• In between
: Review

I think I've said this before: Morton Feldman's The Viola in My Life has got to be one of the all-time best titles for an opus. I was happy to get the EMF disc; it ably rounds out the first three parts of The Viola in My Life (CRI 620). Parts I, II and III are scored for intimate-sized ensembles, whereas Part IV is for viola and orchestra. Jan Williams, who conducts part IV, appears on the CRI as percussionist in Feldman's Why Patterns? As in the other three parts, the viola is omnipresent, gentle, and searching. Single notes, sometimes chords, surface and disappear in the mostly quiet orchestra; only the violist seems to get a melody. It emerges plaintively, almost trying to soar above an imaginary weight (perhaps the orchestra) that constrains it. Sometimes the orchestra seems stuck on a repetitive pattern or phrase -- a recurring birdcall or a downward-moving octave -- but the viola with its unbreakable melodic thread gives this static piece direction. Few works impart a timpani tremolo such pungency or instill the violist's rare grace note with such emotion. This is approachable Feldman: a comfortable length with easy-to-follow musical material.

This EMF was my introduction to David Felder, and I had to hear more. Felder has deservedly won his share of acclaim and awards, and in 1985 Feldman handpicked him to be his peer at the University of New York at Buffalo. If you like composers who know what to do with poetry, or who can successfully integrate electronics into their work, or who just plain know how to write music that's worth hearing, then you must get to know Mr. Felder You can also hear his work on a recent disc from Mode, and an older one on Bridge. Interestingly, all these have similar cover art (especially the EMF and Mode releases), done by the same artist, Alfred DeCredico.

The EMF begins with Felder's In Between for solo percussionist and orchestra, an engrossing work. He crafts dissonant, glacial blocks of orchestral sound and the solo percussionist wanders through them. The opening (staggered entrances and exits over long-sustained chords) is a touch otherworldly, and it's hard to tell when the soloist comes to the fore, as the orchestra has three percussionists of its own. Felder's orchestration is skillful: A drawn-out oboe phrase supported with bassoons can be punctuated by slow-moving muted strings. There are building climaxes that emphasize held notes, and even octaves or occasional small-interval brass glissandi I have heard in Scelsi. I don't feel right calling this a concerto -- both soloist and orchestra seem to be on the same team, if that makes sense.

Coleccion Nocturna, Felder's other item on the disc, is 15 years younger than In Between. It's more clearly a concerto, in this case for solo clarinet, piano, and orchestra. Interestingly, the clarinet is much more ostentatious than the piano, whose largely linear and upper-range role is to intercede between clarinet and orchestra. An atmosphere of virtuosity has the clarinet competing with the orchestra for attention and dominance. I found it much less commanding than In Between until about the two-thirds point, when the pulse of the work slowed down greatly as if revealing a mystery. Now, I didn't find any mention of it in the notes, but I heard what could only be a tape. A few times I caught the distinct backwards attack and release of a piano note, but there were moments when I could briefly hear the piano note beating, as if playing against a slightly slowed-down double of itself. This made me listen more closely; not that it's a parlor trick, but it was clear that there is a lot more going on in this piece than I first imagined.

Felder has a splendid grasp of what I like to think of as "pulse." This isn't a foursquare boom-box rhythm coming from a passing car; it remains in the background as the basic speed at which major changes occur. Felder handles slow and relaxed pulses amazingly and, come to think of it, so did Feldman in his later oeuvre. Felder, though, has more propulsion and even intensity at slow pulse then Feldman did.

Mode 89 presents the chamber version of Felder's Coleccion Nocturna, scored for clarinet, piano and tape (the notes do say that the orchestral version has a tape part!). It's fascinating to hear these siblings side by side. Not everybody's idea of fun, but viewing a composer work through similar material in two coherent and substantial versions lends great insight into the choices a composer makes, especially when each alternative produces such a convincing statement on its own. While it's not as easy to hear that clarinet and piano proceeding in variations, the result becomes richer and more introspective as new sounds are explored.

The Mode recording starts with a virtuosic orchestral work, Six Poems from Neruda's "Alturas..."Three differently sized and exquisitely crafted movements wrestle with Neruda's poetry. The first is a loud miniature of barely three minutes, with a searingly fast melodic line whose great leaps are propelled throughout the orchestra. The central one is the longest (over 14 minutes), and it combines four poems -- the outer movements tackle one poem each. The finale reflects the repetitive rhythms in the text with moments of driving repetition. The diversity of length, texture and mood creates an arresting spell.

The last effort, a pressure triggering dreams, is for large orchestra and electronics. The electronics appear in multiple guises: benignly as amplification for selected instruments, and strikingly as sampled sounds manipulated from a keyboard. The synthesizer employs mostly flute-sampled tones, and after an opening with an extended orchestral outburst, the texture turns thin and eerie as the synthesizer comes to the fore -- gentle, clicking, insectile noises and a wash of distorted flutes.

In 1995 Bridge released a disc with five Felder titles (BCD 9049). These show that he has been an assured composer for quite some time. This CD also underscores some preoccupations that appear in the more recent works. Journal, for orchestra, starts with an active, even calisthenic line similar to Six Poems. Journal's opening keeps to a handful of wide and dissonant intervals, and, like both versions of Coleccion Nocturna, there's a point where the pulse relaxes and the outward-looking music changes character. A short brass quintet, Canzone XXXI, is neatly scored so that it sounds like more than five players, and the Arditti Quartet plays Third Face, which juxtaposes jumpy and angular melodic lines built from similar intervals against long, slow contours. November Sky, for flutes and computer-processed sounds, finds treasure in the classic (perhaps even cliché) combination of electronic and synthesized flute, but then the electronic palette begins to open like a wedge. The disc ends with another orchestral work inspired by words, Three Lines from Twenty Poems.