Notes on For Philip Guston by Morton Feldman
The music is slow and quiet. Very, very, very quiet. And, it’s very, very long. Three performers coax the sounds from their instruments. Wooden beaters barely touch the cold, steely surface of a vibraphone. Piano keys are depressed so softly that the player can almost feel the hammer move under his fingers. A bass flute whispers darkly – warm breath only just becomes a note. These sounds appear to be sourceless and the piece is four hours long. Soft, gentle chords for four hours. Piano and celeste, flutes and tuned percussion. No sweeping melody, no catchy rhythm, no arresting drama, no gushing emotion. Just soft gentle chords – floating, colliding, disappearing. Notes at the threshold of hearing. For four hours.
This is For Philip Guston, composed in 1984 by Morton Feldman and it is receiving its British premiere, as part of the Planet Tree Music Festival, this Friday evening at The Conway Hall in London. Feldman was a large scale American, with lank, oily hair and myopic eyes that squinted through black-framed, pebble glasses. He could easily have been mistaken for a lorry driver or a motor mechanic. But he wasn’t, he was a composer and he produced some of the most profound music of the 20th century: almost all of it slow and quiet. Not for him the carefully crafted scramble of the European serialists with their intellectual points scoring and crash-bang-whallop sound world. While they composed the equivalent of Picasso’s angular cubism, Feldman created the soft, dark resonance that comes off the surface of a Rothko painting. A great, misty, stillness that induces quiet, timeless contemplation.
Feldman knew Rothko. In fact he knew most of those New York painters from the 1950s; so much so he once said, “If you don’t have a friend who’s a painter, you’re in trouble.” Some of them are mentioned in the titles of his pieces: Rothko Chapel, For Frank O’Hara, For Franz Cline, For Philip Guston. He also knew the composers Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and John Cage. Together with Feldman they became the bad boys of contemporary music, setting the tone of a generation in the glamourous heyday of 50s New York. These were the wild post-war, times that produced the Beat Generation, abstract expressionist painting, Rock ‘n’ Roll and the modern world. In the midst of this maelstrom Feldman worked with the idea of the individual sound. The sound that seems to come from nowhere, the sound that hovers and then slowly fades. It was John Cage’s work that gave him permission to do this; Feldman preferred the idea of “permission” rather than influence. The work of these New York painters and composers illuminated a ” … terrific green light. Up until then, everything was red light.” Suddenly everything was go. Yes! It was okay to produce this slow, still, quiet stuff.
Over in Europe, Stockhausen, Boulez and their cohorts were re-writing the rules of harmony, melody and compositional structure and Feldman’s idea that “The sound is the experience” was probably quite threatening. They were only interested in how the music was composed as they rehashed the grammar, the syntax and the punctuation. The avant-garde were trying to turn sound into a thing rather than a process. In New York, the bad-boy outsiders were listening, really listening, to individual sounds and the way that sounds naturally combine and collide without any interference from composers. The Americans were not concerned with being avant-garde – moving on, out of history, into the next stage – simply because they didn’t have that much history to move out of. There wasn’t the baggage of the post-renaissance tradition that dogged Europe and generated its cultural superiority complex. The writers, the painters and the composers in New York just got on with it, and what they made had little to do with what had gone before.
The idea of the single sound has echoed down the decades from the 1950s. It’s there in the work of other American mavericks who, over the years, have gradually become acceptable, even popular. La Monte Young, for example, the acknowledged “godfather of minimalism” whose sumptuous drones can last for weeks. Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley all took the “single sound” idea and turned it into minimalism. Riley’s early piece In C was recently performed by an ensemble that included members of Pulp and more of his early works also appear in this festival. Eventually the ‘single sound’ infected the likes of Brian Eno who’s idea of “Ambient” music is concerned with “hearing music as part of the environment …. at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of hearing”. Music that begins nowhere and, as Cornelius Cardew said of Feldman, ” …. receeds from our ears”. Cardew was a radical, English, experimental composer who was killed in a hit-and-run incident in the late 1970s. He was a major figure who championed Feldman’s work in this country. He also founded The Scratch Orchestra, a collection of composers and performers, that created a great legacy that’s still discernible today. Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Howard Skempton and John Tilbury, the pianist on Friday night, all had connections with the Scratch Orchestra: even Paul MacCartney claims to have once played with them. This “orchestra” gave permission to the English Experimentalists of the 60s and 70s to inhabit the maverick world created by the Americans. Skempton is a great advocate of Feldman – “Feldman, for me, was the model” – and talks eloquently of the clarity, practicality and a lack of rhetoric that produced an immediate intimacy. “Why did he have such success with girls? This great brute of a man? I mean he wasn’t God’s gift. I’m sure it was the possibility of intimacy that he presented.”
But for many people this soft, quiet, intimacy continuing for four hours, may seem intimidating or simply boring. Four hours can be a very long time. And how do the performers cope? They can’t have a drink, or a stretch, or go to the toilet. They are playing continuously, with incredible concentration, maintaining a steady tempo and a very soft, even dynamic. John Tilbury is approaching his task with some trepidation: “It is quite daunting but I’m confident I can do it. It’s not the four hours, it’s the level of concentration. I’m playing two instruments, piano and celeste and we’re reading from the score, not from parts, which is in Feldman’s handwriting – but I’m used to that. You can’t really relax, but you have to relax to play it.”. He also describes the difference between clock time and our real experience of it. Society cuts time into vicious chunks then makes us fit into them; but sometimes five minutes can seem like forever while a whole day slips by in the twinkle of an eye. Skempton describes the piece as “companiable …. like sitting on a beach with the sound of the waves. Easily done.” Maybe it’s like being in a bar all evening, watching the world go by or just mooching around on a Sunday afternoon: suddenly, four hours has gone and you’ve had a great time.
© Robert Worby
A version of this article originally appeared in The Independent