Measure by Measure

Sonic Fields of Dark and Light

Morton Feldman and his Rothko Chapel

By Sudip Bose | November 2, 2017
Flickr/Cody Austin
Flickr/Cody Austin

With the exception of several hours spent in transit at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, I have never been to Houston—though not for lack of intent. For one thing, I have always wanted to visit the Rothko Chapel, so named because of the 14 canvases that hang inside it, painted by Mark Rothko toward the end of his life. The chapel is a place of pilgrimage, a sacred, nondenominational space. To me, it has yet another appeal: this octagonal brick structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also inspired one of the most moving and mesmeric pieces of 20th-century music: Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel.

The chapel was the idea of John and Dominique de Menil, philanthropists, collectors, and patrons of the arts who commissioned several large paintings from Rothko in 1964, for the sum of $250,000. Rothko labored on the murals with pleasure, believing that they would represent the pinnacle of his artistic life. Working in his Manhattan studio with the help of several assistants (the undertaking was too strenuous for him alone), he applied layer upon layer of paint—maroons, blacks, reddish browns—to his canvases, some monochromatic, all dark, very much in contrast to his colorful earlier paintings, with their soft and hazy borders. Intending to group nine of the murals into triptychs, Rothko became obsessed with how the pieces would be experienced in the setting of the chapel. He imagined an immersive experience, with the viewer surrounded by the paintings—the idea for the building’s octagonal shape was his. This dogged insistence on structural detail led to a falling out with the chapel’s principal architect, Philip Johnson, who left the project in 1967, the year Rothko finished his canvases. The artist never did get a chance, however, to see the completed chapel. A year before its 1971 dedication, Rothko committed suicide.

How could the building, then, not be tinged with an element of grief? Morton Feldman, who was born in 1926 and who died 30 years ago, was a good friend of Rothko’s, and he must surely have felt some unutterable sadness in this space, for nearly every measure of his Rothko Chapel communicates this feeling of melancholy and lamentation. Feldman was one of the musical mavericks of the previous century, a composer who had his roots in the works of Bartók, Schoenberg, Webern, and Edgard Varèse, but whose pieces seem beholden to no school, no tradition. As it was for his friend John Cage, silence was as essential to Feldman as sound, and as he matured, his scores became more naked, with fewer notes and thinner textures, yet he was able to convey a kaleidoscope of emotion in the merest gesture, a wisp of a phrase, a single note, a fugitive tone color. His pieces, with their rhythmic and tonal freedom and often glacial tempos, are like extended acts of meditation—intense, concentrated, and refined. In many ways, he was the most poetic of minimalists, though his pieces seem a world away from the work of Philip Glass or Steve Reich or others whose music has been (correctly or incorrectly) saddled with the label of minimalism. Like Cage, Feldman experimented with chance and improvisation, inventing graphic systems with which to notate his scores. There is nothing random or indeterminate, however, about Rothko Chapel, composed in 1971, as tightly controlled a work as any he wrote, conventionally notated if unconventionally scored—for viola, chorus, solo soprano, solo alto, celesta, and such percussion instruments as the chimes, vibraphone, woodblock, and timpani.

Given this assemblage of instruments, the sonorities are, not surprisingly, alluring: the throbbing timbres of vibraphone and celesta; the eerie rattling of the temple block and woodblock; the harmonics of the viola together with a dissonant chord in the celesta; the ghostly voices of the chorus along with the rumbling tremolo in the timpani; the solo soprano sounding almost childlike, so pure is her utterance, or like some priestess attending to an ancient rite. Strange, lovely, and primordial, the score is an extreme distillation of music to its essential components—as simple and complex as the application of pigments on Rothko’s canvases.

Interestingly, it’s the viola, not the solo voices or the chorus, that is given the work’s melodic material, lines that are both doleful and distant. By contrast, the chorus, which is asked to sing not words but an open-mouthed hum, sounds considerably less voice-like. The choral lines are static, though incantatory, composed of quiet blocks of sound. Indeed, during much of the piece, Feldman asks the chorus to sing not at the dynamic of piano, or even pianissimo, but at pianississississimo—that is, ppppp! In the astonishing third part of Rothko Chapel, which lasts roughly two minutes, Feldman asks the chorus to sing at a “barely audible” level, a sustained whispered hum, lovely and comforting as the chimes toll intermittently. Time seems to dissipate here, as does all sense of place. When I listen to this passage, a preternatural glow seems to emerge from the music. How does Feldman achieve this? How does he generate light from sound—and so addicting and seductive a light at that? Something similar supposedly happens when one gazes deeply into Rothko’s dark fields. The art historian Barbara Rose has said that “the paintings seem to glow mysteriously from within.” What the Abstract Expressionist Elaine de Kooning said of Rothko—that “the tension of [his] work lies in its ominous, pervasive light—that of a sky before a hurricane”—would seem to apply to Feldman’s transcendent sonic fields.

Feldman likened the five parts of Rothko Chapel to “an immobile procession not unlike the friezes on Greek temples.” This procession culminates in a haunting final section, in which the viola plays a plangent melody against a steady, rocking, eighth-note accompaniment on the vibraphone and celesta. Feldman wrote this melody when he was 15, during the Second World War, and kept the notebook in which he’d recorded it. Summoned forth at the end of this piece, it has the power to shock the unsuspecting listener. Some critics have traced the melody’s origins to the world of the synagogue. To me, it sounds like a lone human voice calling out across some expanse, a canyon, perhaps, or a desert, or maybe a vast and empty prairie. The melody is heard a few times, alternating with muted utterances from the chorus, though it is the wordless chorus we hear at the end of the piece, not the viola, and so that strange string lament is transformed into an instant memory, a fragment of a dream to which we wish to return, haunting us when we have awakened, the last notes having emptied into silence.

I often put Rothko Chapel on at night, letting the music wash over me in the dark. Meditating with this music at home is one thing; what I would really love is to hear it played live in the chapel, as it was for its 1972 premiere. At the very least, I would like to go to the chapel on a weekday morning, perhaps, or very late in the day, when, I imagine, I would have the place to myself, to sit on the lone bench inside that octagonal space and listen to Rothko Chapel on my headphones, to hear that lovely music as I stare into the dark fields of color around me, to immerse myself in that world for 25 minutes, without distraction or concern, to simply watch, listen, focus, attend.

Listen to this recording of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel from 1976, a few years after the work’s premiere:

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