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Given the luxury of a holiday weekend, I decided to tackle a “musical
Mount Everest” for the ears alone. “For Philip Guston” by composer
Morton Feldman is a four-cd boxed set of this massive work for flute,
piano and percussion. This imported set was recorded in 2007 and
issued on the WERGO label.

It’s a misnomer to assume that only three instruments are involved,
as flutist Julia Breuer also doubles on piccolo and alto flute. Elmar
Schrammel’s talents are required on the piano and celesta, and
Matthias Engler must switch between playing the glockenspiel,
vibraphone, tubular bells, and marimba.

By the way, Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was an American composer
influenced by the works of John Cage and David Tudor, among others.
He wrote an opera, works for chorus and orchestra, as well as for the
unaccompanied voice, orchestral pieces, works for instrumental
ensembles with and without voices, chamber music, piano and other
solo instrument pieces. One distinction was his use of graphic notation,
in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of painters Jackson Pollock and
W. de Kooning.

At any rate, “For Philip Guston” is, in essence, four notes: C, A-flat,
G and E-flat, which are played in various permutations by the three
performers. It’s probably best not to analyze the “form” while listening,
as it is discussed quite effectively in the accompanying liner notes.
I think it’s better to get into a “Zen-like” mode, and concentrate on
the notes and textures, to the best of your ability. Try not to let your
mind wander, and “go with the flow.”

At approximately 59 minutes into this four-hour, 34-minute work is a
radical digression. For about one solid minute, you’ll hear extremely
soft, low, repeated tones on a single pitch, performed on the marimba!

You might wonder how many ways four notes can be varied texturally
and rhythmically, and how many combinations by three players on
nine different instruments can exist? Obviously, quite a few! The sheer
scale and audacity of this piece is really something. Apparently,
Feldman’s “Second String Quartet” is even longer.

Nevertheless, climbing “Mount Everest” this holiday weekend was an
interesting experience, and “For Philip Guston” will test the concentration
and nerves of the most seasoned listeners.

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