This weekend: Morton Feldman and Softly

Morton Feldman.

Beginning tonight, Morton Feldman, perhaps the greatest American composer of the twentieth century, will be stealing in and out of Philadelphia and New York, courtesy of Marilyn Nonken and friends. I most recently published this short item about Feldman, and New Yorker music critic Alex Ross threw a spotlight on the New York festival earlier this week.

At Philly’s University Lutheran Church (3637 Chestnut Street in University City), Marilyn will be joining Stephen Marotto for a performance of Patterns in a Chromatic Field (1981) at 8.00pm tonight, Thursday, September 13; they performed Patterns earlier this year at St. Bart’s in New York. The concert is being presented by the Bowerbird outfit; tickets are available for tonight’s performance here.

Marilyn and Stephen will then speed north for Softly: Music of Morton Feldman, a mini-celebration of Feldman’s music and career, at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse this weekend, September 14 and 15. On Friday, September 14, at 8.00pm, Marilyn will be reprising her astonishing interpretation of Feldman’s lengthy piano solo Triadic Memories (1981; available on Mode Records). The next day, Saturday, September 15, a variety of performers will present a program of Some of Feldman’s Smaller Pieces, including “Four songs to e e cummings” and “Viola in My Life 3,” at 3.00pm; filmmaker Zahra Partovi will screen and discuss “Some Short Films About Feldman” at 5.00pm; then, after dinner, Steve and Marilyn clamber onto the small Provincetown stage for an encore performance of Patterns at 8.00pm.

Feldman’s music of the 1980s, especially Triadic Memories and Patterns, leads to a few timely thoughts about this music and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which I wrote about yesterday. Both artists most explicitly explore time, duration, and decay in works that hover between the secular and the sacred. Eliot in Four Quartets attempted to map this middle ground between the commonplace and the metaphysical (a trait he shared with several poets of the 17th century), doubting the ability of words themselves to express the search for salvation and the incarnation of the spirit in the flesh, while Feldman in Triadic Memories and in Patterns emphasized not the attack but the decay of the expression of a musical tone. In these long works, Eliot and Feldman require not intellectual concentration but active contemplation from the reader and the listener; the attempts at meaning are woven from discrete words and sounds into more complex arrangements of word and sound that only emerge gradually. At first these discrete words and sounds seem almost arbitrary, but over time and duration — and only over time and duration — they reveal their transcendental possibilities. This is not unique or innovative in the history of either poetry or music. One can turn to those metaphysical poets like George Herbert and John Donne or to composers like Machaut or Bach for similar endeavors. But both Eliot and Feldman are working in an entirely different culture, which requires new approaches to language and tonality — affected not least by a self-consciousness of poet/composer, audience, and listener that comes in more contemporary, secular forms than in the 16th and 17th centuries. It could simplistically be said that those centuries knew God and that the 20th century does not, at least in the wake of the world wars that undermined the Enlightenment confidence in science and rationality, and that to come to this knowledge requires new avenues of aesthetic experience. In short, Eliot and Feldman both create environments for this contemplation for the listener. How appropriate, then, that Feldman often finds himself in churches (the Philadelphia performance of Patterns will take place at a church, as its New York performance took place at St. Bart’s), and Eliot finds himself acceding to the Anglican Christian tradition.

The New York performances are free and open to the public, but seating is limited — and seats will go fast. More information at the web site for Softly and the Facebook page for the festival. We’ll see you there.