This weekend, the Goat Farm Arts Center will host two distinct performances of late-20th-century contemporary classical music, each devoted to a single long and landmark work.
At 9:30 tonight, Sonic Generator will perform “Drumming” by Steve Reich. Completed in 1971, “Drumming” is for an amplified ensemble of nine percussionists, piccolo and two female voices. The performance is expected to last anywhere from about an hour to an hour and a half.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, July 29, Chamber Cartel will perform “For Philip Guston” by Morton Feldman. Written in 1984, the piece is for a trio of flute, percussion and piano, and the performance will last approximately four hours. Yes, you read that correctly: four hours. But it’s not Feldman’s longest work, which is his String Quartet II, written the previous year. That one is over six hours long, without a break.
Although both of these compositions are long, involve repetitive techniques and reject the high-modernist musical thinking of serialism that became dominant in post-World War II academia, they are different aesthetically, like a pair of siblings who chose different paths.
“DRUMMING” BY STEVE REICH
“Drumming” is the final work in which Reich uses his “phasing” technique. Simply put, “phasing” is where identical repetitive phrases are played on two musical instruments, each at a steady pace but not at identical tempos. That makes the two parts gradually shift out of sync with each other, creating gradual change in the audible relationship between them, eventually coming back into sync.
Those who attended last month’s concerts of either Sonic Generator or Chamber Cartel would have heard percussionists Stuart Gerber and Charles Settle perform Reich’s “Piano Phase” (a.k.a. “Marimba Phase”), a piece written several years before “Drumming” and his first work for live musicians to make use of the phasing technique, which he also employed in his earlier compositions for electronic tape.
As the last of Reich’s works to use phasing, “Drumming” is a transitional piece between his earlier, austere compositions and his later works. Reich, after spending five weeks in Ghana studying with master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie, added a few new stylistic features to “Drumming.”
Perhaps, as Reich suggests, the term “Minimalist” is merely a convenience for musicologists when writing about his music and that of Philip Glass, Terry Riley and La Monte Young (the first to be tagged with that label). It is, after all, a term co-opted from the visual arts by music critics to describe the slowly evolving large-scale works of those composers.
There were visual artists who moved from being “process artists” to “Minimalists” around the same time Reich made a transition in “Drumming.” Richard Serra, a Minimalist sculptor and a friend of Reich’s, asserts their mutual influence in an essay found on Reich’s website:
“There emerge, at various times and places, manifestations of art which transform the realm of possibilities. New York in the late ’60s was such a place. To invent — to originate something new — was the pressing need of the moment. The group of young artists that would bring about the change came from different practices […] and I have to include Steve and myself on the list.
“We were each other’s audience and critics. The interchange of ideas nourished new approaches to materials, to time, to context, to process.”
“FOR PHILIP GUSTON” BY MORTON FELDMAN
The musicians who gathered around composer John Cage in the late 1940s professed a strong interest in the visual arts. Among all such composers in Cage’s close circle, it was Morton Feldman who maintained a strong lifelong allegiance to the aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism. And in the 1950s and early ’60s, Feldman and visual artist Philip Guston were close friends.
But Guston, who like Cage was nearly a quarter-century older than Feldman, suddenly took a different aesthetic turn when he moved to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1967. He became frustrated with abstraction, and his works became cartoonishly figurative and representational.
Feldman never fully grasped or accepted the change in Guston, and this pulled an invisible curtain between the two men until Guston’s death in 1980. Feldman himself died in 1987, but in the interim composed “For Philip Guston,” in honor of the early years when their artistic and social camaraderie was at its apex.
In a lecture preceding the premiere of “For Philip Guston,” Feldman described the work as “a literary piece, in the sense that I was revisiting my life with this extraordinarily gifted artist, who I think was the most important person in my life, besides my mother of course. I don’t think I would have become an artist if I didn’t have that luck in meeting Philip Guston.”
Although some have tried to link late Feldman to the Minimalist label, it doesn’t really apply. In his essay “Between Categories,” Feldman wrote about the relationship of the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic to his music:
“My obsession with surface is the subject of my music. In that sense, my compositions are really not ‘compositions’ at all. One might call them time canvases in which I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of the music. […] I prefer to think of my work as: between categories. Between Time and Space. Between painting and music. Between the music’s construction, and its surface.”