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Recording Review

Morton Feldman. For Christian Wolff. California E.A.R. Unit. Dorothy Stone, flute. Vicki Ray, piano/celesta. 2008. Liner notes by Alan Rich and Rand Steiger. Bridge 7279 A/C. For Christian Wolff (1986), for flute and piano/celesta, is dedicated to Morton Feldman’s friend and fellow composer Christian Wolff. It is one among many “dedication” pieces, dedicated to friends, teachers, writers, painters, and other composers with whom Feldman felt a close affinity throughout his career. Although Feldman, who died in 1987, became known for the extreme length of his later compositions, his early work consisted primarily of miniatures. Among these is his three-minute vignette Christian Wolff in Cambridge (1963) for a cappella chorus. The title was inspired by two trips, made approximately six years apart, which Feldman made to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to visit Christian Wolff at his Harvard University dormitory room. On both occasions Feldman entered Wolff’s room to find him, surrounded by his books and papers, sitting at the same desk. Wolff said, “I think the sense of not changing over long periods of time is what gave him the idea of that title.”1 Indeed, a monolithic sense of “not changing over long periods of time,” very much encapsulates the impression one has while listening to Bridge’s 2008 threedisc recording of Feldman’s three-hour-long composition For Christian Wolff, performed by the California E.A.R. Unit. Many of Feldman’s longer compositions tend to fall into two general categories: those that are approximately seventy-five to ninety minutes long and those that are three to six hours long. Notable compositions in the first category include Triadic Memories (1981) for piano; Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981) for cello and piano; For John Cage (1982) for violin and piano; Crippled Symmetry (1983) for flutes, percussion and piano/celesta; and Piano and String Quartet (1985). There are three compositions that fall into the three- to six-hour category: String Quartet no. 2 (1983); For Philip Guston (1984) for flute, piano, and percussion; and For Christian Wolff (1986) for flute and piano/celesta.2 Both For Philip Guston and For Christian Wolff are among the last “dedication” pieces Feldman composed American Music  Spring 2010 © 2010 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

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before his death.3 The similarity in instrumentation (flute, piano and percussion) of a number of Feldman’s later compositions was the result of his work at the University of Buffalo with flautist Eberhard Blum, pianist Nils Vigeland, and percussionist Jan Williams. Blum and Vigeland performed the premier of For Christian Wolff and subsequently recorded it on HatHutRecords.4 Feldman’s relationship with Christian Wolff was less conflicted than that with Philip Guston. Wolff, born in 1934 in France, is both a composer and literary scholar. Coming from a distinguished European literary publishing background, Wolff studied classics and comparative literature at Harvard University. He would eventually teach classics at Harvard and later classics, comparative literature and music at Dartmouth College. Unlike Feldman or Guston, he has spent a large part of his career in academia. In 1950, at the age of sixteen, Wolff began a brief, though highly significant, period of composition and counterpoint studies with John Cage. It was at this time that he first came into contact with Feldman and the composer Earle Brown, both then in their twenties. These four are now collectively known as the New York School of Composers. Wolff is the sole survivor of the group. Although Feldman’s dedication pieces are actually more about the music than the person to whom they are dedicated, an interesting study could still be made of the degree to which these compositions are a reflection of each of the unique individuals to whom they are dedicated. For Christian Wolff is a more austere, abstract, unembellished, and, ultimately, less elegiac composition than For Philip Guston. This is partly due to both the nature of the musical material and the more limited instrumentation. Such factors may have been influenced by the differences between Guston and Wolff’s personalities, their relationship to Feldman, or their own personal backgrounds. The austerity of Wolff’s own early minimalist compositions may also have had an influence on Feldman’s compositional approach. Like much of Feldman’s later music, For Christian Wolff consists of the extended repetition, juxtaposition, and rhythmic/timbral variation of varying pitch cells that often group themselves into isolated pitch patterns. In For Christian Wolff, these pitch cells are particularly fragmented, condensed, distilled, and microscopic in makeup. They frequently consist of a small collection of pitches of no more than two to four notes and are very often without any melodic or rhythmic distinction— for instance, two pitches separated by a major second or a four-note chromatic scale. These pitch cells are not motivic. Rather, they are treated as inanimate objects, with no hierarchical or formal function within the composition. It is by way of the insistent, delicate repetition and subtle rhythmic and timbral variation of the pitch material that the music begins to take on a luminous quality. Feldman has compared his approach to that of the Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini and, in particular, the attention he paid, in such paintings as Saint Francis in the Desert, to rendering inanimate objects in great detail. It was Bellini’s ability to reveal the “religiosity of inanimate objects” that was particularly influential on Feldman’s compositional thinking as a young composer.5 For Christian Wolff contains little or no dynamic contrast. The focus is on subtle differentiations in pitch, instrumental register, and orchestration, as well as on the subtle interplay between the instruments. The hocketing of pitches back and forth between the instruments is a frequent occurrence in the piece. Particularly striking are those places in the music where the distinction between the piano and celesta is blurred—as when the piano, which is more focused in pitch, and

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the celesta, less focused in pitch, play different notes of the same chord and bleed into each other. Long sections of the music frequently consist of the repetition of only a few pitches alternating between the flute and piano/celesta. Such moments resemble the work of a painter, who, using only short brush strokes, saturates a section of canvas with only one color. One striking instance occurs at the opening of the third disc where the flute plays a series of brief repetitions of one pitch (B flat5), for approximately two and three-quarter minutes, while the piano and celesta slowly alternate, back and forth, between repetitions of the A flat5, a major second below. This section is followed by the juxtaposition of two sections of new musical material that is more varied in character. The major-second interchange between the flute and keyboards then returns for approximately three and a half minutes. It is followed by another section of new musical material, after which the major-second interval, between flute and keyboards, once again returns. In term of sections, this can be summed up in the following manner: A-B-C-A-D-A. As in a mosaic or jigsaw puzzle, For Christian Wolff is made up of the accretion of musical material. The juxtaposition of different types of musical material has roots in the music of Stravinsky, as, for instance, in the opening of his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. An important difference, however, between Stravinsky and Feldman lies in the dynamic and contrasting characterization of Stravinsky’s material, as opposed to Feldman’s more neutral, or “flattened-out,” material. In Feldman’s longer pieces, the listener becomes acutely aware of the passing of time. In listening to For Christian Wolff, one’s consciousness of musical time and its tenuous relation to real time is particularly heightened by the discontinuous, meandering nature of the composition. The uninitiated listener might have a difficult time finding a point of entry into For Christian Wolff. It is a rather unforgiving piece. As well, it is an unusually difficult piece for the performers to convey to an audience. Flutist Dorothy Stone and pianist/celestist Vicki Ray provide more than the necessary skills required by the music. Its transparency requires an unwavering consistency of sonority and instrumental touch, in addition to an unusual degree of stamina, concentration, and commitment from the performers. The unbending nature of the composition allows little room for any form of espressivo playing from the players. Nor does the piece allow for very much chamber music–like interaction between the two performers. As a result, the performance can sometimes appear to be rather characterless. Like actors in a film by Michelangelo Antonioni, the performers are objects that occupy the same space but only rarely touch. Bridge’s valuable liner notes from music critic Alan Rich, with help from Christian Wolff himself, reveal much about Wolff’s own assessment of the piece. Rand Steiger’s “Dorothy Stone, A Remembrance” offers a sad note on Dorothy Stone’s passing in 2008.6 This was one of her last recordings. The overall quality of the recording is very consistent, as one has come to expect from Bridge Records. In listening to this recording, one has the impression that one is looking at a painting in close proximity, moving from one detail to the next, yet never standing back to take in the whole. For both the initiated and uninitiated listener, For Christian Wolff is worth the extra effort and not without its rewards. Morton Feldman once spoke of how the pianist Aki Takahashi described her impression of having performed For Christian Wolff, “as if she was watching a movie at the same time she was performing this

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piece. . . . It was like a story that unfolded . . . and it took two-and-a-half hours for her to understand how it came to rest, this story.”7 After listening, I am left with beautiful pieces of a puzzle that do not give me the impression of having ever added up to a conclusive whole. Paul Paccione Western Illinois University

Notes 1. From a conversation with Walter Zimmermann in 1975, originally included in his longout-of-date book Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Composers from 1976. Quote was later published in Christian Wolff, Cues: Writings and Conversations, ed. G. Gronemeyer and R. Oehlschagel (Cologne: MusikTexte, 1998), 100–102. 2. A contemporary of Feldman, Philip Guston was a painter whose abstract expressionist paintings and ideas about art greatly influenced Feldman’s own work. Their relationship was characterized by both allegiance and strife. See my recording review of Bridge’s For Philip Guston in American Music 25, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 248–53. 3. For Stephan Wolpe (1986) for chorus and two vibraphones and For Samuel Beckett (1987) for chamber orchestra, are his final dedication compositions. 4. Morton Feldman, For Christian Wolff, HatHutRecords, Art CD 61201/3, 1992 (no longer available). 5. Morton Feldman, “I Am Interested in the Commitment,” Conversation with Frits Lagerwerff, July 4, 1987, in Morton Feldman in Middleberg, vol. 2, ed. Raoul Mörchen (Cologne: Edition MusikTexte, 2008), 816. 6. Rand Steiger is chair of the Music Department at the University of California in San Diego. 7. Morton Feldman, “Do We Really Need Electronics,” Conversation with Kaija Saariaho, July 3, 1987, in Morton Feldman in Middleberg, 2:770.

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Profile for Paul Paccione

Morton Feldman's "For Christian Wolff"  

Record Review by Paul Paccione

Morton Feldman's "For Christian Wolff"  

Record Review by Paul Paccione