Morton Feldman, The Viola In My Life [Marek Konstantynowicz, viola; The Cikada Ensemble; Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Christian Eggen, cond.] (ECM New Series, 2008)

I remarked once upon a time that Morton Feldman's music fills space. Listening to The Viola In My Life, I realize that Feldman does rather more than fill space: he shapes it, gives it duration and form, brings a dimensionality into music that is all too rare (one thinks of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps Alban Berg, maybe John Luther Adams or Max Neuhaus, but vanishingly few others who bring that kinesthetic sensibility into the realm of sound).

And he does it with silence. Paul Griffiths, in his essay accompanying this recording, says "There is a sort of quietness we experience when nothing is happening, but there is another quietness when something -- something enormous -- has just happened." He's caught it: that is precisely the feeling one gets when listening to The Viola In My Life: aftermath, a definition of an event of some magnitude. A realization that something is different. Pauses, while we adjust to a new reality, anchored by a lyrical astringency as the viola makes its presence felt, but softly, exploring the bounds of its territory, establishing ownership, defining the silences that shape the space of this work, as the silences define the sounds that fill it.

It's a thread that carries through the entire suite, silence and sound juxtaposed in combinations that somehow bypass our defenses and lead our thoughts into places that we can't quite describe. It requires not patience so much as a willingness to forget what we know and just follow where the music leads, to be quiet for a while and dispense with everyday things, to let go and be seduced.

This is a reissue of an earlier LP that did much to establish Feldman as a major figure. The forces gathered to perform this work do it full justice. The Cikada Ensemble provides a backdrop for the first three sections that fulfills our expectations for twentieth-century music, with touches of that instrumental color that seems so definitely post-War (a relic, perhaps, of Messiaen's make-do instrumentation in Quattuor pour le fin du temps), that sometimes delight, sometimes surprise, while the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Christian Eggen places an understated but substantial backdrop to Marek Konstantynowicz on the viola in section four that makes the few, brief crescendos terrifically imposing, almost startling. Konstantynowicz brings not only intelligence but passion to the work, an intensity that remains quiet but puts a catch in the breath, playing a key part in the seduction.

I have to confess that this one surprised me. I enjoy Feldman's music, and I think, in the canon of the mid- and late twentieth century, he's written challenging but ultimately accessible works that reveal a highly refined and very tough aesthetic foundation, so that, while the intellectual underpinnings of his work are undeniably there to even the most casual observer, they become distinctly secondary to the act of listening. The Viola In My Life, however, did more than engage me: it pulled me right out of myself and into a place I didn't know existed.

Morton Feldman is at MySpace, believe it or not (it's not just for teenagers any more). There are more audio clips and downloads available at Last FM. ECM Records is here and the New Series page is here. If you're interested in some of the best modern and contemporary music going, it's worth checking out.