Morton Feldman: The Viola in My Life / False Relationships and the Extended Ending / Why Patterns?

This entry is less a review and more of a reminiscence.

The first time I listened to this collection of Morton Feldman’s work was in 1992. I was on a student exchange program to New York City and having a rough time with homesickness. I was also nowhere near coming out of the closet, and on the night this album was playing on my boombox, a fellow exchange program participant approached me and said maybe I should come out of the closet.

That talk was the first time another person voiced what I had been thinking, but before we entered that discussion, he remarked the music sounded like some horror movie soundtrack.

The album, titled American Masters: The Music of Morton Feldman, was on loan from CRI, where I worked as an intern that year. I brought it back and considered buying a copy for myself, but I never got around to it.

Ten years later, I had a craving to listen to that album. I was working at Waterloo Records at the time, and I was surprised the store didn’t carry very many CRI titles. That’s when I discovered it was out of print. CRI would eventually fold in 2003, and New World Records inherited the recording masters from the label.

In 2006, New World Records reissued CRI 620 as The Viola in My Life.

Feldman wrote four parts to The Viola in My Life, but CRI only recorded three of them. The CD released in 1992 was cobbled together from previous vinyl releases.

By the time I first heard of Morton Feldman, he had recently died. I was probably in my junior or senior year in high school then, ca. 1988-1990. His music was described as "intense", and the fact his String Quartet No. 2 lasted six hours fascinated me. (I have the Flux Quartet recording of that quartet, and I’ve only been ever to play it from beginning to end twice.)

When I pressed play on The Music of Morton Feldman in 1992, I immediately heard how he earned that descriptor. The music was so sparse and seething, not the dense assault of Alfred Schnittke, or even the manic outbursts of Anton Webern. It was unsettling, certainly, but beautiful at the same time. It expressed a lot with very little.

But I found my desire to listen to that particular album 10 years later baffling. I played it pretty much only once, and if I tried to recall anything in particular about The Viola in My Life or Why Patterns, I would draw a blank. At first I thought it was because the length of his later works — namely the second string quartet and Piano and String Quartet recorded by Aki Takahashi and Kronos Quartet — were exhausting. It took a lot of stamina to sit through all that stasis.

When The Viola in My Life showed up on eMusic, I downloaded it and tried to suss out what made such an impression. Yes, the length of the works — each at least half the length of Piano and String Quartet — was a factor. The combination of flute, piano, percussion and strings offered more in terms of timbre.

But those factors didn’t really distinguish The Viola in My Life from other Feldman albums I owned. They were all recognizably Feldman.

No, my attachment to this album is linked to memory. The Viola in My Life was the soundtrack of a very significant turning point in my life. It’s easy to recall Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball as the soundtrack to my actual coming out, but the groundwork was laid many years earlier by The Viola in My Life.

If something else were playing on my boombox the night my friend attached the word "gay" to what I was feeling at the time, I would associate that music with that memory. (I use the word friend loosely because I lost contact with this person a long, long time ago.)

It took a bit of digging through the hash table of my memory to make the connection. I’m glad Feldman was able to provide the trigger because that memory would have been totally buried.