Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman: The Viola in My Life

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This reissue of a CRI recording of three of Morton Feldman's most important works from the 1960s and 1970s -- The Viola in My Life, False Relationships & the Extended Ending, and Why Patterns? -- all for small instrumental ensembles, has strong historical as well as musical interest. These were the first recordings of these pieces, made soon after they were written, with the composer either conducting or playing piano. The sound quality is less than pristine by the standards of the early twenty first century, but the room noises these recordings capture were for Feldman an essential aspect of the performance. The barely perceived sounds -- the shifting of sticks in the percussionist's hand, a creaking floorboard, a suppressed sneeze or cough -- enrich the experience of close listening that these pieces require. The sound quality is a reminder of the authenticity of these performances -- that this is the way the original audiences would have heard these pieces -- and draws the listener into the world in which this music was newly minted: fresh and audacious.

The essential elements of Feldman's aesthetic are on display in these works: extremely sparse textures in which the silences between sounds can be as significant as the sounds themselves, delicacy that is never reticent, lack of apparent structural or tonal organization, and exquisite timbral combinations. This is music that requires the listener to surrender the need to understand and to simply listen to each moment. The reward is a richly sensuous experience and a heightened awareness of the beauty of sound.

The performances are persuasive because it's obvious the musicians are listening to each other with acute attentiveness, and so they are able to invest every sound with musical significance. For all the apparent lack of structure, nothing sounds random -- the performers set each sonority in place with loving care and complete conviction. The list of musicians on the CD reads like a who's who of new music stars of the 1970s, and includes flutist Paula Robison, violist Karen Phillips, cellist Seymour Barab, and pianists Paul Jacobs and David Tudor. These performances are essential listening for anyone interested in the American new music scene of the late twentieth century.

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