Classic Albums: Morton Feldman, Triadic Memories

Back when I lived in NYC, I did not own a TV and the Internet, as we know it, didn’t exist. What ever did I do with all that time?

After work, as an IT consultant on Wall St., I painted, read, and listened to music. My hifi at that time consisted of the Nelson Pass-designed Threshold SA3/FET10 pre/power combo, a CAL Audio Icon CD player, and Thiel CS1.5 speakers. The music played through this system consisted of contemporary classical music nearly exclusively. To clarify, this was the music I listened to when doing nothing else as opposed to the music I listened to when I was painting which was more varied and included some well-worn cassettes of Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, Hank Williams, and Black Flag.

I lived near Tower Records on Broadway and their second floor classical department was a treasure trove of contemporary classical music. They also occasionally sold related rare books where I picked up an inscribed copy of Henry Cowell’s New Music Resources (score!). Seeing as this music is still relatively off-the-charts so to speak, I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite finds from these years that still resonate with me today. I hope you enjoy this mini-series.

Jean-Luc Fafchamps original recording of Feldman’s Triadic Memories was published in the summer of 1990 on Sub Rosa which is when I bought it from Tower Records. Fafchamps worked from the Universal Editions (UE) score published in the year of Feldman’s death, 1987. At the time of its composition, Feldman had become fascinated with 19th century Turkish carpets. Here are some of his words:

“Music and the designs or a repeated pattern in a rug have much in common. Even if it be asymmetrical in its placement, the proportion of one component to another is hardly ever substantially out of scale in the context of the whole. Most traditional rug patterns remain the same size when taken from a larger rug and adapted to a smaller one…

I was once in Rothko’s studio when his assistant restretched the top of a large painting at least four times. Rothko, standing some distance away, was deciding whether to bring the canvas down an inch or so, or maybe even a little bit higher. This question of scale, for me, precludes any concept of symmetry or asymmetry from affecting the eventual length of my music.

As a composer I am involved with the contradiction in not having the sum of the parts equal the whole. The scale of what is actually being represented, whether it be of the whole or of the part, is a phenomenon unto itself. The reciprocity inherent in scale, in fact, has made me realize that musical forms and related processes are essentially only methods of arranging material and serve no other function than to aid one’s memory.

What Western forms have become is a paraphrase of memory. But memory could operate otherwise as well. In Triadic Memories, there is a section of different types of chords where each chord is slowly repeated. One chord might be repeated three times, another, seven or eight – depending on how long I felt it should go on. Quite soon into a new chord I would forget the reiterated chord before it. I then reconstructed the entire section: rearranging its earlier progression and changing the number of times a particular chord was repeated.

This way of working was a conscious attempt at formalizing a disorientation of memory. Chords are heard repeated without any discernible pattern. In this regularity (though there are slight gradations of tempo) there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion: a bit like walking the streets of Berlin – where all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not.”

This original Fafchamps recording clocks in at 97 minutes but Feldman’s score leaves leeway for the performer in terms of time so other recordings / performances run shorter and longer. Perhaps it’s because this was my first Triadic Memoeries that explains why it is also my favorite. I prefer to think it has to do with Fafchamps ability to imbue each note and the spaces in between with tension while turning 97 minutes into a lush garden of delight. Time gives sway to timeless beauty. Or if you prefer, a disorientation of memory.

This recording is out of print but you can easily find the CD on Discogs for around $10. It comes highly recommended.

Speaking of time, it turns out that original UE score was incomplete. Here’s Jean-Luc Fafchamps on this subject:

The score i used had been published by Universal edition as number UE17326 in 1987. Shortly after my CD came out, Universal published a new edition. At the bottom of page 2, under a dedication to Aki Takahashi and Roger Woodward is a small-print mention: ‘corrected edition: 14.2.1991.’

The score’s layout looked exactly the same… except for a tiny detail: starting on page 5, small digits start to appear above most of the repeat marks. these numbers, which were omitted in ‘my’ score, obviously indicate the number of times some passages should be played – not twice, but 3, 4, 5, 7, up to 11 times! This tiny notation detail has tremendous consequences on the form of the composition. Universal had not even cared to inform me of this issue. I was mortified. With incredible generosity, Sub Rosa offered me to produce a new recording of this work, exactly 20 years after the first one.

So here it is. I did everything possible to tap into the spirit of the 1990 recording: same piano, same recording engineer, same working method, same approach to the keyboard… Now with the right score: my own ‘corrected version.’ The truth is, it’s all different. To me, there is no possible ‘corrected version.’ The 1987-1991 edition was simply a different work, one that had not been completely drawn by its maker, and which presented different issues to its performer.

Which do I prefer? Both, but again the original holds a special place in my heart and mind as it brings me back to my time of loft-living, painting, reading, and listening to music. Thankfully, this newer version, recorded in 2010 and released in 2016, is available from Sub Rosa.

Listen here, when you have a spare  01:13:59, and buy it there.