Recently, I learned Morton Feldman’s Two pianos, a short work from 1957. Like the Piece for 4 pianos written the same year, it’s one of the works where everyone plays the same part, but each at his or her own pace. I recorded it by overdubbing two different takes.
Morton Feldman: Two pianos (1957) (James Pritchett, pianos)
You really notice the “two people playing the same thing” nature of it at the start, but as the parts diverge, you hear less of the “same thing” and more of the “two people playing”. The beautiful thing that attracted me to Two pianos is the way that the pianos come back together again at the ending. The last three to four minutes of the piece settle on C+D-flat oscillating with C+B-flat.
Dwelling here on this single sonic image insures that the two pianists will wind up playing this music together, no matter how far apart they get by the ending of the piece. I wound up with one take being one minute longer than the the other, for example, but still get that starry C+D-flat+B-flat texture at the end.
Given that pretty broad time lag between the two takes, I was surprised to hear that “slightly-off” stuttering effect so noticeable at the beginning also showing up in the ending. I took a closer look at the score and found the reason: the last nine attacks in the piece repeat the pattern of the penultimate nine. The C’s in the right hand are in exactly the same registers, and the choices of D-flat or B-flat in the left hand follow the same pattern (although the registers are different). My two takes had just happened to align the two iterations of this pattern, giving the unanticipated but lovely affect of the two parts converging again to a single point at the end.
Stepping back and listening to the overall effect of the piece rather than the technical details for a moment, I was struck by the way that the continuity of the music can be heard as a changing quality of attention. It follows a line of thought up to some repeated chords about a third of the way through, then breaks off, giving the impression of a change of mind, a conscious abandoning of this direction. The attention stays suspended and fitful through the silences of the middle, trying out sonorities with grace notes and sympathetic vibrations. Sustained attention then returns and collects itself, gradually arriving at a single-pointed concentration on that C+D-flat/C+B-flat oscillation.
I’ve been listening to the String quartet II lately, and I’m recognizing the same processes of musical attention in this late work—just at a massively greater scale (hours instead of minutes). Listening to Feldman’s late works, I hear the same mind at work, investigating sounds, becoming collected and concentrated, breaking off, searching, coming to rest again.