Review Summary: “We are image-makers and image-ridden.” - Philip Guston
Feldman’s music is a difficult beast to grasp, at first. What instantly clashes to a first-time listener is the sheer nuance
present in his music. It feels like an evolution of Webern’s endeavors, yet entirely different. Whilst Webern focused on nuance in a natural and explorative manner, Feldman’s approach treats the sonority of the music as a living, breathing phenom. Silence takes the forefront as the most important instrument present, and the other instruments whisper and hush among each other. In other words, Feldman’s music is surreal to the point of painstaking intimacy.
Although Feldman had a vast array of successful experiments, none quite matches the tone and nature of For Philip Guston.
The piece is a sprawling beast that lasts just around four hours. It is not Feldman’s longest piece; his String Quartet No. 2
holds the crown, but For Philip Guston
is still a considerable undertaking. As may be assumed by the reader, the piece is a work dedicated to Feldman’s close friend, Philip Guston, who had passed away shortly before its conception. Guston was a painter most known for depicting simplified, almost grotesque every-day figures with a limited palette. His unique tone and revolutionary style eventually gained him much recognition, although his representational artwork was not understood or praised as it conceptualized.
Feldman’s grief is evident throughout the entire piece. Painfully delicate, silent, and dissonant clouds of sound appear and disintegrate in conversation with silence. After the first hour, time seems to lose its relevance to the listener. Any semblance of rhythm is completely deconstructed, and the listener is deeply mesmerized in the delicate blocks of sonority. The music becomes like “background noise,” yet not so. It permeates life itself as if seeping into the listener’s reality and decomposing it. The cycle continues for hours, deepening the trance-like state. The listener becomes receptive to the music which pulsates like a living organism. It is all in preparation, however, to the end of the piece. There is a clear change in tone; nostalgia and longing are felt in the instruments. The music is no longer breathing but is now mourning. Every note feels like the passage of time itself, a tender expression of mortality, and sound cuts through the listener with painful transparency. The piece ends with a brooding piano passage; death has dawned, and the cycle ends.
For Philip Guston
, much like Guston’s paintings, feels like a connection between the surreality of mortal existence and everyday life. It is a gorgeous, challenging tribute that acknowledges transience, yet wallows in its offset beauty. It is a piece so human that words become futile, and the passing of time becomes wonderful. It is the collective experience of the inevitable.