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Morton Feldman - The Viola in My Life

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Artist: Morton Feldman

Album: The Viola in My Life

Label: New World

Review date: Apr. 11, 2007

The first I heard of Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life was also one of the first times I’d read about Feldman at all: Rob Young’s interview in The Wire with ex-Talk Talk singer Mark Hollis, just as he’d released his debut (and only) solo album in late 1997. Hollis took our notion of song and stripped its overloaded edifice, pruning everything back to the essentials and then replaying them as quietly as possible. Young’s comparison of Hollis’s arrangements to Feldman hit the mark, with the artist proclaiming, “There’s one particular thing called The Viola In My Life Part 2 - what I really love with that is, for me, that’s the closest thing I’ve ever come across that I feel I identify with; not only for its Minimalism, but the actual level at which he hits the notes. He’s as much interested in the tonality of the instrument as he is with the note itself.”

Part 2 reappears here, on New World’s superb reissue of CRI’s The Viola in My Life disc. Interestingly, Hollis chose the most knowingly ‘present’ of the three parts of the piece, with Feldman essaying some of his most melodic writing: as Nils Vigeland’s liner notes suggest, there is a close-to-direct parallel between Part 2 and the quasi-Hebraic melody that rises from the end of 1971’s Rothko Chapel. The entirety of The Viola in My Life is expertly paced, with the septet folding together one of Feldman’s conventionally notated works, with the instrument of the title the jewel set in the midst of the other players’ slowly shifting, ‘flat plane’ of tonal possibility.

This reissue also features False Relationships and the Extended Ending, a sextet piece that’s a perfect exemplification of Feldman’s desire to display how, in Vigeland’s words, “seemingly contradictory timbres…can achieve a union.” The disc closes with Why Patterns?, with Feldman himself on piano, alongside Eberhard Blum on flute and Jan Williams on glockenspiel. Feldman enjoyed this instrumental line-up, returning to it (albeit embellished with other tonalities) on Crippled Symmetry and For Philip Guston.

Why Patterns? argues against simplistic readings of Feldman’s compositions as quiet reflective pools of repose: as with later works like For Samuel Beckett, tension is the by-word for much of this performance. But it’s a negotiated tension; the whispery tangle of notes created by this ensemble slowly sifts time, and by the end you’re left wondering just what passed through your hands (or ears). This exemplary performance is even stronger than the California EAR Unit’s beautiful rendition on New Albion’s Rothko Chapel/Why Patterns? release.

By Jon Dale

Other Reviews of Morton Feldman

Violin & String Quartet

Last Pieces

For Bunita Marcus

Triadic Memories

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