On Second Thought
Morton Feldman - Triadic Memories






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

“... and shadows around everything, everything just shadows.”

And here, somewhere with these shadows, is Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories. Within these spare chimes and rumbles there is a secret libretto of fragility and loss – of time stalled and fractured, of notes living and dying with unspoken reason, of the slow and inevitable dissolution into silence. Like characters from Beckett’s plays, each piano murmur exists in a purposeless non-drama of quiet reiterations and suspended time. Their beauty arises from their resolve in the presence of decay and from the absolute equality of their own mortality. They create shimmering, beautiful illusions of direction and deceptive layers of pattern-on-pattern before receding again into the shadows from whence they came.

Like Feldman’s other late-era works, Triadic Memories is a meditation on the aesthetics of failure – both musical and human. Having abandoned the sunnier trappings of Cage’s radicalism, Feldman’s last pieces are dense, intricate constructions designed to disorient the memory and systematically erase the structural devices of Western form. The score for Triadic Memories is unusually complex and littered with visual illusions and metric games designed to derail in performance – the sounds unhinge from their written structures. Yet the complexity of the score also prohibits interjections of habit and preference on the part of the performer, who must continuously decipher the intricacy of Feldman’s notational codes. The music, therefore, exists somewhere apart from all the parties involved in its creation – not the written will of the composer, not the expression of the performer, not the demands of the score. The sounds are the sounds themselves apart from all else; here, Feldman’s insight produces music that out-Cages Cage in its realization.

Yet Triadic Memories paradoxically requires a sympathetic performer to realize Feldman’s desire for these sounds unhinged. Roger Woodward, who shares one half of the work’s dedication, draws Feldman’s work into a ninety-minute thread of whispered chiming and resonant echo. His playing eschews the typical Romantic indulgences and pianist effects that obscure the elements of sound with external signifiers and narrative gestures. Instead, the pianist strips the piano to its raw essentials – pitch, attack, overtone. Despite the challenges of playing at the threshold of audibility for such an extended duration, Woodward brushes each note with carefully measured grace, stringing them into gently ebbing clusters of filtered resonance. Feldman’s continuous half-pedal indication surrounds each of Woodward’s gestures in the shadows of previous chords – they linger like blurring memories, fading and distorting with the passing of time. Woodward plays to these shadows, matching their faintness as he places ever more ghostlike tones in their constantly evolving mist. Throughout, Woodward’s playing is sharply attentive and subtly lyrical but never outwardly expressive : a subsuming of the ego, a tactile allegiance to the delicacy of sound.

Stripped away: the highs and lows of classical form, its levels of meaning, its conscious manipulation of duration and narrative, it directive goals, its finite series of developments and embellishment. Left behind: bare sounds lingering a musical landscape suspended in time, hovering like the hues of Feldman’s much-admired Rothko, all surface, immediate and subtly erotic. As the oblique reference in the title might suggest, Feldman offers faded memories of tonality throughout Triadic Memories , but they lack that sense of direction and finality found in most Western composition. Instead, they spiral forth from the piano in delicate orbits and appear in countless subtle variants before disappearing into the shroud of echoes. They surface again only as distortions, bent just enough to tweak the auditive memory without providing it steady grounds for orientation. The past hides behind like ghosts behind an opaque veil of shadows, while the future lies in a similar veil of upturned expectation. All that truly exists is the ecstatic instant, filled with Woodward’s faint chords and fractured melodies and dissolving upon creation.

There is a certain tragic and resolute beauty in Triadic Memories . Its endurance and vulnerability evokes a very human sympathy for the fragile and ephemeral while retaining an aura of coldness and obstinacy. It is poetry without subject and a journey without a destination, existing quietly and beautifully without reason or purpose. Like the fluctuations in our daily lives, the sounds exist in quiet variations as similar and as varied as the moments in which they exist between the obscured past and uncertain future. What Feldman and Woodward have co-created, therefore, is less a musical work than an immersive world built on variations of this delicate equilibrium – memory versus expectation, motion versus suspension, sound versus silence. On these divides and between these shadows lies the instant and sound itself, waiting to be discovered in each passing moment and unfolding with each deceptive repetition.


By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2003-09-01
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