For Philip Guston, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When The composer Earle Brown asked Morton Feldman why he'd taken to writing such fabulously long pieces, Feldman said: "It's a career move, Earle." It turned out to be an oddly successful one.

Last Saturday, amid a finer hanging of the paintings in the Philip Guston retrospective than that managed by New York's Metropolitan Museum last fall, Richard Bernas mounted a performance of For Philip Guston at the Royal Academy of Arts. This is the piece Feldman wrote as part of a reconciliation process, following the death in 1980 of his former close friend and perhaps greatest inspiration.

Guston's turn to a late style of figurative pink vividness had included a magnificently fleshy portrait of Feldman, which could be glimpsed lowering in the next room during this performance. But though the composer had, on the face of it, followed the painter into a kind of musically figurative style at almost exactly the same time, the truth was that Feldman loathed Guston's late paintings.

At the Royal Academy, the performance of For Philip Guston was held in the room containing not the absorbing abstract canvases that had so attracted Feldman in the 1950s, but the late Gustons he so hated. The flautist Mario Caroli, percussionist Richard Benjafield and pianist Nicolas Hodges achieved musical marvels with this score's slow, soft and seemingly endless repetition and ambiguous evolution of a number of short musical motifs, helping to draw the listener in by focusing on the music with unostentatious attention. For the record, they took just four hours and 11 minutes - on the short side for this work.

The setting may have inspired some rethinking of the complex business of relating the aural to the visual. But while the music whispered untold subtleties in your ear, the paintings shouted at you with their crassness. The encouragement to the audience to walk around and take in the art made it hard to focus on the intricacies of Feldman's music and the fascinating ways in which the composer plays tricks with one's memory.

I tried moving next door, where many of the early 1950s canvases were hung; but while the atmosphere fitted the music better, I felt too detached from the sounds themselves. And the air conditioning, another problem for concentrated listening, made it almost as cold there as it was to become in the main room as the audience regathered for the final hour.

True, this music proves to have an uncanny, insinuating resilience and you realise that, visually, you can accommodate just about anything and process it at the same time. That's hardly in the spirit of the event, of course, and ultimately I found the experience less absorbing than the much more intimate performance of For Philip Guston at the Conway Hall in London a few years ago.