Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at113 Morton Feldman - Piano Violin Viola Cello
Mark Knoop - piano Aisha Orazbayeva - violin
Bridget Carey - viola Anton Lukoszevieze - cello
Total Time: 73:50
Jack Sheen interviews Mark Knoop
How did you come to know this piece — Feldman’s last complete work — and how did this project/recording come about?
I’ve been slowly working through the late Feldman works over the past 10 years or so, including several performances of For John Cage with Aisha Orazbayeva, and she suggested we do Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at a Café Oto gig in September last year. The concert turned out to be on one of the hottest days of the year and was an exhaustingly wonderful experience of combined concentration from both audience and performers in a sweltering Café Oto. Shortly afterwards, Simon Reynell mentioned that he would like to record the piece, which we did on one of the coldest days in early January!
I think the OTO performance was actually on the hottest day of 2016. How was that experience in OTO musically, and how did returning to the piece feel? How do repeat performances change the work for you?
I always like returning to things after a first performance as there are some aspects of the music which can only reveal themselves in performance, no matter how much rehearsal is done. Particularly in music such as this where half-remembered repetition plays such an important role, the experience of an audience reacting to a recapitulatory moment, or to the shift to a different texture, is an important way of gauging the flow of the music. Do I need to mark this moment differently? Should I voice this chord in another way? Repeat performances feed into the creation of an ever-changing framework of memories which can then initiate new musical connections.
As a performer, one of the challenges of this piece must be its length and having to sustain such a concentrated, delicate sound for so long. How did you and the rest of the players cope with this in both preparation and performance?
Concentration is of course always a challenge in works of this length, I’m not sure I know how to prepare for that other than experiencing it. These works are great at highlighting any problems with physical technique: any tensions will be amplified and exacerbated without the opportunity for release provided by loud, fast music. This is undoubtedly much harder for the string players.
For a listener, the length and economy of this piece seems to remove what I would call the ‘structural points’ commonly found in a piece of more traditional music. There are no obvious introductions, transitions, climaxes etc. Is this something that you also experienced as a performer?
Whilst it’s true that the piece doesn’t exhibit an obvious formal structure, I think this is possibly less true of Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello than some of the other late Feldman pieces, including Piano and String Quartet, which is perhaps a good comparison. Feldman claimed he didn’t plan the forms of these works, but whether it was conscious or not, there is a sense to me of a honing of control of these structures throughout the 1980s. Material is introduced and developed, then set aside only to return, refreshed by its absence. Textural panels occasionally abut with clean edges, but more often blur or fade across each other such that we arrive in quite different musical situations almost without realising it. And in Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello Feldman’s micro-variations occasionally result in an almost functional harmony.
Do you have any particular moments that for you act as pivotal or culminatory in any way?
There are several gestures that act a bit in this way, although those terms seem too strong. Rather than pivots initiating a change of direction, they are perhaps milestones indicating progress along a meandering but singular path. The introduction of the small motif which finally ends the piece does have a sense of foreboding for me.
If those phrases are too strong, perhaps ‘moments which outline a formal structure’. What patterns or shapes on a larger level appear to you when performing this piece?
I think I sometimes experience the piece as panels of different colours; perhaps a too obvious analogy would be the Rothko colour field paintings. Sometimes the boundaries are blurred, sometimes more distinct, and the panels may be of very close shades. Unlike visual art of course, it’s much more difficult to gauge an overall view of a piece of music, it can only be experienced as it happens.
Similarly, people often talk about ‘getting lost’ through the real and imagined repetition that lies at the heart of the piece and how its pacing can change our perception of time passing. Do you see this as something to fight against when performing this music, or is it perhaps something to embrace and allow to affect the music?
It’s absolutely part of the music. Feldman’s comment about the difference between form and scale defines that boundary at one hour, but I think that for an audience the knowledge that a piece will last 75 minutes affects listening from the start. After 10 minutes we could be anywhere. I’ve frequently been told by people that the end came as a surprise.
How does this affect you — and thus the music — whilst actually playing the piece?
Beyond preparation? In performance we just have a job to do. There are challenges of concentration and control, but even the most engaged audience member will experience time passing in a very different way to the performers.
People often speak about an intimacy between the audience, the performers, and the sound when performing Feldman, especially the longer late works. Perhaps this is something to do with the focus required to produce and register such fragile sounds for so long. Is this something you experienced in the live performances you’ve done, and if so, how is this mediated through the studio recording?
Yes, often. Of course recording is a very different situation. We have to recall that audience energy from live performance and refocus it in the studio.
How do you feel Feldman’s late works resonate within experimental/contemporary music today, and more directly with other composers you have worked with?
It is undoubtedly music which continues to have a strong impact on composers, and I think it has many lessons for composers regardless of aesthetic. Feldman’s handling of harmony/tonality and form/scale in particular are so individual and accomplished.
There is an unfortunate tendency for any soft, vaguely cellular music to be labelled as “Feldmanesque” which I feel often misrepresents both Feldman and the recipient — I’ve heard the term applied to many composers whose music is really dealing with remarkably different ideas.
Something I find fascinating about certain composers is how they reassess virtuosity. Clearly Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello is far from being a fast, ‘showy’ piece, but how if at all — is this idea of virtuosity explored or expressed in the piece, both by the composer and the performers?
I think virtuosity is a term which approaches meaninglessness: clearly it must be differentiated both from difficulty (as a quality of the piece), and success (in terms of execution). What is difficult? All music is difficult, all music is easy. What defines a successful performance? All performances are successful, all performances are failures. I don’t know, I just play the music.
Do you feel like there is a performance practice growing around Feldman? If so, how do you feel about this?
Well I think we have now reached a point where a greater number of performers are playing Feldman and approaching the music from other angles and performance traditions. So if anything, I sense that the practice might be starting to develop and proliferate — and that’s a good thing.