Time canvas

Morton Feldman.

There’s no time like the present to purchase your tickets for Morton Feldman’s landmark Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981), which Stephen Marotto (cello) and Marilyn Nonken (piano) will perform as the last concert of this year’s Great Music at St. Bart’s series on Sunday, May 13.

Morton Feldman, the Queens-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, is on anybody’s short list of the great American composers of the 20th century, and I’d rank him way above even John Cage; Tom Service has a pretty good “guide to Morton Feldman’s music” at the Guardian. “My compositions are not really ‘compositions’ at all,” Feldman said. “One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of music.” The 80-minute Patterns is one of his late-period, long-duration compositions; it was immediately followed by Triadic Memories of similar length (and which Marilyn recorded for Mode Records some years ago). In a 2006 essay for the New Yorker, Alex Ross shared an anecdote that I do hope is not apocryphal; comparing Feldman’s burly, loud girth with the not-so-simple elegance of his music, Ross wrote:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. … In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

I told you he was from Queens.

The May 13 concert begins at 3.00pm; more information and tickets here.  A few years ago, Arne Deforce collected several of Feldman’s own comments on Patterns into a convenient anthology of sorts; that can be found here.


Randy Newman.

This week I reviewed Armando Iannucci’s fine The Death of Stalin, spent a little time listening to Etta Baker, and nodded to Mark Twain’s enthusiasm for the national game, which launched its 2018 season just yesterday.

Not long ago I sampled The Randy Newman Songbook, a three-CD set released in 2016 that covers the four decades of Newman‘s career. It is, though, not strictly a compilation — these are brand new recordings of many of his most (and least) recognized songs, recently performed by Newman alone at a piano. Lacking, then, are the often lush orchestrations and arrangements of the original album releases. But what we gain through these solo performances is a new respect for Newman as a consummate craftsman of American songwriting. Along with his contemporaries Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson, Newman represented perhaps the final generation of an American songwriting tradition that began in the early 20th century in Tin Pan Alley, reached something of an apotheosis in the Brill Building in the 1950s, then began to slowly decline until this kind of songwriting just about vanished in the 1980s.

While much of their music engages nostalgically with the American songwriting tradition, Newman, Parks, and Nilsson didn’t merely indulge in this nostalgia, but aimed it through the prism of an America that was radically changing in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the emotional and cultural certainties of these classic American songs were no longer relevant. While at first listen there are echoes of the Gershwins and Harry Ruby, dissonances (which are still jarring) rapidly appear, and the songs themselves become considerations of a lost world and its peculiar contemporary recollection. Below is a sample of this — an early Randy Newman song, “Vine Street,” which first appeared on the 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman — a peculiar collaboration detailed in the Wikipedia page about the album, which despite failing commercially won the Record-of-the-Year award from Stereo Review. This performance, an early demo recording, was included in the 1998 boxed set Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman, which is now out of print.

Batter up!

Mark Twain kept this scorecard at a baseball game in Hartford, CT, circa 1874.

The 2018 baseball season opens today. I’ll be rooting for my hometown Phils, but don’t hold that against me.

It’s likely that Mark Twain would be rooting for his own hometown Hartford Dark Blues, says the Major League Baseball website. At a dinner in 1889, Twain called the game “the outward and visible expression of the drive, and push, and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century.” Legend also has it that he may have umpired a semi-pro game at his summer home in Elmira, NY. He boasted about his deep knowledge of the pastime: “Oh, I knew all about it. I knew it was a ball the moment I saw it, and I said so.”

Play ball! And while you’re waiting for the rain delay to end, read more about Mark Twain and America’s greatest game — as well as an associated corpse — here.

“One Dime Blues”

Etta Baker.

Etta Baker (1913-2006) was one of the great practitioners of the Piedmont Blues guitar style; Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal sought her out at her North Carolina home for tips and advice about her thumb-and-forefinger technique. Below, she performs her signature “One Dime Blues” in a recording from 1991, when she was 78 years old. Her New York Times/ Associated Press obituary can be found here.