Composer Morton Feldman’s epic, 4.5 hour long piece dedicated to his friend Philip Guston hovers in place, shimmering like a slowly revolving mobile, its langorous harmonies hanging in mid-air as they gradually evaporate. The piece was written in 1984, in memoriam to Philip Guston, who passed away in 1980. Feldman and Philip Guston were best friends until 1970, when the painter’s sudden switch back from abstract expressionism to representational painting appalled the composer so much that the two men remained estranged until Guston’s death 10 years later. For Philip Guston is one of the longest of Feldman’s serenely expansive late scores.
“For Philip Guston, a trio for flutes, tuned percussion, and piano and celesta, defines the whole essence of what Feldman’s late music was about. Listening to it is to become immersed in a unique musical world, one built from the simplest of four-note motifs (C, G, A flat, E flat, an anagram of Cage, the composer who introduced Guston and Feldman in 1950), in which the smallest detail or change of emphasis assumes huge, expressive significance. Every so often the original motif returns, but each time its significance has shifted, because of a new context and the experience of what has happened since it was last heard. In that way Feldman maps his way around this unique, fragile musical space.” -Andrew Clements, The Guardian, July 25, 2008
“The friendship between American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) and painter Philip Guston came to a halt in 1970 when Guston chose to delve into figurative art, an aesthetic change that Feldman, an enthusiast of abstract art, would never be able to forgive. Upon the painter’s death two years later, Feldman understood the sheer freedom with which Guston was able to paint, saying, “he stopped questioning himself.” This became a leitmotiv throughout the remainder of his career, evidenced by his penchant for stretching time in his music. After completing his second String quartet (1983) which lasts five and a half hours, he composed the trio For Philip Guston (1984), of which the title shows the artistic debt Feldman owed the painter – a work that lasts for four hours. Feldman is known to have compared his patient musical style to the interwoven colours of a Persian rug – the Trio is a quintessential example of that very style.
The instrumentation is reminiscent of Why Patterns (1978) and Crippled Symetry (1983): the piano, celesta and percussion (vibraphone, glockenspiel, tubular bells) provide a harmonious backdrop for the smattering of notes from the flute to latch on to. Floating within the weightlessness of complex rhythmic structures, the ‘sound objects’ overlap and mimic each other through barely perceptible variations and alterations. Aware of the impact his art can have on the senses, Feldman draws out the very essence of every repeated chord, shaping and kneading melodies into multiple forms, as is the case for the four-note introduction at the very beginning of the work. According to Feldman, “sound must breath, it mustn’t be constrained by an idea”.
-Festival D’Automne A Paris, http://www.festival-automne.com/en/edition-2016/morton-feldman-for-philip-guston
This recorded performance of For Philip Guston is performed by Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble (Petr Kotik, flute(s). Joseph Kubera, piano/celesta. Chris Nappi, percussion) and was released in 2000.