Morton Feldman;
Complete Works for Two Pianists

Morton FeldmanComplete Works for Two Pianists
Kristine Scholz [piano] – Mats Persson [piano]
Alice Records ALCD 024
Duration: 61:15

Photo: Ingvar Loco Nordin

1. Vertical Thoughts 1 for Two Pianos

2. Intermission 6 for One or Two Pianos

3. Projection 3 for Two Pianos

4. Intermission 6 for One or Two Pianos

5. Two Pieces for Two Pianos

6. Piano (Three Hands)

7. Intermission 6 for One or Two Pianos

8. Piano Four Hands

9. Work for Two Pianists

10. Ixion - For Two Pianos

11. Intermission 6 for One or Two Pianos

12. Two Pianos

The first thing that strikes you when you get hold of this important issue is the high-end quality of the package itself. You get a hardcover booklet with 72 printed pages (including pictures and texts) and a sturdy slot for the CD in the very back of the booklet – or you should really call this a book with a CD. I don’t really understand how a low-budget company like the exclusive Alice can achieve such a sober, luxuriously restrained layout of the packaging, but I do appreciate it very much. Fylkingen Records issued a similarly outfitted release a few years ago, of the works of Ilmar Laaban. Jonas Mattsson was responsible for the graphic layout in that venture, but here it’s Cecilia Frank. Maybe it’s a new Swedish trend? It’s welcome, in that case!

Kristine Scholz & Mats Persson

Mats Persson – one of the two pianists of this renowned duo – has written a long essay called To Be in the Silence; Morton Feldman and Painting, which is printed in the booklet. It is a very interesting reading, which in part will be quoted later in this text, in connection with the Swedish cosmopolitan painter Olle Bonniér.
It is very nice indeed when the performer is as intent on and skilled at verbalizing his thoughts on the art as performing the art itself. This was the case with, say, Glenn Gould, and Wanda Landowska – names that pop up without effort – and this is the case with Mats Persson.

I get some fresh coffee and I lie down on my bed, this Morton Feldman CD playing through my bedroom stereo. I realize a truth which probably anyone realizes, either through a sense of irritation, of a feeling of impatience, or through an understanding of how tempi works, how they grind up against each other and cause friction… To begin with, if you’re landing on your bed or in your armchair from a busy day of making ends meet or just managing your job, trying to listen to Kristine Scholz and Mats Persson interpreting Feldman, you may encounter a lot of irritation, a really hot friction. The tempi of these tunes – at least most of them - are so far removed from the daily commotion that you can possibly get, unless you go into retreat at some monastery. The tones come dripping like heavy drops of dew from a spruce tree in a Scandinavian October forest, one now, then later one or two, and then a couple more, etcetera… without any obvious beginning or end… This music is a state of mind, rather, a gaze into a relentless wisdom that is unfathomable, and being a student of Tibetan Buddhism, I think the impression of this music quite well measures up to the description of Rigpa that teacher and writer Sogyal Rinpoche delivers in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying; envisioning this state as “the sky-like nature of our mind”, saying:

[it is] utterly open, free and limitless, it is fundamentally so simple and so natural that it can never be complicated, corrupted or stained, so pure that it is beyond even the concept of purity and impurity. To talk of this nature of mind as sky-like, of course, is only a metaphor that helps us to begin to imagine it’s all-embracing boundlessness; for the buddha nature has a quality that the sky cannot have, that of the radiant clarity of awareness.” […] In Tibetan we call it Rigpa, a primordial, pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake. It could be said to be the knowledge of knowledge itself.

Tarfala, Swedish Lapland, August 2002
(Photo: Ingvar Loco Nordin)

In short, you have to wind down and collect yourself well before you even try to listen to this. It is not a music to use for calming down. If you try, it will drive you crazy. No, the way is to relax and focus on your own midst before turning this CD on. The greater part of this CD is like hiking in Lapland. The first couple of days you are still city nervous, out of tune, not at all on terms with the silence, the spacious views, the endless fields of rocks, the lack of humans, the heavy might of towering glaciers… but after a few days’ trek, you will find that you and nature have come to an agreement; a joint tempo, an atmosphere wherein the atmosphere of your mind and the atmosphere of the landscape – of the sound of the wind and the brooks in the silence – merge into one simultaneous breath of the land, of the air, of existence. You breathe the landscape, the landscape breathes you, and the false division of I and Thou is erased for a time.
If you take care, this will also happen in Morton Feldman’s music. This is how much of his music is, here at first in the beginning four compositions, and others later into the CD. For the first time in piece number 5 –
Two Pieces for Two Pianos – other characteristics are introduced, which aren’t really as typical of the described Feldman quality as the preceding ones. Track 5 is more rugged, jagged, tripping over its own feet, sporadic, erratic… but still not in the tempo of the modern world… However, when you have become the music of the beginning of this CD; when your tempo has merged with the tempo of the music, you will value the faster and pearlier parts of this set with a much different measuring-rod, finding them hilariously ecstatic, when you, with your common day-to-day senses would merely find them subway-like, street-buzz-like, roaming-about-the-shops-like. It’s a matter of your own base tempo, your starting atmosphere. That’s why I think the build-up of this CD, the order in which the pieces have been placed, is a reflection of sensitivity and good thinking on the part of the producers too, or maybe on the part of the performers.

Aspects on Living, version 4, by Ingvar Loco Nordin

Ixion for Two Pianos at track 10, for example, now, after slowly having adapted to the early mountain-tempi of the first tracks, appears like a feverishly rushing ford of sun-reflected water, gushing forth over wet pebbles at a maddening but still transparently clear, decipherable speed.
I have to admit that this is like nothing I have heard from Morton Feldman before, so it’s a real treat. It’s glittering, emitting rays of light in all directions.
Sometime these rows of rippling tones with inserted mini-pauses that really are nothing but hints at pauses, come across in a conversational manner, or rather like two people talking at each other, cutting in to each other’s speech all the time.
Some way into the piece it almost gets violent, rumbling bass tones talking for a while, until the higher-pitch conversation or… heated discussion, gets on its way again.

Another analogy that suddenly strikes me in
Ixion is the close proximity to bird song in May, when the feathered aeronauts are most feverishly at it, defending their territory, before they mate and lay eggs. This is really like passing the small part of forest I bike through each day going into town, in late April, the whole of May and early June, before dead silence falls on the forest, and it’s all about managing to feed the little ones.
I recently received a homemade CD from a friend - Hans Åke Runell - who lives in a castle garden with giant leaf-trees. He had recorded an hour of the most feverish nocturnal birdsong I’ve ever heard, every square inch of air filled with different ornithological voices.
I realize that this is a very good analogy to this piece
Ixion; feverish May bird song!

Aspects on Living, version 5, by Ingvar Loco Nordin

There are good, Stockhausen-length intermissions between the pieces on the CD. You get some time to ponder what’s just stopped, in apprehension of what’s to come.

The last work - simply, in Feldman’s laconic way of titling his pieces - called
Two Pianos, is a somber, introspective kindness of sorts. I feel consolation, and perhaps the memory of a blanket pulled up to my chin by my mother when I was a little boy. This music can affect you that way. There is no aggression here, no ill thoughts, but just a smooth, soft sense of care and… love; a still, safe, non-demanding love that just pours over you like the smell of lilacs in June… and I soar in this memory of my mother’s love in this slowly dispersed music that does no one any harm, that just exists as a benevolent force through space-time…

Mats Persson, in his long Feldman essay, among many other things talks about Feldman’s deep involvement in painting, which is well known to all who have taken an interest in his music. Some titles directly refer to this, though maybe in a cryptic form, like
Why Patterns or Crippled Symmetry, while others are dedicated to painters directly through their titles, like Rothko Chapel, For Philip Guston or De Kooning.
Then Persson begins to talk about a famous and very much appreciated Swedish visual artist. I quote a good part of this section, since the text, though not focusing directly on Morton Feldman, is written by Persson with him in mind, and says a lot (better than I’ve read anywhere else), indirectly, about his music. Also, this highlights even more Feldman’s way of working with music with paintings and visual patterns in mind. It is also interesting to approach this the other way around, in the story of a painter who is inspired deeply by music.

Mats Persson says:

At this point I’d like to refer to Olle Bonniér’s trail-blazing work from the 1940s and I do not only mean his works in painting where, for instance, the blue-green monochromes from 1943 stand out as solitaries, unique for the period. I am thinking mainly of Ljudande och roterande rymdmembran (Resonating and Rotating Space-Membrane), which is based on a strange series of membrane pictures from 1948, plus a number of paintings with the titles Plingeling and Pling [onomatopoetic words].

To Olle Bonniér, who is almost the same age as Morton Feldman, music and painting have always been intimately related to each other. Music and notions of sound have in various ways permeated his oeuvre. […] [By listening to the BBC on the radio] he learned to know both the New School of Vienna and – even more important – Edgar Varèse – music that at that time was practically unknown in Sweden. Varèse became an extremely important source of inspiration for Bonniér as is also the case with Feldman. In he periodical Nutida Music 1958/59, Bonniér writes with inspiration and sensitivity about Varèse’s music:

> Compared to the realist Varèse, other composers can seem abstract. But suddenly it is clear to me that the abstract features in Varèse’s case are of a different and far more violent nature. They bury themselves into the future like projectiles […]. Our consciousness of cosmic space has opened our eyes to the tiniest little space that surrounds us all and that can be found between every minute particle. For Varèse the particles are tones. He doesn’t use them in a classical manner, with time-honored lines of melody, but rather seems to measure the distance between sounds.

Olle Bonniér at Skalltorp, Björnlunda, Sweden
Midsummer 1987
(Photo: Ingvar Loco Nordin)

The particles are thrown away from each other, and the empty space between them fills with overtones, only to be caught again by a ruthless gravitation and packed together again, so hard that the empty space is crushed […] I think, however, that Varèse means that the musical drama is to be performed in just those empty spaces between tones. <

The concept of the membrane, that according to Bonniér’s definition is >the inner surfaces and skins that are to be found in the dynamic waters and within every living being<, resonates through-out his production and introduces the dimension of sound. Five of the membrane pictures from 1948 were put together to form one black and white graphical composition – Resonating and Rotating Space-Membrane for Tuba and Trombone – which, as far as I know, is the first picture, work of art, that, together with verbal instructions, is the starting point for creative and innovative musicians.
Plingeling, a suite of paintings in gouache and tempera, as well as the screen-print Plingeling Score from 1949, are made up of small, well-painted spots in a variety of colors on a white background that is painted in layers in different nuances of white.

Bonniér writes:

>The pure, white picture plane is, for me, the limitless, luminous universe […]. Every spot is an isolated event that does not have any definable connection with the other spots. Further, I imagine that the spots circulate in irrational orbits and thereby will have occasion to collide with each other. It is then that the sound plingeling occurs. <

Olle Bonniér with children
at Skalltorp, Björnlunda, Sweden
Midsummer 1987
(Photo: Ingvar Loco Nordin)

The composer/painter wants to avoid anything that can make one think of music and conventional musical terms, even though he prefers the work to be performed on conventional musical instruments. It is the individual sound event, the tone, that is the crux, and it may not be combined with other tones; no melodies, phrases or deliberate musical shapes may occur; triads and other chords are forbidden.
He goes a step further the same year, in the painting Pling. This time he paints a single spot on the white surface.

>It is a beginning or an end. An initial event in the absolute emptiness or a finishing point, a meeting-place of every imaginable point<. Bonniér continues: > A single tone. As short as possible. The pauses between the variables of the single tone so long that the single tone is considered a whole piece. Every pause is measured in different lengths. None of them may be shorter than a half to one minute. 13 variables mean 13 different performances of Pling. (It is not the point that is the essence; it is the space surrounding it)<.

Olle Bonniér is clearly influenced by Varèse, or rather; his own musical visions are based upon his interpretations of Varèse’s music, and in an amazing way anticipate modes of thinking that, much later, John Cage was to engage in. The parallels between Bonniér’s early ideas concerning the individual sound’s spatial projection, freed from traditional modes, and Feldman/Brown’s graphical compositions from the 1950s – they knew nothing of each other’s existence – can be partly explained by the influence of Varèse.

It should be remembered, however, that Bonniér was a visionary pioneer in his work, unique for the period even from an international perspective. In fact, his musical projects, which find themselves in the borderland between sound and picture, are still waiting for the appreciation and acknowledgement they deserve.

Aspects on Living, version 6, by Ingvar Loco Nordin

I believe that most connoisseurs of the music of Morton Feldman, like I myself, are mostly acquainted with him through his longer compositions, like the 4-CD For Christian Wolf, the 4-CD For Philip Guston and the likewise 4-CD String Quartet II, or perhaps other long works like For Samuel Beckett (though on just one CD…) and so forth, which makes it very interesting to meet him in these much shorter sections out of his world of sound – even though duration, really, to Feldman is a quality of less meaning; a piece can go on for two minutes or five hours, but it is never the duration as such which decides the meaning of the content. You could as well regard Morton Feldman’s music as always playing, the records just tapping in to that world for a duration that fits the producer at the time; a duration decided for purely practical reasons.

I’d say this CD is a very good deal for those interested in Feldman’s art, also as the sole complete collection of his works for two pianos, and for those who by time have gotten spellbound by the world of Rigpa that rises out of his mountain-view tempi and timbres, it is absolutely necessary!
It doesn’t become less attractive by the splendid technical quality of the recording, soundwise, and the wonderful interpretations by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz, even though, knowing the duo from many recordings and concerts, I’d expect nothing less from them.