For Bunita Marcus
25 February 2010 • 7:30 pm • Alix Goolden Hall, Victoria, Canada
Solo recital. Opening concert of Open Space's Between the Notes Piano Series
Morton Feldman - For Bunita Marcus (1985)
"Any pianist wanting to play Feldman needs the most exquisite touch, and also great stamina…." (Ivan Hewett, The London Times)
“The Kronos Quartet has canceled its performance of Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2, saying that its players are no longer up to the physical demands of the uninterrupted six-hour work. The performance was to have been the centerpiece of a Feldman retrospective at the Lincoln Center Festival '96. In a statement released yesterday, David Harrington, the group's first violinist and artistic director, said that “in our rehearsals we discovered that we are now unable to perform the work for purely physical reasons.””
The above announcement appeared in the New York Times on July 30, 1996, causing something of a minor riot on the streets around the Lincoln Centre. The event had been sold out weeks in advance, and people had come to New York from all over the country, a few from abroad. The level of disappointment inspired by this concert cancellation was unprecedented, as far as classical music goes.
Why were all these people so eager to hear Feldman’s work and, what was it about the music that made it unattainable for the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble of formidable capacity?
On hearing some of Morton Feldman’s late, longer works, a non-musician might wrongly fall under the impression that they are musically simple and technically easy to play — the notes are scarce, the tempos very slow, there are no virtuosic gestures whatsoever and no loud, “impressive” dynamics to showcase the performer(s)’ physical strength. Yet, despite the almost legendary status of these works, and the audiences’ ever-fresh interest in them, they are very seldom played, as a result of having proved to be quite intimidating to performers.
The truth is, every professional musician knows that maintaining dynamics ranging between pp and pppp for a duration of 70 to 350 minutes is a grand challenge. In the case of Feldman’s late works, to this challenge is added another one, of having to make sense and to sustain a single-movement form of the abovementioned length — again, something unprecedented in the world of classical music.
As to the music itself — we often find that Feldman’s musical language defies description, or rather, proves such pointless. To describe it would be like describing magic — one might be able to capture the gestures, but never the magic itself. Perhaps the closest association to the feelings inspired by Feldman’s music is the visual art of Mark Rothko. What could be said is that it is music of exceptional and hypnotic beauty. This (by now) legendary beauty and the overall transcendental experience are what draw audiences to the concert hall every time Feldman’s music is advertised to be performed.
Yes, hypnotic, spiritual, and transcendental this music is, and here is the place for a word of caution — after 10-15 minutes of listening, one may experience a very deep state of relaxation, “mind drifting”, or even falling asleep. Should these feelings be fought? Definitely not. Feldman himself said: “I don’t mind people nodding off during my concerts”. One should never fear that, if not listening intensively and closely, they would miss the experience. Quite the opposite — it seems that this music is trying to reach beyond the conscious and deliver its message directly to one’s subconscious. And, even if one has slept through the concert, the message will be there, in their mind.
For Bunita Marcus (1985) is Morton Feldman’s last piano solo work of duration over an hour, followed only by Palais de Mari (1986), 30 min. Its language of sparseness, serenity and gentle repetition create, on a large scale, extreme expressivity. Although the means are minimal, the music is not minimalist in any way. The work features extremely low dynamics throughout, as well as a sustaining pedal held for its entire duration, with only two changes. This technique creates a soft, yet vibrant aura of harmonics, which makes it possible to say that half of the beauty of the piece is “between the notes”.