Posts Tagged ‘rothko chapel’

I need to take a minute to thank my friend, the composer Nicholas Chase, for explaining to me how Third Angle got SQ2 down to 4 hours. While I could see the computer display of the score from my seat, and I thought it was a great idea, I could not actually always read the score. That’s the downside of bad eyes. Nick could; and he told me that two basic performance elements affected the duration of the piece. One, they did not perform all the repeats; two they counted beats almost robotically for at least 2 hours and in doing so limited the possibility of the durational extension that comes from asynchronous counting.

I tend to agree with what Nick told me about the repeat issue when, in his email to me, he said: “Feldman added repeats to create proportion within a piece, they weren’t mindlessly added to generate scale. It’s a common mistake of groups unfamiliar with Feldman’s *methods* (even if they’re familiar with his music) to believe that the repeats are superficial and not an integral part of the whole work….” In other words, skipping repeats isn’t really true to Feldman’s intent. I agree with that but I stand behind my contention that, while not the most “true-to-Morty” SQ2 performance, it was a very strong performance of a very difficult work. Personally, I hope that Third Angle will ask for feedback from some of the Feldman experts in their audience and will take what they have learned and parlay it into a world-class performance. I think they have the capacity to do that and I hope this is not their last attempt.

Now, as for the second Feldman performance, I have almost nothing bad to say. What I do want to mention is that I don’t think that a 5 minute excerpt of a 4 – 6 hour piece is effective. I would rather have heard one of Feldman’s early short pieces than an excerpt of SQ2. We used to have these crazed intellectual discussions, when Phil Glass started writing short pieces like those on “Glasssworks”, about whether minimalism could work in short duration pieces. For 35 years my answer has been “no” and I think that contention applies to Morty’s long pieces too. The POINT of SQ2 is it’s SCALE. In 5 minutes, you can’t get that point. With that minor opinion stated, I will say that the “Rothko Chapel” concert was a stunning event. If the biggest complaint I have is that I got to hear 5 minutes of SQ2, you should be PROUD. THAT is how I hope that the Third Angle Ensemble, The Resonance Ensemble, and The Portland Art Museum all feel. It was a GREAT night.

I told you that the “Rothko Chapel” performance was unique and I promised to tell you why. Here it is:

Third Angle subtitled their concert “a conversation in words and music”. Their use of “words” was fabulous. Instead of simply performing 8 pieces of music, the concert couched all 8 works in the context of the 1966 – 67 Cage/Feldman “Radio Happenings” from WBAI New York. In between each piece of music they played excerpts of the radio broadcasts of Cage and Feldman in conversation. Then the music reflected some aspect of what was said.  For example, prior to performing Webern’s “Sechs Bagatellen” was an excerpt of Cage and Feldman discussing how they both first experienced that piece (so overwhelmed that they did not want to hear the remainder of the concert). That piece began the program and what followed were Cage’s “Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard” and “Imaginary Landscape #4” (that wacky piece for 12 radios); “Violist Piece #1” and part 1 of “Burdocks” by Christian Wolff; and three examples of Morty’s music – one five-minute excerpt from SQ2,” Projection 4″ for violin and vibes, and the glorious “Rothko Chapel”. All of the performances were well executed and, I have to say, “Rothko Chapel” was a fine performance that was true to Feldman’s aesthetic. The vocalists were wonderful. They all came from a group called the “Resonance Ensemble”, a new ensemble lead by Dr. Katherine FitzGibbon. This is a complete non sequitur but I kept listening to one of the sopranos with the déjà vu feeling that I was listening to Cathy Berberian. I’m telling you that because I love Berberian’s voice and I don’t lightly compare it to others. So, whichever of the 6 of you it was, you are a lovely vocalist and I think you should sing some Berio! 🙂

There was a visual aspect to the show as well. The room was laid out in such a way as to feel like a space similar to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Not dark and sacred but still comfortably and reverently enclosed. Bruce Guenther, the museum’s chief curator (who I have praised in the past) did the lighting design. Curtains surrounding the space displayed a variety of lighting with colors derived from many of those used in Rothko’s paintings before he turned to his final period of dark panels. The lighting was pleasing and the environment very conducive to experiencing the concert in a Rothko-laden context. Nice work Mr. Guenther!

Let me finish by simply saying that Third Angle (along with PAM and Resonance) deserve a very heartfelt congratulations. True, I came to hear Feldman and I don’t like Cage. But it was an exceptional program. Besides, I’ve been in Portland for nearly 23 years and I can’t remember a single performance of Christian Wolff. So, it’s clear that Third Angle is dedicated to bringing critical new music to Portland and that they are essentially the only ones who so effectively will take the risk.

Superb work and a wonderful augmentation of the Rothko show. John and Morty are no doubt smiling!

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!

My last post about the upcoming Rothko show in Portland was what I’d call rather “heady”. I tried to discuss the philosophical foundations of Mark Rothko’s work. No doubt, someday, some real Rothko scholar will stumble upon these posts and will find all the things I did not accurately depict. But, you do need to give me credit for taking a shot at it. To counterbalance that post, I’d like to take some time away from thinking about the work and devote a few minutes to the subject of experiencing it. For that, I’ll turn to a Houston Texas landmark: Rothko Chapel.

Houston’s Rothko Chapel was made possible by John and Dominique de Menil. If ever there were a couple who devoted their Texas oil money to art, it was the de Menils. Just down the street from the chapel, in a building by  Mies van der Rohe, is the Menil Collection – one of the most wonderful private art museums in America. I admit it: I hate Houston weather and I can’t typically spend much time there. I also admit, though, that one of my favorite “outings” of all time is a day spent at the Rothko Chapel, followed by dinner at Tony’s, and a play at The Alley Theater. So, say what you will about Houston; in my book it’s got a lot to redeem it. Mind you… I could NEVER live there. But, visits can be surprisingly wonderful. On top of the art, food, and theater; my wife is from Houston; and her family is one of the things that has richly blessed my life. I like her parents, siblings, and extended family. But more than that, I LOVE the nieces and nephews we have there. They are the real topic of today’s post.

The chapel was dedicated in 1971. It was intended to be an intimate meditative space for people of every faith. Rothko received the commission from the de Menils in 1964 and was given control over the entirety of the built environment.  The building was specifically designed to display a set of fourteen very dark and very subtle paintings. Rothko was able to work directly with architect Philip Johnson (who began the building) , and with Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry (who finished it).

Of the fourteen canvases, seven consist of sharp-edged black rectangles on a deep maroon background and seven are large purple tonal paintings. In the low light that Rothko specified for viewing, they initially all seem to be variations on black or deep gray. Under this light, the paintings are best experienced by sitting with them long enough to begin to notice their differentiation.

Not everyone likes these paintings as much as I do. In fact, one of my favorite “art stories” comes from my aunt and uncle who, like me, adore Rothko. Once, when visiting my cousin in Houston, my aunt and uncle were excited to go and see the chapel. With great enthusiasm and with my cousin in tow, they took off to see it. When they entered the space, they were transfixed… That is, until my cousin turned to them and said “so, where are the paintings?”

My cousin’s experience is diametrically opposite of the experience that my young nieces and nephews had when I first took them to visit the chapel. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the kids reaction. I’d guess that it was about 1990 or 91 when I loaded up the car with Denise, Bobbie, and Dustin (I don’t recall Jennifer coming with us), and headed out of Katy, Texas to the nice suburban Houston neighborhood where the chapel resides. We walked into the building and I expected these 3 primary school-aged kids to say something really profound (like “so, where are the paintings”). Instead, all three of them walked around the perimeter of the space with me and stopped to look at each canvas.

Instead of thinking these paintings were “black” or “of nothing”, they looked at each one and noticed the color shifts. I distinctly remember that one of them said “hey, I see some red!” Another noticed the purple. Then they commented about the brush strokes. I kid you not, 3 young Texan children, from a family without artists, seemed to really dig the place. From that point on, every time I visited Houston, and wanted to see Rothko Chapel, at least 1 or 2 of the kids wanted to join us. I don’t know if this is just an inherent open-mindedness of youth or what. But, I always feel like I did something special for those kids.

What they probably still don’t know is how much they, through their willingness to experience something new, did for me!


An interesting place to begin my personal commentary on Mark Rothko is to connect him to someone else whose work I love. If you read far enough back in this blog you’ll discover (or remember) that I love the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Interestingly, according to Seymour Chatman, in his 1985 book “The Surface of the World”, Antonioni and Rothko have met. When Antonioni visited Rothko in New York he said this about Rothko’s work:

           “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing… with precision”

What I love about this statement is not it’s comment about “nothingness” but, rather, its comment about “precision“. Even if the director himself is the one who said this, to say that Antonioni’s films are about “nothing” is to downplay the true significance of them. In the case of Antonioni, the “nothingness” is for the purpose of letting us experience something far more subtle than plot; the experience of alienation. By way of his own stated philosophy, Antonioni quickly dispenses with “the event” to take on the task of explaining why and what it feels like to deal with the event. In that respect, “L’Avventura”, for example, is “about” a woman who goes missing on a boating trip; but he dispenses with that “event” in the first few minutes of the film. The next 2 hours are about what it feels like to search, and the relationship changes that arise. In a comparable sense, Rothko’s paintings are not about “nothing“. They are “about” touching the depths of our emotions and feelings. They are “about” something  absolutely crucial: transcendence.

To understand what I mean, we need to look at the philosophical foundations of Rothko’s work. You will find that the philosophers from whom he draws are not the ones whose philosophy I follow. That is why, in a later post, I’ll talk about why I love his work even if it’s foundational philosophy is somewhat counter to my philosophy of life. There are feelings of ecstasy that I see in a realist painter like my friend Michael Newberry and there are feelings of ecstasy that I feel from Rothko. Newberry (whose work I adore and who I very deeply respect)  does not feel comparably. Because I want to explore where I differ, I’ll eventually be addressing why I feel as I do. But I can’t discuss that before building a base. To do that we must look at Rothko’s philosophical influences, not mine.

There are 2 philosophical works that Rothko explicitly cites as being influential. They are Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy”. I’ll quickly dispense with the first because I know rather little about it. But it is important to mention. The second is a topic with which I can reasonably competently deal.

In “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard presents a retelling of what in Judaism we call “The Akidah” or “The Binding of Isaac”. It’s the story of Abraham ascending the mountain with Isaac in tow, with the intent of sacrificing Isaac per God’s command. At the last-minute, of course, Isaac is saved and Abraham has proven how much faith he has. Most Christians I know, and many Jews, view this as Abraham’s great statement of faith in God and/or of obedience. I don’t like the story and I dislike it for exactly the reason that Kierkegaard discusses: There can be no rational justification for Abraham’s behavior. Irrespective of “God’s command” we must ask: “Is it ethical to have a willingness to kill your son?” I personally say “no”. Kierkegaard takes this specific story, though, and generalizes it. He makes the story into an existential crisis in which Abraham’s anguish about the decision represents an allegory for the entire human condition. The important point, relative to Rothko, is this notion of generalizing something specific. Kierkegaard contends that once an act has been carried out by an individual, that act becomes universal. My understanding of Rothko’s Kierkegaard connection is that he sees art the same way. For Rothko, neither the act of creating nor the role of the creator are easily understandable or explicable. In the context of Abraham, Kierkegaard calls the ethical problem the “teleological suspension of the ethical”. Rothko’s corollary is the suspension of individual self-expression and autobiography, in favor of performing an abstract “act of faith”. Please remember what I said earlier. I’m not an expert. You now know everything I know about Kierkegaard and Rothko and I certainly am open to corrective comments. So, let’s move on.

If you look at Rothko’s published writing and some of the Rothko scholarship, you will see that there is a well established connection between Rothko and Nietzsche. Specifically, Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” is a key influence. Now, I view Rothko’s work as stunningly beautiful and I was stunned when I learned, years ago, that he considered it to be in the “tragic” tradition. What I did not know then, but what I have come to learn, is that to understand Rothko’s “tragedy” you have to understand Nietzsche’s explanation of why Greek Tragedy died out. Let’s begin there.

According to Nietzsche, the demise of the Greek Tragedy is the result of the decline of the “Dionysian” and the rise of the “Apollonian”. When I first read this I knew, for certain, that I was not a philosopher (at least not philosophical historian, at any rate). I had to work to understand what he meant. (To be honest, I’m still not good at understanding Nietzsche). What I think he means is that, as the more free-form, exuberant, intoxicating focus on the theater of myth gave way to the greater precision, order, symmetry, and form of a theater depicting the phenomenal world, the genre of Greek tragedy died away. Perhaps equally important, from my limited knowledge, was the disappearance of the “chorus” and the musical aspects of Greek theater. So, to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy died because it became too rigid, formal, and rational. But, Nietzsche did not care all that much about Greek theater. He cared more about formalizing his contention and then generalizing it to represent (again) the “human condition”.

One more thing about Nietzsche before tying it together with Rothko. Nietzsche learned from Schopenhauer’s aesthetics that art had a purpose. For the record this is NOT my definition of the purpose of art and I don’t accept it as the sole rationale for the existence of art: it is Schopenhauer’s via Nietzsche’s. The idea is that the purpose of art is to make life bearable for individuals in an interconnected world who’s inter-relationships we don’t understand. To Schopenhauer, if we could actually look out at the ultimate nature of reality we  could never subsequently go about living our ordinary, mundane lives. This is because we are individuals in only one respect. In another respect, we are just cogs in the grand scheme of human existence. In fact, he tries to explain our tendency toward cruelty by blaming it on our inability to see that we are all part of one big entity. There is much to be said for that last statement.

What about Rothko? Well, Nietzsche had a major impact on him. Of the “Birth of Tragedy” Rothko said that it: “left an indelible impression upon my mind and has forever colored the syntax of my own reflections on the questions of art”. If the purpose of art is to make life bearable, then perhaps his job as an artist is to do something else that Nietzsche expounded:  to allow the viewer a controlled view of the ultimate nature of reality through a return to the Dionysian by means of abstraction.

One more thing to consider. The philosophers I’ve mentioned, living in a time of representational plastic arts, viewed music as distinct from painting or sculpture. While music could be representational in the form of Opera or “programmatic” music, it was the one art (prior to the 20th century) that was not necessarily representational. So music was viewed as the art most able to put the audience in touch with this hidden reality. The visual arts could not do that. But with abstraction, many artists attempted to overcome that “limitation”. In my personal opinion, Rothko came closer than anyone else to achieving that goal. His work approaches that “state” of “musicality”. I almost like to think of his paintings as “tone poems for people with synesthesia”.

Rothko has said that “The poignancy of art in my life lay in it’s Dionysian content”. During a panel discussion at the opening of the Tate Modern Retrospective a few years back:  Nigel Warburton (to whom I owe much of my understanding of Rothko and philosophy) asked us to consider the Dionysian aspects of Rothko’s work. Some of his examples included:

(1) Indistinct and ever-changing forms

(2) Work accentuated by the low light in which Rothko preferred many of his paintings to be viewed.

(3) Lack of clarity

(4) Lack of stability

(5) The ease with which a viewed can get “lost” in a painting, even to the extent of a loss of the sense of individuation.

Nigel is a Rothko expert and I certainly am not. Still, in the case of every one of his examples, I see something I recognize and something I love in the work of Mark Rothko. I’m a rationalist at heart, and I’m not supposed to fall into the abyss of Platonic, Dionysian irrationality. But I do. Every single time I’m in a room with Rothko paintings, I do. At the Philips collection in DC, I do. At the National Gallery, I do. At the Rothko Chapel in Houston, I do. I’m sorry my dear co-rationalists, but I have to admit it, I fall in love with this work everywhere I see it and I fall in love with it more each time. You’ll have to wait a while longer for a blog post that attempts to explain why this is. But for now, I’ll just admit it. Rothko’s work is not “rational” but it is powerfully affecting and; whether or not I like Nietzsche, or Schopenhauer, or Kierkegaard, or their predecessors and successors; it is the fact that Rothko adopted them as his philosophers that has provided the groundwork.