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Silent Smiles

img  Tobias

You can't analyse a mystery. The truth is always hidden in the cracks and chinks of music, its soul an intertwined conglomerate of the composer's supposed intentions, the artists' understanding of these and whatever it is that happens when a group of performers enters the stage and actually performs. In want of scientific evidence, Morton Feldman's „For Philip Guston“ continues to thrive on the creative discourse surrounding these factors, performance practise feeding into studio exchanges and art history fighting it out with psychological approaches. As a musician, it requires you to all but disappear, while remaining passionately focussed on the score and on your colleagues for its entire epic duration. „As a performing ensemble, you stay in the background“, the members of the ensemble Breuer|Engler|Schrammel unanimously agree, „If you allow this to happen, there don’t seem to be too many questions.“

Passionate debates
There certainly seem to be a lot of questions for the rest of the world, however. Maybe this has to do with the fact that, as the trio indicates,  it is easier to perform the piece than to listen to it – if only because, at a minimum of four hours, labelling „Guston“ a demanding ride would be an understatement. On the other hand, not being able to rationally analyse a work of art has never kept critics, composers, instrumentalists and fans from talking about it. When the SEM ensemble released their slowmotion version of the opus in 1995, Flutist Petr Kotik sat down with Walter Zimmermann for a long private talk held as a basis for the booklet's liner notes. The result was a passionately argued debate on interpretation and the specifics of Feldman's biography, his changing relationship with Guston and the thoughts running through his head when he wrote the score.

There never was a similar kind of fundamental disagreement between Elmar Schrammel, Julia Breuer and Matthias Engler while recording their take on Feldman for Wergo. Discounting the natural „discussions about this and that“, their interpretational group dynamics mainly boiled down to finding just the right „degree of synchronism within the sections between the bold barlines“. Just like Kotik reasoned more than a decade ago, the idea of „Guston“ being a work about lost friendship can not be denied, yet it remains a supposition whether it is openly and trivially so: „The large-scale two-part structure – which seems to be unique in Feldman’s work –  embodies this broken friendship“, the trio concede, „Although we have to admit, that due to the extent of the score, we didn’t notice this well-hidden crack at once. Feldman recomposes his own piece! Of course, later on this thought had some influence on our point of view. It’s a very special moment when you pass page 53 of 102 and you recognise, you’ll go through the whole piece another time. The restart of the piece affects you not only mentally but physically, too. After all, there exists a rather reconciling mood in the foreground of the piece, not a complaint about lost friendship.“

Other Recordings
There are other recordings, of course. There's the aforementioned SEM version with its comparatively hushed tempo and the California EAR Unit's relatively fast-paced vision. And then, of course, there's the Hat Hut box set by Blum, Vigeland and Williams who worked with Feldman personally, undistracted by an overdose of previous interpolations or external influences. Long out of print, it now fetches up to $500 at ebay and Amazon. The new version by the German ensemble, possibly the first European studio-take on Feldman's enigmatic long-form composition, fits into this illustrous line-up perfectly thanks to its subtle balance and a sensible equilibrium between recreating the live situation while making use of the extended possibilities of a professional production.

This aspect is essential to Breuer, Engler and Schrammel's „Guston“, which relies on the natural flow of a joint session instead of clinically concise cutting and pasting during the editing stages: „We planned to record about an hour of the piece per day. Just from the beginning to the end. That was the most natural and practical way to guarantee coherency“, they tell me about their time at the ZKM Kubus in Karlsruhe, a space usually optimised for electroacoustic music, „Having recorded a longer take, we decided on the spot, whether it was OK or not. Only with a very few sections, we had to agree on things by listening to them again. And at the end of a daily session, everybody could voice their personal wishes and was given a 'wild card', so to speak.“

A meticulous preparation was just as essential to the artistic success of their mission as simply staying both physically alert and laid-back: „We always reminded ourselves to be as relaxed and as comfortable as possible. The wooden room and the absolute silence inside (only some annoying strange clicks from the walls every hour) helped a lot. Also the surrounding of the museum and the fact of being able to record as long as we wanted, made this possible. We simply tried to transfer the experience of the live performance to the situation 'on-air.“

Silent smiles
As a result, the musicianship here sounds spontaneous, „in the moment“, pensive, meditative, vivid, focussed and upbeat all at the same time. You can sense the simultaneous concentration, correspondance and creative joy. You can get lost in Feldmann's immersive sound world, but you are just as free to leave it after listening to just one of the four CDs of this edition, feeling refreshed and lifted. And you can even hear the silent smile on the lips of the musicians, as they greet the return of the opening „C-A-G-E“ motive with an inwardly sighed „Ah, here it is again!“ It is a piece which begins with wondering how to sit through it and ends with you wanting to hold on to it forever: „ From a certain point onwards, you start regretting that the piece will be over too soon. In the next moment you are longing to reach the final destination of this trip. The way of notation supports a communication within the ensemble, that works exclusively on a sound-level. The concept of playing together-not-together leaves room for expectations, creates alertness and openness. That’s wonderful.“

This wonder is now being taken to the stage again. It is a consequentially cyclical move, as it was a performance of „For Philip Guston“ during the „Karlsruher Museennacht“ in August of 2006, which prompted the album in the first place. On October 31st, Breuer, Engler and Schrammel will travel to the Dutch/German bordertown of Aachen to play the piece live at the GZM Klangbrücke, hoping to be able to use the publicity surrounding the event to organise a more expansive tour. Regardless of how many opportunities they will be given to present the work, however, they are not intending to erradicate its enigmas completely: „Maybe Feldman is sort of transmitting his own questions to the listeners of his piece. It is essential to keep those mysteries, this certain loneliness, and a secret way of communication,“

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Wergo Records

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