Chamber Music: Alvin Lucier & Morton Feldman by Anthony Burr & Charles Curtis

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Anthony Burr + Charles Curtis | Chamber Music: Alvin Lucier & Morton Feldman
Important (CD/DL)

The pairing of Lucier and Feldman is a curious one. On the one hand, they operate within fairly different compositional ground, yet on the other, they each rely upon an ostensibly similar aesthetic, that of temporality. Ostensibly is the key word here, for though they might both prioritise the passage of time and extended duration as a fundamental compositional tool, from this mutual starting point they soon diverge.  

Here, as with his more famous site-specific pieces, Lucier is exploring the emergent qualities of otherwise static, or at least severely reduced, phrases. By focusing on a small cluster of notes, and allowing their relationship to be explored slowly by extending intervallically from a dominant pitch, Lucier allows his limited palette to take on a mediative and transgressive quality, wherein the listener begins to imagine new frequency relationships, not readily present in the music.  There is no narrative here – his works are defined by a lack of structure and, although not by any means drone music, invoke the same tools with which to nudge the mind into an alternative temporal space. 

Unfortunately, the result of Lucier’s efforts are not particularly engaging, nor as mediative or emergent as is achieved by innumerable others working in a similar area. The relationship between elements is fairly consistent throughout, with the strings adding a form of extended decay to the harmonic overtones of the piano, drifting between the more regimented notes of the keys.  This fairly repetitive approach has its moments – the latter half of ‘Step, Slide and Sustain’ is a demanding listen for all its inflexibility, and courts the sense of cognitive transcendence that his other contributions only hint at.  More often than not, however, his tracks are guilty of being lost to an uncomfortable half-way house – neither particularly interesting nor particularly boring, they instead loiter in a sort of musical middle ground void of both any real harmonic, timbral, or melodic sustenance, nor any of the pensive, tense beauty by which Feldman’s work is defined.

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Whilst Lucier’s pieces are recorded here for the first time, there exist numerous prior recordings of all three of Feldman’s contributions.  There is of course little to criticise regarding the actual compositions, Feldman being, to my ears and many others, one of the finest and most consistent bastions of 20th century classical composition, so instead the immediate question concerns how necessary these new versions might be, and how well they sit alongside Lucier’s work. Of the three, it is ‘Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano’ which fairs best, offering a wonderfully paced and tonally striking sound-world which meets (and exceeds) many of the emergent properties of the album as a whole.  In contrast, ’Two Instruments’ seems an odd inclusion – whilst to my knowledge being among the more obscure of Feldman’s output, its limited harmonic range omits many of the more exciting aspects of timbre and density by which the composer is known.

Although neither composer, nor their interpreters, have produced anything remotely bad – and fans of Lucier in particular will enjoy engaging with this less known area of his output – the overarching effect is surprisingly underwhelming.  There is a feeling that either composer in isolation would result in a far more rewarding experience, and the decision to alternate composer track by track is hugely detrimental to my enjoyment.  Lucier’s work in particular suffers by virtue of this contrast – lacking the complexity of Feldman’s compositional voice, they serve merely to either to unduly prioritise the limited temporal similarities between the two artists, or worse, to highlight the harmonic and timbral simplicity of the former.  

It feels strange to be so negative about an album to which I initially held such excitement.  Underwhelmed as I may be, it is worth reiterating that this largely comes down to the framing – Feldman’s pieces are, as Feldman always is, exceptional, and Lucier’s are if not breathtaking then still a strong example of a certain kind of repetitive, minimal (but not minimalism) composition. However, it is the pairing of the two composers that I struggle with, and feel its result is to reduce rather than embellish the effect of both artists work. 

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