The Ensemble Phoenix Basel has made it a cherished ritual to include the monumental late work by the American composer Morton Feldman “For Philip Guston” in its program every ten years. “Gare du Nord” opened with this work.
Philip Guston was a painter from the movement of “abstract expressionism”, which condensed on New York in the 1950s and 1960s – as a circle of artists, literary figures and musicians. Feldman – as well a member of this circle – once credited the painter friend with opening his eyes to sound as a direct, malleable medium, thus freeing him as a composer in the first place. Especially in the 1980s, Feldman made it a habit to write large dedication pieces for various artists, including “For Philip Guston,” written in 1984 for flute, piano and percussion. The source material of the commemorative piece, which lasts a good four and a half hours, is the sequence of notes in the name of John Cage, who introduced Feldman to Philip Guston in 1950. Guston commissioned Morton Feldman to speak the “Kaddish” prayer at his grave – after the two of them had not spoken to each other for the last eight years of Guston’s life. Feldman later stated that his own aesthetic fanaticism had been the cause of this break – and that he wanted the piece to follow the turn Guston had taken: to “stop asking questions.”
Morton Feldman, son of a Ukrainian immigrant family, was born in New York on January 12, 1926. In 1941 he began his studies with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. In 1949 Feldman met John Cage, which turned out to be one of the most inspiring encounters of his musical career. The result was an important artistic association in New York clearly critical concerning the American music of 1950s. Other friends and exponents of the New York artistic scene of the time were composers Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, painters Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg, and pianist David Tudor. The painters influenced Feldman to find his own sound world, a sound world that was more immediate and physical than ever before. From this followed his experiments with graphic notation. However, since this kind of notation led too close to improvisation for Feldman’s taste, he was not satisfied with results. Therefore, he distanced himself from graphic notation again in the second half of the 1950s. In 1973 Feldman was appointed “Edgar Varèse professor” by the “University of New York” at Buffalo, a position he kept until the end of his life. In June 1987 Morton Feldman married the composer Barbara Monk. On September 3rd in 1987, he died at his home in Buffalo at the age of 61.
“For Philip Guston”
In the early 1980s, the late period of his compositional work, Feldman continued to engage in the process of “fusing materials.” His musical language is characterized by rhythmic “patterns” or melodic gestures that change slightly within recurring cycles. These melodic gestures or chords are often enclosed by silence (pauses in musical notation). Such moments of silence are part of the whole pattern or cycle. Feldman created large blocks of consciousness – an awareness of the moment, a memory of structures or of the state of being different or otherness, and consequently a “narrative style.” Feldman achieves a consistent style by setting certain parameters for all later pieces: for example, the tempo is usually quarters equal to 63 – 66 per minute, and the dynamics range from ppp to ppppp. The consistency extends into the graphic realm: each line of his scores is divided into 9 measures of equal length, regardless of the changing meter. From this period on he usually wrote chamber music works with a playing time of 45 to 60 minutes, even four- to five-hour pieces, such as “String Quartet II” (1983) or “For Philip Guston” (1984). He wrote a total of 9 works longer than 70 minutes.
Morton Feldman’s special polymetrics are another challenge for performers . He even applies this technique in orchestral works and in his opera “Neither” (1977). This method of composition is even more complicated by Feldman’s preference, beginning in the late 1970s – influenced by Anatolian carpet patterns – for a grid notation in which all measures are graphically the same length – regardless of the temporal duration of the measures. This results in a “non-simultaneity” of the notation, similar to that already found in the “Durations” pieces (1960/61), in which only the first sound begins simultaneously, but thereafter each instrument plays its own tempo. Feldman took the polymetric principle to the extreme in the trio “For Philip Guston”. The difficulty lies in the fact that the three instruments play for up to 9 bars with individual time changes, but afterwards they have to land in a coordinated way, because the polymetric passages of the 3 instruments always have in total exactly the same length.
In my new edition of the piece, I have tried to develop a notation that on the one hand facilitates the interplay of the instruments, and on the other hand leaves the polymetrics as Feldman composed them. In other words: each instrumentalist plays his part independently of the two other players, but can follow where the other two instruments are at any given moment. This means: three different playing scores have to be played: each with the corresponding meter of the three instruments.