Feldman/Satie/Cage: Rothko Chapel (ECM New Series 2378)

2378 X

Morton Feldman/Erik Satie/John Cage
Rothko Chapel

Kim Kashkashian viola
Sarah Rothenberg piano, celeste
Steven Schick percussion
Houston Chamber Choir
Robert Simpson conductor
Cage and Satie recorded May 2012 at Stude Hall, Rice University in Houston
Feldman recorded February 2013 at The Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, Asia Society Texas Center
Programme: Sarah Rothenberg
Tonmeister: Judith Sherman
Engineer: Andrew Bradley
Editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Mastered at MSM Studio, Munich by Judith Sherman and Christoph Stickel
Produced by Judith Sherman
An ECM Production
U.S. release date: October 23, 2015

To encounter a painting of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is to stand not before but within it. The more one gazes, the more blended one becomes into its borderless horizons. This dynamic is duly obvious in Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational space hung with his canvases and where visitors, observes pianist Sarah Rothenberg, “actually inhabit the paintings from the inside.” After the chapel’s posthumous opening, composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was asked by philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil to pen a tribute, and thus the centerpiece to Rothenberg’s carefully assembled program was born.

Said program was originally presented by Houston-based Da Camera, an organization that Rothenberg has lead since 1994, and under the auspices of which she presented a 40th Anniversary Concert at Rothko Chapel in 2011. Translating the energies of this event into a studio experience transcends the qualities of a reproduction, for the musicians’ raw talents move so organically as to yield an original work of art with immersive qualities all its own.

Rothko Robinson

From the rumbling timpani that opens Rothko Chapel alone, one already knows that the composer must have been both admirer of, and friend to, the artist. That he was, and their penchant for debate and banter codes its way into every click of aperture as the nearly 30-minute piece unfolds. Then again, it might be more accurate to say that Feldman’s masterwork “infolds,” for like a thought compressed into pigment, it colors the mind with simple yet deeply planar contrasts. Other percussive elements shine as the underside to a viola’s burnished top. These two might seem oppositional, were it not for Kim Kashkashian, in whose rooted bowing one may hear the spirit of hues and forms that put Feldman’s cells in an inner tandem not unlike that of the Rothkos themselves. The presence of choir, then, surely manifests the darkness into which Rothko’s angles seem to forever recede. Feldman’s sounds are thus every bit as painterly as Rothko’s applications were sonic. Each follows its own frequency toward a common endpoint—which is to say, a point without end. Individual voices, bowed and throated alike, constitute not “solos” but single bands of fuller spectra. As Rothenberg details in her beautiful liner notes, Feldman recognized the logical impossibility of expressing stasis in music, even if one may feel an illusion of it, for as the choir ends in mid-impulse, leaving us suspended in the void of those permeating rectangles, it is all we can do to inhale the illusion before it leaves us.

In this context, the soundings of Erik Satie (1866-1925) and John Cage (1912-1992) are drops in an ever-expanding pond. Satie was a focal point of Cage’s contemplative life, and much like Rothko to Feldman served to enhance a diffuse and intimate science. Satie’s obsession with time, as Cage saw it, surely helped both composers to recognize the value of space. Cage’s Four2 (1990) and Five (1988), both for choir, train the ear on a different field of overlaps. The bleed-through of these voices is that of watercolor, touching the paper’s edge as if it were a new beginning all the same. Higher voices ring out with the announcement of a barely-risen sun, soaking the clouds with generative power and carrying over denominators of motivic cells until they are stretched beyond recognition. The multiplicity of singers yields a selfless quality, which finds fullest expression in ear for EAR (Antiphonies). This 1983 piece for choir and tenor soloist transmits wordless impulses into a meditation on emptiness.

The latter, in being framed by the first two of Satie’s four Ogives for piano, seems even more an exercise in balance: between flat and sharp, loud and quiet, inner and outer. Nos. 1, 3, and 4 of Satie’s Gnossiennes similarly daub the program, each spread until it touches another. Their appearance is all the more vivid for their gentle persuasions, touches of the wrist leading us down a path that crumbles behind us as we tread. Rothenberg’s approach to the keyboard assures that these famous pieces feel familiar on their own terms.

It has been fascinating to watch Cage’s 1948 In a landscape evolve through the New Series. This is its third appearance on ECM’s classical imprint, marking programs by Herbert Henck and Alexei Lubimov. Ending an album as it does here, it feels all the more natal. Its arpeggios are as profound as the C-major prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and here absorb the resonance of that canonical past with hints of an unknown future.

These composers, and the artists from whom they gathered inspiration, may have been the avant-garde, but in them was also something far older, as primal as it was primary, that spoke to creation as the lotus of ego and its sonorous destruction.

(To hear samples of Rothko Chapel, please click here.)

Sarah Leonard/Christopher Bowers-Broadbent: Górecki/Satie/Milhaud/Bryars (ECM New Series 1495)


Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded June 1992, Hofkirche Luzern
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Not many record labels would produce, let alone conceive of, an album consisting mainly of works for soprano and organ. I am glad to say that ECM did not back away from such a challenge, and in the process left one of its most indelible musical marks on the classical landscape. Of the four composers represented here Bryars is the only ECM mainstay, but he is in fine company indeed.

Henryk Górecki’s O Domina Nostra (1982-1985/90), conceived as an apostrophe to the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra, emerges from and recedes into a profound stasis. An earthly low pedal D on the organ is paired with triads descending from the cosmos, leaving us caught in the middle. Our only guide is the bare text and the voice that articulates it:

O Domina nostra
Regina nostra Maria
Sancta Maria ora pro nobis

Oh, our Lady
Of the Bright Mount,
Our Queen, Mary
Holy Mary, pray for us

Amid this murky swirl a soprano scours her lowest range, trying to pull herself from the depths of some unnamable crisis. She proclaims her joy in faith, as if each new utterance might touch a hope that its predecessors failed to reach. She returns to the opening invocation, closing on a supplicative “O Domina.”

The epic Messe des Pauvres (1895), or Mass for the Poor, by Erik Satie is, like much of the composer’s paradoxical output, both representative of the eclecticism for which he is known and something of an anomaly. According to Wilfrid Mellers’s liner notes, early on in his compositional career Satie “sought to reintegrate the disintegrated materials of tradition by juxtaposing fragments of melody and chord-sequences without obvious relation to one another or to development.” Thus do we get the Messes des Pauvres, a piece rooted in plainchant, sans the theological overload such a comparison might imply. Normally the organ is accompanied by unison voices, but forgoes them here. The piece rarely lingers, as if the four limbs required of its performance were seeking a point of unity through which to gain access to something far more mystical. Yet the piece also questions the mystical, and with a levity that indulges our skepticism. The music is wrought with such beautiful indecisiveness that moments of resolution seem intrusive. Only when the organ bares its teeth midway through is the power of this indecision fully realized. The heavy feet of an overarching sarcastic glory trample even the fluted reverie that follows.

The diptych of miniatures that is Darius Milhaud’s Prélude I/II (1942) is charmingly rustic and prepares us for the masterpiece that awaits us. The lead melodies are like the ramblings of shepherds, whose carefree desires can only go so far before the flock disperses beyond containment. The rhythms move like a human figure, as graceful as they are imperfect.

Which brings us to this album’s pièce de résistance: Gavin Bryars’s The Black River (1991). The text, culled from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is told from the viewpoint of Professor Aronnax as he describes the many underwater life forms that escort the mighty Nautilus through a vast underwater current from which the piece gets its name. Bryars successfully makes of this passage a world unto itself, one not subterranean but submerged. A languid introduction from the organ opens our ears to the soprano’s entrance as she propels herself through a subdued tour de force of intonation, melody, and atmosphere. The melody sustains itself through a constantly shifting mosaic of moods, in which recapitulation is found only in the organ at the end.

Sarah Leonard sings with rare beauty, and her rich voice is laced with a nasal quality that burrows into the very marrow of the listener’s bones. Her high note in The Black River sends shivers down the spine (and do keep an ear out for the haunting overtone she unwittingly produces at the 13:18 mark in the same piece). Christopher Bowers-Broadbent is the perfect foil, eliciting from the organ a delicacy I have heard nowhere else. This will always be one of my most beloved New Series recordings.

<< Messiaen: Méditations Sur Le Mystère De La Sainte Trinité (ECM 1494 NS)
>> Aparis: Despite the fire-fighters’ efforts… (ECM 1496)