John Kennedy thinks the ideal conditions for experiencing Morton Feldman’s four-hour work titled For Philip Guston would be a quiet, informal setting in which you could walk around, meditate, stroll, or lie down. Feldman’s work is the centerpiece of Kennedy’s Music in Time, a series of Spoleto concerts that showcases the new work of living composers or new-ish work that is rarely performed in a major forum.
“He thought of himself as a painter in sound,” Kennedy told me for a feature I wrote about his series. “He was interested in the psychology of listening and what happens to the listener after being exposed to very slowly changing patterns. For him, this was the foundation of music.”
Enduring this psychic stress test is what Alex Ross, the critic for the New Yorker, called entering “into a new consciousness.” I mentioned this quote to Kennedy at a Spoleto party tonight (the theme was Cinderella after the opera La Centerentola). He said that he saw Ross during a performance of For Philip Guston in New York City. Ross was in the front row reading from the score the entire time.
“New consciousness” is an apt description of a not entirely new experience, Kennedy said. Wagner and Strauss wrote music with long, sustained passages of harmonic tension that released into tonic resolution only after making you sweat for a while. They were just as harmonically taxing as Feldman’s chromatic build-up, which releases, Kennedy said, in the third hour into a flowering of a major key.
“People really feel a real sense of catharsis when that happens,” he said.
I have no doubt they do. I have no doubt that entering “a new consciousness” is really something. Still, I’m on the fence about experiencing the whole thing, I told Kennedy. I believe in new music. I believe in what composers have to say. I’m concerned, as Ross writes in his great book The Rest Is Noise, about the cultural predicament of the composer (i.e., her place in a rapidly changing culture).
But four hours? I had to admit to Kennedy that I was intrepid about sitting through the duration, that I was intrepid despite my enthusiasm (I actually download new music after paying for it with actual money) and education (I went to music school). Even so, there are so many other things to do during Spoleto that a four-hour commitment seemed rather extreme. So I was intrepid, intrepid, intrepid.
It didn’t occur to me why bewilderment flashed across Kennedy’s face at every iteration of the word until I was walking to my car. Let’s see: “Intrepid.” Webster says “characterized by resolute fearlessness.” I meant I was trepid, meaning fearful and timid, but that usage doesn’t sound right either. Ugh.
Even so, perhaps I was right in one sense. Just as I’m trepid, as it were, about committing so much time to one event while there are so many other things going on, Kennedy grew trepid during our lengthy conversation about the bars closing at midnight before he could get another martini. In fact, both of us were trepid. We were right to be fearful — last call had been long ago. We missed out.