Morton Feldman: For Christian Wolff
My first challenge of the year is working on Feldman’s epic work, For Christian Wolff for a concert in Austria in March with the legendary pianist, John Tilbury. I’ve played some Feldman before so I’m already aware of some of the issues involved, but this piece is new to me, and I’m enjoying taking account lessons learned through performing For Philip Guston in my preparation.
For Christian Wolff is scored for flute and piano (which doubles celesta). It was written in 1986 and the official duration is 2 hours long (without breaks), although it’s likely in performance that it may take a little longer.
There are numerous challenges:
• Stamina. This one is fairly obvious. It’s a long time to be playing continuously for, and beyond the physical problems of holding a flute up for that long, the music is ppp throughout (including the top register) and keeping concentration going for that long is also a challenge (although this one is slightly easier than the last Feldman piece I did – that was over 5 hours long, used piccolo and alto flute as well and I did the live performance/recording with the worst chest infection I’ve ever had. Hoping this one might be a little easier…). I’m dealing with this by practising sections which become increasingly long. I just played through the first 10 pages without stopping. It took 25 minutes and my back aches a little bit.
• Breath control. Maintaining the delicate ppp atmosphere for 2 or 3 hours needs a lot of support and physical strength. It is physically waaayyyy harder playing the flute quietly than playing loud. I’m practising lots of harmonics, whistle tones and anything else I can think of to keep the embouchure strong and to use the air most efficiently without causing tension
• Intonation. This is a challenge. The other instruments are fixed pitch, so it’s always up to me to adapt. The Kingma system is really helpful in giving extra alternative fingerings to help the really tricky moments!
• Tempo. I’m finding it very, very hard to maintain a strict tempo while I practice on my own. Most of my part is short notes of varying durations with rests in between, and the rhythms have to be precise and coordinated with the piano. Helpful things like the occasional 5/16 bar mean you can’t just leave a metronome running while practicing, so this is a great way of developing inner pulse. If the whole thing slows down too much it will lose momentum and therefore its musical impact (and take longer and therefore also be more exhausting). One of the problems is concentration (see Stamina, above) because as soon as you stop concentrating you can be late with an entry and the tempo starts to slide
• Musicality. This is gentle music. There’s no space for big Romantic phrase shapes, lots of vibrato or lavish expression. It’s much more contained than that. The musical challenge is to create, and maintain, a magical atmosphere which takes the audience on a journey without me getting in the way of Feldman’s narrative, which is a subtle but powerful one.
Despite these challenges, however, I’m super excited about this project. The music is fabulous – Feldman has an individual style and there’s nothing else like it. Working on it will make me a better player, and a better musician. John is always fantastic to work with and I learn so much from his experience, calmness and sage advice!
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