The Rambler :: blog

Monday, January 17, 2005

Music since 1960: Feldman: Rothko Chapel 

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Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

A timpani roll. Another, higher. This is a whole sequence of timp rolls – almost a motif. Now a viola. Timpani and viola; a crazy combination, but it might just work. That was almost the motif again – the viola has played three notes in similar pattern, up, down. The melody grows broader, I'm reminded of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.

A chord on the celeste.

Some rolls on temple blocks. The viola keeps exploring a territory of wide intervals, like birdsong in canyons.

That celeste chord again. At least, I think it's the same.

Now a choir, and those timp rolls return in the background. Extracts from a chant or chorale that's in no hymn book from this planet.

More viola, and another celeste chord; and three deep celeste notes. Seven chords from the choir, each covering a wider harmonic range; then two chord changes – these ones are new.

To my ears Morton Feldman is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. More than most recent composers, but similarly to Bach, his artistic vision was complete and unified, but infinitely varied. The opening minutes (that's the first five I've described there) are extremely fragmentary – musical events occur, in unpredictable sequence. Everything sounds surprising, everything sounds almost like something we’ve had before.

Celeste chord, viola note. Together. Once without celeste. Together. And again, but the chord and note are different. Seven more times, seemingly the same, but never quite where you expect them in the bar. Were they the same? Can I trust what I'm hearing, what I'm remembering?

Of the whole piece, these three minutes are perhaps most typical. Feldman often talked of 'crippled symmetries' – one piece even has this title – in which repetitions, symmetries, are 'crippled' through subtle and continual change. This is not the phase-like changes of Reich's or Glass's patterns in which continual process evolves one musical idea into another. Feldman's changes are wilful, enforced one by one, to no discernible sequence, and certainly no predictable process. If Reich plays a God who creates beauty in system and order, Feldman's God creates it in weakness and deformity. His is the God of Kafka and Beckett: "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life."

A great swell from choir and timpani. At its climax is an impassioned viola flourish, augmented by tubular bells. A sound of grief, of pain.

And again.

But not a third time. Such overt emotion is unusual in Feldman - for a moment he's almost Richard Strauss - but he turns from it very swiftly.

Was that really pain, then? Can I believe what I felt when I heard it? A few minutes later, there is another tremendous swell from the choir, but this time there is no strident outburst from the viola to dissipate its energy. It hangs heavy in the air. The workings of the music in time, and its interaction with memory create expectations about how it might develop, how repetitions might unfold themselves. But Feldman undercuts these expectations at every turn so that the music both invites us to anticipate its future development, and also to look back to revise our impressions of what we thought earlier moments implied. Time turns to amber.

Another surprise. The music which, up to now, has lilted or hobbled along at a fair pace, aided by the continual introduction of new material, has drawn to an almost complete stop. A single chord is sustained by the choir, with only tubular bell tones and the breaths of the singers as punctuation. This goes on for more three minutes.


Surely this is the gesture of a work reaching its close?

Four pizzicato viola notes. Unexpected.

A soprano, singing another wide-intervalled melody. This we have heard before, amidst the fallout from the choral climaxes. Now this solo voice seems to have taken up the role occupied by the viola in the first minutes of the work, occupying a great and empty musical space.

There are those timpani rolls again.

Almost - almost - this feels like a recapitulation, a return to the work's opening material after an extended development, characterised by the three climactic crescendi, and the long sustained choir chord. But by now we no longer trust any repetition. The sense is that we have reached some sort of resolution of the various ideas of the piece, as the singer's melody is more tonal, more familiar than the viola's opening. And whilst the music is still fragmentary, each fragment does begin to sound like the last word on the matter, a series of closing chords.

Vibraphone. An ostinato? A simple four note pattern, literally repeating over and over? Pure symmetry? This is not the first sustained chord-like resonance of the piece, but it is the first to feel so warm and comfortable.

A viola melody. For once this is not in wide intervals. The melody fits perfectly with the tonal, four-square ostinato. The music sounds pastoral once more, but also like a lullaby.

There are some of those hushed chords from the choir.

The ostinato continues. The viola continues its folky melody.

Some final choral chords. The ostinato stops.


There is no more stunning passage in postwar composition than this. Rothko Chapel, for all its internal, hidden consistencies, is fragmentary and sounds at least partly improvised (it's not); for it to suddenly introduce such a simple, almost childish idea as this vibraphone ostinato, and use it to underpin a melody of breathtaking beauty and naivety is extraordinary, and I don't know of any moment like it in Feldman's output. As I said, his was an artistic vision that seemed throughout his career remarkably consistent, even if his later works seem superficially far removed from his early graphical experiments. Feldman is reliably always different, but always the same. At this moment something different is happening.

The circumstances of the work's commission are typically Feldman-like. The Rothko Chapel of the title is in Houston, TX, an ecumenical religious space decorated with Rothko paintings specially created for the space. Rothko and Feldman were part of the artistic group that included Cage, Pollock, Guston and many others; Feldman himself formed long and fruitful acquaintances with many painters of the time, and knew Rothko well. The piece was thus a personal endeavour - not unusually for him - and it incorporates a number of very personal musical elements. The soprano melody, for example, that dominates the third quarter of the piece Feldman wrote on the day of Stravinsky's memorial service. The viola melody from the work’s ending he wrote as a teenager. Thus the tricks of musical memory and internal quotation are blown up; the final effect is so magical I hope never to understand it.

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