Driving over to Woodstock for a performance of Morton Feldman's 'For Philip Guston', played by the Bent Duo plus Emlyn Johnson, it occurred to me that not only had I never seen a live concert of a long-form piece by Feldman but surprisingly, considering my love for his work. my pretty substantial collection of his recordings, etc., I'd seen scarce few shows of Feldman's music at all over the years. Not sure why this is so. I'd seen the Sabat/Clarke duo at Miller Theater, Columbia University, playing 'Violin and Piano' but that was more than 15 years ago and I think the same duo, some years prior, at Cooper Union. Did the ONCEIM Orchestra do 'For Samuel Beckett'? I have a avgue memory (!!). But certainly never the lengthier pieces. Never the classic solo piano works for that matter. Odd.
In any case, this show was organized to coincide with an exhibition of Philip Guston drawings, drawings done in an attempt to eliminate all prior preconceptions, to get as far back to basics as possible, They're a set of "simple" images done in black ink, just line segments, roughly laid in at (I think) a single stroke:
Strong work. As is pretty well known, Feldman and Guston, once close friends, became somewhat hostile to one another after the former's vehement disagreement with Guston's return to figurative painting, a rupture that remained unhealed s of the latter's death in 1980 (in Woodstock, where he resided). Feldman wrote the 4-hour plus piece played today as a kind of apology.
The concert took place in the rear room of the WAAM gallery in Woodstock, adjacent to the exhibition. For this performance, Bent Duo (Bill Solomon, vibraphone, glockenspiel, chimes, marimba; David Friend, piano, celesta) were joined by Emlyn Johnson (flutes, piccolo). It was an extraordinary event.
I have four recordings of the piece and while there's no way I could possibly do a side-by-side comparison from memory, I'll just say that today's performance more than fits in comfortably with those by Williams/Blum/Vigeland, Stone/Jarvinen/Cheng-Cochran, Kotik/Kubera/Nappi or Engler/Schrammel/Breuer. Not only was the playing as sensitive and masterful as any of those, the spatial experience of hearing it live added an enormous dimension to the music. Though the performers were in a fairly tight triangle, five to six feet between them, the depth of sound and the transparent dancing of the intertwining, incredibly complex lines was breathtaking. Not that the sequences are complex--far from it. But the pacing and the relationships were like poetry made up of everyday words arrayed in a manner you thought impossible. From the initial four-note melodic line B-F#-G-D, if I'm not mistaken, which I easily may be, knowing little) which resurfaces throughout, sometimes whole, sometime just the first two or three notes, sometimes hidden within another sequence, to the section near the end where a six-note descending figure on glockenspiel, the pacing varied exquisitely, intermingling with a different six-note line played by flute and piano, not in unison, but out of phase, creating complexities of balance and beauty that were just stunning. In between many "landmarks". I didn't realize from the recording how quickly Feldman goes from instrument to instrument. The marimba is used sparingly and always tapping out steady patterns, on two occasions lines of rapid, identical notes; the first time, I didn't count but I think upwards of 80, the second time 54. These appear out of the blue, like chapter divisions. At one point, nearer the end, the music turns harsh and even strident, agitated and intense, a welcome tonic. More often, amidst the general pastoral spareness, there are small eruptions of extreme lushness and elegance, bouquets that bloom ravishingly, linger for a few moments, then subside.
It was along haul, sure, and at around the 2 1/2 hour mark, I felt myself beginning to flag but managed a second wind and had no trouble sailing to the finish. It was a relaxed situation, with visitors encouraged to come and go, to roam around the gallery. The audience fluctuated from 2 to 10 or so for the most part, though at the piece's conclusion, there may have been 20 at hand. Myself and one other stalwart fellow were the only ones, apart from the superb performers, to last the duration. More than worth it, a beautiful experience. Here's hoping more such events take place up in this neck of the woods.
I see bent Duo is doing a Sarah Hennies piece at Dimenna in NYC next weekend. Do yourselves a favor and check them out.