Album du jour: Kim Kashkashian, Sarah Rothenberg, et al.: “Rothko Chapel”


Whenever I walk around in an art museum, I find myself inevitably drawn to artworks that inspire a sense of silence and stillness in me — which suspend me, at least temporarily, from the normal rhythms of life. For as long as I’m in contact with these artworks, time ceases to pass, the world falls silent, and I and the artwork are alone in quiet contemplation.

The three composers represented on this new album also sought to create an artistic space for quiet contemplation, though music, whose media are sound and time, can never literally be either silent or still. Even John Cage’s notorious “silent” work, 4’33” (not featured on this album), consists of sound — the ambient noise of the performing space, the listeners’ breathing, etc. — played out over time.

And while there has always been contemplative music in the Western classical music, the works of Erik Satie, John Cage and Morton Feldman are different in their avoidance of the elements that have made Western classical unique among the world’s musics. Of the contrapuntal intricacy of Bach, the formal mastery of Haydn, the conflict of Beethoven, the virtuosity of Liszt, the weltanschauung of Wagner, the emotionalism of Tchaikovsky, the egotism of Strauss,  the profundity of Mahler, the harmonic and rhythmic movement that all composers used to give their works shape and direction, there are little-to-none. The music of this triumvirate is instead purposely undramatic, uneventful, impassive, often repetitive, seemingly (or actually) random, devoid of frill, ornament or excess of any kind. Cage in particular spoke of removing the composer’s ego from his music, and of compelling the listener to focus on the sounds without trying to discern their meaning.

OK, you might have known some of this about Cage, and you can certainly hear it in Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel (see below). But Erik Satie, the eccentric late-19th, early-20th century Frenchman best known for such piano hits as the Gymnopédies and the Gnossiennes? Where does he fit in with Cage, Feldman and the rest of the mid-20th century avant garde?

As an acknowledged and honored precursor. From pianist Sarah Rothenberg’s notes to this new album:

“… Now what happens when something so simple is repeated for such a long time?” asks Cage in regard to Satie’s music. “What happens is the subtle falling away from the norm, a constant flux with regard to such things as speed and accent, all the things in fact which we could connect with rhythm. The most subtle things become evident that would not be evident in a more complex rhythmic situation …” Cage believed that Satie’s contemplative works expressed the spirit of Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that Cage embraced in the 1940’s.

Would you like to hear the connection? Start with the album’s final track, Cage’s In a Landscape (1948,) then go back to the preceding track, Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 (1890), both gorgeously played by Rothenberg. Don’t analyze and compare the works’ melodies, harmonies or architectures. Consider instead the effect they each have on you. There it is.

Then go back to the album’s opening and longest track.  Composed in1971 to be performed in the Houston landmark of its title, and intended as a tribute to the composer’s friend, painter Mark RothkoRothko Chapel also serves as a relatively accessible initiation into the unique soundworld of Morton Feldman, the composer who took the idea of music for quiet contemplation to the ultimate extent, especially in his almost interminable later works.

Using just a solo viola, a celeste, a very restrained percussionist, two wordless vocal soloists and a wordless choir, Rothko Chapel unfolds slowly and ritualistically, mostly maintaining a low dynamic level, at times hovering just above silence (parts are marked to be performed “barely audibly”), and on only a few occasions raising its voice as if in impassioned lament. The section near the end where the choir divides into twelve different parts, singing densely-clustered chords that practically had light emanating from my loudspeakers, has to be heard to be believed. And throughout, the hauntingly vocal tones of Kim Kashkashian’s viola gave what I heard as a cantorial quality to her part, one consistent with the comments from Feldman quoted in the booklet notes: “The quasi-Hebraic melody played by the viola at the end was written when I was fifteen. Certain intervals throughout the work have the ring of the synagogue.”

As classical albums go, the programming on this one is unusual in alternating between choral and solo piano works. But this sense of variety-within-unity may be closer to how real listeners actually listen to music nowadays — the Pandora model, you might call it. In any case, I give it my strongest recommendation.

Alas, there’s no Spotify playback available for this present album. You can, however, find out more about the album and sample tracks here. You can purchase and download it here. And you can hear the original recording of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, featuring violist Karen Phillips (a frequent Feldman muse) and the Gregg Smith Singers on Spotify here.

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