On Rothko and the Portland Retrospective (Part 8): Third Angle Ensemble brings the music of Mark Rothko’s friend Morton Feldman to Portland

Posted: March 10, 2012 in Experiences, On Beauty
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The visual artists who formed the New York School are, often, more well-known than their contemporaries from other creative disciplines. That, however, does not mean that the “school” was limited to painters. The choreographer Merce Cunningham was there with them. So too were a number of widely respected contemporary composers; specifically Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Earle Brown. I had the great honor of knowing, and studying with three of the 4 composers I just mentioned: Cage, Feldman, and Brown.

In the case of Cage, I must say that I don’t really like his music. No matter how many times I went out to pick yarrow stalks, I just can’t get into composing by random application of the I Ching.  But, know this, I may not like what he did, but I have enormous respect for the seriousness with which he did it. I remember once at CalArts when we composition students were preparing a performance of “Cartridge Music” and someone decided that we should end it with a crescendo that had not come from our I Ching tosses. Lucky Mosko made it really clear that we should NOT do that because it disrespected John’s work and, equally important, because John would know we’d taken liberties and he’d be hurt. I may not like everything people call music. But, if they do it seriously and they know what they are doing, I’ll respect them. That’s Cage.

Earle Brown was the one of the three who I knew best. He actually stayed at CalArts for an entire term as guest composer. I remember exactly where I was standing and what I was doing, following my graduation recital, when Earle came to tell me that he’d liked my percussion trio. I though my life was complete! He was a fun guy and his music was fun as well.

Feldman was the one who came to CalArts the least often. But, I have to say that he had among the greatest impact. Morty (everyone called him “Morty”) was a BIG guy: heavy-set, loud, chain-smoking, bearing a very strong NY accent, and adorned with huge hands. Everyone already knows this, because everyone says it, but I can tell you from experience that you would never in your wildest imagination think that this guy would be the delightfully kind soul who’d write a 6 hour string quartet or would use ppppp as a common dynamic marking. He and his music were diametrically opposite. Feldman was a truly amazing man. He was a simply lovely human being and he took his music VERY seriously. A case could be made that Morty’s second string quartet could have had the same effect that it has, whether or not it was completely notated. Yet, at least by his mid- to late-music, Morty definitely notated! He was specific and he was exacting. Whether his music was 20 minutes or 6 hours, Morty never gave in to a sacrifice of precision.  He CARED about every single note.

The other thing I remember about Morty was that he was a superb jazz pianist. More than once I can remember gathering in Music School Dean Nick England’s office to drink beers and to listen to Morty and Mel Powell jam together on Nick’s office Steinway. Both Morty and Mel had hands that spanned well over an octave and both of them had amazing chops. Mel played piano for Benny Goodman while still a child. I don’t know where Morty became the pianist he was, but he could kick some serious ass on the keys.

My point in telling you all of this is to explain why I an excited that Third Angle is performing Feldman’s music in conjunction with the Portland Rothko Retrospective. I really liked the guy and was very, very sad when he died of pancreatic cancer in 1987, at only 61. Third Angle could have made a variety of other decisions. They could have decided to do Earle Brown’s “Centering” or Cage’s piano music, or a whole range of amazing music by Christian Wolff. But they chose Feldman; this makes me happy but it is also the most obvious and by far the most àpropos choice.

You see, of all these American composers, it was Feldman who was closest to Rothko. They were dear friends. In fact, after Rothko killed himself, Feldman was one of the original 5 board members at the Mark Rothko Foundation. Morty was one of the only 2 ethical guys who cared more about Rothko’s wishes and Rothko’s family than about the monetary value of Rothko’s paintings. Morty is the perfect composer to pair with Rothko.

Third Angle could have chosen from myriad works by Feldman and, in my estimation, they selected the 2 perfect ones. This is because they picked one work that is directly related to Rothko (Rothko Chapel) and one that demonstrates an amazing dedication to Feldman himself.

On Friday February 24, 2012 Third Angle chose to perform one of the most daunting pieces of Chamber Music ever conceived. Feldman, toward the end of his career, had created works of immense scale. By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s pieces like the 80-minute “Piano and String Quartet” and equally long “String Quartet #1” were among his SHORT pieces. More typical were pieces like the 4-hour long “For Philip Guston”. Simply, listening to a Feldman piece had become a project in and of itself. But even “For Philip Guston” pales in comparison to Feldman’s String Quartet #2″. Generally the quartet clocks in at 5 – 6 1/4 hours (but, seriously, by then who’s counting!). You see, with this much music, the difference between a quarter note at 63 or 66 beats per minute makes a pretty big difference! The Third Angle performance was actually the shortest I’ve heard, at exactly 4 hours; and, frankly, I could not figure out what they did to trim it down. But there is something special about “Quartet #2” that, even at a brief 4 hours, makes it more difficult than other Feldman mega-pieces. That is the small size of the ensemble (a quartet) and the difficulty of holding string instruments for an extended period. What makes SQ2 so difficult is that, whether it’s 4 hours or 6 1/2 hours, it can wreak havoc on your hands. In fact, the famed Kronos Quartet prepared it once and then refused to ever play it again. That’s why I think it’s amazing (and amazingly wonderful) that Third Angle took on the task. So…. Bravissimo for that!

As for the Third Angle performance I really hesitate to try to write a critical review. First, as I said, I don’t know how they got the duration down to 4 hours. Second, they made several artistic decisions that I don’t understand. I won’t criticize some of those decisions because I don’t know what went into them. Specifically, aside from the 4 hour duration, the ensemble seemed to occasionally take what I can best describe as “stretch breaks”. I don’t know what to think about that so I won’t speculate on the relationship to the score. One thing that I think added a lot to the performance was the use of computer monitors to display the score for the performers. Among other things, 4 hours of page turns can be annoying and they got around that elegantly. For another, the performers had one less thing to worry about. And, for a third, it was pretty cool that, in the small space of the Ellyn Bye Studio, the audience could watch the score. The one artistic decision that I will comment on is the invitation to the audience to “come and go as you please”. From the perspective of getting an audience on a Friday afternoon from 2 – 6 PM, I get that. What surprised, and deeply disappointed, me was the general level of inconsiderate behavior of the audience members who did come and go. Audience members let their seats make an awful lot of noise when they chose to go, they talked, and they generally came and went with very little consideration for those of us who were there for the duration. I don’t disagree with the “come and go” idea. What I do think is that it should have been couched in the caveat to “not disturb others!” I found the rudeness of some attendees to be amazingly annoying. Were this a John Cage performance, the ambient noise might have been okay (in fact it may well have delighted Cage). But this is Feldman – the man who cherished every single note. I don’t think that audience noise is true to, or respectful of, Feldman. I don’t blame this on Third Angle. But, I do think that asking audience members to be quiet in their comings and goings would have made for a better experience. Then again, part of the experience of a 4 hour Feldman quartet is how you as a listener are affected by the scale of the piece and, being annoyed is as much a part of experience as anything else! Besides, the bottom line is that they DID THE PIECE and should be acknowledged for taking it on.

The performance more directly related to Mark Rothko occurred on Saturday evening March 10th. In this concert, in the Mark Building at the Art Museum, the Resonance Choral Ensemble joined Third Angle in the performance of Feldman’s piece “Rothko Chapel”. Knowing from past posts that I love both Feldman and the Chapel itself, it should come as no surprise that I love this piece. And, of course, it’s the perfect piece to accompany the Rothko show! Not only that but, unlike the second quartet, “Rothko Chapel” is accessible and, shall we say, “easy”. In some respects, in a very big departure from most of the NY School composers and even from Morty himself. Parts of the piece almost sound (dare I say) like late impressionism. So, in a sense, it’s the perfect introduction to Feldman. It is beautiful music, composed for a beautiful space, gifted (at least conceptually) from a nice guy to his dear friend, rich in its instrumentation and use of vocal resources, and an easy listen.

The Third Angle performance was unique for a variety of reasons (all positive) and, in my next post, I’ll tell you why. Stay tuned!

  1. Ron Blessinger says:

    Thanks for the review. I completely understand the perspective that suggests that Feldman’s 2nd quartet (FSQ2) either should be played precisely as written (no breaks, even for a few seconds and with all the indicated repeats), or not at all. I guess we viewed those compromises as not ideal yet acceptable, if that’s what it would take for a performance of this piece to take place at all.

    Feldman indicates in the score a range of 3.5-5.5 hours. It’s hard to see how the piece could happen on the shorter end of this range without making the choices we did. The fact that the Flux Quartet has defined it as a ‘six-hour’ quartet doesn’t change the fact that Feldman indicates more flexibility than that.

    I’m committed to another performance of FSQ2 that will focus 100% on the musical concepts, and letting the chips fall where they may in terms of duration. I’d love to start it, get lost in it, look up at the end and be pleasantly surprised by how quickly time has flown by. This first performance was about dealing with our apprehensions for playing the longest performance any of us had ever done, and I hope we can be forgiven for doing what we thought necessary to survive.

    Ron Blessinger
    Artistic Director
    Third Angle Ensemble

    • Ron, THANKS for the comment. I hope you could tell that I AGREE that it’s far better to compromise than to not do the piece. If I was not clear in saying that I have ENORMOUS respect for you guys tackling the piece than I’ll clarify that. I will long be indebted to you for playing the piece and I’m proud that a Portland ensemble had the guts to do it!

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