Relaxing into joyousness

Chris Reid

Morton Feldman’s music owes much to John Cage, who in turn owes much to Erik Satie. Feldman wrote For John Cage, for violin and piano, for his friend and mentor in 1982, a year after his extraordinary Triadic Memories for piano. Feldman’s later works tend be long, and For John Cage is well over an hour. They are also intensively notated-every detail of the music is exactly prescribed, including some wavering microtones for the violin, making them doubly challenging for the performer. There are many threads for the listener to unravel—structural form and detail and their development, nuances in the rendering, the meditative feel of the work and the tone and timbre of the instruments.

Stephen Whittington (PATU Director) and James Cuddeford (Australian String Quartet) gave an absorbing rendition of For John Cage. The music is based on sequences of irregularly repeated short phrases and patterns that change subtly as the piece progresses. Delicacy and nuance sustain the work and one quickly learns to listen for them. Lacking melodic development, the work could be entered almost at any point. Its delightful little twists and turns are teasing rather than dramatic. Instead of entering an emotional or analytical state, the listener relaxes into quiet joyousness, the music sustaining a unique level of awareness and a sense of gentle motion. It suggests the combination of form and time, like watching the creation of the abstract paintings that enchanted Feldman. The music is typically Feldman, rather than Cagean. Despite the lack of linear development, it’s highly complex. The listener may well be oblivious to the discomfort presumably experienced by Feldman in recording his ideas and by the musicians who deliver them.

By contrast, Cage’s homage to Feldman, Music for Piano No 3 for Morton Feldman (1953) consists of a few brief piano notes, the pianist’s right hand on the keyboard, the left on the strings, a kind of musical haiku that in one moment contains many subtle moods and tones. Cuddeford’s performance of Cage’s Chorales for Solo Violin (1978), a series of 9 short movements for solo violin based around carefully devised microtones, is engrossing, as is Whittington’s powerful rendering of The Seasons(1947), written during Cage’s exploration of chance and numbering schemes.

Whittington’s August 9 program included more works by Cage and some rarely heard composers influenced by Satie including William Duckworth, Peter Garland, Terry Jennings and Philip Corner. (Satie was also featured). Duckworth’s energetic Imaginary Dances (2000) inserts country blues idioms into postminimalist structures. In contrast with the late modernist, idealistic compositional sensibility of Cage and Feldman, Duckworth’s post-modernism combines contrasting musical styles and traditions. Whittington also performed his own Custom Made Valses, a tribute to painter, customs officer and composer Henri Rousseau, in which he alternately read texts on the artist’s enigmatic life and played works evoking his eccentricities.

Cuddeford is a prolific champion of contemporary music. At ACME’s November 5 concert, he gave us Pierre Boulez’s Anthemes for solo violin (1992), a comparatively approachable work (for Boulez) in which pizzicati and slurred notes engage conversationally. Cuddeford’s own sublime and engaging composition, Kodoku, for solo violin (2002), performed by ASQ leader Natsuko Yoshimoto and based on 32 overtones of A and E, perhaps owes something to Cage and Feldman.

In the cavernous St Peter’s Cathedral, after warming up with Shostakovich’s 1934 Cello Sonata, Gabriella Smart’s Soundstream Ensemble launched into Henryk Gorecki’s immensely challenging Lerchenmusik, recitatives and ariosos for clarinet, cello and piano (1984). Stark and austere, Lerchenmusik is more typical of Gorecki than his legendary gentler and more accessible 3rd Symphony. This well-played 40-minute work is based on repeated patterns of a few notes during which slow, quietly sonorous, prayerful passages alternate with intensely loud, dramatic moments. The wide-ranging dynamics and metre emphasise the spare melodic lines. Fragments quoted from Beethoven’s corresponding trio briefly punctuate the final movement, as if Gorecki is looking back with post-cathartic relief on European (musical) history.

For some reason, Adelaide’s contemporary music season is largely squashed into the second half of the year. It also included The Firm’s 7-concert season showcase of excellent, though sometimes conservative, new work. Craig Foltz, Sarah Pirrie and Erik Griswold brought Permanent Transit to PATU. And ACME’s sole concert also included Director David Harris’ new works. This year’s Adelaide’s contemporary music scene has grown in diversity and quality of performance.

Stephen Whittington, Performing Arts Technology Unit, University of Adelaide, Aug 9; with James Cuddeford, Nov 8; ACME New Music Company; ABC Studio 520, Nov 5. Soundstream; St Peter’s Cathedral; Oct 25.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 39

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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