Music and art reunited for a night with stellar Feldman

Wed Sep 20, 2023 at 2:09 pm
By George Grella
Miranda Cuckson and Conor Hanick performed music of Morton Feldman Tuesday nght at New York Studio School. Photo: NYSS

Morton Feldman died in 1987 at the age of 61—a loss for music but also the art world in general. Feldman—one of the most important composers of the post-WWII era—was the personification of a cultural period when modernist and avant-garde movements in music, painting, dance, poetry, had constant conversations with each other (if not collaborations)—stimulating and inspiring each other in creating the future. This was not just common 50 years ago but an essential part of New York City culture in the middle of the 20th century.

Violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Conor Hanick called back to this moment in time Tuesday night at the New York Studio School. They played five short Feldman pieces—three duos and one solo work each—in a concert titled “Morton Feldman Returns to Eighth Street.” 

The connection between the composer and the school was literal, as Feldman was not just an admirer of painters like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston (his closest friend), he served as dean of NYSS from 1969-1971. (His essay collection, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, includes writings on Guston, poet Frank O’Hara, and other non-musical figures.)

The two musicians were stellar, playing the pieces with great care, purpose, and concentration. One of the things Feldman is known for is the quiet and space in his music, and Cuckson and Hanick played with a pacing that was Feldman’s non-metrical, sculptural way with time. Appropriately, the concert took place in the NYSS clay studio, and though the dry acoustic took a little getting used to, the differences between sound and silence enhanced the music.

The pair opened with two works from the early 1950’s, Extensions I and Projection I. The former established the quality of the performances, every note played with the precision of putting pieces of a complex puzzle together and with impressive listening between the two. Projection I was originally written for solo cello and  transferred gracefully to the violin as the score only specifies relative pitches and durations set into a grid layout. Cuckson pointed out that Feldman loved the visual look of music notation, and experimented with non-traditional graphic techniques, before returning to relatively conventional means. In all the music, her precise intonation and subtle adjustments of timbre and tone color opened up the variety and expressionistic heart at the core of Feldman’s work.

Hanick’s dynamics and his attacks and articulations were equally fine. His soft pedal at the opening of the beautiful Vertical Thoughts 2 (1963) proved especially sensual and haunting. This was a performance where one heard not only the notes the musicians played, but the exacting commitment to the spaces in between, which heightened the effect of each note and sound.  Hanick played the solo Piano Piece (to Philip Guston)—which has no bar lines or rhythms—with superb vertical placement and a constant horizontal flow.

The final piece was Spring of Chosroes, from 1977 and the period when Feldman was fascinated by the weave and patterns of Persian rugs. Feldman was using standard notation to explore ideas about repetition and exceedingly fine gradations of variations, putting together his own simple patterns into an array that grows more complex as time passes. 

Played with the same sensitivity to dynamics and the placement of notes as the previous music, one also heard a sharp kind of perpendicular movement at key moments in the Spring performance, as if the musicians had found their way to the end of one vector in their own weaving and turned together to complete another segment. The rocking figure that was a calling card for Feldman’s later works moved in an out, full of emotional satisfaction, and even nostalgia, each time it appeared. This was as clear and understanding a performance of Feldman as one will experience.

The deeply sympathetic performances were wholly admirable, and also poignant; it is impossible to imagine this same nexus of the avant-garde arts today. In the last 50 years music like classical and jazz has largely disappeared from the consciousness of the art world, and no such institution would hire someone without an advanced degree in the fine arts. This has meant a loss of essential cross-pollination to both the art and music worlds.

The overflow crowd Tuesday night was attentive to the point of silence—only one cell phone chime went off—and the committed attitude was exemplified by one patron wearing a t-shirt that read, “John Lennon Broke Up Fluxus.”

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