I think Feldman straddles that boundary with remarkable balance. I haven't listened to his second quartet, but I've listened with intensity to his first (only an 1/½ hour work), and it's effective on both levels. It is non-traditional in its organization and its sonorities, but it has a straightforward structure that is simple enough for a lay listener to at least partly grasp in a single hearing, allowing them to appreciate it as an object of beauty. At the same time, its form and content are original enough to pique a more demanding student's interest. From the OP's description, it sounds like the second quartet is similar.
Feldman strikes me as a composer who has partly avoided and partly succumbed to the trap — all too common, as I see it — of deciding that the state of constant revolution that music has been in since about 1885 means that they can do anything they please and write music according to their own inscrutable (and often mechanical) system, shattering so many expectations so their music defies evaluation and nobody can tell them it isn't good. (The stories I could tell about some "composers" and their methods…) I blame the vast difference between the expectations of academia, which is the main supporter of contemporary composers, and those of the general audience.
If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.
What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.
By which he means most novels, I suppose, which, in turn, means it's nothing to do with television. Add to that all of the wonderful programs on television, such as the films on TCM, the serial dramas on AMC, HBO, and PBS, and the better comedies on the major networks, and this becomes puzzling.
Oh. Wait. No, it doesn't. It becomes a relic from an earlier time, the 1950s and the 1960s, primarily, which has been repeated mindlessly down through the decades as it feeds into a certain classist mindset in the kinds of people who read David Foster Wallace. It reassures them that, even if they haven't given to NPR in five years, they're still better than Those People who still watch television.
Wow, that is just so well put. As an (at best) amateur musician and listener, I've never been able to quite identify what bothers me about (some) "modern" music. I actually like a lot of it, but as you point out, some of it seems guided more by arbitrary formalism than by what actually sounds good.
I'm sure this is opening an off-topic pandora's box, but the evolution of semi-mechanical compositional methods and (to me) seemingly arbitrary formalisms like 12-tone serialism strikes me as aping mathematics, science, or -- these days -- programming. Except with math, proofs have to, well, prove things; science is about empirical discovery; programs actually have to work.
I guess my malaise with 20th century compositional formalisms stems from the fact that there's no similar constraint for the musical outcomes -- when confronted with bafflement or derision from the audience, the composer can simply shrug and say, "it works for me"
Composers like Feldman (and, IMO Carter) seem to have used formal methods to produce some, at least, interesting and, at best, fascinating and beautiful work. And more intuitive 20th century composers like Charles Ives, Ned Rorem and Havergal Brian (to name three fascinating examples of many) really, to me, pushed the boundaries of beauty in music in seemingly less arbitrary ways.
I think it is a sad state of affairs that it is indeed so in the modern world.
It is also interesting that it happens in so many distinct areas. Perhaps it is a property of the society and how it is structured today. It is of course rare for a community of nonprofessionals to be able to build a complete modern house. Why this affects musicians too, is not clear to me. The rise of individualism maybe?
Feldman's "late" works are the most remarkable. Often spanning hours in length, he transformed the concert into a ritual. "Is music an art form?" he liked to ask. In other words, is music more than just entertainment? His answer was clearly: "Yes".
Feldman's works are not just listened to, they are experienced. They are a mixture of music, performance art, and philosophy. Unlike John Cage, his close friend and mentor, Feldman was not interested in Zen philosophy. But listening to Feldman’s music leads to a heightened state of mind, a kind of musical enlightenment.
I just recorded two of Feldman's greatest works for solo piano: "Palais de Mari" (1986, 23') and "For Bunita Marcus" (1985, 67'). 15 minutes ago, I would've put the probability of seeing an article about Feldman on Hacker News at zero. Bravo.
Feldman's "Rothko Chapel" is a great way to get into his music (written following the suicide of painter Mark Rothko).
Here is part one:
The story of the Rothko Chapel is well worth reading if you like abstract expressionist artwork (de Kooning, Rothko, Kline, Pollock, etc).
Also, I recommend listening to the conversations between John Cage and Morton Feldman:
They talk, drink, smoke in the radio studio. It's all very 1960's but the insight into the lives of great composers is priceless.
It's Béla Bartók all over again. I wonder if there's an unwritten rule in nature that truly creative composers have to die before people recognize the value of their work?
A counterexample to this pattern is Philip Glass, who is receiving some recognition, but by virtue of being recognized in his own lifetime, may undercut his own reputation.
is the recording available online, either youtube or for sale?
But by that final two hours I was, however, not exactly caught up in the music, but surrounded by it, subdued by it, quelled.
There are bound to be things that a piece of music can do to you, with you, if it has 6 hours to become part of your mental landscape... to wait out your normal attempts to "listen" consciously and make sense of it.
I've never been to a similar concert, but it makes me think about long car voyages I've taken with (accidentally) only one CD in the car. Some albums turn to crap after a few hours. Others keep getting better, or more interesting, or a presence you are comfortable with even if it's not moving you anymore.
Interesting stuff to play with, though of course who has the time, normally...
I had a similar experience as a performer of Terry Riley's "In C" in 1978. As I finished the piece (everyone finishes at their own pace), I walked off stage and went around to the back of the auditorium, with the audience.
As the last performers left the stage, the only sound left was the repetitive octave C eighth notes on the piano that had started the piece 45 minutes earlier.
Then that too stopped, leaving us in total silence. It took a good 10-15 seconds for it to sink in that the piece was over, then the audience erupted in great applause.
There's another good essay by Alex Ross, music critic at the New Yorker:
My favorite piece of his is Harmonielehre, but there is lots of great stuff there.
One was the disengagement of general audiences from "classical" (for lack of a better term) music. The other was the disengagement of composers from general audiences.
Each group did this, largely for its own reasons, but each side's disengagement only sped up the other's. The result of this is that you have a general audience who is largely ignorant of what was going on in music, and a world of composers who became more and more insular, writing largely for each other and to make increasingly-arcane points about music theory.
This means that when you listen to contemporary classical music, you're A) listening to something that was not written with you in mind as an audience, and B) utterly lacking the background -- the traditions, the movements, the reactions and counter-reactions -- to understand what's going on in the music.
In a broader sense, this happened in basically all the arts, but music is one of the areas where we seem to notice it more often.
If you mean "you get much more to stomp your feet in the beat to", then OK.
I mean, I'm a fair amateur bassoon and piano player. I've played bassoon on four Beethoven symphonies over the years, and technically they were easily within my grasp. His piano sonatas push me, but back when I was actively playing piano I could make them sound like music.
I've played some more modern music which was much harder, and while I quite like some of it, I sure don't think it was "better" than Beethoven.
I think the exact same thing has happened to jazz, too, it's just a few decades behind "classical" music in the transition...
Doesn't do much for me, but I'm no music afficianado.
It's not easy with Feldman, but I am convinced it is possible.
Here is a 2 minute excerpt of "Palais de Mari" from 1986 (for solo piano) that may help people decide whether they want to hear more: http://ivancdg.com/music/1.mp3
People have told me that this reminds them of Debussy (the Prélude "Footprints in the Snow", specifically).
I highly recommend listening to the entire series, of which this is part three.
Looks a bit like cellular automata. :)
I'm sure half of the pleasure is to then talk about how incredible, magnificent and transcendental it was to assist to such a performance. Must make one feel special in NYC.
I also do appreciate the humility in that title: "Almost too beautiful". Sure, we mere mortals can't understand this, because it's too beautiful for us.
Several people have asked if this was a joke... By now I'm honestly beginning to think that HN has been trolled by a ring with sufficient accounts to upvote anything they want on the HN front page :-/
If you have truly never experienced something that jolted you suddenly and thoroughly into recognizing yourself as a small person in the wake of something large and vast, that's a shame. But I assure you that such experiences exist, and that they are indeed magical.