Morton Feldman – Crippled SymmetryAugust 8, 2012
Its never easy for me personally to write about the music of Morton Feldman. I never quite manage to find words that come even close to doing it justice. I find it even harder to be able to describe what it is about one recording of Feldman that sets it apart from any others. The past couple of weeks I have been listening to a new recording of Crippled Symmetry, the composer’s 1983 trio piece for flutes, glockenspiel / vibraphone and piano / celesta. Lasting ninety minutes, the work is a lengthy piece, though it pales in comparison the second string quartet, which was written in the same year, the original version of which takes longer than six hours to play. I own a couple of earlier recordings of Crippled Symmetry, and both are fine works. The Col Legno recording with Makus Hinterhauser on piano is edged out in my memory by the Hat Art recording by Eberhard Blum, Jan Williams and Nils Vigeland, the group that the piece was originally written for. That Hat recording was released in 1991, more than twenty years ago now. Almost a decade later, in 2000 the same trio came together under the ensemble name The Feldman Soloists, which had been given to them by the composer to perform the piece again in Buffalo. Twelve years further down the line we have a double CD release of that concert recording, the first disc on the new Frozen Reeds label and a beautifully produced project.
Crippled Symmetry is a beautiful, yet deliberately awkward and disjointed work. It is perfectly titled. The piece doesn’t so much exist as a score as in three carefully composed separate parts, which when played together see the three sets of sounds combine in certain ways and places, but not in others. The separate parts however contain simple, often rhythmic systems that will alter the form of the music considerably should one part be played slight out of time to another. The differences between performances are then at once both slight and considerable. The sounds remain the same but the spacing and configuration of them shifting slightly will create new tonal colours and altered shapes from one performance to the next. This particular version then, differs from the other versions, slightly, but why do I prefer it? Maybe there is something subconsciously telling me that this is a mature realisation of the work by the musicians it was written for, so it must be good, but certainly I know that when I first put this disc on, a few weeks back, while fighting with a website design project that had my blood pressure pushed high, it took about two minutes before I had turned away from the computer and found myself concentrating fully on the sheer beauty of the music. Crippled Symmetry is sometimes richly luxurious, the unusual, yet perfectly chosen mix of instruments played independently of one another sometimes coalesce into chiming, glowing little clouds of activity that move slowly across one another, like the separate layers of a kaleidoscope. At other times the music dissolves into near silence, as the negative spaces between the players open out, but the very gradual, yet consistently observed pace of the piece keeps it evolving, shifting, changing, reminiscent of life itself as it moves through its various stages.
The way Crippled Symmetry has been written reminds me a little of the recent influx of musical works constructed by combining separately recorded parts by different musicians perhaps geographically separated. The precise structure of this composition almost seems to see the musicians working in a similar way, each following their own part, focussed on their own contribution, with the end result being the combination of these individual efforts. The difference here though is all in Feldman’s intentions for the work. The piece is scored so that small discrepancies in timing or pace will create new shapes and colours in each performance, particularly over such a long duration as musicians’ concentration and physical stamina comes under pressure, but ultimately the composer defined everything very precisely so that he knew what sound world he would be creating, there are no major accidents here, only small fluctuations that give life to the work. Blum, Vigeland and Williams’ playing is stunning here- clean, soft, beautifully even, a kind of conveyor belt of fascinating, wonderful shapes and colours sliding past with just enough time to enjoy each before it blends into another, and another… An absolute must for any Feldman fan. Frozen Reeds.