Luminous “Rothko Chapel” comes to SF Symphony

Pub date February 23, 2011
WriterMarke B.

Ambient music is currently waging a sustained comeback (even the old ’80s New Age label Windham Hill has been sending me emails lately!) But if you’re looking for something that reaches for timelessness — with a lot more philosophical underpinnings than Yanni has mock turtlenecks — then the glowing symphonic sound sculpture that is Morton Feldman‘s “Rothko Chapel,” coming to the SF Symphony Wed/23-Sat/26, is just what you’re after.

Written in 1971 by the intellectually restless composer as a specific commission for the great Abstract Expressionist painter’s Houston chapel, Feldman’s meditative work for chorus, viola, percussion, and orchestra — which will surely be burnished to shining perfection by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, he’s like that — replicates the spiritual absorption that can overwhelm when face-to-face with a Rothko canvas, let alone the 16 at once that comprise the chapel.

(I always think of Rothkos as paper towels for the soul. Feldman supposedly once said, “Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?”)

Here’s a wonderful paragraph on Feldman’s relationship to art, especially Rothko, written by Alex Ross in 2006:

The example of the painters was crucial. Feldman’s scores were close in spirit to Rauschenberg’s all-white and all-black canvases, Barnett Newman’s gleaming lines, and, especially, Rothko’s glowing fog banks of color. His habit of presenting the same figure many times in succession invites you to hear music as a gallery visitor sees paintings; you can study the sound from various angles, stand back or move up close, go away and come back for a second look. Feldman said that New York painting led him to attempt a music “more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore.” Just as the Abstract Expressionists wanted viewers to focus on paint itself, on its texture and pigment, Feldman wanted listeners to absorb the basic facts of resonant sound. At a time when composers were frantically trying out new systems and languages, Feldman choseto follow his intuition. He had an amazing ear for harmony, for ambiguous collections of notes that tease the brain with never-to-be-fulfilled expectations. Wilfrid Mellers, in his book “Music in a New Found Land,” eloquently summed up Feldman’s early style: “Music seems to have vanished almost to the point of extinction; yet the little that is left is, like all of Feldman’s work, of exquisite musicality; and it certainly presents the American obsession with emptiness completely absolved from fear.” In other words, we are in the region of Wallace Stevens’s “American Sublime,” of the “empty spirit / In vacant space.”

(Speaking of vacant spaces, I absolutely love how the lowish resolution on the Rothko paintings in the video above melt their surface scrabbles into pixellated smears.)


with Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor”

Wed/23 at 8pm, Thur/24 at 2pm, Fri/25 at 8pm, Sat/26 at 8pm


Davies Symphony Hall

201 Van Ness, SF