Intersections & Dissections

In March 2010, I was asked by Mode Records to be involved in the making of a new release of previously unrecorded orchestral works by Morton Feldman, with Brad Lubman conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Since the studio sessions with the orchestra had proceeded ahead of schedule, we decided to also record the early graphic piece Intersection I, which had previously only been recorded by a small ensemble. It was the proper length and required no extra forces. However, there was insufficient time to familiarize the orchestra with the notation and to rehearse the piece, so I was asked to make a realization of the graphic score using more traditional notation.

Morton Feldman wrote Intersection I in early 1951, dedicating it to John Cage, whom he had met one year prior. The score is divided into four staves: woodwinds, brass, high strings, and low strings. As would become customary for Feldman, strings and brass play muted throughout, and all instruments avoid vibrato. Notes are represented by boxes on a grid. Pitches are not specified; instead, the vertical placement of the box represents the low, middle, or high range of the instrument, from which each player individually selects a note. Players on the same part begin notes on their own, but release together, with the longest possible note indicated by the full width of the box. Widths always correspond to a whole number of beats, and the beats are grouped into 4/4 measures. For the strings, Feldman also specifies different modes of playing, such as pizzicato and harmonics.

Feldman used his early graphic works to build his own musical language from scratch. In each piece, he relinquished control of certain aspects of sound in order to concentrate on just one or two—distilled form and gesture in the case of the Intersection series, building on his studies with Stefan Wolpe. But his use of indeterminacy was not bound up in a utopian philosophy, as it was with John Cage. Feldman allowed musicians to realize their graphic parts in advance, caring about “freeing the sounds and not the performer.”

Initially, I considered and rejected two strategies for creating the realization. I would not pick all of the notes myself; I wanted to work with Feldman’s instructions, not to be his co-composer. Nor would I randomize the different sound elements of the music—making the determinations necessary to execute the chance procedures seemed just as composerly as picking notes. I felt that the crowdsourced personality of the piece as implied by the score needed to be left in place.

With all of this in mind, I hit upon the idea of recording local musicians playing individually from the graphic score and transcribing the results into proportional notation. Each take would then become one of the parts from which the musicians of the DSO Berlin would perform, like actors. Though the recorded musicians would be playing outside of an orchestral context, Feldman believed that performers reacting to each other in his graphic music inevitably led to cliché. This approach would enable sounds between the different instruments to be “free” from one another.

I had no interest in artificially cultivating a very quiet, carefully finessed “Feldman sound,” since Feldman was still finding his sound when he wrote Intersection I. By working with musicians as intermediaries, the sonic reality of the piece would depend on the instruments themselves, the personalities of the players, their relationships with their instruments, and their musical history and training. It was the reverberation of an existing system, like wind blowing through an aeolian harp.

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Because Feldman never made instrumental parts from the graphic score, I drew them using a pen and ruler. (By this point, I doubted he ever expected an actual performance.) With parts in hand, I assembled 25 contemporary classical musicians willing to contribute their talent and time to the project—they are each acknowledged below.

Early in the summer of 2010, I began traveling around New York City, meeting and recording the players. As expected, the open-ended nature of the notation let hear each player’s personality and relationship with their instrument virtually unfiltered. Occasionally, I would hear a player slipping into a key signature for a few measures, or outlining familiar chords. In contrast, other players would change fingerings just before playing a note in order to avoid convention. Each had their distinctive sound. In the end, I had assembled a sonic snapshot of contemporary classical performance practice in early 21st century New York.

It took many weeks of transcribing to compile the score, a task so protracted that I found myself working in Sibelius wherever I could, from back seats of moving cars to a pool house in upstate New York. Every aspect of each note had to be finessed manually—over 50,000 items in all. I dreamt of moving noteheads for weeks and compulsively organized small round objects. I also received an exceptional orchestration lesson, internalizing the sound of each instrument as I listened to the recordings.

Feldman Graphic Score

The opening of Morton Feldman’s original graphic score for Intersection I. Copyright © 1962 by C. F. Peters Corporation. Used by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Feldman Realization Score

The opening of Morton Feldman’s Intersection I in Samuel Clay Birmaher’s realization.

I flew to Berlin in late November 2010, spending my first few days exploring the snowy city on foot. By the day of the recording session, I was glad to be in the warm control room of the Radio Berlin-Brandenburg concert hall, watching the musicians on stage read the same parts I had sent overseas a month earlier. In the control room, we followed along with both the graphic and realization scores, hearing the massive sounds coming in through the monitors shift in time with the blocks of instruments on the page. Synchronicities flashed through the gray passages of cluster chords: instruments coalescing onto the same pitch, a minor chord, a perfect cadence—the collective orchestral unconscious. Those personal resonances that Feldman considered the major flaw of his indeterminate works seemed to me, as I listened, to be the vital energizing force pushing the music forward. Soon, an hour of music had passed, and six months of energy put into the realization had been distilled into the 13-minute duration of the piece.

Following the recording session, I immersed myself in Feldman’s writings to prepare to write the liner notes to the release. In July 2011, I also met with Feldman’s close friend, composer Bunita Marcus, who graciously allowed me to interview her about the music on the disc. During our talk, she lent her support to my approach to Intersection I, and indicated that it was in line with Feldman’s own attitude towards his graphic works.

After Mode released the disc that winter, there remained the question of what to do with the materials I had used to put together the realization. I knew that to perform my score a second time would be counter to the ethos the original score was written in. During the 1950s, Feldman emphasized the “sounds themselves,” so for conceptual consistency I decided to leave behind only sound. In doing so, I hoped to funnel meaning into the sensory experience of listening. I destroyed all scores in my possession and asked the few others who had copies to destroy theirs. The librarian at the DSO-Berlin has destroyed the parts at my request. All Sibelius and sound files have been permanently erased.

Aside from the short score excerpt above, this article is now all that remains of the realization process.

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I am deeply indebted to the musicians who granted their time and efforts to this project: Alejandro T. Acierto, Michael P. Atkinson, Brad Balliett, Erik Carlson, Greg Chudzik, Rachel Drehmann, Emily Dufour, Gareth Flowers, Alex Greenbaum, Stephanie Griffin, Michael Harley, James Hirschfeld, Bill Kalinkos, Nathan Koci, Andy Kozar, Allison Lowell, Victor Lowrie, Amelia Lukas, Kevin McFarland, Joshua Modney, Chris Otto, John Pickford Richards, Alex Waterman, Karisa Werdon, and Jeffrey Young. Without them the realization would not have been possible.

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Samuel Clay Birmaher

Samuel Clay Birmaher

Samuel Clay Birmaher is a composer living in New York City. He also performs with visual artist Matt Megyes as Gemini Society.

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