ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin has a reputation for embracing the toughest, strangest music. Here's how he describes his new album.
MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN: Well, I often tell people that it's going to be either the most aggravating thing you've ever listened to or the best migraine medicine you've ever had.
SIEGEL: He's talking about "For Bunita Marcus," a piece by the late Morton Feldman. NPR's Tom Huizenga sat down with Hamelin to find out why it's worth a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 11")
TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: For Marc-Andre Hamelin, it's all about the unknowable.
HAMELIN: Be prepared for anything. This is not going to sound at all like what you're used to. But I'm trying to get you into a world that I think is really, really fascinating.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 8")
HUIZENGA: The world of Morton Feldman is tied to the New York School, A group of experimental composers who hovered near John Cage beginning in the 1950s. But Feldman's music, by design, sounded like nobody else's, past or present. He couldn't relate to Bach, Mozart or even some of his fellow modernists. And he got defensive in a 1967 interview when radio host and composer Charles Shere brought up Feldman's critics, who carped that his music was too soft and too slow.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MORTON FELDMAN: I don't know what they mean.
HUIZENGA: His work, Feldman said, exists on its own terms. He thought his detractors simply brought personal baggage to their listening experience.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FELDMAN: So when they say about my work there's a limited palette - and, immediately, they're thinking of something else.
HUIZENGA: And maybe they were. In the very opening bars of "For Bunita Marcus," I hear echoes of an older composer.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDE DEBUSSY'S "FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW")
HUIZENGA: That's "Footprints In The Snow," one of Claude Debussy's preludes. Now here's the Feldman.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 1")
HAMELIN: Well, here we are in these three notes - we're exactly in the same register as the beginning of that prelude. But very quickly, you realize that this isn't about melody.
HAMELIN: And in a sense, it's not about harmony, either.
HUIZENGA: So what is it about?
HAMELIN: Sound, time and space reduced to their bare essentials.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 31")
HUIZENGA: Fifty-five-year-old year Marc-Andre Hamelin has quietly cultivated a reputation as a thoughtful piano virtuoso with a gargantuan musical appetite. That doesn't mean concert presenters are busting down his door, begging him to play Feldman. Especially in his late works, the composer makes significant demands on the listener.
HAMELIN: He completely exploded the framework of the piano recital because the actual concert-going audiences are not really prepared for this kind of thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 26")
HUIZENGA: Yet Hamelin has played "For Bunita Marcus" in concert twice. At one performance, though, someone in the front row snored.
HAMELIN: But that was brief, thankfully (laughter). Although, it makes the snoring sound particularly poetic.
HUIZENGA: Morton Feldman's experiments and sounds seem to render melody, harmony and rhythm as we know them irrelevant. For Hamelin, every moment in the music is a window toward the infinite.
HAMELIN: You could see it as something that is playing, has been playing and will be playing for eternity. And this is just a slice of it.
HUIZENGA: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARC-ANDRE HAMELIN'S "FOR BUNITA MARCUS: PAGE 16")
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