What does it feel like to sit through a five-hour piece of music? Yesterday at the Rothko Chapel, Morton Feldman’s epic 1984 work For Philip Guston felt like a dream. Notes floated by gently—from the celeste, alto flute, and chimes—and soon it was hard to imagine a reality apart from the soft waves of sound. Those who endured to the end reaped a reward that’s difficult to translate into this dimension.
Da Camera presented the concert in conjunction with the Menil exhibition Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence. The program notes describe Feldman’s music—serene lines shifting quietly through disharmony—as the epitome of a non-violent aesthetic. But the better-known aspect of Feldman’s work is two-fold, summed up by his outburst “It’s too f*****’ loud and it’s too f*****’ fast,” which he famously yelled at a rehearsal.
Seemingly endless durations and radically soft dynamics most readily define Feldman’s style as a composer devoted to space and sound. Painting and music often coexist in Feldman’s work, a development he attributes to a theory of “being” in relation to scale. We rarely think of sound in image form; music is by nature intangible and fleeting. But Feldman felt that sound had “a predilection for suggesting its own proportions.” The five hours of For Philip Guston came out sounding like images, presenting their diaphanous shape in a dropped moment of time.
The Rothko Chapel was the ideal venue for this piece; after all, in 1971 Feldman wrote a piece dedicated to the space, Rothko Chapel. The concert seating was arranged in a square with the musicians in the middle and the dark-purple Rothko paintings presided over all.
Three courageous musicians performed the work, which was dedicated to Feldman’s friend, the painter Philip Guston, who died in 1980. In the middle, Claire Chase managed four flutes—a piccolo, two mid-range flutes, and an alto flute. At Chase’s side was Sarah Rothenberg, a tireless pianist, celeste player, and the artistic director of Da Camera. Percussionist Steven Schick completed the trio. Rothenberg and Schick were returning to the space, having performed Feldman’s Rothko Chapel there in 2013.
The performance began shortly after 1 p.m. In the first thirty minutes, a four-note figure passed from instrument to instrument, slowly pulling the notes around in half steps over octaves. Lyrically, the music strained, reaching and twisting to meet in harmony without ever finding reconciliation. I’ve never heard anyone play the piccolo as softly as Chase did. Her breath, whispering off into the atmosphere, became just as much a note as what the dainty instrument emitted. By 2:55, the music had lulled into a deceiving rhythm. The score never sets a steady meter, jumping from duple to triple and everywhere else. But it feels rhythmic, nevertheless, soothing its audience like an uncanny lullaby.
At 3:08, Schick bent over the xylophone and played an astounding section of one repeated note before the ensemble rounded down to C-major at 3:17. At the three-hour mark, the enigmatic four-note figure returned in slightly varied form. The audience was encouraged to come and go, and many didn’t stay through the first hour. But as time went on, several people simply wandered in who evidently were surprised to find the concert in session. Some people who left (perhaps for a bite to eat) came back later, arriving in the midst of very familiar sounds. It reminded me of John Cage’s idea of music as a landscape that continues even after you looked away from it.
The composition falls into a genre of what some call “marathon music.” But For Philip Guston, I learned, requires a different kind of endurance than a traditional marathon. To begin with, of course it’s not a race. Each note needs to be savored. This is something Chase did exceptionally well, and I don’t know how she cradled each note so purposefully for five hours, but she did. Time is also irrelevant. Somehow the sound vibrations turned into colorful waves washing across in slow patterns. Turns out it’s not really a test of endurance at all. Even so, the piece asks us to endure. And this work is about how we respond to that challenge.