Morton Feldman’s “Three Voices”

By · Title Image NYPL (PD) · Date 08/04/2016

In 2015, the writer Lisa Bolekaja published a short story in Uncanny, a magazine for science fiction and fantasy, called “Three Voices,” inspired by the Morton Feldman piece of the same name. At the climax, a vocalist’s skin pigmentation drains from her body and her eyes pop out. “How could she sing with no head?” the fictional composer asks himself.

This paranormal event takes place in a packed concert hall, in front of 200 people. Last spring, when some friends and I organized a concert of Feldman’s composition after-hours at a Brooklyn-influenced Berlin café, close to 20 showed up. In Bolekaja’s story, the fictional “Three Voices” has the same instrumentation as Feldman’s composition (she came across the work through a National Public Radio story): one singer sings live, accompanied by two tracks that she prerecords herself. We made a crucial tweak, performing “Three Voices” with three live sopranos.

This is not unprecedented. The soprano Joan La Barbara, to whom the work was dedicated, told me, “It can work with three singers.” She coached a performance of the piece in that formation at the Nuit Blanche in the fall of 2015. Responding to our email newsletter, the Wandelweiser composer Antoine Beuger wrote me an email saying “Feldman with three voices, finally!”

A preview of a performance of “Three Voices” with live voices, coached by Joan La Barbara, at the Eglise Sainte-Catherine in Brussels.

La Barbara said she wasn’t sure if Feldman ever heard the piece sung by three live voices during his lifetime. Thinking back on the concert recently, I wondered if he would have accepted our version. Within the work, there are several clues indicating that performances with prerecorded voices, played through loudspeakers in concert, are more authentic. To ask a question that sounds tautological: what is the right number of voices to perform “Three Voices”?

Feldman composed “Three Voices” for La Barbara in 1982. He wrote a handwritten note to her, saying that “the bottom system is what is to be sung ‘live’; the upper two systems are to be recorded and ‘layered in’; that is, to be played over two loudspeakers, with one voice coming distinctly from each loudspeaker.” Later, in conversation with John Rockwell, of The New York Times, he said that the onstage loudspeakers looked “tombstoney”—an invented adjective both melancholy and ironic. They reminded him of two of his deceased friends: the painter Philip Guston, with whom he had a falling-out, and hadn’t reconciled before Guston’s death; and the poet Frank O’Hara, who died in a tragic accident on Fire Island.

Philip Guston working on a mural while a group of children look on • Photo Sol Libsohn (PD)
Philip Guston working on a mural while a group of children look on • Photo Sol Libsohn (PD)

“Three Voices” sets words from an O’Hara poem, “Wind,” which was dedicated to the composer. It uses two lines:  “Who’d have thought / that snow falls” and “snow whirled / nothing ever fell.” Between those lines, the poem goes on:

it always circled whirling / like a thought / in the glass ball / around me and my bear / Then it seemed beautiful / containment

“It’s all inside a snow globe,” La Barbara said. The “glass ball” and the “beautiful / containment” describe a sense of entrapment—something that two loudspeakers on stage, with a live singer in between, convey. The snow globe is comforting, at first. Later, the image turns menacing: the bear is “imprisoned in crystal”; “beauty has replaced itself with evil.” Over the course of the long work—from about 50 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on tempo—the image of the loudspeakers can morph and take on several different meanings, mirroring the change in poem, which ends with the line “I love evil.”

In her introduction to “Three Voices,” La Barbara writes, “this work could be considered his longing to continue conversing with his friends; the live voice, then being that of Feldman himself.” The comfort and menace of this idea are mirrored both in the tombstone image and in the text itself; both can have multiple meanings over the piece’s duration.

Another argument in favor of Feldman’s original instructions occurred to me this month while listening to La Barbara’s definitive 1989 recording of “Three Voices.” The two parts emanating from the loudspeakers have a slight filtered, electronic quality, like the world’s subtlest vocoder. Guston and O’Hara are there to be conversed with, but separated from Feldman by a kind of acoustic gauze.

Morton Feldman, “Three Voices”; Joan La Barbara (Soprano). This excerpt is about 20 minutes in.

I put this hypothesis to La Barbara. She said that the effect wasn’t intentional, that the three voices should sound “as similar as possible” to one another. “The most successful performance, acoustically, for me, was in Ojai, California, in a small church that was mostly wood. The acoustical reverberation was not overwhelming, but it was just enough to sort of warm up the space. For me that was the one where the three voices were the most equal.”

This timbral approach would apply to a performance with three live singers as well, she said. And it’s true that the various sections are predicated on a unity of sound. The “pillars of chords,” as La Barbara described them; the spiraling downward runs on the word “whirl’d”; the interlocking patterns of the sections where the live soprano sings a melodic fragment against accompanying intervals; all wouldn’t work if the colors of the individual voices were too different. A lone singer would have an easier time achieving unity of sounds—so acoustically, too, Feldman’s instructions seem to argue against our version from last year.

Still: I like to think that the version with three live singers, matching timbre as closely as possible, doesn’t interfere with, and even enhances, the idea of a conversation with friends who have already passed away. When we rehearsed “Three Voices” last spring, we tried to get a unified sound; of course, it was impossible. Each voice was irreconcilably different from the others. In a way, that’s an image as potent as the tombstone loudspeakers. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad writes, “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation…of one’s existence. …We live, as we dream—alone.” Three sopranos singing together still represent separate “life-sensations”; their interactions are subject to a threshold just as impermeable as the one between life and death.

The short story “Three Voices” contains a neat allegory about the difficulty of Feldman’s piece: the fictional composer, Andre Irving, brings his composition to various singers who try to learn it, then develop mysterious, career-ending vocal chord injuries before they can perform. Doing it in a trio can lead to the singers getting fed up with each other. Doing it alone is probably, well, lonely. (La Barbara said, “I was not listening to the other voices.” She worked with a click track to stay in tempo and a Casio keyboard to stay on pitch.)

In either instrumentation—and even when it isn’t perfect—Feldman’s “Three Voices” has great effect. When I first heard it, on YouTube, at work, I stopped what I was doing (emailing) for the piece’s entire duration. At the concert in Berlin, the people who did show up lingered for a long time, standing around among the expensive just-so “found” furniture objects and smoking cigarettes outside.  

The short story “Three Voices” takes this transcendence to a creepy, cosmic extreme:

Tye kept singing, but the color from her skin faded, the melanin draining away from her flesh. The top of her scalp slowly unraveled, the strands of her flesh spinning upwards in spiraling tendrils…but she kept singing, a crescendo building in her voices. Building, building, while she was coming apart. Soon, the top of her forehead was unthreading, particles of her floating up into the triangular sound wave of ebon space that pulsed. Andre could see actual darkness bulging outward and then open like lips drawing liquid up through a straw. She was being siphoned up into a vortex of space that her voices ripped open. …

Andre stared at his beloved masterwork on stage. Tye’s eyes were missing, but she still sang, even as her neck and shoulders stretched and unbraided themselves. They flew away as particles of light.

It feels right that the story “Three Voices,” the composition “Three Voices,” the work in its two possible instrumentations, all put people in a mood where they contemplate the vastness of the universe. The work ends by lingering on O’Hara’s line, “Who’d have thought / that snow falls.” It’s like saying: Who’d have thought that, of all possible permutations of life and non-life out there, we’d be here—in a snow globe, on earth—a place where we happen to have that thing we call snow that falls as we hurtle through the universe? As La Barbara said, Feldman “wanted this kind of shared sound in space.” ¶