Live performance of Morton Feldman’s music is a rarity in our frenetic Piedmont community. And on this beautiful moonlit evening, in the East Duke Nelson Music Room, concert goers witnessed a truly remarkable event provided by champions of the composer’s work. Duke University Professor of Graduate Composition Studies and Director of the Encounters Series, Stephen Jaffe introduced the evening’s program and welcomed guest performers Charles Curtis, cello and Aleck Karis, piano.

Morton Feldman’s 1981 Patterns in a Chromatic Field, recently recorded by the duo, represents a departure from his earlier works. Penned during his last years of composing, Feldman expanded his sound exploration to ever widening vistas he referred to as “. . . evolving things” with pieces sometimes lasting for hours. By comparison, Patterns is relatively short, a mere eighty minutes. I’m used to listening to recordings of Feldman’s pieces while stretched out on the living room floor. So settling upright into my seat, hoping to be as quiet as possible, with pen in hand, I prepared myself to limit my squirming. To my grateful surprise, the complete concentration of the artists and mesmerizing sounds lured me into the sphere of the composer’s astonishing creation.

Curtis, inhaling deeply, suspending his bow, signaled the audience as much as his piano collaborator. His entrance, delicate and sweet, immediately revealed the inherently sublime voice of his instrument. And Karis seemed to breathe with Curtis, almost as if they shared the same lungs. His sensitive response to the cellist, coupled with a caressing touch of the keys yielded glistening sustained dissonant tones that wafted from the strings of the piano, mingling with the cellos utterances, and disappearing.  

Insightful program notes, meticulously prepared by Erik Ulman, served as an aid to navigation for guiding even the most astute listener. The title, he says, ” . . .suggests the analogy with [Central Asian]  rug-making, the weaving of figures from narrow bands of neighboring pitches — the four tones that fill a minor third, for example — and neighboring rhythmic values.” Like a meditative mantra, the softly played opening chromatic figure, the thread that holds it all together, returns throughout, in different registers, most frequently with the whispering sound of artificial harmonics. Feldman’s piano writing is spare — often with simple half-steps sustained or in ostinato patterns and widely spaced dissonances providing spaciousness.

During the expansive journey are bursts of intense color — wide, wobbly vibrato, bouts of energetic pizzicato and glossy notes played sul ponticello. But this work does not seem to be intended as an exploration for the sake of extended performance practice. Feldman was more interested in the soundscape. In his essay “A Compositional Problem” (Kerpen, 1985) he says, “In music it is the instruments that produce the color.” In keeping with Feldman’s preference for “little or no attack,” Curtis coaxed the strings gently; his tone was exquisite and his timing flawless.

Indeed, Curtis and Karis’ rendering was exceptional. In awe of such splendid artistry and completely unaware of the passage of time, I was in touch with the ephemeral beauty of the art form. And like waking from a dream, just as Curtis’ bow lifted from the string, we were intrusively greeted with the sound of the approaching 9:30 p.m. train.=