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The listening body.

A Fortnightly Review

Lucy Rialton and Joseph Houston

Morton Feldman: Patterns in a Chromatic Field
Sundays @ Noon concerts
Dublin City Gallery
The Hugh Lane
Charlemont House, Parnell Square


SOMETIMES, NUMBNESS IS a corollary of enjoying something profoundly. In the case of listening to music, the numb feeling comes from senses so elevated that a fuse in the body busts the synapses in response to such intensity.

In movies this is illustrated by the trope of the worldly man escorting the charming but naïve woman to the opera, whence she sits enthralled at the scene unravelling in front of her; we are given to understand by her petrified enchantment, the zooming shot showcasing humanity in the sculpture with its misty eyes, that the experience is transforming the spectator.

I felt I was seeing a parody of this melodrama during a recent listening experience to a performance of Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field at one of Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery’s entertaining Sunday noon concerts. The piece was performed by cellist Lucy Rialton and pianist Joseph Houston.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

That the performance will continue with the same intensity whether we are here or not is integral to the listening experience.

The audience expects some form of sonic endurance given the composer’s reputation, followed by the series’ curator announcing the length of the concert and the invitation to audience members to stay as long as they like. Also, a series of chromatic patterns by an avant-garde composer is something to pay attention to, not to simply hear. An allowance has been made to the listening experience that it may stop at any point or continue for its duration; not in the way that one may click the off button on the radio, or eject a CD, but by the very physical act of leaving the musical space. That the performance will continue with the same intensity whether we are here or not is integral to the listening experience. We are allowed to linger in the music, whether by being witness to it or by our absence from it.

Feldman does lingering well. His tones, fast and disjointed in the opening sequence, yet too disparate to ever engender peace, allow breaths of time to enter the tonal interstices such that it becomes unclear after further listening whether the notes linger in time or whether time is allowed to linger in the music. The musicians, poised but relaxed, allow the lingering to take the form of our physical bodies converging in the listening; we look for cues towards the cellist and pianist as to which pauses to listen to, which notes to smile awkwardly at. Or rather I do.

That’s the thing, I have no idea what anyone else is feeling, but I take pleasure in my gradual cellular numbness and slower breathing, as if I am doing well in this listening experience. I am appreciating. I wonder if others are too. I wonder if others are doing what they think is expected of them.

Or, rather, that’s what I tell myself I’m doing, but I don’t think that’s what this is. At times, I take a long gaze from the bottom of the column in front of me — the only seat I could find — towards the top in tandem with each patterned interval – of which there are many — or maybe not — and imbue the ceiling panels, and then the blue and white and grey shades of the whole ceiling, and then the whole beautiful auditorium with the music, like sieving flour. What’s that quote about architecture being frozen music? I smile to myself for having thought of something so apt, which I would like to share with another listener. But it’s great that an inner monologue can be part of this communion, and voicing it would excise the music into something heard and something talked about. The aphonia of phonic submergence.

The place of listening seems significant: an art gallery in the city centre on a Sunday afternoon. As if the audience is poised for assessment through listening in the mutual scrutiny between listener, musician, notated piece. We are emboldened to place the sounds in front of us for scrutiny in the same way our scrutiny is placed on paintings. Time is punctuated by members of the audience leaving, not diminishing the act of patience by doing so, within the undercurrent of continued heed.

Feldman’s modes dissect the way we listen at the point of our musical digestion.

Feldman’s modes dissect the way we listen at the point of our musical digestion. Such concentrated counterpoint means the feeling around this event remains vivid, though the memory of the music itself is like individual paintbrushes you can’t identify within a painting you’re fond of. The subjugation to the sculptural tonalities of Chromatic Field is the listener’s inability to sever herself from the music because of Feldman’s very urgency of being listened to.

This holistic giving of the self to the experience without attachment seems to me to be a rigorous form of mindfulness, one that doesn’t subtract scrutiny from introspection, but one that is an agency to guide the self into the world. Maybe because the chromatic field is ripe for meditation.

Listening back to the piece on Youtube, I felt superfluous, especially with headphones on; there’s an interesting thing you can do now (although not with this piece), where some videos of instrumental pieces are accompanied by the visual of the score which moves in time with the music. Therefore, whether you are able to read music or not, you can very well follow along the notations and seemingly “dissect” the sounds in a very symbiotic way. This added physical layer of the music, alone in a bedroom with headphones on, ironically impoverishes the body’s ability to intercept tonalities through the music’s architectural movements. The body is no longer in situ, in music.

After the applause, there is a salient thaw that takes over the limbs as if the body is being loosened from a dream. It continues to listen after it leaves the auditorium because it has learned this behaviour from the notes struck and plucked; the music, built for this experience, has imbued the body with listening. Now the body is free to submerge into sounds that don’t need a listener.

Jona Xhepa is based in Dublin and working on ‘a novella about language and failure’. She is also developing some musical and performance art pieces.

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