On 24 July 2015 I gave my first performance of Morton Feldman's Three Voices at the National Portrait Gallery. The experience was intense — I really didn't know whether I would get to the end of this marathon of a piece without stopping, or collapsing!
Three Voices was written in 1982 for Joan La Barbara, and sets part of Wind, a poem by Feldman's friend Frank O'Hara dedicated to him. Writing later about Three Voices, Feldman said: 'One of my closest friends, the painter Philip Guston, had just died; Frank O’Hara had died several years before. I saw the piece with Joan in front and these two loudspeakers behind her. There is something kind of tombstoney about the look of loudspeakers. I thought of the piece as an exchange of the live voice with the dead ones – a mixture of the living and the dead’.
Conceived as a trio for the one voice, with two pre-recorded parts and one to be performed live, the score is conventionally notated (all parts are written out with precise rhythms and pitches, though often in differing metres) but is beguilingly short on some details. There is, for example, no tempo indication, no vowel specified for the many lengthy passages without text, no dynamics bar an initial ppp, and no guidance as to which voice should be the 'live' one. Instead, performance history has resulted in the printed edition including an introduction written by Joan La Barbara (in 2007) in which she relays her remembering of conversations about the piece with Feldman and shares her own performance practice.
In the end, I took her guidance with a pinch of salt. I deliberated long and hard about the possible merits of choosing an alternative part to perform live (partly to strike out on my own, partly because I have a suspicion that either of voices 1 & 2 may in fact be less exhausting!), but in the end I felt that, without a good reason to break with tradition, I was content to conform. In two specific areas I have deviated: I ignored her instruction to sing with 'almost no vibrato' since my natural vibrato is hardly unwieldy and it seemed altogether wise to avoid the psychological knotting-up of performing such a demanding work with a clamp on; I have taken a subtly liberal approach to the vowel, moving between 'ah', 'aw' and 'oo', as a nod to the natural vowel modification that takes place in different registers, but mostly because I like the idea of creating different shades of a dominant colour.
In coming to both these decisions, at the forefront of my mind was the importance of conjuring up a whole that focussed on the physical and psychological humanity of both the mythical tripartite protagonist and the very real and present performer. Designing one's version requires an artful balance between the tensions of conflicting demands: the differing exhaustions of a breathless sprint vs that of a long-distance marathon; a precision that retains its humanity without tipping over either into something clinical or distractingly flawed; a dynamic that points to something delicate and interior yet allows for flow and freedom in delivery.
There are three commercial recordings available that vary hugely in effect and length. My version, to be released on HatHut Records, comes in at 53', a result not of any great thinking about a desirable duration but rather by trying to settle on a workable mean pulse from which I then invited certain passages to gently deviate. The challenge, I feel, is to avoid the all-too-present pitfalls of recording such a piece which can, through editing and through the inevitable disembodiment, render the delicate tapestry cold, clinical, too uniform, dead. I am hoping to capture the physicality and fallibility of a voice in dialogue with itself, the human-ness of this extraordinary experience.
Ongoing THANKS go to Mark Knoop (for producing and editing the recording sessions) and Newton Armstrong (for doing wonders with the sound and for designing and building a visual click gizmo), to City University London for use of the recording suite. And to you for your support!
Risks and challenges
In fact, the foremost risk that occurs to me is of baring my soul in this recording. I'm aware that the piece has been recorded before, of course, but the honesty which I'm hoping will be a hallmark of my version is somewhat exposing.
I'm confident that the label will fulfil its role. Certainly their enthusiasm for the proposal and the speedy timeframe that they have proposed is greatly encouraging. We are aiming for release in Spring 2016.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (18 days)