Richard Valitutto on Why Morton Feldman’s Music Matters

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On the face of it, pianist Richard Valitutto’s forthcoming recital at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena on Feb. 26 may not seem like anything unusual. Recitals devoted to a single composer – Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, even the relatively obscure Charles Valentin Alkan, to name but a few – are commonplace. But when the subject of the recital is Morton Feldman, things change.

The New York composer, born in 1926 and died from pancreatic cancer in 1987, left behind a body of work that is unique in 20th century. Spartan, pure, free of hectoring ideology, it takes seemingly simple ideas and then magnifies them to lengths that recreate as close as any music ever can the suspension of time and judgmental thought achieved through Zen meditation. Music, in this case, becomes not so much as sound to be marshaled into form by the composer but, rather, concepts that pass by him and his audience with acknowledgment of its existence, yet never becoming directly involved.

“I love the story about Stockhausen asking Feldman what his secret was,” explained Valitutto, “and Feldman answered, ‘I don’t push my sounds around.’ That says a lot. He doesn’t push the sounds around. He introduces elements into his scores and obviously everything comes according to his own judgment. But he just lets the music be what it wants to be.”

Valitutto was born in Cincinnati, raised in North Carolina, and then returned to Cincinnati once more as a student in that city’s Conservatory of Music, something Valitutto regards as an “interesting serendipity.”

“Nobody ever talked about Feldman’s music at the conservatory,” he added.

That all changed when he heard a performance of “Why Patterns?”  played by pianist Vicky Ray at a summer festival a few years ago. Ray, who has long championed contemporary music, became Valitutto’s mentor and teacher upon his enrollment at CalArts. He referred to the experience as being a “great introduction” to Feldman’s soundworld.

Soon after, Valitutto played the composer’s “For Bunita Marcus” – which will also be included in Wednesday’s program – at a recital at CalArts.

“There was this long duration concert,” he recalled, “and I wanted to play this piece. So at around 1 a.m., I played it in a hallway at the school. The crowd was really rambunctious, almost like it were a party. At one point there was this kitten that crept in and was crawling around my feet. It was really great.”

These experiences as both listener and performer whetted Valitutto’s appetite and he embarked on an exploration of the whole of the composer’s output. That desire to know all his work and to share the breadth of it is reflected in the recital’s thoughtful, considered program, which stands athwart the alpha and omega of Feldman’s career. Works from his early maturity, when he came under the influence of fellow maverick John Cage, sit alongside the maximalist late music for which he is best known.

“I think it’s incredible to see how he started and how he ultimately ended up,” he said.

Valitutto pointed to Feldman’s five-movement “Nature Pieces” from 1951, which is also included on the program, as a kind of microcosm of the span the composer was capable of.

“You have the one very quiet movement with its scampering arpeggios. Then you have another with this inexplicable, weird alternation of chords, which ends up being clangorously loud. Then you have a schizophrenic one, another modal, almost folksy one. So it is really a compelling work for me as it portrays Feldman in a way that not a lot of people are aware of.”

A facet of the composer’s aesthetic that fascinated Valitutto is how he ultimately came to a path that, unlike many composers today who seek to purge what they view as the excesses of the 20th century avant-garde from their scores, embraces tradition in a way that also acknowledges and embraces modernism. In many respects, he said, Feldman’s music is as much a reaction against Anton Webern, who was the father figure of the mid-20th century avant-garde, as it is a continuation.

“He would just sit at the piano and happen to come across sonorities similar to those that Webern created, but then building upon it, taking Webern’s language, and updating it with an almost pop sensibility, which almost sounds weird to say.”

But what the pianist finds most compelling about the monk-like composer’s music is its freedom of hectoring ideology, his disinterest in fads.

“Feldman didn’t look at the creation of art from a superficial sense,” he said. “He never was interested in following somebody else’s work and copying its surface. He was really interested in concept and sound. It seems like the reason so much of his music works is because it was always concerned with more profound questions and ideas about creation.”

“Like the work of any great studio artist,” Valitutto added, “Feldman’s music is grounded in concept, built with technique. In his case, a technique married to a very compassionate and discerning ear.”

General admission is $10 at the door, $5 for students. For more information, call the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church at (626) 449-3470. The concert is from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church, 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd. in Pasadena.