The pianist talks about the silent but deadly impact of early Feldman
When I heard that Stephen Hough – winner of Gramophone’s 2008 Gold Disc award for his recording of the complete Saint-Saëns piano concertos – was performing Morton Feldman’s Variations at the Wigmore Hall, as part of a programme that includes Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No 5 and Lowell Liebermann’s Piano Quintet, I punched the air. There’s no ‘modern’ piano music I’d rather hear frankly; more than Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, Boulez’s Structures, more than Ligeti’s stuffy Etudes, Feldman makes the piano resonate in ways that tell us things about the instrument we didn’t already know.
Hough’s intervention is well-timed because this music has for too long been the ring-fenced property of dedicated Feldmanistas – John Tilbury, Steffen Schleiermacher, Hildegard Kleeb, Stephen Clarke, Aki Takahashi et al – who have all shown beyond-the-call-of-duty devotion to the cause, but Feldman’s music is too important to be played only to the converted. And Hough has accepted his mission eagerly: Variations, written in 1951, is 406-bars of notated silence, lasting about seven minutes, silent except for non-systemically placed grace notes marked to be played ‘as soft as possible’. In conventionally constituted music grace notes are leading notes, ie: they lead to harmonically significant notes. In Feldman’s Variations they lead to silence. The message is clear: these notes are trying hard not to be there.
‘Feldman was part of that generation who needed to take sides about things,’ Hough tells me, ‘and Variations is making a philosophical statement as much as a musical one. Feldman wrote it a year before Cage’s 4’33” and as Cage played the first performance, I wonder if he got some ideas in the course of playing it? It’s actually much quieter and, paradoxically, “more” silent than the Cage. Thinking about Ad Reinhardt’s black canvases – a black canvas needs to be on a wall that frames it, or in a frame that frames it. If you’re making a point about “anti-colour’”, it has to be within the context of colour.
‘The idea of 4’33” is astonishing, but to sit in front of an instrument for that amount of time is perhaps less interesting. But Feldman makes you listen to the silence, and react to it, because his grace notes provide a frame; if silence is the frame around which most music exists, here the music is the frame around the silence we’re listening to.’
When I ask Hough if he’s discovered any consistency, or rational development, in Feldman’s harmonies, and he replies ‘no’, I’m relieved. Having pressed the point for years that Feldman was never a systems composer like Reich, Glass and Riley in their early days – or indeed an ‘anti’ systems composer prepared to chance chance like Cage – Feldman’s relationship between compositional control and intuition was more actively ‘composerly’ – how disappointing a system, a process, a tone row would have been. Learning this piece has made Hough appreciate Feldman’s high compositional intelligence.
‘There’s a section in the middle where he repeats six times what is essentially a B flat minor chord, with the major 7th above. That’s a chord Scriabin would have been happy to use, and it’s an essential moment because, without it, the piece would be too intangible and random. It’s something to hold onto.
‘But much else remains unanswered. What to think of “as soft as possible”? There are no other dynamic indications. He doesn’t want differentiation between notes and that’s totally the aesthetic of New York in the 1950s, and the Abstract Expressionist painters; it’s not meant to “mean” anything outside of itself. And Feldman’s title? “Variations”, fine, but we’re not sure what on. There is no theme. It’s variations like how dust specks that fall through the air are always different. For me, it’s that feeling of variation; “variation” singular as a concept, rather than implying a set of “variations”.
‘More than ever in the 21st century, we’re easily distracted and find it difficult to sit still. I’ve been on retreats and the first day is invariably torture; but to force yourself to back away from gadgets, or saying unnecessary things, and to just exist is very valuable. We’re beings who breathe and have blood pulsating around our bodies. This piece is a contemplative experience that re-engages us with those fundamental truths.’
I mention Alan Gilbert’s recent tussle with an iPhone – Ringtone 1-Mahler 0 – and Hough gulps. ‘If anyone even coughs, it’s over! But I am going to say a few words before I play, so people know what to expect.’ And can we expect more Feldman from Hough? ‘I’ve looked at other pieces, but I don’t know…yet.’
You say that now, but those bitten by the Morty bug rarely look back. So, Stephen – go for it!
Stephen Hough and The Julliard Quartet play Feldman, Carter and Liebermann at The Wigmore Hall on January 24th: full details
Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.