Morton Feldman – For John Cage (1982)

For John Cage, for violin & piano (1982)

Stephen Clarke, piano
Marc Sabat, violin

Morton Feldman’s “For John Cage” scored for violin and piano, approximately 70 minutes long, was composed in 1982. This was during the last period of Feldman’s creative activity when made several works of extended listening durations, like the “Triadic Memories” (1981), “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” (also known as “Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano” (1981), “Crippled Symmetry” (1983), the 80-minute “String Quartet” (1979), the 43-minute ensemble piece “For Samuel Beckett” (1987), and the more than 4 and 1/2 hours of “For Philip Guston”. In his ensemble works, Feldman assigned certain identifiable gestures to certain individual instruments and instrumental groups, and these gestures would be repeated on long, asymmetrical time schedules. The rhythms would be gradually offset, the pitches would move through harmonic fields that would be outlined by changes in the single pitches, note duration and consequently coordination between parts would either be conventionally notated or be indeterminate and left to the choice of the performers. The resulting ensemble image would be like floating layers of sound passing each other and combining in various ways. In a work with only two instruments, such as this, the gradual modification of rhythm and other elements, is highlighted. In Feldman’s earlier works, notes would be relatively isolated, and every once in a while a motoric “loop” would be created from a sequence of notes, and would be repeated more or less without change for a brief period. In this work, these looping patterns pre-dominate. The violin and piano sometimes imitate each other, exchange parts, but most often share a pattern divided between themselves; . The patterns, although simple, are unpredictable both in their shape, their subtle modification in timbre, tempo, articulation (attack, non-attack) and their number of repetitions, or singular statement. There is no sense of traditional linear development, and there is, really, no exact repetition. Certain remarkable illusionary passages occur, for example, when the two instruments exchange parts: after a long time of single note repeats in the piano and two-note gestures in the violin, at approximately 20 minutes into the piece, the violin begins pulsing (at different tempi) and the piano plays two-note figure in the high and low registers. The effect on the listener is difficult to explain in previous musical terms, but the piano and violin start to be heard as distinct voices, even if the music looks the same on the page. As if your left and right brain functions (if those actually exist separately) have switched over to the other side. At approximately 26 minutes, extremely high notes, and a switch to triplet groups occur; small chromatic movements add to the eerieness. At approximately 48 minutes into the piece, clusters begin appearing in the piano part, and snaky microtonal inflections occur in the violin part; this is followed by chromatic scales in the piano part smeared with the sustaining pedal, and they are imitated almost in pitch unison by the violin playing in microtones, artificial harmonics and sul ponticello. This is truly a bizarre sound. All certainty assured by the traditional relation to pitch is gradually obscured. Gesture and shape become the prime vocabulary. The distorting mirror gradually becomes clear again. The piano provides an ascending ladder of tuning points adding up to more complex harmony than that of the beginning. There is a return to more energetic patterns. And then to the ascending chromatics (3 to 5 note patterns). The piece concludes with a slow 5-note ascending cluster. We are left with a great mystery simply expressed. “It’s a little piece for violin and piano, but it doesn’t quit” (Feldman in conversation with composer Peter Gena). []

Art by John Cage


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