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.)

Morton Feldman: Violin and Orchestra (ECM New Series 2283)

Violin and Orchestra

Morton Feldman
Violin and Orchestra

Carolin Widmann violin
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Emilio Pomàrico conductor
Recorded October 2009 at Sendesaal des Hessischen Rundfunks, Frankfurt
Recording producer: Hans Berhnhard Bätzing
Recording engineer: Rüdiger Orth
Executive producer for Hessischer Rundfunk: Andrea Zietzschmann
An ECM/Hessischer Rundfunk Co-production

Alex Ross is one of many to characterize Morton Feldman’s music as being “glacially slow and snowily soft,” echoing the sentiments of Feldman specialists like Thomas DeLio and even Feldman himself, who employed “slow, soft” as a designation in his piano music, the so-called Last Pieces of 1959 being one example. All the while, such readings fail to out the culprit of human perception that defines their pathos to begin with. It’s not that Feldman’s “sound” (as if it were ever reducible to one) is inherently lethargic, but that we are simply ill-equipped to handle its cosmic speeds.


We may project whatever we like onto the gossamer screen of Feldman’s hard-won life, but at the end of the day there is only the beginning of the music. That being said, there is great value in the analogic glacier to the new listener, one who comes to Feldman thinking he was a mere minimalist, only to discover that, like a glacier, he was symphony of stasis and movement in which no stratum was ever an exact replica of its neighbors. His Violin and Orchestra of 1979 is therefore not only a masterpiece in the biographical sense, but also in terms of its geological significance. Although Feldman modeled his writing off abstract impressionism, it traces fault lines so robustly scarred that no earthquake could impress them with abstraction.

Over its 1500+ bars, this multiple entity achieves sonority through rupture. Its beginnings beg not earthly but extraterrestrial comparisons, skimming black hole rims and flirting with a gravitational pull of such unfathomable power that its language can only be written by bow. Wielding said bow is violinist Carolin Widmann, while Emilio Pomàrico wields his own writing instrument in the form of a baton, suspended like a satellite antenna within the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra’s magnetic fields. Also among the forces gathered for this piece—massive in number but spectral in effect—is a piano’s droning paintbrush. Just as important as the violin, it is the below to the latter’s above and connects chakras in constellatory networks of nerve impulses. Neither is a soloist for the mere pleasure of orchestral accompaniment; they are indivisible as sunlight and water.

If any overarching thing can be said of Feldman, it is that he was a generous atmospherist. The beauty of Violin and Orchestra is that one will experience it as either a mystery or the most natural phenomenon imaginable—if not both. You might search for motifs, for concerto structure, but will come up only with handfuls of something far more organic. The variety of textures alone is proof of concept. Pulsing lower strings, light pizzicati, and tonal shifts comprise the circle, while the violin sews its holes into scars. There is an inner and outer skin to the music. Both belong to a beast that cowers below the earth’s surface, sucking its thumb and singing whatever lullabies it can dredge up from the pond of memory. It inhales, exhales. It takes continuous stock of its own emotional inventory and catalogs it finitely, like a machine. The violin’s higher-pitched notes are at some moments its veneer, at others the tone of an inner ear, at still others the sting of total recall. Even after the violin fades through a chain of percussion responses, it leaves behind a single open wound that can only be salved by our commitment to its passing.

Morton Feldman: The Viola in My Life (ECM New Series 1798)


Morton Feldman
The Viola in My Life

Marek Konstantynowicz viola
Cikada Ensemble
Norwegian Radio Orchestra
Christian Eggen conductor
Recorded August 2001 at NRK Studios, Oslo

Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life (1970/71) is a work of great scope and detail. Each of its first three parts is scored for viola and a variety of chamber ensembles, while the last pairs viola with orchestra in what Feldman calls a “translation” of the first three. Unlike his earlier forays into indeterminacy, Viola is thoroughly composed. Its genius lies in Feldman’s ability to forge massive amounts of empty space into a layered resonance that is anything but “minimal.” The music slowly undulates in tune with the viola’s crests and fades, touched by patches of darkness like a figure slowly walking through lattice-obstructed sunlight. The viola is the center around which the other instruments revolve. This revolution brings the listener full circle with each new phrase, for despite the seeming regularity, each marks an uncertain orbit. The piano in parts I and III grazes the edges of silence, in pursuit of nothing but its own pursuit; the celesta in part II dots our minds with stars; and the orchestral backdrop of part IV carries the viola like a feather riding an upward breath. Such ethereality harbors no romantic promise of freedom. As Feldman himself admits, “The viola’s crescendos are a return to a preoccupation with a musical perspective which is not determined by an interaction of corresponding musical ideas—but rather like a bird trying to soar in a confined landscape.” Eventually we must reperch, and Viola is constantly skirting the boundaries of our cage like a silent but ever-watchful eye. And as I drift off to sleep during the final movement, I feel the eye closing around me, like a lost child embracing himself in lieu of human contact.

This album could easily be titled “The Life in My Viola,” for it is so rich with intimations of a generative spirit. The recording and performances are finely attuned to the music’s inner core, the Cikada Ensemble creating a fine setting for Marek Konstantynowicz’s restrained soloing throughout. Morton Feldman can be a challenge, but his rewards can be even more internal than his music.

Carolin Widmann/Simon Lepper: Phantasy of Spring (ECM New Series 2113)


Phantasy of Spring

Carolin Widmann violin
Simon Lepper piano
Recorded October and December 2006 at Kölner Funkhaus
Engineer: Stefan Hahn
Executive Producer: Harry Vogt
Co-production ECM/WDR

In order to approach this album, we might ask ourselves: What is spring? While it is popularly associated with rebirth, if not a certain rise in sexual energy and interest, spring is also a prime season of mischief, one in which creatures great and small awaken from their slumber and do their best to placate their raging hunger. And just what does this have to do with this album’s diverse program? Precisely this: the above interpretations are the result of socially bound, and therefore limited, understandings of nature. The four composers represented in this program, I think, understood this in each his own way. And so, while these pieces may seem on the surface to be at most tangentially connected, they are in fact bound by a fearless approach to fallacy.

Morton Feldman’s Spring of Chosroes (1977) is an ideal opener in this regard. While it is the sparest, it suffers no lack of density. The aired spaces are gravid, deeply informed by Feldman’s idiosyncratic sense of time and the performances of our two musicians. Composer Bunita Marcus offers the following insight into the title of Feldman’s enigmatic piece:

The Spring of Chosroes was a sumptuous carpet reputed to have been made for the Sassanian King Chosroes I (sixth-century A.D.). Woven with silk, gold, silver and rare stones, the carpet depicted a garden akin to Paradise. The image of this legendary rug remained with Feldman throughout the composition, inspiring the isolated “gems” of sound, the translucent, interwoven harmonic timbres, and suggesting the form of the work.

This knowledge provides us with a fertile avenue through which to approach its sounds. While Feldman’s chamber pieces have often been laced with a charming sort of regularity, in Spring we find this regularity thwarted in favor of a highly stylized form of variation. By “variation” I mean not to imply the presence of any central theme, but use it in the sense of a degree of change: we are simply pointing our microphones to the winds and capturing the first fourteen minutes of melody that come along. Recording engineer Stefan Hahn is delicately attuned to the instruments in his first ECM endeavor. He gives Carolin Widmann a wide spread, placing her pizzicatos into markedly different spaces than their surrounding notes, thereby leaving a trail of musical breadcrumbs for the patient listener to follow. Widmann herself draws out some of the purest high notes I have ever heard from the instrument as she navigates Feldman’s vast array of meter changes (270 in a score of 388 bars) with apparent ease. At certain points Simon Lepper hits the uppermost keys to produce a hollow percussive sound, as if in foil to the violin’s subtle clarity. Clearly, however, this is no conversation in the way that most violin sonatas are. Marcus again:

Even when one instrument plays alone, we do not get the customary impression that the other is waiting to reply. Rather, Feldman is choosing to turn an ear to one instrument, then to the other; and at times we hear both together. It is through this selective listening that Feldman paces the unfolding dialogue.

Thus, what appears dialogic is really just a trick of shifting perspectives. Feldman’s music, while always provocative in its subtle ways, feels more tongue-in-cheek and blatantly contradictory here. Feldman was always adept at peeling away the skin of “academic” music and trying to see what may be lurking behind it, cowering in a corner of its own making. The music puts me in mind of a large, gangly, and awkward creature that has forgotten its way home, but which at the same time possesses such intoxicating beauty as to befuddle anyone it asks for directions.

The opening bars of the 1950 Sonate für Violine und Klavier by Bernd Alois Zimmermann act as a launching pad for an invigorating first movement of Bartókian dimensions. The second movement, though filled with fluttering high notes, is a rather brooding affair and lays its patchwork carefully. The final movement is an exercise in urgent virtuosity, ending with a most unforgettable trill and flourish, as if signing an enormous document with a quill of sound. Lepper works the piano through considerable changes, each of which is traceable back to its originary big bang, while Widmann breathes life into every dance of this spectacular sonata.

Even more erratic, and seemingly uninterested in resolution, is Arnold Schönberg’s opus 47, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment of 1949, which began as a piece for solo violin to which he later added piano accompaniment. As one of his last compositions, the narrative trajectory of Phantasy veers into as many turns as the violin can allow. Tones seem to pull at one another, wrenching a tortured sort of melody from the realm of possibility. The piece works in clusters, an amalgam of “micro-compositions” that achieve unity only by virtue of existing on a printed score, of having a beginning and an end.

With Iannis Xenakis’s Dikhthas (1979), we immediately know we are in uncomfortable territory. The violin dances in circles, skirting the piano’s turgid interior like a mad prisoner. Moments of agreement are few and far between; moments of disagreement do no justice to the darkness; and separations are a given. Yet the piece isn’t as fatalistic as one would think. Like an overt camera zoom in a melodramatic film, the overuse of glissandi demonstrates the instability of note values and draws a jagged line under the piece’s contrived dual identity. Xenakis was one of the twentieth century music’s greatest game theorists. This impassioned performance allows us to experience one of his most intimate strategies as if for the first time.

Even if you have heard any or all of these pieces before, I guarantee these interpretations will give you much food for thought. Widmann’s incredibly fluid approach partners well with Lepper’s more pointillist one, and together they forge as vast a sound palette as one could imagine from a duo. By turns opaque and resplendent, this is a demanding album that should reap great benefits for the repeat listener.

A Hilliard Songbook (ECM New Series 1614/15)


The Hilliard Ensemble
A Hilliard Songbook: New Music For Voices

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded March/April 1995, March 1996 at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Those who approach this album like I did—that is, only after listening to the Hilliard Ensemble’s many early music recordings—may be in for a surprise. Whether that surprise is a pleasant one or not may depend on the listener’s openness to new sounds. The opening convulsion that is Barry Guy’s aphasic Un coup de dés would seem to foreshadow a bumpy ride. Its whirlwind of extended double bass techniques and choral acrobatics leaves us hard pressed to find our bearings. The score, Guy tells us, encourages improvisation and even the modification of what has already been written. Using a section from a Mellarmé poem, which likens the process of thought to a mere dice-throw, the piece works its way into our ears like a dwarfing star. It is abstract, agitated, and unsettling, yet full of gracious detail we cannot help but enjoy. The Hilliards demonstrate that they can execute a piece of such technical difficulty and “modern” sensibility with as much fluidity as they approach their more familiar repertoire—at least insofar as their recordings are concerned, for they have always been known for juxtaposing contemporary works with those of bygone ages in their live performances. And then we get the short and sweet Only, the earliest published composition of Morton Feldman. In less time than it takes to microwave a frozen dinner, we are utterly transported by Feldman’s visceral melodic rendering of a Rilke sonnet, brought to its fullest fruition through the angelic voice of Rogers Covey-Crump. It is a folk song for its own sake, a funereal hymn for the living. This sets off a spate of shorter pieces by Ivan Moody and Piers Hellawell. Moody’s viscous miniatures live up to the composer’s name, taking us through a range of emotional colors. Endechas y Canciones sets Arabic-Spanish poetry from the 15th and 16th centuries. The second of these, “Endechas a la muerte de Guillén Peraza,” is a dirge from the Canary Islands that pulls at the heartstrings with a pace slow and focused, like moderated speech. The Hilliard Songbook by Hellawell, on the other hand, is a whimsical journey through A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), the celebrated Elizabethan portraitist. This is the centerpiece of the album, both in title and in song. The treatise’s idiosyncratic descriptions of color inspired the composer to recreate those very colors with voices. Regulating the piece is a refrain taken up each time by one member of the ensemble: “True beautie of each perfect cullor in his full perfection in perfect hard bodies and very transparent.” Through this many-hued ode we are given valuable insight into not only the Hilliards’ vocal art, but also into the visual mind of their namesake.

Of the longer pieces represented here, Paul Robinson’s Incantation is textually the broadest. The words are adopted from Byron’s poem of the same name—what Robinson calls a “vitriolic curse”—through which the composer sought to foreground the Hilliards’ sonority over the work being performed. As the music marks its slow path through a rather morbid text, we feel the voices blend into a single destination. Kullervo’s Message, by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, recounts a dramatic episode from The Kalevala, Finland’s nineteenth-century national epic. From a line of skillfully harmonized textual lifts, Tormis hangs a series of messages by which the eponymous tragic hero is informed of the deaths of his loved ones, even as he prepares to exact his revenge upon those whose ridicule led him to such self-destructive fervor. Tormis’s melodic and programmatic colors are ideally suited to their source material, moving with the virtuosity of a master storyteller. Scottish composer James MacMillan offers his own epic statement in the form of …here in hiding…, a deceptively simple mesh of the poem “Adoro te devote” by St. Thomas Aquinas in both its Latin and English forms.

The remaining pieces comprise a flavorful mixture of words and musical ideas. Two exemplary statements from Arvo Pärt, And One Of The Pharisees… and the splendid vocal version of Summa, make fine company of Elizabeth Liddle’s Whale Rant, which takes its cues from Moby-Dick, and works its music like clock hands, with one arm counting the hours while another traces a faster, larger circle. The second hand becomes invisible, implied only in the vocal gestures of the sensitive performance, and is forever lost in the ocean of its source. Joanne Metcalf’s Music For The Star Of The Sea, is a thinly veiled meditation on the words “O ave maris stella” (“O hail star of the sea”) that extends the possibility of a single utterance into a vast Marian fabric. Sharpe Thorne by John Casken paints an image of Christ impaled, while Michael’s Finnissy’s Stabant autem iuxta crucem praises the one who bore him. And in Canticum Canticorum Ivan Moody again dazzles with this setting of verses from the Song of Songs and its loving incorporation of Byzantine chant.

Those wishing to hear the range of the Hilliards’ technical prowess will want to check out this collection for sure. This humble quartet sings with such clear articulation of phrase that one accepts every note like the nourishing morsel it is. While the music is for the most part contemplative and lovely, never ceasing to fascinate even at its least accessible moments, much of it feels spun from the same thread. The pieces by Ivan Moody stand out here as being the most well thought out and textually aligned, while the Hellawell, Tormis, and Guy enchant with their distinctive flair. That being said, it seems a shame to think that cultures outside a Eurocentric Judeo-Christian context should be shunted here. Considering that nearly all of these pieces were written for the Hilliard Ensemble, and that some of their composers were involved in the Hilliard Summer School led by the ensemble in residency, a narrow scope is perhaps understandable. Geographical limitations aside, the traveling instinct is still there in the Hilliards’ adventurous spirit, captured in every flawless phrase, in every committed performance that continues to issue from their very throats.