the Wire: Adventures in Modern Music, 324, February 2011

Vertical Music

Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman

I cannot say when it was that I started to like this piece, I mean really like it, as in feeling at ease with its demands, feeling invited to engage in its complexity, drawn to it, sucked in even, and absorbed by its sonic expanse. But I know that once I did, everything else started to sound different: a whole world opened up to me; a possibility to hear contemporary works for the way they sound as worlds rather than as pieces.  It was a matter of tuning myself to hear the work not as music but as sound making music sometimes, and sound at other times, but always insisting on the musicality of it all. Rothko Chapel is not music it is musical. In Liner Notes from 1962, Feldman writes how he was ‘instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship’, with the sensibility rather than the discipline of music. It is such a musical sensibility that shields us from the limitation of hearing within the conventions of music, but reminds us of the rigour of its practice.  And thus the piece can sound all sorts of things without becoming just anything.

Composed in 1971 and first performed in 1972 Rothko Chapel was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in memory of Mark Rothko, who had committed suicide the year before. Rothko had created the fourteen paintings for this non-denominational sanctuary in Houston. He had been a close friend to Feldman, who admired the uninterrupted spatiality of his paintings and sought to emulate their expanse with his sounds. Feldman was inspired by the visual scale of Rothko’s work and the gravity of Philip Guston’s paintings, another of his friends from the New York School who influenced his imagination. And so while the composition has a visual base in the paintings of Rothko and other painterly inspirations, the sounds themselves are not limited by these references but extend what they might be. As a result Feldman created a work that in its duration houses the vastness of all that one can hear.

Rothko Chapel predates much contemporary works and follows others, but it makes a space to sound them all. The dense transparency of the work creates a musical place that gives new ears to listening that hear not only the work itself but the memory of older pieces, contemporaneous works and the prophecy of future sounds. And so for me it resounds Henry Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary from 1695 and gives room to Francis Dhomont’s Forêt Profonde, 1996; it enables listening to Toshiya Tsunoda’s Scenery of Decalcomania from 2004, and all that might sound soon. It does this not in a post-modern way, insisting on universal reference, but by providing space to sound itself. This is a very personal referencing, a hearing the work through the memory of all I ever heard. And so no doubt it will sound for you so very differently to what it sounds for me.

Rothko’s paintings are site-specific, painted for and installed in the chapel the de Menil Foundation built as a sacred refuge open to all. Feldman’s answer is a much more singular site-specificity. Although commissioned for and played in its inaugural performance at the chapel, the recording of it offers me the specificity of my location: the acoustic environment through which I hear the work. Listening as if to his work I hear the environment not as a set of causal relations and pragmatic particularities at a distance from me, but as an expanse of which I am part. My listening generates my place in his work, and it is there, between his composition and my listening that all manner of things resound and sound for the first time.

This does not mean the work is not particular, it is very particular. Never is it erased by hearing other works and other things, only ever expanded. Feldman’s sounds absorb works and acoustic environments, expanding them gently but with the conviction of its own workness. The particularity of reference is the listener’s, the particularity of play is the rigour of the composition: The rigour of sounds tumbling down on me with great precision, one by one, filling the room, filling my ears, expanding and sounding a world that is not horizontal but vertical. These vertical sounds invite a vertical listening that hears an infinite continuity, whose relationships are sensorial, sentimental even, and encompass all.

There are surprises, asymmetries, the unpredictable and uncontrollable of sound. Streaks, tiny bells, rumbles and reverberant melodies suddenly occur that surge into the vertical flow. Maybe this is what Feldman meant when he talked about leaving sounds their own proportion: not to force them into a composition but to arrange them to sound as themselves. The piece feels autonomous, not constrained by a compositional effort but free to play. Feldman is not present as a composer but as an organiser of sounds, who with the early encouragement of John Cage had embraced his intuitive working and come to enjoy his own happenstance.  -  “I don’t know how I made it”. (Feldman talking to John Cage in 1950 about a String Quartet)

His arrangement creates not a piece but a sphere of sound, a world of sound that is a possible world, a sonic possible world: The way things might be if only we listened. Feldman’s work transforms the compositional process beyond music on the way to sound, and provokes a different understanding of how to listen to anything: music, sound art and the acoustic environment. Hearing vertical narratives rather than horizontal causality, chronological order and harmonic developments, but the way sounds fall to earth and make a different planet, a strange planet that defines time as the place of my listening and embalms me as a sonic subject, transparent and vertical, the same as its sound.