Rohan de Saram / Marianne Schroeder

Morton Feldman: Patterns in a Chromatic Field

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Morton Feldman's gargantuan Patterns in a Chromatic Field is, of all his works, his most self-explanatory. Over 105 minutes, Feldman constructs a sound world where half-tones are given free reign of expression outside the realm of keys assigned. A chromatic scale is 12 half-tones in an octave on the piano. But to Feldman and his performers here -- the truly gifted Marianne Schroeder on piano and Rohan DeSaram on violoncello -- the entire notion of chromatic harmony itself is the playing field. This is one of Feldman's most active works, where clusters and patterns of chromatic architecture emanate from outside other structures -- chords in major and minor keys -- employed as decoys. They are there simply to displace them and establish chromatic harmony as dominant in the relationship between tones in the Western overtone scale. There are periods where one of the instruments will drop out, such as near the middle of the first section when Schroeder all but disappears, leaving DeSaram to continue in chromatic regimen -- until she re-enters like a ghost, sparingly, playing the very chords he's been outside of the entire time. They are a referent to what was, not what is. All solidity in musical concept here falls away into repetitions of notes and oddly angled chords that simply "don't belong." Over the long period of time Feldman has given to familiarize them to the pattern system, they take on their own notion of stark yet pronounced beauty. And while it is true that there is no melody in this work, there does develop, in the manner in which Feldman engages his field of language with chromaticism of scale and harmony, a "melodic sensibility" in the spaces where conflict and non-engagement take place. This is, in the Feldman canon, a work of tremendous rigor and effort to sustain ideas within a restricted tonal environment and create a wider, freer musical language from it was -- a new watermark for a composer who had already crested many. Patterns in a Chromatic Field is among Feldman's most significant and enduring works, and perhaps more groundbreaking than any of his others.

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