Sounds of near-silence

By Lawrence A. Johnson


The art of Morton Feldman, like the man himself, is a study in contrasts. The chain-smoking, Brooklyn-born composer created vast canvases that make Bruckner symphonies seem like Webern. Yet on the surface, not very much happens. A single note sounds, then silence. The same note repeats, followed by a longer silence. A brief fragment or spare progression appears, notes added or subtracted, a new instrument introduced amid widely spaced intervals. Yet for all its hyper-minimalism, Feldman’s music has a hypnotic quality where the tiniest harmonic shift or change in timbre takes on seismic significance.

In our age of microbial attention spans and instant web-surfing gratification, Morton Feldman’s glacial sound word is a strange, ascetic language not easy to assimilate—witness the many walkouts during the performance of his Piano and Orchestra by the New World Symphony last season. Nor are recordings of Feldman’s music thick on the ground, so all credit to ECM for admirably filling the gap with this new performance of The Viola in My Life.

By Feldman’s monumental standard—his Second String Quartet spans six hours—The Viola in My Life is a work of atomistic compression, totaling just 39 minutes.Written from August 1970 to March 1971, these scrupulously notated four movements feature the title string instrument set against a handful of chamber forces in I and II, a piano in III, and full orchestra in IV.

This is profoundly anti-virtuosic music, the polar opposite of Late Romantic concerto flame-throwers. The Viola in My Life I opens with a solitary, shimmering viola note emerging from the darkness against malign percussion tremolos; isolated solo notes are echoed by flute, violin, cello, and piano creating an atmosphere of hushed, expectant unease. The single notes evolve into fragments that coalesce into discernible melodies, though an elliptical, enigmatic mystery prevails. The Viola in My Life III is the most concise section at just five minutes, with music evanescent to the point of almost disappearing completely. The 14-minute part IV is just as precisely calibrated, yet the restless crescendos and dense orchestral chords feel almost Mahlerian.

Alert, conscientious playing by Marek Konstantynowicz and accompanying forces who convey the infinitesimal gradations of color and dynamics. At just 39 minutes, the CD is extremely short measure, yet so rich and compelling is Feldman’s subdued sonic landscape that no one will feel shortchanged.

Posted in CD/DVD

Leave a Comment

Sat Jul 19, 2008
at 2:47 pm
No Comments