Martha and Monica: Morton Feldman’s On Patterns in a Chromatic Field

12719352_10153950108344314_418060891337331788_oWe at CatSynth have had quite a few unique musical experiences this season. Today we look back at another of them. In early February, the duo Martha and Monica (Hadley McCarrol on piano and Monica Scott on cello) performed Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field in its entirety.

“In it’s entirety” is no small thing, as the piece consists of a single continuous 90-minute movement. It’s a feat of endurance for both the listeners and performers. But McCarrol and Scott made it seem straightforward and effortless. The performance began with very sparse but unsettled harmonies, with the texture increasing but then returning to sparseness again. It was only the final third that the texture and intensity grew towards a bolder and thicker sound. All the while, the music was constantly changing, repeating a few times, leaving a bit of space, and then going on to something else. This is consistent with Feldman’s interest in sound as something ephemeral and lost, and in creating a sonic space where memory is subverted or “disoriented.” The spaces in between the sounds are important as well, given moments of reflection and mental echoes.

All of this might make the piece seem daunting to listen to, especially at the length of a typical feature film. But the combination of space and disorientation were helpful, making it more like thoughts passing in a meditative space. The anxiety in a passage builds, but then dissipates – one acknowledges it and moves on. The passage of time itself became background noise and the sounds became more spatial than temporal. This effect might be more pronounced for someone like myself who sees shapes when listening to music, but I suspect other deep listeners had analogous experiences.

Unlike Feldman’s earlier pieces, this one was fully notated using common practice notation. This would both facilitate and make more challenging the process and playing and learning such a piece, where every note makes a difference. It was overall an impressive feat of musical performance, and glad I got to spend an afternoon hearing and seeing it.

Performa 09: Composition for Cello and Brooklyn Queens Expressway

Another piece from Performa: A Ballad of Accounting 2009: Composition for Cello and Brooklyn Queens Expressway, a composition by Alex Waterman with a 16-millimeter film by Elizabeth Wendelbo. I was quite interested to see this piece, given that it combines experimental music, art and highways, three of our interests here at CatSynth!

Waterman lived near the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, or BQE, and was inspired by the sounds of the highway as well as its history. It was part of Robert Moses’ master design for the city’s highways, and winds its way through a narrow corridor in densely packed areas of eastern Brooklyn and Queens. (See this article for more info.) Waterman often walked under the highway, listening to sounds and in particular the harmonics. The piece includes live cello performances near and under the highway, with microphones in the resonant chamber of the cello, as a way of modifying and eradicating the noise of the highway, as if “the cello was eating the highway.”

The video opens along the BQE, along the side, underneath, and riding on the surface, interspersed with images of Waterman carrying or playing his cello near the elevated structures. The music featured long notes set against filtered highway noises. There were lots of drones, often featuring noisy timbres or harmonics, but sometimes more familiar minor tonalities. The visuals included architectural close-ups of the elevated structures – hardly considered among the more picturesque in the city, but still quite interesting. I noticed exit signs for Metropolitan Avenue appearing a few times. One moment that particularly got my attention was a forlorn drainpipe. One could imagine the metallic resonances here, and indeed the sound became more electronic, reminding me a bit of early Xenakis. I also heard sounds that reminded me of more modern granular synthesis. There were also sharp departures from the drones, with very pointed “crackling sounds”, appropriate as the video began to feature rain and water dripping from the pipe.

There is a permanent installation of the piece near Calistoga, CA. I am curious to see it sometime after I return home.

Blessing Moon – July 9, 2009

The past Thursday was the latest in the Full Moon Concert Series at the Luggage Store Gallery, curated by Polly Moller. This month’s theme was Blessing Moon.

The first set was by a new all-improv trio Free Rein. The group focuses on “Earth music for space people” and includes reeds/flutes, Danelectro 6 string bass, percussion,voice, cymbal, keyboard and theremin.


[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

Musically, the set began with microtones and synchronicity among the flute, theremin and another wind instrument. Melodic elements were sometimes present, performed on one of the flutes or the theremin. Other elements that stood out included the bowed cymbal, which blended with the other instruments in drones, a bird-like slide whistle against a saxophone, and undulating tones and the formation of harmonies between the percussion and low-frequency modulation. This fit with their statement of “spontaneously collaborating with the Moon, sculpting a sound that reflects back to Earth, playing tones that wax and wane through vibration, harmonic bodies phase shifting.”

The second set was performed by Valka, featuring Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobson (who have also collaborated as myrmyr) with guest Noah Phillips on guitar. Szelag was performing with an electric cello, Jakobson on violin, and all three performers together had an impressive array of pedals arranged centrally between the string instruments:


[click to enlarge]

From the program notes, “Valka’s Blessing Moon rituals are inspired by ripe dreams and the balance between dark and light.” This includes drones, effects, lots of long tones and big masses of sound, with a mixture of harmonicity and noise. I did focus on slow bends and other gradual changes of tone through the performance. The first piece did end on a dramatic note, with a rather loud insect-like sound that seemed to have taken the musicians by surprise.