Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Feldman: Oboe on a desolate sea

Impressionist art (Sisley) goes well with Impressionist music (Delius), Expressionist Art (Kirchner) with Expressionist music (Schoenberg), Cubism (Picasso) with certain works of Stravinsky. What music does Abstract Expressionism best go with? (I'm sure you've always wondered that!) How about a piece by Morton Feldman (1926-1987) to accompany that particular painting by Mark Rothko?

Unquestionably of Feldman's finest pieces, Oboe and Orchestra is a poetic, hypnotic work that creates a mood of melancholy beauty and brings to mind (well, to my mind at least!) certain images - a scorched desert or the desolate southern oceans over which the oboe floats alone like an ever-migrating bird. Sometimes it floats calmly on gentle air currents of orchestral sound, at others it is buffeted by rougher winds over harsher, louder landscapes of sound. Some such impressions are, probably, inescapable when listening to such music - music that is generally quiet and at times ritualistic (those soft-sounding gongs!), oriental even (Japanese garden music!). The orchestra, though (surprisingly) large, is used precisely, sparely, atmospheric. Often it hums. It does have dramatic, even startling moments - as Feldman presumably doesn't want complacency to replace quietude! The oboe sings a long, sad, angular song, a line containing many memorable, frequently-returning gestures (those falling semitones, that octave-displaced three-note chromatic scale fragment) as well as many unpredictable turns (including piercing, bird-like cries). Structurally, the opening is sustained and quiet (and beautiful). A striking, more turbulent passage follows (like the sound of muffled howling winds). The two moods and types of music then alternate. In passing the harmony is highly dissonant, though you'd often feel it to be consonant. When the piece pauses on the note D - a D that spreads over several octaves - a new peace comes, marked by spellbinding magic, though the melancholy mood remains, deepens even. It's very beautiful, strange and haunting. The piece halts again, as if holding its breath.  From the sound of a low harp to the keening of the oboe and the aggression of the brass we move towards the looming 'crisis' - though, this being Feldman, it's a far from overstated crisis. The brass grow thuggish. The oboe's song grows yet sadder, lonelier, lovelier in response. The final minutes return us, delicately, to quietude. 

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