The Triadic Memories, written in 1981, are Morton Feldman’s most expansive piano work. Relations of time blur, listening leads into a new world of perceiving time and sound. After Sabine Liebner’s Munich performance of the work, which was recorded live for this CD, the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: “Liebner’s interpretation reached new horizons … a fascinating dramatic framework, a meta-real network of remembering and forgetting. Contrary to the time so mistreated in our entertainment world, this was a fulfilled time“.
Sabine Liebner has been dealing intensely with the music of Morton Feldman for years and has also been an advocate for the performance of his works. She studied with Karl-Hermann Mrongovius at the Munich Music Conservatory and attended masterclasses
with Miecyslaw Horszowski, among others. Sabine Liebner can look back to a number of CD and radio recordings and numerous first performances.
Morton Feldman was born on January 12, 1926, in Manhatten, New York. His parents came from Jewish families who immigrated from Kiev to their relatives in New York. Feldman began composing at the age of nine and received piano lessons, which he continued at the age of twelve with Vera Maurina Press, a student of Feruccio Busoni, Emil Sauer and Ignaz Friedmann. Later, Feldman states that his interest “in a special kind of tone” was formed through his studies with “Madame Press”. At 15, he takes lessons in composing
with Wallingford Riegger. After graduating from high school, Feldman enlists at the New York University, but after visiting the exams room decides that this is not for him. So until the age of 44 he works in his father’s textile company, taking private lessons, first with Stefan Wolpe, a student of Anton Webern, and later weekly with Edgar Varèse. In 1949 he meets John Cage, who influences
him greatly. In 1950/1951 Feldman belongs to the “New York School” gathered around John Cage, together with Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. Equally important as the friendship with John Cage ist the contact to painters such as Rauschenberg, Pollock, Guston, Rothko, de Kooning,
and others. Inspired by the works of fine arts, he develops the wish to create a similar language in music. So, in 1950, he invents the graphic notation
that he gives up again only two years later. Instead he now tries to utilize conventional notation
in order to express extremely subtle relations of time and tone colours – an endeavour that accompanies all his following compositions. In 1972 Morton Feldman was called to the State University
of New York at Buffalo, where he received a permanent chair in 1974, called the “Edgar Varèse Chair”, which he held until his death on September 3, 1997.
The works written during his mature period
are based on strategies of successive change and calculated lack of motion that are as meticulous as they are ingenious. Rhythmic irritations at the quasi molecular level, the occasional
oscillation of a sound constellation in repetitive patterns, from case to case an architectural formation developing from the interplay of modular textures – much material for musicological analysis. But the American composer Morton Feldman (1924–1987) was never interested in intellectually calculated compositional principles or formal abstractions
that would take priority over the qualitative
characteristics of sound. His point was the experience of concrete tones in the container
of silence formed by space and time.
Feldman always preferred anti-academic paths. He cultivated the pronounced idiosyncrasies,
the ability to experience situations at odds with the rest of the world as well as the synaesthetic experiences which came from the depths of his unorthodox intellect. His earliest
musical mentors were a former friend of Scriabin and student of Busoni’s with whom he began studying piano at age twelve, as well as Wallingford Riegger, who had studied in Berlin himself and become the first dodecaphonic
composer on American soil upon his return, and with whom Feldman took his first composition lessons. In 1944, Morton Feldman began studying privately with Stefan Wolpe. This highly unconventional artist – a student of Schreker’s who had taken courses from painters Paul Klee and Johannes Itten during the Weimar Bauhaus years and fled Germany in 1938 for America – gave the young Feldman all the freedom in the world and acquainted him with Edgard Varèse.
In 1950, Feldman met John Cage. In those days, Feldman was experimenting with new possibilities of graphic notation. Cage seized on his ideas and pursued them further in regard
to his own aesthetics of indeterminacy and I Ching-controlled chance. Cage, for his part, acquainted Morton Feldman – who was so receptive for visual impressions and the metaphysics of color – with his artist friends from the nascent school of abstract expressionism,
including Willem de Kooning, Jackson
Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko and others. Alongside John Cage, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman rapidly became a member of that group of composers called the ‘New York School’, where he soon found his own incomparable transparent, even transcendent musical sound.
For his series of works from the 1950s (e.g. the Projections and Interjections), Feldman had developed graphic notation procedures based on rectangular boxes that allowed the various registers of the instruments used to be represented almost as though they were clearly bounded colored fields, and placed in given time patterns. One of the inspirations for these works were certainly the colorful, static, rectangular compositions of painter Piet Mondrian, whom Feldman highly admired. But even though Feldman gave his interpreters
unusual freedom, he always had a precise idea of how the sometimes pointillist sound textures and usually calm atmosphere of his compositions should be. In the 1960s, his notation
began to delimit specific pitches, but he also experimented with indeterminate note lengths. Sound hierarchies, finely attuned to each other, with various degrees of coordination
in time, now led to a flexible network of music – with a simultaneously breezy and static grace.
Morton Feldman was increasingly perceived
on the international parquet as an independent
composer. After a one-year stay in Berlin, he was appointed professor of composition
at the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1974. Feldman held this position, which had once been Edgard Varèse’s, until the end of his life in 1987.
With his gradual – and final – return to the use of conventional musical notation at the begin of the 1970s, Feldman began to develop those compositional procedures which give his mature works such unique characteristics – ones which could even be called magical. His filigree chamber works (e.g. Four Instruments
1974, Why Patterns? 1978 or Clarinet and String Quartet 1983), his works for larger ensembles which became increasingly important
to him during this time (like Piano and Orchestra
1975, Elemental Procedures for Choir and Orchestra 1976, the opera Neither, based on an enigmatic text by Samuel Beckett 1977, Violin and Orchestra 1979/84 or the orchestral work Coptic Light 1985/86) underscore Feldman’s
success in composing living, breathing pieces, always different in their tone colors or structures. As a collector of and expert in oriental carpets, he often explained the creation
process of his music in terms of the processes used to weave or knot textile patterns.
He was in awe of the variety of colors and stylized decor of textiles found in Anatolia or with nomadic peoples of the Middle East. The individuality of these textiles is often due to the occurrence of minute weaving mistakes or in the use of natural dyes, which are never identical. The traditional ornamentation and lines become alive from the subtly broken symmetries, from the shimmering colors and intensities which result from different patterns of light.
Viewed superficially, the expansiveness of many of Morton Feldman’s late works are a challenge for both interpreters and listeners.
Referring to his most expansive work for piano, Triadic Memories from 1981, Feldman once said, “It is probably the largest butterfly in captivity.” It is a music of soft, spare notes and tone constellations, a music of reduction that broadens the view inward to regions of infinite abundance. The seismographic, sensual
sound, an expression of absolute truth, is determined by constantly changing rhythmic-metric structures and by irregular, almost irrational
numerical sequences and vacillating symmetries; “weaving mistakes” in the musical
texture that may reach the ear, but never the consciousness. As the material flows and metamorphoses, the listener may suspect hearing something heard before. But the sequences
which are occasionally repeated – or even several times – such as measures or groups of measures, are hardly perceptible by the ear. We have here a formally through-articulated
musical event, embedded in the softly
modulated flow of time. Melodic elements or harmonic events, often heard individually and separated by large intervals of time, sometimes
coordinated in blocks, however, slowly change; proportions relevant to the structure shift in multi-level rhythmic tectonics. Feldman
wrote this music in clear copy section by section. The two voices of the beginning – first apart, then together, then exchanging motives – gradually evolve into three. Then, a field of chords. Larger architectural arches can clearly be perceived in the Triadic Memories.
But soon after, the listener begins to forget
about time: any memories are systematically
undermined by the following labyrinthine – one could also say kaleidoscopic – events. The listener may imagine perceiving turns of phrase – in a paradoxically constructed tape of repetitions and symmetrical arches – once again, phrases from perhaps two, perhaps twenty minutes ago. But more and more, the listener’s active perception is steered to the sound happening in the here and now – while at the same time, the inner horizon, the listening
consciousness, expands. Finally, it may even happen that the listener imagines being
on the edge of eternity, protected, or as it were, supported, by only a wavering seam of sound.
The listener who is willing to open up to the unusual time horizons of this music does not submit to boredom. Surrendering to the economic,
sometimes exclusively quiet, tranquil, seemingly fragile – but wonderfully energetic shifting of tonal structures and stillness – soon makes the listener forget all questions about past and future. The consciousness begins to expand, to become receptive to the power of the eternal extant in the moment.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler