The Still, Small Note (II)

Part I

Later, while an undergraduate, I discovered the music of Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter. The experiences described in the first part of this essay occurred over a period of about 18 months in the first half of the 1970s. The cultural moment embodied in these musical encounters now seems incredibly remote and as though they had happened yesterday. My memory is that I found them on my own, without direction from a teacher or a peer, though that is hard now to credit.

At any rate, I did find them, and the experience was galvanic. I found, in their very different musics, a fulfillment of the promise of the initial encounters with Satie, Cage, and Stockhausen. When I mention Feldman and Carter as my two favorite composers, and, more important, as the two composers with the most direct influence on my own music, people are puzzled. I understand this, as it puzzles me sometimes.

The first pieces of Feldman’s that I dug into were The viola in my life and False Relationships and the Extended Ending. What I found there was what I’ve found in all of the composer’s music I’ve heard—a strong sense of color and a keen awareness of how music works in time.

With Carter, it was the Piano Concerto and the seventh Etude from Eight Etudes and a Fantasy. In these pieces, and in Carter’s other music, I found the same strong sense of color I had heard in Feldman’s music and an awareness of how time passes that was just as keen as Feldman’s but expressed in a very different rhythmic environment.

What these pieces had in common for my ears at that time (and this is really the whole point of talking about the subject) was an insistence on the expressive power of single notes, repeated, sustained, or recurring.

Feldman’s music is replete with this emphasis on single, recurring notes. To a great extent, it is a central feature of his style. In False Relationships, the opening chord reverberates in waves over the course of the piece, with notes from the chord coming back at unpredictable times, as the instruments go their separate ways (the “false relationships” of the title). The viola in my life includes almost obsessive repetitions of chords and melodic fragments. These melodic fragments were to become the means the composer used to create the vast pieces of the late part of his career.

Carter’s seventh etude is the “one note” piece whose expressive structure comes from changes in color, dynamics, and attacks. The passage in the Piano Concerto that is relevant to this discussion is towards the end of the second movement. The orchestral strings play monolithic chords that get ever thicker, taking up more and more space. As the strings appropriate new notes, the space for the piano to move expressively in is gradually reduced, so that finally the piano is reduced to one note (the F natural above middle C, to be precise), surrounded by the string cloud. Further study of Carter revealed that he uses pitches in fixed registral positions (like the F in the piano) in many ways in almost all of his pieces since the Concerto.

All of this came to the surface in my music in the first piece I wrote after Feldman died.

1 comment:

  1. The first pieces of Feldman’s that I dug into were The viola in my life . . . .

    Which one(s), Steve? (How many violas in his life did Feldman write?)