Morton Feldman, Mark Rothko, and chapels in time
Museums can be great places to catch a concert, but it's a shame that the art and the music are rarely given much of a chance to mingle. Often, the music seems to slip in through the back entrance. It takes the service elevator.
Some music may not mind this hermetic treatment, but the garrulous, wise, and allusive works of Morton Feldman would seem to protest. They want to explore the galleries, check up on a favorite, exchange a point of view, or maybe a joke.
Feldman (1926-1987), after all, was the most painterly of avant-garde composers. He had plenty of musical influences, including Cage and Varese. But as a denizen of the fabled Greenwich Village scene of the 1950s, he was also intoxicated by the new energy in painting he saw bursting forth all around him. He once described his own works as "time canvases," adding: "I more or less prime the canvas with an overall hue of the music."
This month the Gardner Museum has been offering performances of one of Feldman's epic late works, "For Christian Wolff," and it seemed as good a chance as any to reconnect his music with one of its painterly sources of inspiration. Feldman had many: Philip Guston loomed large in his personal pantheon, as did Robert Rauschenberg. But Feldman's music often seems to draw most deeply from the luminous color fields of Mark Rothko. With this in mind last week, I followed a heady afternoon spent in Feldman's garden of sound with a visit to the Harvard Art Museums, where the murals Rothko installed at the school in the early 1960s have been on view.
To experience both Feldman and Rothko in a pair of days is to do more than just wolf down a double-portion of iconic 20th-century art. It is to recall a particularly fertile friendship, to look out on a shared cultural vista from two different vantage points, and to turn over in one's hands the mysteries of one art form through the metaphors of another.
In his writing and so much of his music, Feldman seemed to admire painters most of all for the sheer tactility of their engagement with their own artistic medium. Composers' scores kept them one step removed, relying on a player's realization. A painting is the thing itself. So Feldman liked to speak of sound, too, as a physical entity, as something that could "push back" at its creator. "Don't push the sounds around," he once advised Karlheinz Stockhausen, to which Stockhausen memorably replied, "Not even a little bit?"
In the early 1950s, thinking of music through painting seemed for Feldman to be a way of sidestepping wearying polemics and reaching for a music liberated from the totalizing systems that were driving Europe's postwar avant-garde. "The new painting," Feldman wrote of the Abstract Expressionists, "made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore." He tried to layer sound the way his contemporaries layered paint.
From Rothko's art in particular, Feldman was inspired most of all by the idea of a surface tension within an environment of profound stasis. "It's frozen," he wrote, "at the same time it's vibrating."
That description works, too, for the gently tremulous sound world of "For Christian Wolff." Written in 1986 and dedicated to one of Feldman's closest composer contemporaries, the work casts its improbable spell across acres of delicately pointed music. As in so many of his late compositions, Feldman seems to have found his own musical grammar, his own way of stringing together ideas through polychrome chords, phrases that appear to trail off mid-sentence, and spacious silences of unpredictable length. The instrumental textures in "For Christian Wolff" are intimate, spare, and calligraphic. Feldman's only painterly "brushes" are solo flute, piano, and celesta. But from these modest resources he creates a mural in sound, at once vast and shimmering.
This past Monday, at the Gardner's Calderwood Hall, flutist Paula Robison and pianist Bruce Brubaker embarked on their third traversal of Feldman's score in as many weeks. A note in the program encouraged listeners to come and go as they pleased, while the two musicians played without pause for around 200 minutes.
It was a tour de force of quiet, watchful intensity. The music seemed to saturate the hall with its own proprietary hush. By the score's final pages, Robison's flute had attained a kind of raspy majesty, and Brubaker was floating jewel-like pinpricks of light from his celesta up to the third balcony. To perform this work once is a feat. To do so four times in one month — the final performance is on Monday afternoon — is to present the museum and its public with a gift. These performers deserve our thanks.
While some listeners came and went, I would guess that many stayed longer than they might have predicted, because this music exerts a subtle kind of backdoor charm, in part by what it's not. Its beauty is not exhaustingly articulate, like a younger cousin on a road trip. It does not strive self-consciously for transcendence or revolution. No idols are smashed. No lapels are grabbed. The music opens up before you like a meadow. Phrases repeat without actually being the same. Small changes are magnified. Suddenly, you are somewhere new.
The matter of the work's length is, in a way, its own source of fascination. Some large-scale scores by other composers seek to overwhelm our internal clocks, and do so quite effectively. One emerges from a matinee of "Götterdämmerung" somehow shocked that night has fallen. But this is not Feldman's way. While his late scores play out at extraordinary lengths (the String Quartet No. 2 spans some five hours), they don't disorient or compete with one's sense of the speed of time's passing.
This distinction is not accidental. If Wagner (among many others) sought to bend time to his will, Feldman strove precisely for a music that lets time be on its own terms. "I am interested in how this wild beast [of time] lives in the jungle — not in the zoo," he wrote. One begins to sense that the quality of glorious stasis at the heart of "For Christian Wolff" is perhaps the most artful of illusions. Like the way the car speeding next to you on the highway appears stationary, here is a music of stillness achieved by setting sound in motion precisely at the speed of time. Feldman's own description comes to mind, his aspiration for an art "that has become nothing more than the breathing of the sound itself."
Feldman's thinking on this subject was informed, naturally, by Rothko. The two men first met in the early 1960s. Both were of Russian-Jewish descent, though they were born some two decades and an ocean apart. After the painter's tragic suicide in 1971, Feldman memorialized his friend in a work called "Rothko Chapel," written for the famed space of the same name in Houston. The occasion drew out some of the composer's most moving music. With his outsize physical profile and his celebrated gift of gab, Feldman has often been described as a domineering presence. But the composer's empathy toward others could also be finely attuned. "Mondrian wanted to save the world," he once wrote. "You have only to look at a Rothko to know that he wanted to save himself."
The two men used to wander together through the Metropolitan Museum, taking extra time at the galleries of Greco-Roman sculpture, where they discussed the all-important matter of scale in art. As Feldman saw it, Rothko had discovered in his own work "that particular scale which suspends all proportions in equilibrium."
It was around this same time that Rothko was commissioned to paint his series of murals for the penthouse dining room of Harvard's Holyoke Center. The painter's own notion of scale had been evolving — upward. Rothko's goal, here and in the other mural projects that occupied his last years, was to create not so much a series of paintings as an enveloping space, an immersive environment, a room of art.
The Harvard murals today still convey something of that ambition. If Feldman's music is remarkably tactile, Rothko's paintings can be symphonic in their moody depths, and these works draw in one's gaze with their cataracts of color and their portal-like openings to spaces unseen.
Sadly, we can no longer know what these paintings were like when they were first installed by Rothko himself, as the works were badly damaged by sunlight over the years, their crimson colors fading until the canvases were packed into storage in the 1970s. But one may get an idea, courtesy of the digital wizardry used in this exhibition: A custom tinted light is projected onto each canvas to create an approximation of its original appearance.
At 4 p.m. every day, a small crowd gathers in the gallery to watch museum staff turn off the projectors, allowing the paintings to be seen in their darker, faded state. It's an odd ritual, this daily gathering to watch the lights go down on the Rothkos. Surely there's a curiosity about the technology in use, but also, I would guess, a hunger for a glimpse of the thing itself free of mediation, a pull toward the aura of the real.
Last week, it was striking to watch the giant canvases one by one release their artificial glow and revert to their faded colors. The crowd eventually drifted away, and the entire room seemed to relax. I lingered as long as possible, with the ring of Feldman's music still in my ears. Even in their diminished state, these murals still resonate with this composer's shiveringly quiet surfaces, his sublime studies in the dynamism of stasis, and his insight that sound and time, art and life, sometimes can do nothing grander than create a space in which to keep each other's company, hour after hour.
Morton Feldman's For Christian Wolff
Paula Robison (flute); Bruce Brubaker (keyboards)
At: Gardner Museum, Monday,
1 p.m. www.gardnermuseum.org
Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals
Through July 26
at the Harvard Art Museums, www.harvardartmuseums.org
Author of new Rothko biography speaks Wednesday at Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. www.newcenterboston.org