Morton Feldman’s Heavenly Lengths

25 February 2010 • Deryk Barker, Music in Victoria

Open Space: Between the Notes Piano Series • Alix Goolden Hall • Tzenka Dianova, piano

“Dianova’s technique is staggering”

“If you understand Mondrian, you understand me too… I think the big problem is, I learned more from painters than composers.”

The music of Morton Feldman is more frequently compared to the visual art of Mark Rothko than to Mondriaan; it is, however, rarely compared to that of other composers.

It is not difficult to understand why this should be the case: Feldman, particularly in his later years, worked on a grand scale, composing pieces whose duration is measured in hours rather than minutes. Nor is his music eventful in any conventional way; his thematic material (if one may call it that) is plain almost to the point of being dour — or would be were it not for his extraordinary sense of colour — and is used sparingly.

Any musician will tell you that slow music is harder to play than quick, and quiet music harder than loud. Feldman’s music is typically both slow and quiet, and the musicians who are willing and able to perform it are not exactly thick on the ground, if for no other reason than the extreme physical challenges it poses.

Happily, Tzenka Dianova is one of this select group of musicians and her performance on Thursday of Feldman’s last major piano work, For Bunita Marcus, provided one of the most memorable musical evenings of my life.

For around 80 minutes (by my watch) I was mesmerised and rivetted; Feldman was an entirely intuitive composer — when asked once by John Cage how he had written a particular work, he had to admit, “in a small voice” and to Cage’s glee, that he did not know — and his music is all about scale, space and colour.

Dianova’s technique is staggering, every bit as much when enticing us with her delineation of Feldman’s delicate traceries of sound as when stunning us into submission with more overtly virtuosic music.

Her concentration, too, is remarkable and one never got the sense that the music was meandering; instead one felt simultaneously that one had been sitting there listening to it forever, and that it was far too short.

The audience, far smaller than an event of this significance deserved, were held rapt for the duration — with the exception of one couple who left after about 35 minutes; perhaps they felt that the rest of the work simply had more of the same to offer: a view on a par with the standard dismissals of Rothko and Newman.

Although there also seemed to be rather more passing traffic than usual, even that could do nothing to break the spell cast by Feldman and Dianova (and Cage would doubtless have enjoyed the interruptions regardless).

This was an astonishing performance and if this review seems to be flailing around in near-inarticulacy, it is because the effect of Feldman’s music, especially when performed at this exalted level, is more than usually difficult to discuss verbally.

Or, to quote the ominous Proposition Seven, which provides the pessimistic closing words of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”.

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