Morton Feldman’s ‘Voices and Instruments II’ February 22, 1973

It’s a little difficult to review Morton Feldman’s music, since he was my composition teacher for two or three years. Actually, he was more of a guru, in my case. Every time I had a lesson with him, I would go home and carefully make notes of what he had said and then set about trying to solve any problems he might have posed, without any of the resistance I often gave to my teachers. Like anyone’s guru, he was all knowing, infallible, and perfect, as far as I was concerned. And even today, whenever I run into people who have reservations about Feldman’s music, it seems to me that they are being frightfully unobjective. Of course, my own admiration of his music is not particularly objective either, so I will try to avoid superlatives, and just describe the stylistic change currently taking place in his music.

‘Voices and Instruments II,’ which was premiered on February 14 at Carnegie Recital Hall, follows the basic Feldman approach to sound. The piece is very soft and consists of individual notes and chords, mostly sustained, without any melodies or rhythmic ideas, to speak of. The pitches and colors are carefully chosen, and there is great concern for the constantly fluctuating harmonies which result from them. In this case, the ensemble consists of flute, two cellos, bass, and three singers who hum, mostly in the upper register.

The new piece, however, is much longer than the typical Feldman piece, and it changes character noticeably, rather than maintaining one feeling from beginning to end. At one point, a single chord is sustained for quite a while before the notes start to change again. Sometimes one or two instruments will not play for a while. The harmonic feeling of the music also seems to be different in different parts of the piece, though these changes were too subtle for me to put my finger on in one hearing.

Now that Feldman is moving into longer forms, his sensitivity to time and his exquisite (oops) control over harmonies and tone colors are more apparent than ever. Those who have considered Feldman a quaint miniaturist will be forced to take a second look.

Some listeners were probably disappointed with the way the piece was performed by members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts of Buffalo, but I liked their approach very much. The hardest thing in the world is to play very very softly, and nobody likes to do it in public, but the Buffalo musicians accepted the challenge. They played so softly that they were right on the brink of losing control most of the time, and occasionally a cello bow or a singer’s voice did go out of control briefly. But by playing it this way, they gave the piece a wonderful fragile quality. At the same time, they drew the listener in by requiring him to strain his ears a little.