The S.E.M. Ensemble will perform Morton Feldman’s magnum opus “For Philip Guston,” on March 22nd (RSVP here). SEM has been associated with Feldman since the early 1970’s, while both were based in Buffalo, NY. Feldman composed “Instruments I” for Petr Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble in 1973 (Jan Williams, Julius Eastman and Petr Kotik were among the performers who premiered the piece). In 1987, Petr Kotik commissioned a new work by Feldman, but Feldman died in the fall of 1987 before he could compose this new work. Instead, in February 1988, SEM performed “For Philip Guston,” for the first time. The performers in 1988 are the same as they will be in 2019: Kotik, Kubera and Nappi. Alex Ross in the New York Times commented: “… the performance by the S.E.M. Ensemble is no less gigantic than Mahler's Eighth Symphony.”
A few thoughts from Petr Kotik:
Even though it is preferable to stay for the full five hours of music, it is possible to take a break, walk quietly out and (perhaps) come back later. “For Philip Guston” truly has an Open Form. The form is open for one of two reasons:
1. Because of its scale, it is simply not possible to listen to the whole piece without interruptions – you tune in and out in an open way.
2. You listen only to a section of the piece, and interrupt the form when you leave.
In both cases, the listening is open, not like the “closed” way that we listen to Mozart or Xenakis. One inevitably wanders in and out of the piece, either physically, or in one’s mind.
Strangely, the current formal concepts of music developed in correspondence with theater. In the early 1950s, Samuel Beckett introduced a concept of theater as a situation instead of climactic drama. Cage’s music of the mid-50s is equally devoid of hierarchies. Extended duration in music like “For Philip Guston” has its roots in Robert Wilson’s theater productions from the early 1970s. I remember Wilson’s 12-hour long “The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin” at the BAM opera house, a very important event for me. Around midnight, I fell asleep for about a half hour, waking up slowly to a scene, practically unchanged from where I left it when I closed my eyes. Falling in and out of conscious perception, alternating between the opera and dreamy moments, was absolutely extraordinary. When composing the six-hours long “Many Many Women” a few years later, I never gave a second thought to the duration of the piece. Feldman must have been equally confident when he started to compose works of one or more hours long at the end of the 1970s.
Familiarity strongly influences our reactions. The way we perceive events is related to what we are used to. Listening to one piece of music for hours and hours is unfamiliar, but in reality, it is unnecessary to be apprehensive. Sitting still for a few hours, and listening to music on such a vast scale will prove to be neither bizarre, disturbing or crazy. Consider that the three of us (Chris Nappi, Joe Kubera, and myself), will perform for five hours without a break and with the utmost concentration. Try it and you will discover a different world than what usually surrounds you.
- Petr Kotik, March 18, 2019