The ideal place for hearing Morton Feldman's music would seem to be a sensory deprivation tank with each note in his spare music arriving like a pebble dropped into a pond, with all the necessary time to contemplate pebble, pond, and ripple.
But the third program of the American Sublime Feldman festival operated under opposite circumstances: Roughly 30 people were seated in the Biello Martin Studio in Old City Wednesday to hear poems by Frank O'Hara, a short play by Samuel Beckett, and Feldman's late-period Palais de Mari in a room that felt like a parallel-universe Victorian parlor with touches of Edward Goreyesque gothicism.
Chandeliers were everywhere. Expansive cylinders of fringe hung down from the studio's high ceiling. Maybe the single-minded Feldman wouldn't have noticed any of this, but perhaps inhabited small-venue circumstances given the limited audience for his music in his own lifetime. The music definitely benefited. Palais de Mari, a solo piano work, can seem as dreamy and remote as any Feldman, even though its mere 30-minute length makes it a comparative bagatelle. Yet the combination of the environment and pianist/composer Gordon Beeferman created a sense that the composer was inching back toward the mainstream the year before his 1987 death.
Though identifiably Feldman, with much of the music based on two-note figures, the difference here is that they're conversing with each other. Also, the piece had heterogeneous events, clearly implied long-term logic, and perhaps even leitmotifs, with a recurring block of bass-register chords. The disembodied quality one associates with Feldman was absent here. Such features were all the more noticeable not because Beeferman defied Feldman's love of low-level volume: The sound picture was more compact with a baby grand piano, and his digital articulation felt more intense.
The readings didn't directly elucidate Feldman, but touching base with his contemporaries is never a bad thing. (O'Hara dedicated a poem to Feldman, who wrote the opera Neither on a text by Beckett.) Elizabeth Scanlon read four O'Hara poems, all gritty, urban, and direct. Corinna Burns read a monologue (more like a rant) from Beckett's play Not I - which is often staged with only the actress' mouth visible. Not here. The less-than-linear stream of words communicated more effectively without the lips-only conceit (which I once saw with Marian Seldes), partly because words were connected with an identifiable person in this jumbled, third-person account of a woman finding her voice. How does Feldman fit here? His music has too little surface, too few specific inferences to be urban or gritty. And Feldman had none of Beckett's verbosity - having retreated inward so completely to find his voice.