In the early 1960s, the New York composer Morton Feldman went to visit his friend Christian Wolff, who was a classics tutor at Harvard at the time. When Feldman reached Claverly Hall, he found Wolff sitting in his room, reading Euripides. A few years later, Feldman visited Wolff at Harvard again. On his arrival, he found his friend sitting in the same chair, again reading Euripides.
So struck was Feldman by the coincidence that it became the catalyst for a brief choral work, which Feldman titled “Christian Wolff in Cambridge.” (1963) But the two situations, and their identity across a significant timespan, resonate with a later, unrelated work also dedicated to his friend. “For Christian Wolff” (1986), for flute and keyboards, belongs to the final decade of Feldman’s life (1926-87). The textures of these works are almost impossibly spare, with tiny cellular motives that seem to repeat with minute yet disruptive variations.
And the music stretched out to lengths hitherto unimagined outside of the opera world. A performance of “For Christian Wolff” lasts anywhere from 3 to 3½ hours, while others — “For Philip Guston,” the Second String Quartet — stretch to five hours and beyond. The alliance of restricted material and extended duration makes these pieces seem both vast and intimate, an entire ocean seen through a tiny aperture.
Despite the ascendance of Feldman’s stature over the last two decades, performances of the rarefied late works remain infrequent, requiring not only players with the sympathy and stamina for this oddly shaped music, but also an audience willing to give itself over to its hypnotic, quiet intensity.
A single performance of “For Christian Wolff” would be noteworthy. But flutist Paula Robison and keyboardist Bruce Brubaker are undertaking something more remarkable: They’re giving four performances of the piece on successive Monday afternoons at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In keeping with the piece’s meditative character, the audience will be free to come and go during the performance.
The multiple performances are a facet of the “In and Out” series at the Gardner, which seeks to draw in an audience attuned to a less traditional concert vibe. And yet, “I really like the idea of being able to do a piece like this multiple times,” said Brubaker during a phone conversation with both musicians. “I think it would actually be really hard to only play it once.”
“It’s going to grow with us, because neither of us has ever played it before,” Robison interjected. Still, the physical demands generated by repeat iterations of 200-plus minutes of near-constant playing for both musicians is nothing to sneeze at.
“I had a very serious talk with my body, and I asked it, ‘Body, can you do this?’ ” Robison joked. “The body thought about it and said, ‘Yes, I’ll give it a try. But you have to lift weights.’ So that’s what I’ve been doing. Because I have to hold the flute up for 3½ hours.”
Though Feldman’s late works can cast a hypnotic spell over the audience, the experience for the musician is quite different, Brubaker explained. “At least to the casual listener, it may seem very trancelike, like there’s not very much happening or not much change in it. But to the performer, it’s almost like a heightened state of awareness, where even though there are a lot of long notes and a lot of apparently slow rhythms, your sense of the passing of time is actually rather quick. You’re constantly aware of small note values. So even though on the surface there’s this kind of tranquillity, underneath there’s this sort of hypervigilance actually.”
And though the music’s patterns seem repetitive, he continued, “there is almost no literal repetition. Certain materials do come back, but they’re almost always in a different order or a different context. It’s like looking at the edge of the ocean lapping at the sand. You could say it’s always the same, but actually it never happens exactly the same way twice.”
That’s one of the keys to what keeps the music interesting: Small changes have an outsize effect. “What happens when we’ve been playing the slower notes is that suddenly there’ll be a few fast ones, like a spray of water or something,” said Robison. “And it’s shocking, it’s huge, because the landscape has been so tranquil.”
Feldman’s relationship to the visual art of his time, particularly abstract expressionism, was crucial to his development. During their preparation for these performances, Brubaker and Robison have been sending each other images of paintings by e-mail: Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko. “I think Rothko’s a real sister or brother experience,” Robison said. “That feeling you have when you stand in front of a Rothko and you start seeing the things around the edges and seeing the way color is laid upon color, and the deeply spiritual sense of it all.”
Losing oneself to the sheer, tactile sounds being produced may be the best way to enter into Feldman’s vast landscapes and experience an extended stay there.
“We’re not telling a story,” Brubaker said. “We’re not making a sentence. We have these sounds, and they are sounds. And for people coming at this from the traditional classical music establishment, it can be hard to get away from that.
“We are phrase makers; we think syntactically,” he continued. “But I’m not sure that music always does that. Some of these chords are just remarkable combinations of tones, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe leave it at that.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.