfect synchrony. On paper, it would seem that they maintain a call-and-response throughout much of the piece - their voices rarely overlapping entirely. However, this description is unfitting.

Rather it
the two
                       voices are in
fact one
                       voice, uttering the
same phrase.

Other times piano or violin functions as an echo of the other, letting the sounds dissipate into thin air. This quality embodies another idea that Feldman was concerned with, the decay of sound:
In my music I am … involved with the decay of each sound, and try to make its attack sourceless. The attack of a sound is not its character. Actually, what we hear is the attack and not the sound. Decay, however, this departing landscape, this expresses where the sound exists in our hearing — leaving us rather than coming towards us.
This “departing landscape” that Feldman refers to is something I was overwhelmed by from my first listen, even before I understood this to be a defining quality of the music. Each note or sequence possesses a light, ephemeral quality that, initially, escaped my best attempts to describe it. Contrary to the “weaving” creation analogy, there are times when I feel like I am witnessing the departure of something. I accredit this pervasive sense to Tilbury’s and Morgan’s rendering of the music, emphasizing their honed timing, sense of space, and meticulous technique. With a light, precise touch, Tilbury allows notes and chords to sustain until their quiet reverberations dilute into silence. Morgan’s handling of decay impressed me immensely; he succeeds in Feldman’s desire to make the attack sourceless. His vibratoless, brittle notes seem to materialize mid-tone leaving us to witness the latter half of their lives. Collectively, Tilbury and Morgan maintain a perfect amount of space between each other so that we can appreciate the waning and waxing of sound, and the overarching silence that is the birth and death of those sounds.

This is quiet, uncluttered music best listened to with a quiet, uncluttered mind (headphones will help, too). My personal experience has been that each listen renders something new, perhaps because this is simply a long piece structured around nuances. Nevertheless, I am moved by it and keep coming back to it. Highly recommended.


Colin Green said...

A superbly written piece Taylor, offering real insight into Feldman’s methods and how to listen to this music. Unfortunately, although I find Feldman’s ideas fascinating I’ve never been able to get to grips with the music itself. I prefer a bit more meat on the bone – Elliott Carter or Harrison Birtwistle, for example – but your review has persuaded me to try again.

Taylor McDowell said...

Thank you, Colin. Admittedly, the quietude of Feldman's works was a departure from my preference for "busier" music. There is certainly something mysterious that keeps luring me back to this recording. I also highly recommend Philip Thomas's "Morton Feldman Piano" on Another Timbre. It's an expansive set, but it gives you a sense of Feldman's compositional development and genuine love for the instrument.

Richard said...

This is off-topic, but this Friday Bandcamp is once again donating its share of all purchases to the artists. There are tons of great free jazz albums on Bandcamp, including the Feldman set on Another Timbre that Taylor mentions.

Nick Metzger said...

Great piece Taylor, thanks for the background and insight. I've enjoyed this one along with The Tiger's Mind from Tilbury.

Nick Metzger said...
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