The Wire, London

November 2004

Even its coolly technical title, "Patterns in a Chromatic Field", implies that this 1981 score for cello and piano represents another Feldman again from the composer who wrote "Flute and Orchestra" and "Piano". Always one of his more disparate and harder edged pieces, gestures familiar from other Feldman works are curiously self-caricatured and then juxtaposed with disorientating rapidity. Charles Curtis (cello) and Aleck Karis (piano) relish the work's awkward corners to the full and reclaim Feldman from being reduced to an "Ambient" composer. It opens with the cello squealing in its highest register and the pianist sculpting clustery stabs from the bass of his instrument. Quickfire pizzicate buckle against the natural grain of the cello, and even still moments are constantly thrown off-centre by the composer's insistence on extreme register and alienated colour. Feldman subsumes the cello and piano duo tradition with a fresh agenda.

Other Music Update

Morton Feldman was always good with words (check out "Give My Regards to Eight Street" a fantastic collection of Feldman essays on Exact Change) and "Patterns in a Chromatic Field" is an appropriate title for a piece that, simply put, skips from one tightly calculated repeating pattern to the next, letting each melodic pattern exist just long enough for us to settle in before abruptly moving on to the next passage. At once menacing and tranquil, the piece quickly transforms the listener's perception of time allowing them to concentrate on the sounds that are occurring at that moment rather than focusing on the overall structure that becomes more apparent as the piece moves on.

There is a reason that there are few available recordings of Feldman's "Patterns in a Chromatic Field". With all its carefully notated pauses and abrupt changes it's truly an intense physical undertaking to perform. But it's not virtuosity that is on display here. The two performers, Alex Karis (a well known classical pianist) and Charles Curtis (cellist and a former student and well known interpreter of La Monte Young's work, as well as an interesting composer in his own right) exhibit a lot of dexterity and restraint in their interpretation of the piece. Their acute attention to detail shows a sense of extreme focus not often heard in these parts. While at 80-minutes and 40-seconds, this may not be Feldman's most accessible work -- consider that around the same time as he wrote this piece in 1981, he started work on several pieces well over two hours long! A refreshing take on one of the pioneers of the Modern Classical tradition, well worth checking out.
[Koen Houltkamp]

August, 26th, 2004

The late Morton Feldman's quiet, sparse compositions manipulate the most basic facets of human existence-- heartbeat and breath, environment, repetition, the progression of time-- with such breadth and subtlety that it seems impossible such transformative music should fit on the small physical object of a CD. Heavily influenced by John Cage's musical theories and personal encouragement, Feldman outpaced his mentor in successfully counteracting the theoretical rigidity popular among many 20th century composers. While Cage's music, like Marcel Duchamp's toilet on the wall, could still eschew aesthetics in favor of ideological polemics, Feldman always remained concerned that his pieces would speak for themselves a priori of any extramusical conceit. Unimpressed with the compositional systems of the serialists or minimalists, as well as traditional scales, tunings and forms, Feldman's music is both deeply emotional and the antithesis of "dramatic," relying on no trope to alight the far reaches of our inner worlds.

John Zorn's label Tzadik, most prominently carrying Zorn's own releases and a host of abrasive Japanese noise/electronic artists, has released what it claims to be "the definitive recording" of Feldman's infinitely nuanced 1981 composition "Patterns in a Chromatic Field". They've pulled it off, with an engaged and well-captured performance from pianist Aleck Karis and cellist Charles Curtis, as well as liner notes that, through quotes from Feldman's own writing, introduce listeners to his mature theoretical outlook.

To those familiar with Feldman's general style, 1981's "Patterns in a Chromatic Field" may seem unusually busy. The composer is best known for his interest in the hazes of notes sustained after being struck (some pieces call for every sound to be allowed its full decay) as well as his use of chance operations within set parameters. Patterns is relatively rhythmic and almost fully notated, yet still imparts what Feldman called his compositional "subservience" to pure sound. The hushed instruments weave a web of intertwining figures, quieter parts allowing ambient noise of the surrounding world to enter into their musical environment.

"Patterns" is driven by the communication that develops between the work's two inhabitants, piano and cello. The piece begins with the impression of being thrust upon something in progress, as though hearing the muted sounds of a couple arguing in the next room. The cello whines in looped patterns, while the piano drops weighted clusters along the pitch spectrum, soon segueing into stillness. Subsequent rhythmic sections recall the cadences of Morse code, the instruments stabbing at unity in their intersections and misses. In other instances, they'll engage in long passages of cause and effect, the piano a child fascinated that its repeated actions produce the cello's consistent result. In this way, though the piece shifts from one musical cell to the next without provocation, its progression never feels aimless. Its only predictable movement is in the tempering of any extreme with its contrast, creating a space in the meeting of opposites rather than the logic of linearity.

Feldman's music has been called, by respectable critics, "boring." The most pared-down exercises in his theories can indeed take a large effort of will to enjoy, casting their atonal meditative glow at the expense of the modern attention span. But despite its 80-minute length, "Patterns in a Chromatic Field" takes little work to become entranced with; while one must take the initial leap of investing one's trust and concentration in Feldman's unique sensibilities, its moments of crystalline beauty are readily apparent. The piece maintains interest, yet fully realizes Feldman's goal of disassociating pitches from one another. Told in minor seconds and augmented fourths, the piano's thick knots of sound never feel dissonant or abrasive-- simply removed entirely from the game of functional harmony.

Curtis' haunting cello work counteracts any lingering hint of academic sterility in Feldman's composition, penetrating deeply with its airy, sustained notes, and almost brutally clean tone (Feldman deemed vibrato a trick for covering up inaccurate musicianship). Karis, meanwhile, manages to retain control over the piano at even the scarcest volumes, and the musicians' interaction is complete and focused, if seemingly weary in later stages of the piece.

The tableau in which Feldman is most fondly remembered by friends and students consists of him sitting quietly at the piano, letting loose gentle clusters of notes until each faded entirely, with a cigar hanging from his mouth and the ash gradually collecting on his lap. He grew from an argumentative pupil into a teacher known for his patience and thoughtfulness, channeling John Cage's propensity to find great power in stillness as both a composer and a man. And though Feldman would have probably scoffed at the Romantic concept of music as direct communication from artist to listener, one can't help but feel that as "Patterns in a Chromatic Field" hangs in the air, it has imparted a piece of the man's quiet, sincere spirit.
[Liam Singer]

Time Out New York

December 2, 2004

Even within the rarefied world of Morton Feldman's late music, "Patterns in a Chromatic Field", from 1981, seems anomalous. The music seems more wayward and astringent than usual for this composer, its dissonances more aggressive and sharply felt. An excellent new recording by cellist Charles Curtis and pianist Aleck Karis on the Tzadik label feels uncomfortably close at first; as your ears adjust, Feldman's tart voicings and steady tread become familiar, then engulfing. Tonight's live performance should offer full immersion.

Paris Transatlantic

september 2005

Performance Instants Chavir├ęs, Paris, May 27th 2005

For his appearance at the Instants Curtis was joined by pianist Aleck Karis for a performance of Morton Feldman's Patterns in a Chromatic Field. Performances of fully notated contemporary music are rare events at the Instants, a venue that usually concentrates on supporting the outer reaches of improvised music, so audience expectations were high (and the bar area deserted for 80 minutes), and Curtis and Karis certainly didn't disappoint. Those familiar with the other available recording of this particular Feldman work, by Rohan de Saram and Marianne Schroeder on hatART, will have been immediately surprised by the decidedly sprightly pace of Curtis's reading, but on further enquiry it turned out he was following the composer's metronome markings to the letter. Just because the works of Feldman's final period are long doesn't mean they're necessarily slow. Far from it. The virtuosity of these two performers was simply breathtaking - and happily their recordiing of the work is available on Tzadik (TZ 8002) and strongly recommended - Curtis's cello playing was utterly immaculate in terms of intonation, rhythmic accuracy and especially attack. I know of no other string player capable of beginning a bow more smoothly or changing bow direction more imperceptibly: let's hope someone can prevail upon him to release his version of Terry Jennings's Piece for Celllo and Saxophone (mentioned, you will recall, in our feature a while back on Alan Licht).
[Dan Warbuton]

musicworks #92

summer 2005

Ever wonder what distress sounds like, played pianissimo and with exacting propulsion? If so, listen to the opening of Morton Feldman's Patterns in a Chromatic Field, the composer's 1981 cello-piano epic, which was performed by Charles Curtis and Aleck Karis in December, 2004, at New York's Cooper Union, with the duo's studio recording of the piece released earlier that same year on John Zorn's Tzadik label.

Those first passages of Patterns startle, as if intruding on silence; the cello line veers in discomfiting precision among an amelodic clutch of notes, backed by a faint, insistent piano chord. That backing disjoints, adding to the urgency by breaking the cluster and delaying its high pitch - and then, after just a couple of minutes, Feldman introduces delicate, distended musical terrain more familiar from the equally large-scale piano solo Triadic Memories, which was composed the same year as Patterns.

That preliminary gambit sets an alerting precedent within Patterns, serving as a foretaste of its material's interrelations, which sound more akin to Feldman's unsettling 1980 orchestral piece, Turfan Fragments, than to the forlorn gossamer of Triadic Memories. In Patterns Feldman foregoes transitions in favour of a persistent series of discrete events, varying in duration from mere moments (as in an isolated late sequence that cellist Curtis iterates three times, with lithe pizzicato that borders on funk) to a passage of several minutes that develops about a fifth of the way through the eighty-minute work: Karis spaces quiet chords four seconds apart, with decays opening like resonant sonic chasms, into which Curtis begins stroking a spare note, followed by about two minutes of tandem pitches. Which is about as close as the two voices get to unison. Patterns distinguishes the cello and piano into a rarefied interdependence, somehow together, yet persistently alone.

It's some twenty minutes before the cello bows into low registers, and a rare spate of big volume erupts and dissipates almost halfway through, while a deep piano rumble looms near the end. Feldman is a master of hidden surprise: patterns occur that recall previous patterns but are not duplicates, the allusion sufficing to hone attention.

At the Cooper Union recital, Karis's deft rhythmic authority highlighted the extraordinary technical demands Curtis faced: pitch accuracy at exceedingly faint volume, eliding bends that appear at the end of phrases. The pair's performance was a fitting conclusion to five years of the CooperArts series, which got off to an auspicious start in 1999, when its third concert presented Flux Quartet's six-hour premiere of the Feldman String Quartet no. 2.

The CD release has excellent sound, though some ambient noise seeps in on the exceedingly intimate piece and an indexing break or two could have facilitated separate exploration into the piece's later passages.
[Alan Lockwood]