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The gentle haze between past and present: Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories

The Sound Barrier : Blog

You can check out the playlist and audio for details of all the recordings played on this week's show, as well as listen back to them!

Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories tells the story of memories in much the same way that Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace told the story of history.

For Tolstoy, history is not shaped by the big moments, the big people, but by the million and one little things that converge, each one of them its own story, that link and shape the things around them. It's a little like chaos theory – that everything leads to something else in the vast web of history, immeasurable consequences from the smallest things, mixing with the immeasurable consequences of all the other smallest things, each thread an equal part of a picture.

Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories is like this too. Composed in 1981, its score consists of 1089 bars of music for solo piano, most of it is marked ppp, softer than very soft, except for a few passages late in the piece that are marked ppppp. Its form is its scale – no themes or melodies that recur to reorient you to where you started, but rather a perpetual sequence of tiny constellations of notes that change ever-so-slightly from one bar to the next, occasionally more abruptly, weaving perpetual patterns that never stay quite the same. Maybe a rest is half a beat longer here, a note half a beat shorter. Soft rhythms change slowly, musical gestures linger but shift, and then go away altogether, to make way for something slightly different. The music often moves slowly, creepingly, through piano's registers; sometimes it seems to settle in the one place, but never entirely becomes static. It is like the long heartbeat of a pause, the breath of passing.

Changing perceptions of time, place, and duration
After a while – maybe after twenty minutes or so – your perception changes. Not just of time, but of place as well: of when and where you are. You begin to sense that you are in the music, filling its space. Your memories are the memories of the slowly changing patterns. You're no longer sure what you have heard already and what is new. The present and the past are now blurred. The gentle shape that the music has formed, and into which you have moved, is made up entirely of these configurations of notes. They are memories, they are memory.

Morton Feldman composed this piece, like many of the large long-form pieces of his later years, without any conventional concept of form. There was no 'system' to what notes he picked, or to how they progressed throughout the piece. Rather, his idea was to create works in which the scale itself became the structure of the piece, the enormity of time that it embraces, and that ultimately embraces you too, as you listen. The music is, in that sense, like free association sound, flowing and growing instinctively – reflective, placid, wistful. It is not something to wander in and out of, but to stay with. It is music that is at rest with itself as it moves within the quiet pace that it creates with each step it takes.

Not ambient, not minimalist, not serialist
And yet it is far, far, from simple ambient music. It is not music to calm you in the background, but to reorient you in the foreground. It demands your closest, most intense, concentration. And when you give it that concentration it pays you back with its infinitely shifting configurations and tessellations, like those of the Turkish rugs from which Morton Feldman took so much of his inspiration. In those rugs, the patterns can at first seem regular and uniform, but when you look closely, they are full of irregularities, reflecting those of the whole process of their creation – handmade, human, uneven, but forming a whole that, in its irregularity, is its own cohesion. There is balance in its asymmetry. The whole is an entwining of a million little details, each different, each structured patiently, each woven lovingly into the others.

It is also very different from the minimalism of composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. There the emphasis is on repetition, usually rapid and constant and, while the repetitions change over time, those changes are generally less nuanced than they are here, in the music of Morton Feldman. Feldman changes his patterns in ways that call upon the most detailed focus of the performer, always creating a finely calculated irregularity. Unlike Glass and Reich, Feldman usually eschews conventional tonality. Rhythms are fluid rather than pronounced. Quietness and scale always dominate the often-frenetic energy of Glass-like, Reich-like repetition.

On the other hand, it is also very different from the music of the serialists, against whom Feldman to some extent consciously reacted. In serialism, like in Feldman, much is made out of a little: works are built through drawing the maximum diversity from the minimal resources. But in serialism, this is done through organised structures: a series of pitches and dynamics and durations and timbres that create an organised set of proportions that in different ways inform how the work is developed, like a genetic blueprint. In Feldman there can also be a minimum of resources – just a few notes – varied in the maximum way, but here their passage and growth are informed by intuition rather than proportions. Patterns emerge but fall apart. They might hold for a few bars, maybe even a few minutes, but then they fade away, as if they have simply had enough, and give way to something else that seems to have grown out of nowhere and yet still to be part of the same ilk as that which went before it. It's like patterns of little waves on a big sea: single waves here, clusters of them there, all different yet all connected, restful but always on the move.

How the patterns form and change
The opening few minutes of the piece provide an example of how it works as a whole. You hear, at first, music in two registers of the piano – a single note held very high while two notes follow it, very low. Then another high note, then another two low notes. If you listen closely, you'll notice that the notes in the higher register are two alternating pitches (a G and a B flat), while the notes in the bass are always changing. The bass notes stay in pairs, sometimes moving from a lower note to a higher note, sometimes the other way around. In between each pair, there is a pause in the bass. The patterns of durations of these pauses, and of each note in the bass, changes slightly each time. Eventually, the longer single G – B flat notes in the upper register move down an octave, while the shorter pairs in the bass move up an octave. A little after that, the two patterns meet in the middle, and then cross over, until finally the G – B flat pattern is in the bass, and the constantly-changing pairs of notes are high in the treble. We are just a few minutes in.

All throughout Triadic Memories Morton Feldman finds countless ways to play out these tiny shifts in patterns. There can be a single group of notes that is repeated several times – the score can ask for a single bar, or a few bars to be repeated 5, 6, 7 sometimes up to 11, times – and then another pattern will follow it, similar but perhaps with just one note slightly lengthened, or the placement of pauses slightly shifted. Sometimes there are sequences of repeats, but the number of repeats changes: first a bar might be played three times, then the one that follows it, similar but slightly different, might repeat four times. There might be a different bar – just a single note, or a chord, or a pair of each perhaps – in between two sets of repeated bars. Sometimes there are longer passages of single flowing notes, maybe three or four of them, their order constantly changing while their durations stay the same, or their durations changing while their pitches remain constant, or perhaps little, and unpredictable changes to both. Always patterns, always changes.

These are the endlessly inventive shifts of patterns that hold the piece together – always gentle and rested, yet always shifting, quietly, slowly, sometimes imperceptibly and yet, at the same, unmistakeably.

This is the fabric of Triadic Memories. It is its fabric as music and also as a story about the nature of memories: a whole built of a million smaller parts. When we are immersed in them we become a part of that story, as memories form within us, and shape new stories, which themselves become new memories, forming new stories, everything connected to everything else, forwards and backwards, each little bit unique and yet irrevocably part of the whole.

The gentleness of the music is part of what makes it so irresistible. It is part of Morton Feldman's unique genius that he was able to create works such as this – and some of his others are much longer, such as the almost-five hour For Philip Guston for piano, flute, and percussion, and the five-and-a-half hour Second String Quartet – works that have the power to hold an audience, transfixed in a unique hold of space-time, without all the conventional wave of drama and overt arcs of tension and release. It is music that is infinitely simple and infinitely complex, minimalist and maximalist at once.

John Tilbury's performance
The performance I chose for this week's edition of the show is one of almost a dozen available on record but, I think, one of the very best, played by John Tilbury, famous for his interpretations of Feldman's music as well as for his iconic place in the British experimental and free-improvisation scene, alongside artists such as Cornelius Cardew, Keith Rowe, and Eddie Prévost. This performance, recorded live in London in June 2008, is one of two that John Tilbury made of Triadic Memories, the other an earlier studio recording released as part of a 4 CD set of the complete solo piano music of Morton Feldman.

But this live recording is, I think, the better of the two, even though, here and there, there are tiny inaccuracies (or at least divergences from my edition of the score). Maybe the wrong bar is repeated or maybe a shift in a note's duration is slightly misplaced. Some of the ultra-soft ppppp dynamics near the end are perhaps a tiny bit not soft enough. But it is almost impossible to avoid these sorts of lapses in a live recording of such a long and intricately concentrated work. At over 100 minutes, this version is much slower than Tilbury's earlier performance, which races through in a mere 80 minutes. But the tension of this slower version is, I think, more palpable. It holds you more subtly, more quietly, and yet despite this – or maybe because of it – more firmly. There is certainly something of the tension of a live performance here as well, breathing a spirit into the performance that more than compensates for any tiny misfires in technical precision. It is, of course, a measured, focussed, contemplative tension, where you can almost feel the breathlessness of an audience listening to each bar, each musical constellation, being so meticulously, deftly, fashioned. Quietly, lovingly. Gently.

The world feels somehow different, and maybe a little too fast and brash, when the music finishes.

I have chosen to dedicate this edition of the show to my little dog Ruslan, who died a few days ago. He created, lived, and left memories, just like these.

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