“It’s an odd kind of music,” announced pianist Philip Thomas ahead of performing Christian Wolff’s Three Studies, “but if you find this music as curious as I do, you’ll be pleased to know that Christian wrote to John Cage in 1980 saying that he did too.”
Thomas had taken to the stage at Cafe OTO for a first half filled with Wolff's music just as it began hammering down with rain outside. It was his second of two concerts across Monday and Tuesday celebrating the recent release of two solo recordings: Christian Wolff’s Preludes, Variations, Studies and Incidental Music on Sub Rosa and Morton Feldman Piano on Another Timbre.
Wolff's minimal notation, Thomas explained, is often “just a beginning of something...”, its use of freedom and improvisatory sensibility a starting point upon which a performer builds their response. Proceedings kicked off with such a response, Tilbury, written for Cafe OTO regular John Tilbury in 1969. The piece comprised fragments, repeated and cut up, shifting and revealing themselves like ghosts walking into the frame and disappearing again just as suddenly.
A single vocalisation, causing the briefest, gentle shock. This moment hung over the rest of the piece like an enchantment, not occurring again until virtually the very last note. The cafe door opened for latecomers a few minutes into the performance, the brief bursts of falling rain sharply punctuating moments inside the piano, plucked notes like muted car horns, and then:
...and the spell was broken.
Again written for John Tilbury, the Three (Satie) Variations were incredible for how, from a stream of notes, just one could jump out and throw you into Satie’s Gymnopédies or Gnossiennes. The first variation, En Plus, gets stuck in loops of two notes like a broken record. The second, Another Variation, hits straight into Vexations from the opening chord, before creating a Frankenstein's monster from Satie's other works.
After a short interval came Morton Feldman’s 70-minute For Bunita Marcus. Where Wolff’s piano music has a jagged edge, Feldman's has a softness. Mesmeric notes hang. Phrases begin at exactly the right moment after the maximum possible amount of space. It gets to the point where you can confidently predict which notes Feldman is going to use next, but he shifts, melts and disrupts their rhythm, creating constellations that unpredictably collide with one another. Indeed, in his programme note Feldman claims that it wasn't important to explain where the notes came from as he just pulled them out of his ear. Metre forms the building blocks of the composition. Not 'rhythm', but "the duration which something needs."
Beforehand, I expected that Cafe OTO might be too noisy an environment for this quiet music, but time froze. The audience was still, holding its collective breath. Only the occasional creak of a rickety wooden chair betrayed a congregation hiding behind its ears. I didn’t dare move in case my own chair dragged my neighbour out of their trance. Thomas seemed occasionally shocked by what he saw on the pages before him, but I expect that’s part of why he loves this music so much: because what lurks beyond each page turn can still hold such surprises. The simplicity of the notation hides within it a richness, a subtle ebb and flow. Everything felt open ended to the extent that when the last note died away, so did universes. ⓡ