Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Ensemble Music opens three-day festival with a Morton Feldman challenge

Among the signs of concert revival in Indianapolis is the splash Ensemble Music Society is making this  week with its May Music Festival. 

Jesse Mills, Rieko Aizawa, Ole Akahoshi

The plunge was bracing enough as the festival opened Tuesday evening with a performance of Morton Feldman's "Trio" by the Horszowski Trio. The listener was as much exposed as a perceiver of musical meaning as the performers were charged with delivering a score that, in this performance, requires a two-hour span. 

Unaccustomed as I am to musical skinny-dipping, I found the experience both inviting and enthralling on the one hand, trying and exhausting on the other. Often I was riveted by every note and gesture; elsewhere, I confess, I kept fighting to stay focused and avoid mental wandering. Despite the invariably slow tempos and soft dynamic levels, it's to the credit of Feldman's characteristic procedures that I was never close to falling asleep; the performers as well stimulated my attention by their constant fidelity to "Trio"'s soft-spoken surprises and changes of direction. Violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Ole Akahoshi, and pianist Rieko Aizawa brought off something heroic in music that eschews heroism.

A line from an unusual source stimulates my attempt to find adequate words to report my experience last night at the Glick Indiana History Center. The first song in "The Mikado," Gilbert and Sullivan's popular but recently controversial operetta, is Nanki-Poo's ditty introducing himself as "a wandering minstrel I, a thing of shreds and patches." The best thumbnail description of "Trio" may be that it is a thing of shreds and patches. By that I mean that, however successfully it coheres, it is compounded of brief patterns and (in a word often used in describing the abstract expressionist art that often inspired Feldman) gestures. Furthermore, to borrow an insight from Nicholas Johnson's excellent program notes, it "seems to be questioning the nature of virtuosity itself."

So the listener must work to exclude loading too much meaning onto any episode or phrase, either in

Morton Feldman (1926-1987)

isolation or in aggregate. There seems to be no rhetoric in this music. Clearly, "development" has been jettisoned. It is almost perilous to apply any words to "Trio" in an attempt to tease out its meaning. About 70 minutes into Tuesday's performance, I noted that certain figures seemed cryptic, particularly when the sustaining pedal is called for from the pianist. But then I thought: If what I just heard is cryptic, that means it's hiding something. There's a deep structure, to borrow a term from linguistics. But is there? Maybe everything that paraded before the respectful audience has the self-evident plainness indicated by the old computer acronym WYSIWYG.  Except, in this case, what you hear is what you get. Maybe interpretation stops and ends there.

In remarks from the stage before the performance, Mills gently warned: "The way one perceives the sound is as important as the sound itself." Such guidance may be in part responsible for my perceiving a "scherzo"-like episode about halfway into the performance. That was succeeded by a static sojourn: the slow movement? Nah, too short, too fragmentary! 

Clearly I was borrowing perceptions applicable to other music. The second stanza of Nanki-Poo's ditty comes to mind in ways both applicable and not to "Trio": "My catalogue is long / through every passion ranging. / And to your humours changing / I tune my supple song." Passion is irrelevant in Feldman's music, but the rest of the stanza oddly supports the composer's artistic credo: suppleness, changing humors, a long catalogue of gestures — it's all there.

The neutral "affect" of the piece is carried out through many non-vibrato phrases in the string instruments and the frequent use of harmonics (those extra-high notes produced by a light-touch technique), thus avoiding the emotional heft and nuance of the core violin and cello registers. And chords, occasionally suggested by the strings' double stops but more naturally by the piano, are almost exclusively dissonant, rarely accented, insofar as they are unresolved and don't seem to point to any resolution. 

So even when the harmonies are not abrasive by conventional standards, they still swim around in a vast sea of dissonance. This keeps dissonance from indicating any degree of emotional tension or disturbance. "Trio" explores other kinds of disturbance entirely, and that pretty much centers on the listener's degree of accommodation to what Feldman's music is all about. 

After two hours and seven minutes, one has either made such accommodation or the experience is lost on one. I am mostly confident I landed on the former side: I was beneficially disturbed and almost enchanted by the work's distant evocations of "ballads, songs, and snatches / And dreamy lullaby!" That's Nanki-Poo again, and admittedly it may more closely be me than it is Morton Feldman.

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