Saturday night I trudged through the slush to Holden Chapel at Harvard to hear “duo 404” do “empty space,” because it included Morton Feldman’s For John Cage (1982), a 75-minute foray for piano and violin. (The name 404 presumably refers to the HTTP error code for “page not found”. The duo turned out to be two remarkably talented young musicians with fairly incredible resumes and multiple local connections. Violinist Sasha Yakub is the co-concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, has won multiple regional concerto competitions, and is a freshman at Harvard. Seventeen-year-old Forrest Eimold specializes in the organ music of Olivier Messaien, including the monster Livre du Saint-Sacrement, which he performed at 13. He studies with the New England Conservatory Prepatory School and is Organ Scholar at St. Paul’s in Harvard Square, studying with John Robinson. Both young men also compose, Yakub with a focus on incidental music for theater. Eimold has written a Requiem.
“empty space” consisted of two major works and an interlude, all of which unfolded while a film was projected. Cage’s 1947 Nocturne was played along with Derek Jarman’s Ashden’s Walk on Mon; the Feldman with Cage’s film One11 (1992). The interlude was not listed in the main program, but afterwards a supplemental information sheet informed us that the music was Nowth Upon Nacht, a 1984 work by Cage, and the film was #2 from The Persian Series (1996) by Stan Brakhage.
As should be clear from that list of works, this evening contained challenging material, and the musicians tackled it with absolute confidence. The printed notes comprised excellently selected quotes from the composers and film-makers. Some of the selections were explanatory—Feldman: “[For John Cage] is a little piece for violin and piano that doesn’t quit,” Cage: “Feldman’s music seems more to continue than change.” Some were merely evocative—Cage: “Every day it seems some close friend dies,” Jarman: “We are all accomplices in the dream world of the soul.”
It is exciting to see such young, intelligent and talented performers drawn to this work, and Yakub and Eimold have immense potential. So immense, that I feel comfortable “praising with faint damns” the actual experience of the evening, which could not always make a pleasing whole out of its varied parts.
The Jarman/Cage pairing was out of place. The Cage is a relatively staid early work which sounds like very icy Debussy enlivened with occasional quirks. The Jarman film fell into two halves, the first of which was blue and consisted of pulsing images of a galaxy blended with what looked like a seaside walk. At this time of year the pulsing galaxy inappropriately called to mind the God of It’s a Wonderful Life. Static visions of a rocky countryside through a green filter made up the second half. The film was heavily pixelated, which I assume was not an artistic choice given that it was made in 1973, before pixilation entered the moving image field. The two works had little to say to one another, and they each demanded too much attention to be understood simultaneously.
The interlude combined Cage’s noisy declamation of a Finnegans Wake fragment (the piece was dedicated to Cathy Berberian) with Brakhage’s hyperactive film of vivid splotches manically overlying one another. Eimold performed the vocal part with full-throated commitment, while Yakub “played” the piano part, made up of loud bangings of the lid over the keyboard. I’m not sure why they were coy about this interlude, only telling us what it was afterward. It did make me work hard to figure out what Eimold was saying, but I failed miserably: at one point I thought I heard a reference to “10,000 Men of Harvard,” a song I’m pretty sure the Wake is innocent of. Sound and film worked together beautifully.
The Cage/Feldman pairing clearly drove the evening. One11 consists of movements of black and white on the screen. There are slow, soft crossfades that evoke dawn or dusk; stark divisions of the space into light and dark; and drifting vague shapes. It is starkly beautiful, often restful, sometimes painful when the screen suddently goes from black to white. The Feldman is a typical late work, which begins by worrying at a number of two-note motifs for an extended period, the violin often playing microtones. More material accumulates as the work proceeds. The progression through time is both gradual and sudden; long periods of extremely tiny adjustments in pitch and rhythm are suddenly replaced by entirely different music, then resumed. Yakub and Eimold performed this taxing music fearlessly and with immense assurance. They captured the essence of Feldman’s music, producing a performance that left the audience hovering at the edge of impatience. The time never passed quickly; but when the piece ended—or stopped, rather—one was surprised at how much later it had become.
But there is a distinction to be made between having confidence and projecting it to the audience. As impressive as this accomplishment was, there was a sense that the players still needed time with the piece. Many of the microtonal moments lacked the kind of attack and assurance that made it clear the sounds were intentional and not merely out of tune. While Feldman hardly wants conventional “expressive” playing, there was a tendency to colorlessness that made this austere music unnecessarily stiff. The performance improved as it went on, and the final section was much subtler. They had the rhythmic details throughout; Feldman often inserts tiny shims of rests in a repeated fragment, giving the moment a sense of breathing, and these were solid and secure from start to finish.
None of this should diminish the audacity of the evening, nor should it diminish the thanks due to Yakub and Eimold for bringing this music to us. I look forward to their future development and hope they continue as advocates for this challenging, disrupting, thoughtful music.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.