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Feldman: Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns?

4.8 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Rothko Chapel
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Audio CD, November 18, 2009
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Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman

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Product Details

  • Performer: California EAR Unit, UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus
  • Composer: Morton Feldman
  • Audio CD (November 18, 2009)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: New Albion Records
  • Run Time: 54 minutes
  • ASIN: B000000R2Z
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #114,118 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Christopher Forbes on July 30, 2002
Format: Audio CD
Morton Feldman may have been the prototypical minimalist. His music, though varied in effect, tends to consist of very soft, discrete sounds which slowly morph from pattern to pattern. Though his music falls into periods, roughly divided by notational practice (early music uses primarily graphic scores and aleatoric procedures, later scores tend toward more precise notation, though the rhythms still remain approximate), the effect of his output is remarkably the same throughout his life. It is intellectually challenging, beautiful ambient music.
Rothko Chapel, written to be played in the famous Houston space, is a wonderful piece, one that should win new converts to the Feldman cause. It isn't daunting in length, like many later Feldman pieces, yet it retains the sonic beauty and delicacy of instrumental color that makes Feldman unique. The piece is also remarkably tonal, unlike many other Feldman works. The gorgeous hushed soprano solo sounds like a distant call to prayer. Feldman talks in the liner notes of the influence of Hebrew cantilation and you can hear it, although it is much more distant than most cantilation. This work is an example of the best kind of ambient music. It is endlessly fascinating, and yet seems to have a physical presence that does not depend on your concentration. You can listen intently or just let the sound wash over you.
Inclusion of Why Patterns? was a good idea. This work is much more typical of Feldman's style. Written for the combination of flute, glockenspiel and piano, the almost 30 minute work is a slow spinning out of subtley dissonant patterns, all at extremely quiet volume levels. The work doesn't seem to start or stop. It's as if we are dropping in on an eternal piece of music, hanging around a while and then leaving again.
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"Rothko Chapel" was composed for the dedication of the de Menil chapel, for which Mark Rothko created some of his final paintings. The space, in Houston TX, is a downtown quiet space, for contemplation, with only the dark colorfields of Rothko's work as a visual point of focus. The work here is a very beautiful and equally dark counterpoint to those canvases, evocative of both the sense of visual diffusion as well as the inner mystery they seem to conceal within their colorfields. Sometimes seeming like some mysterious shrouded procession, at other times like a distant call to prayer, and with a recurrant vocal figure of a solo voice, evoking a sense of both innocence and encantory devotion, the piece is one of Feldman's shortest but most powerful. And the version performed here is excellent, with very precise yet human performance characteristics...which is just what's required, as a rule, to make Feldman's music 'work'. The accompanying work, "Why Patterns?", is a self-answering rhetorical question...the work asks the question, then answers it perfectly, demonstrating just _why_ Feldman's work from the 1960s onward concentrated on pattern-based structures. This piece reminds me of Philip Glass or Steve Reich's work...but far more understated, with subtile dissonances that would be unheard-of in those two 'minimalists' works. Again, very sensitive and precise playing here from the CA EAR Unit. A highly recommended CD, and a great starting-point release for those who've heard of...but not heard...Morton Feldman's work.
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"Rothko Chapel" is the most accessible of Feldman's compositions. It sounds like Debussy, with spare, lyrical strings, chimes, and an enchanting soprano, Deborah Dietrich on this recording (there is at least one other, on Col Legno). Feldman, a friend of the painter Rothko, constructed this tribute in four sections as "an immobile procession not unlike the friezes on Greek temples," to accompany the Houston exhibit of 14 canvasses in 1972.

(In July of 2006 I visited the Rothko Chapel, which is part of the Menil Collection. It is a dark space, with the very dark Rothkos on the walls -- it feels more like a crypt, or a bomb shelter, than a chapel, but it is still active, with various events sponsored by any and all religions, including events promoting peace.)

The exquisite "Rothko Chapel" alone would be an utterly uncharacteristic introduction to Feldman. Fortunately, in that sense, this disc also includes "Why Patterns?", which is an excellent and far more representative piece. From 1978, for flute, glockenspiel and piano, it unfolds like a delicate spiral, invoking a sense of wonder.

As a reminder that packages might as well be attractive too, New Albion uses Rothko's "Red Over Dark Blue on Dark Gray" (1961) for the cover -- perfecto!
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This is absolutely beautiful music, a set of short pieces, two to nine minutes in length, five in all, that somehow evoke the feeling of fullness, colors both static and in (very, very slow) motion in Rothko's paintings. Feldman is resolutely modern but the opposite of abrasive. His music takes close, careful listening because things move so slowly in them. It's minimalist music, but not like Reich's or Glass's or Terry Riley's who minimize on structure and then fill up the reduced framework with movement. Feldman's pieces, on the limited exposure I've had to them and based on what Ross writes about them in his book, use random or semi-structured transitions, vide John Cage, that seem partly found in the ground harmonies rather than invented. The music sits in front of you, changing and deepening as you listen to it. He likes to create a ground chord and then let a single instrument --cello, viola, voices, etc.-- emerge from it, evoking a line almost as static as the base line. It is really a gorgeous album. There is a second piece on it --29+ plus minutes long- entitled Why Patterns?, performed by California Ear Unit, but I haven't listened to it carefully yet because I'm so enamored of Chapels.
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