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Morton Feldman – Clarinet and String Quartet

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Morton Feldman - Clarinet and String QuartetComposition’s kind of ridiculous to write about in that you have to write about (broadly) two things — the composition and the delivery — and differences between various recordings can be relatively minimal. Usually, the appeal of composition from about the ’40s onward is that it falls into one of two categories — shit, therefore over-recorded (Phillip Glass, most Americans) or amazing, therefore under-recorded (usually by Europeans). Morton Feldman is an anomaly in that he’s an American composer who isn’t shit and is relatively well-recorded.

Feldman’s also an anomaly insofar as he makes some gruelling, implacably tense music that has an appeal that’s relatively broad. He’s sometimes termed a ‘minimalist’, which is true in a fairly flat sense and not true in another. Some of his works (perhaps not this one) have a parity of content, but do a lot of very delicate contorting of phrases and time signatures — you get the impression of stasis while the musicians are panicking their genitals off trying to get the note lengths right while moving from 12/8 to 5/4 seamlessly. So that’s minimal in what you might call a melodic-harmonic plane, but (unlike someone like Glass) there’s a great deal more than repetition and chromaticism. Loosely speaking, if you haven’t spent time with Feldman then you really should; furthermore you should do so with a later piece (I’m not personally a fan of the relatively indeterminate earlier stuff). So perhaps this should be the one?

No reason to not make that the case. So far as Feldman goes, it’s not a mammoth, gruelling listen — at 47 minutes, this is perfectly digestible. This piece is relatively peripatetic — Feldman advocated writing in ink and this is a piece where parts change seemingly on a whim, and repetition of material is tricky to discern (though it’s palpably there). Which is unlike, say, Crippled Symmetry (from the same year as this piece), where distinct motifs are bent punishingly out of shape over an hour and a half or so. The figures in Clarinet and String Quartet aren’t ever quite melodic in the sense that you find yourself humming them, but there’s a constantly motion of building tension with slight rhythmic shifts and timbral crossing only to deflate it. It’s music that fills a room and makes the walls exhausted when it’s finished.

So the above is kind of about the piece — it’s a great piece, but it’s not my favourite Feldman. It’s among the pieces I’d suggest for a starter and… well, anyone who’s into Feldman doesn’t really need an excuse to buy more Feldman, quite frankly. But it’s a piece that’s been recorded a few times — it’s definitely well into the troublesome realm of playability but it’s not excruciating. So it gets the odd outing. This version’s slightly longer than a few other versions, which is to say that the musicians are definitely making some of the (already quite difficult) sustained clarinet notes harder still.

I’d suggest that this is recorded with an ambient mic — you can hear the not-quite-settled audience shuffling early on (it was apparently a living room gig) and there’s plenty of audible breathing from the clarinettist. Which is a kind of interesting effect you don’t often hear with ‘classical’ recordings — mostly (and perhaps especially with more modern composition) there’s quite an inhuman, dry quality to it, so getting that in-the-room feeling is pretty nice. Unfortunately, it can be misleading — there’s a moment with what sounds like a panicked breath and a slipped note but I checked another couple of recordings (I don’t have the score, I’m not made of money) and it’s definitely meant to be there. I want to say that there’s a palpable sense of panic among the players generally — I find myself empathising with their playing as much as listening — which is another very human quality.

Which leads into a general problem — I don’t know that I’d recommend this over other recordings, but I certainly wouldn’t tell someone not to have a punt on it. I’m probably overly attached to the hat[now]ART version with the Pellegrini Quartet, but likely only because it’s the first one I heard. This version definitely has some quite human tension — and the quartet here are well-heeled enough in each other’s playing to microtonally flatten the odd chord for dramatic effect (it’s certainly possible that this is a fabrication of the my hearing the reverberation in the recording’s room) — but for me Feldman recordings are at their best when they’re savage and inhuman.

In terms of string playing, I seem to remember there was a bit in Feldman’s Give My Regards To Eight Street (his collected writings) where he talks about the problems of vibrato — and that is, in my head, where his composing comes from — the player needs monastic, inhuman control to realise Feldman’s gorgeous, sumptuous, brittle and dramatic works. This does feel disingenuous; I’d definitely recommend this recording if someone didn’t have it, and with modern music there’s always, always a need to have more stuff out there, and moreoever it seems this is a relatively DIY label (and God knows we need more DIY composition)… so yeah. A long way from absymal, great even, but the Feldman bar is high and perilous.

-Kev Nickells-

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