Morton Feldman: Violin and Orchestra (ECM New Series 2283)

Violin and Orchestra

Morton Feldman
Violin and Orchestra

Carolin Widmann violin
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Emilio Pomàrico conductor
Recorded October 2009 at Sendesaal des Hessischen Rundfunks, Frankfurt
Recording producer: Hans Berhnhard Bätzing
Recording engineer: Rüdiger Orth
Executive producer for Hessischer Rundfunk: Andrea Zietzschmann
An ECM/Hessischer Rundfunk Co-production

Alex Ross is one of many to characterize Morton Feldman’s music as being “glacially slow and snowily soft,” echoing the sentiments of Feldman specialists like Thomas DeLio and even Feldman himself, who employed “slow, soft” as a designation in his piano music, the so-called Last Pieces of 1959 being one example. All the while, such readings fail to out the culprit of human perception that defines their pathos to begin with. It’s not that Feldman’s “sound” (as if it were ever reducible to one) is inherently lethargic, but that we are simply ill-equipped to handle its cosmic speeds.

Feldman

We may project whatever we like onto the gossamer screen of Feldman’s hard-won life, but at the end of the day there is only the beginning of the music. That being said, there is great value in the analogic glacier to the new listener, one who comes to Feldman thinking he was a mere minimalist, only to discover that, like a glacier, he was symphony of stasis and movement in which no stratum was ever an exact replica of its neighbors. His Violin and Orchestra of 1979 is therefore not only a masterpiece in the biographical sense, but also in terms of its geological significance. Although Feldman modeled his writing off abstract impressionism, it traces fault lines so robustly scarred that no earthquake could impress them with abstraction.

Over its 1500+ bars, this multiple entity achieves sonority through rupture. Its beginnings beg not earthly but extraterrestrial comparisons, skimming black hole rims and flirting with a gravitational pull of such unfathomable power that its language can only be written by bow. Wielding said bow is violinist Carolin Widmann, while Emilio Pomàrico wields his own writing instrument in the form of a baton, suspended like a satellite antenna within the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra’s magnetic fields. Also among the forces gathered for this piece—massive in number but spectral in effect—is a piano’s droning paintbrush. Just as important as the violin, it is the below to the latter’s above and connects chakras in constellatory networks of nerve impulses. Neither is a soloist for the mere pleasure of orchestral accompaniment; they are indivisible as sunlight and water.

If any overarching thing can be said of Feldman, it is that he was a generous atmospherist. The beauty of Violin and Orchestra is that one will experience it as either a mystery or the most natural phenomenon imaginable—if not both. You might search for motifs, for concerto structure, but will come up only with handfuls of something far more organic. The variety of textures alone is proof of concept. Pulsing lower strings, light pizzicati, and tonal shifts comprise the circle, while the violin sews its holes into scars. There is an inner and outer skin to the music. Both belong to a beast that cowers below the earth’s surface, sucking its thumb and singing whatever lullabies it can dredge up from the pond of memory. It inhales, exhales. It takes continuous stock of its own emotional inventory and catalogs it finitely, like a machine. The violin’s higher-pitched notes are at some moments its veneer, at others the tone of an inner ear, at still others the sting of total recall. Even after the violin fades through a chain of percussion responses, it leaves behind a single open wound that can only be salved by our commitment to its passing.

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