Recorded September 3rd 2018 in City University, London by Alex Bonney
Mixed by Alex Bonney
Mastered by Peter Beckmann at TechnologyWorks, London
Artwork (Ink Plot) by Leafcutter John
Design by Max Franosch
Produced by Nick Roth for Diatribe Records, Dublin
Total Playing time 83:59
released April 6, 2020
The story of how Morton Feldman and John Cage first met has now become elevated to the status of legendary musical folklore. During a 1950 New York Philharmonic performance of Webern’s Symphony Op. 21, Feldman decided to leave the concert at the interval. In the lobby he met Cage. As Cage says, “we both walked out of a Philharmonic concert in which Webern had just been played, and we shared the desire not to hear anything else because we had been so deeply moved.” It was the beginning of a deep friendship that was to influence both their respective creative spirits. Morton Feldman became a friend, flatmate and student of John Cage.
Feldman’s interest in visual art strongly influenced his early works, and by the 1970s he was fascinated by handmade weaving techniques – musical symmetry literally referenced in his work ‘Crippled Symmetry’. Feldman wrote “For me, stasis, scale, and pattern have put the whole question of symmetry and asymmetry in abeyance.” In his other late violin and piano work ‘Spring of Chosroes’ from 1977, the title in fact directly refers to the name of a carpet, the spring carpet made for Sassanian King Chosroes I, whose dynasty ruled the Persian Empire from AD 211 – 651.
Violinist and dedicatee Paul Zukofsky writing to Morton Feldman stated “I can tell you that when playing your recent music, I feel very close to those rug-makers working away – first the border, the same stitch so many times, now a different strand, fewer times, now we start a pattern, it’s finished, a background... the rug making explanation helps account for the tiny variations you play with in timing and intonation – the equivalent of the irregularities in a hand-sewn rug.”
Feldman said of ‘For John Cage’ “it’s a little piece for violin and piano but it doesn’t quit.” It exists as a plateau of existential sound, pianissimo with almost entirely still gestures throughout.
I was first introduced to the music of Morton Feldman nearly 25 years ago by Paul Zukovsky who was then my musical mentor and who had premiered ‘For John Cage’. This close connection to Feldman’s art had a profound effect on me. I learnt much from my musical encounters with Zukofsky about Feldman’s use of mean-tone intonation and the obvious influence of this on the expressivity of his string writing, but it was only when I met pianist John Tilbury and had conversations with composers who knew Feldman personally – Chris Newman and Howard Skempton – that I felt I was really beginning to understand his musical personality.
I was already experimenting with using a baroque bow in performances of certain music by Cage and Feldman. The ethereal tone these more curved and lighter/shorter bows can produce seemed the most natural tool for conveying the desired articulation, and also Feldman’s constant wish and marking in his late scores that every gesture should dissipate naturally with an upwards and downwards sotto voce expressive marking.
I abstain from any use of vibrato as this hugely helps with my vision of the types of nuance and timbral purity this piece requires and of course this complements John Tilbury’s immaculate pianistic touch. To close, here is a quote by Cornelius Cardew from the early 1960s that evokes wonderfully the atmosphere created in ‘For John Cage’.
“Almost all of Feldman’s music is slow and soft. Only at first sight is this a limitation. I see it rather as a narrow door, to whose dimensions one has to adapt oneself (as in ‘Alice in Wonderland’) before one can pass through it into the state of being that is expressed in Feldman’s music. Only when one has become accustomed to the dimness of light can one begin to perceive the richness and variety of colour which is the material of the music. When one has passed through the narrow door and got accustomed to the dim light, one realises the range of his imagination and the significant differences that distinguish one piece from another...
Feldman sees the sounds as reverberating endlessly, never getting lost, changing their resonances as they die away, or rather do not die away, but recede from our ears, and soft because softness is compelling, because an insidious invasion of our senses is more effective than a frontal attack, because our ears must strain to catch the music, they must become more sensitive before they perceive the world of sound in which his music takes place.”