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Twilight Music

New York
BargeMusic, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
07/21/2011 -  
Morton Feldman: Triadic Memories
Blair McMillen (Piano)

B. McMillen (©Courtelsy of the artist)

Never having heard Morton Feldman’s longest piano work–one soft slow structure going up to 90 minutes–I e-mailed the most erudite person I know on hints for listening. His usual reply would have encompassed contrapuntal equations and tonal relativities. But in this case, he was remarkably succinct.

“Take,” he said, “a sandwich.”

Initially, I thought he had confused Morton Feldman with George Crumb. But both of us were wrong. One needed neither sandwiches nor books, nor explanation for this revelatory work. If my mind drifted at times during the masterly performance by Blair McMillen, it drifted in directions offered by the music itself, for Triadic Memories, in the soft and spare harmonies, can lead in infinite directions.

Mr. McMillen’s program notes described how Feldman’s inspiration was based on the design of “Eastern carpets” (though Feldman was probably referring to Near Eastern, particularly Bukhara carpets), how the patterns seem to be repeated but how each design is slightly different than the other.

In fact, that music seemed to be skewed in this manner. The sounds–consistently soft, softer, slow, slower, with inferences of canons, with austere harmonies– could have resembled that horrible genre called New Age Music. But New Age Music is the most predictable of all music, and thus of no interest. Mr. Feldman’s music takes one by surprise. Not a jolting surprise, but the surprise of changes which are totally unexpected.

Thus we in the audience at BargeMusic were pinned to the spot, wondering what would come next. But the other advantage of BargeMusic–unlike a regulation concert hall where everything remains the same–is that as the music changed, so did the setting!.

In fact, the sun over the Lower East Side skyline set with the same near-predictability of the music. The sun might have had its scientific measurements, but its effect on the buildings, the river, the windows, were aleatory. The music, as written, was not improvised, but it sounded aleatory. So for Feldman, who based so much of his music on painting, the BargeMusic solar background was ideal.

(Nor was this a distraction. Remember when John Cage’s 4’33” was premiered in Woodstock, the sounds of nature were part of the silence of the music.)

Yes, we could find certain resonances here. Part of Triadic Memories sounded like Satie (but only the simplicity, not the harmonic aberations), part of it sounded like Stravinsky’s most simple piano pieces (seemingly simple but otherwise almost perverse). The structure was non-existent, though it could be compared to a 16th Century through-composed Mass, without repetition, going forward gently and inexorably.

One’s personal reflections are essential here. Whether the mind is distracted or held, whether one finds the work monotonous or interesting, monotony was never part of the equation, since the changes were so…dare one say daring?.

As for the duration, after awhile, one stopped dreading, “Uh-oh, it sounds nice. But 90 minutes of this stuff?” Instead,, with an open mind, Triadic Memories was like the opium experience. With opium (and perhaps other drugs), time disappears entirely. So did Triadic Memories. The music didn’t drift on, but traveled in curves, curlicues, gentle circles opening up to slightly outlandish orbs.

In another concert hall, the number of people walking out might have been considerable, since they would be almost daring Mr. McMillen to make them interested. In BargeMusic, with its literal twilight zone, its gently rocking barge, and the jewels of music, Triadic Memories was a work of dreams and fancies together.

This morning, under a 101 degree heat, I was walking my dog with the sun beating down. And what did I imagine? The clusters of themes in Triadic Memories transformed into silver jewels of cool crystal-clear waters.

An absurd hallucination, but I regretted neither the fantasy nor the eternal tiny galaxies of music.

Harry Rolnick



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