Lessons on the Ecstasy of the Moment
Notes, Thoughts, and Observations on Morton Feldman and His Rothko Chapel

I first heard Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel when I was seventeen. I saw the record (with its flipside For Frank O’Hara) at the public library; I had never heard of Feldman. About five years later, I found a score to the piece in another library. For the past ten years, I have safeguarded a photocopy of the score. When I revisited Rothko Chapel last week, I finally understood why I always thought it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

Composer Morton Feldman was born in New York City in 1926. He became associated with John Cage, Earl Brown, and Christian Wolff — all of whom are now known as the New York School of composers. He was deeply influenced by the abstract expressionist painters of the ’40s and ’50s, and was close friends with the artists Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. His early pieces were notated in graph form, with durations and pitch remaining free. He eventually began to notate pitches, but still left durations of these pitches up to the performer. Eventually, he came back to traditional music notation — but often with paradoxical results: the rhythms are strictly notated using abstract divisions of time but, when played, sound like they are freely notated. Feldman was always concerned with setting sounds free — free of references, free in time. His music is characterized by consistently soft dynamics, slow tempos, delicateness, unusual instrument combinations, and (in later years), long duration — for example, For Philip Guston lasts four and a half hours, and String Quartet II lasts just over six.

Rothko Chapel was written in 1971. Scored for viola, percussion, celesta, and chorus, it was commissioned by the Menil Foundation, which had funded the building of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The piece was to be performed in the octagonal chapel, surrounded by fourteen large Mark Rothko canvases. Due to the small space of the room, there was little distance between the listeners and performers, creating an intimate environment. Through his use of quiet dynamics, Feldman intended the music to permeate the room — but not be heard from a distance.

Feldman talked about his music in the language of painting: “The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed before.” Orchestration of the music was the essence of composing, not just writing pitches and rhythms. The color of a composition overrode its pitch content.

Composer Toru Takemitsu wrote of his encounter with Feldman: “Bending his large body over the keyboard, his face nearly touching the keys, he repeated a chord. Sensing my presence, he turned, looking at me through glasses as thick as a milk-bottle bottom, and said, ’Beautiful, isn’t it?’ and laughed. He was extremely nearsighted and wrote his music as if touching the notes with his eyes. Whenever I hear his music I think of its tactile quality, of his eyes ’hearing’ the sounds.”

“I’m highly concentrated when I work,” Feldman explained. “One of the most important ways is that I write in ink.” Feldman wished to have each note played without attack, as if the sound were floating without a beginning or an end. This idea of how sound should be made can be compared to Rothko’s paintings, which are known for their blurred edges.

How did Feldman liberate sound?

He detached from elements of traditional compositional construction. His objective was to create sounds divorced from function such as a pitch scheme or rhythmic pattern. Feldman composed as if each sound was only dealing with its own isolated moment; each written note became a personal pinpoint of beauty.

For Feldman, freedom did not mean that he could do anything he liked with anything available; freedom came from being able to create only one type of thing. Rothko was free to make a Rothko; Feldman was free to make a Feldman. (John Cage had once remarked to Feldman how great it would be to be a bird, because they are so free. Feldman responded that birds are not free, as they spend every living moment looking for food.)

Feldman reverted back to using traditional notation in the 1970s so he could control the silence in his works. He wanted the rhythmic complexity of what was written to be unheard, so the music would float. He achieved this feeling of floating by making the rhythm abstract, so that the pulse of the time signature becomes a guide rather than a driving force.

Composer Stephan Wolpe, one of Feldman’s first teachers, accused Feldman of using “negation” — instead of developing an idea, Feldman tended to go from one idea to the next. Throughout his work, Feldman took this idea to the extreme, composing from note to note, chord to chord, always without looking back.

The challenge in performing a late Feldman piece is to make the complex rhythms sound as if they are free in duration. His notes are free-sounding to the ear, but tied down to their written complexity.

Feldman was interested in how memory distorts what has actually been experienced. Many of his middle to late works are concerned with pattern and the discrepancies found within a pattern. He became interested in the rugs of central Asia, and would hold them up to his eyes so that he could be immersed in the weave. He began to notice the inconsistencies in the symmetry of the rug, the slight variations that disrupt the regularity of its pattern; he then started to compose with this idea of crippled symmetry, repeating a rhythmic and pitch pattern with slight variations. Many of these variations are so slight they are almost unnoticeable to the ear.

Many of his late works have a sense of coming together at the end. A repetitive pattern begins to form at the very end of a piece. It is the epiphany, the moment you realize that the delicate nature of everything preceding it falls in place. This coming together is the composition. Even though much beauty lies in the unveiling of the pattern, it also creates a dreadful feeling. There is a sense that the repetition will stop, signaling the end of the piece.

“Before, my pieces were like objects,” Feldman confessed; “now they are evolving things.”

In 1949, Mark Rothko’s style of blurred blocks of color that float on the canvas came into being. He retained this style until his suicide in 1970.

The single D-flats sung by the basses in measures 102 and 104 of Rothko Chapel sound almost identical to the tympani rolls at the beginning of the piece, a slight hue change from the previous color. For the first 134 measures of the piece, the time signature changes every bar.

Within Rothko Chapel, sounds become progressively absent. Single notes are remnants of what once was a full chord or broad melody. The piece is full of remnants of itself, resulting in a collage of detached fragments. They begin to symbolize the nature of memory: incomplete, interrupted, and at times diluted. Viola phrases are interrupted by isolated chords sung by the wordless choir.

There are isolated sections of rhythmic pulse within Rothko Chapel; however, these pulses are written on unstable beats of the measure, such as the tympani ostinato starting in measure 135, written on beats two and the upbeat of beat three in a 3/4 measure. These repetitious sections are isolated in that they occur after and before sections of constantly changing durations, giving them a sense of instability. An awareness comes to light when the stability is contradictory.

The sounds occasionally blur like a Rothko painting. In measures 197-200 the chorus divides and overlaps two previous progressions. And there is the viola’s personality in Rothko Chapel: the first pizzicato of the solo viola seems to signal its giving up broad melodic ability. The arco section after this first pizzicato is a two-measure fragment of the previous viola material. This is followed by silence and the start of the tympani ostinato, reminiscent of a funeral march. The viola responds by playing a single low D-flat, as if that is all it is capable of doing. Unlike previous single note repetitions, this low note is rich. The chorus’s last pianississimo chord gives way to a long viola arc, moving slowly but surely upwards and crescendoing to fortissimo. Immediately, the chorus interjects with the same dissonant chord, even softer, at pianississississimo (ppppp). The descent of the viola arc is completed by a solo soprano. A celesta chord gives way to slower pizzicato viola notes, which hold tightly to the silence between them. This suggests the end of the viola’s ability to play such a lush melody. The later interplay of the viola with the solo soprano voice yields a viola that is only able to play remnants of what it did before, either arco or pizzicato. The viola has become lost.

When the viola returns in the last section of the piece, it plays a “quasi-Hebraic” melody that Feldman said he composed when he was fourteen. This melody transcends the viola of the previous 4/5ths of the piece. The viola repeats this melody four times, each time at a higher interval. The last (and highest) repetition is at pianissimo.

The softest dynamic that Feldman indicates in Rothko Chapel is ppppp (pianississississimo, or very, very, very, very soft.) As if this weren’t quiet enough, the section where the female voices sing a six-note cluster is marked as “barely audible.” Here, Feldman creates a perfect contradictory stasis. The vocal harmony remains unchanged for two and a half minutes, but each of the twelve voice parts is written in complex overlapping rhythms. Time appears to stop, measured only by barely audible chimes that fill out the remaining notes of the twelve-tone scale. “Barely audible” creates a feeling of floating, a sound barely and hovering. (Many of the recordings of Feldman’s music include the disclaimer “to be listened at low volume.”)

In measure 204, Feldman has the celesta play a high A-flat with the entrance of a dissonant chord sung by the chorus — an excellent example of color.

Rothko Chapel acts as a mirror. Its ideas are aimed at reflecting Rothko’s paintings. But just as a mirror also reflects the opposite, the music’s structure also shows its opposite. For example, the viola’s first four notes create the pitch class [0 1 3 5]. In the closing section of the piece, this pitch class is inverted [0 12 10 8] and played as an ostinato on the vibraphone. The opening of the piece is atonal and sparse. The last section is tonal (with the exception of the choral interjections) and lush.

Feldman includes an unusual amount of melody in Rothko Chapel, even exhibiting a string of tonal melody played by the viola in the last section of the piece. Rothko’s favorite composer was Mendelssohn, and this is a true tribute to his friend, who had a love of melody.

“I prefer to think of my work as between categories,” Feldman said. “Between time and space. Between painting and music. Between the music’s construction and its surface.”