Slowly Watching Memory







An analysis of Morton Feldman's "Rothko Chapel"







Dániel Péter Biró





Diploma - Thesis in the Field of Music Composition (M.A.)


Musikhochschule – Frankfurt am Main


Presented at the Third International Conference on Jewish Music in

London, UK










"Rothko Chapel"


            Morton Feldman composed "Rothko Chapel” as a tribute to his friend, the American painter, Mark Rothko. In 1971, at the request of the Menil Foundation of Houston, Texas, Rothko created an environment in which his 14 monumental paintings played a central role. These paintings act as objects on which all visitors to the Chapel, religious or non-religious could use for meditation.

            The life and work of Morton Feldman was very similar to that of Mark Rothko. Both were of eastern European Jewish heritage; both were involved in creating a new form of abstract art; and both were motivated to discover the mystery of perception within art.

            The qualities in Feldman’s music responding to Jewish tradition can be understood in connection to Feldman’s concept of memory within his compositional method. This paper will examine this concept and how it relates to his concept of compositional procedure. Then it will be possible to better understand how these concepts relate to the American school of artists to which Feldman belonged as well as to observe Feldman’s reactions as a Jewish composer to problems of collective memory.

            Feldman’s "Rothko Chapel", although abstract in its general unfolding, presents the listener with particular problems in regard to semiotic understanding. These problems can only be comprehended in reference to Feldman’s very personal views on memory, compositional methods, cognition, and history. Upon being able to better comprehend Feldman’s contemplative world, it might be possible to speculate as to his methods of working with cognitive operations as a compositional tool. It could be then possible to better understand the mystery of hearing Feldman’s "Rothko Chapel.”    









            The concept of memory seems to play an almost mystical role in his work. The Hungarian writer György Konrád describes memory as "a process of selection from the past combined with a large amount of fantasy”.[1] Feldman's music acts as a presentation of this selection process within the boundaries of his very personal way of writing music.

            This is done paradoxically.  Feldman's goal of "unfixing the sound elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music so that the sounds could exist in themselves - not as symbols or memories which were memories of other music to begin with.”[2] shows his alliance with a particular school of American artists whose goal was to free art from, what they saw as confining, historical boundaries of European art in order to create a more autonomous art movement.

            Cage's wish of "getting rid of the glue so that the sounds would be themselves” was also shared by Feldman. He also believed in presenting "the sounds themselves” [3] within his own special context of memory, "As if almost to erase in one's memory what happened before.”[4] Like the decaying world of Samuel Beckett, Feldman's music presents us with a temporary, dying world. "This expresses where the sound exists in our hearing, leaving us rather than coming toward us.” [5] His music presents the listener with a process of discontinuity, as sounds become progressively absent. These "remnants and shapes that can barely be heard at a distance,” [6] as described by Feldman's teacher Stephan Wolpe, were brought into a context through Feldman's compositional technique, which Wolpe labeled "negation.”[7] This introduced a procedure of taking away musical material in the course of a piece instead of building upon already presented musical material in order that the piece, instead of developing to a climax, could, as Feldman himself stated, "die a natural death. It dies of old age.”[8]

            This process of negation can only be understood within the context of Feldman's compositional praxis. Feldman often stressed the importance of the "performance” [9] aspect within composing. To a great degree these performances are also memory performances within Feldman's compositional undertaking. Besides perceiving memory within the context of repetition and variation, one is simultaneously regarding Feldman's own compositional perception. This perception presents itself in the context of Feldman’s own memory performance. (The listener’s memory performance happens within the perimeters of Feldman's memory performance). Because these perspectives overlap, the listener is left with an uncertainty in regard to the borders of composition and perception, creating an area of perceptive ambiguity. 

            In order to determine how these levels of memory perception occur, it is necessary to first define Feldman's compositional method and the categories used in this method. It may be then possible to understand the role memory plays in these compositional methods and what an effect these methods have on the listener reception of the general compositional process.


Defining "Change" and "Reiteration"


            Feldman´s lectures and writings allow for a glance into his compositional method and musical thinking. Feldman generally avoids any attempt to present a unified theory of his musical thinking and compositional production (contrasting him very much to the efforts of his colleagues of his generation). Instead he expresses himself in a Koan-like manner, often speaking in terms of comparison rather than making his point directly. By doing this Feldman often contradicts himself. However, these contradictions often have an almost Talmudic quality to them, enabling one to find better methods to examine Feldman`s compositional processes. 

            In his 1984 lecture at the Theater am Turm in Frankfurt Feldman stated, ”You can do two things with music, you could be involved with variation, which in simple terms means only to vary it, or you could be in repetition. Reiterative. What my work is, is a synthesis between variation and repetition. However, I might repeat things that, as it's going around, is varying itself on one aspect. Or I could vary repetition. But again it's a performance. I see it as I'm doing it.” [10]This statement could be viewed presenting an explicit position in regard to his categorical methods. But later in the same lecture he says, ”Another, I don't like variation. I prefer translation. I think the best example in the past ten years that got me into this is by meeting Beckett and trying to see how he works. He would write something in French, the next sentence in English. Then he takes the English and he translates into French that has nothing to do with the French sentence and back and forth. And when I got this poem from him I'm reading it and it’s the same, doesn't sound the same but it’s the same.”[11] In his 1984 Darmstadt lecture, "I'm working with two aspects which I feel are characteristic of the twentieth century. One is change, variation. I prefer the word change. The other is reiteration. So I'm involved with both. I don't make a synthesis, but they are going on all at the same time. And it's not a calculated dialectic because I have to watch it when it happens.”[12]

            Viewing these statements, the question remains, keeping Feldman's works in mind, as to where the truth lies within or between these statements. Thereby it is necessary to define not only Feldman's methodological categories, but also his methods of blurring these categories. Because of Feldman's unique, personal, performance oriented way of working, much of the analysis must endeavor not only to consider Feldman's compositional decision making process, but also to speculate in to the dialogue between his perception while composing and the listener's perception while listening.





Analysis of "Rothko Chapel"


Instruments and Instrumentation


            Upon beginning to determine Feldman's methods of using variation and repetition as a primary basis for his compositional undertaking, one must consider his fanatic obsession with instruments, instrumentation, and color. In the same 1984 Frankfurt lecture Feldman states, ”Know thy instrument! You can't orchestrate unless you know thy instrument! Who was the Greek that said that? Know thy instrument! Know thyself! Who was that Greek? Socrates, Aristotle? Know thyself? Sounds like Socrates. I think it was Socrates. I think Francis of Assisi would tell you to know someone else[13].” Feldman's concept of the final sonorous quality of the instruments being the most important criteria for the musical statement, as opposed to musical construction, is important to consider. In the same lecture he declares, ”Material. And instrument is material, you see. We have been very distant from material. Especially with the younger people. They listen to early Schoenberg and Webern and they think it's fantastic color; everything.  But it has nothing to do with color, really. It had to do with ideas. So, I feel that one of the problems with music is that it never had its Matisse. They never had its Matisse. They had great artists. I mean to use color right and wonderful doesn't mean you have a feeling for color, really. You have an intellectual rightness for color, not a natural rightness for color...I think music is open to color. And when I talk about color I don't mean the environment. I don't mean noise. I mean instruments together. It's fantastic. You can even get the feeling, the instrument doesn't have any ideas.[14]"






            Rothko Chapel's scoring for percussion, celesta, viola, chorus, and soprano solo is used as a sonorous basis for working with sounds in such a way as to challenge primarily the perception of musical events and not the ideas behind the musical events. Pertaining to the borders of this scoring, Feldman often uses the following instruments and instrumental combinations:


                        Timpani and Bass drum

                        Viola solo

                        Viola, celesta and Vibraphone

                        Chorus and Chimes

                        Chorus with Timpani and Bass drum


            These instrumental combinations are used to present the listener with musical objects and their "remnants” and their various degrees of change and reiteration in intervallic, figurative and durational contexts. In order to understand how Feldman's goal to challenge perception is achieved, it is first necessary to define certain structural categories, which allows one to then speculate on Feldman's compositional practice of moving "between” these categories.


Methods of Using Intervallic Change and Reiteration

in "Rothko Chapel"


            In the same Frankfurt lecture Feldman states, "Usually my pieces begin maybe on the tenth bar, kind of getting into it.”[15] On commencing analysis of "Rothko Chapel”, it is possible to see, with this statement in mind, that this aspect of moving into the piece exists in order to approach Feldman's goal of hearing "the sounds themselves”. Considering this statement alongside his statements concerning instrumentation, it is evident that within his reiterating and changing intervallic structures certain musical objects occur. These objects act as a point of clarity giving the listener a sort of cognitive stability. Within the framework of the compositional "performance", this compositional device is used in order to blur cognition of these objects in the course of the piece.

            The five note chord in measure eleven, played by the viola, celesta and vibraphone, is repeated eight times in various contexts in the course of the piece (Example #1). The chord is made up of a modal tone set using the five notes f ,g-flat, a-flat, a-sharp, and b. In his explanatory notes Feldman wrote, "Certain intervals have the ring of the synagogue." [16] These modal references are particularly evident in "Rothko Chapel." As one examines the intervallic structure of the following chords played by the viola, celesta and vibraphone, one notices that most of these chords consist of 5 notes (occasionally containing 6 notes) and incorporate modal tone sets which are employed throughout the work in different forms. Generally one can speak about five categories regarding Feldman's use of intervallic construction:


            1.reiterated intervallic structures

            2.intervallic variation

            3.intervallic association

            4.pitch association

            5.interval reinterpretation


            These categories can only be based and deciphered viewing the statement of Feldman concerning his method of working. "I work with the pen and that's a very interesting phenomena because when I work with the pen everything is crossed out. (In) some pages there is nothing crossed and usually those pages when there is something in a continuity, you see many times I make my continuity later, which essentially is the way Tolstoy worked. I don't necessarily work in a continuity."[17] Feldman was also a fanatical copyist and he often expressed how important this copying was for his compositional procedure. These methods of working also play a large role in Feldman's decision making in relation to change and reiteration and are to be considered in the proceeding of the analysis.

            Comparing the chord and its attachment in measures 11-12 to the next combination of the same instruments in measure 27-29 one can see that there is an exact repetition of pitch components (Ex.2). This repetition is, of course, varied in regard to duration (The aspect of durational variation will be discussed, due to its importance, separately).

             Pitch references to these chords are found in an intermissionary appearance by the vibraphone and viola in measures 31–33(Ex.3). The next chord example using the same instrumental combination is found in measure 42. This chord is also built on a modal cell and thus shows similarity to the previous chordal units in measures 11 and 27. In all three of these chord-models, certain figural attachments follow these chords. These attachments bring references to previous figural material and also act as objects to be later "negated". Likewise this chord from measure 42 is repeated in measure 46(Ex.4). At this point in the piece the following observations can be made about the intervallic relationships within these three instruments. In the opening section one can see that an atmosphere of variational stability is achieved within the intervallic/ instrumentational context:


            Chord no.1 and attachment no. 1 (m.11–12)(Ex.1)

            Chord no.1 and attachment no. 1 (m.26–27)(Ex.2)

            Intermission (pitch relations to chord no. 1

                        and attachment no.1)(Ex.3)(m.31-33)

            Chord no.2 and attatchment no. 2(m.42–43.)(Ex.4)

            Chord no.2 (m.46)(Ex.5)


            As the piece continues these figural attachments are subsequently negated, releasing the chordal formations from their object-like quality and moving them into a domain of "remnant"-like existence. These "remnants" are subsequently brought in to a process of variation, presenting another level of alienation from their original presence. Feldman described this process in a 1976 discussion with Walter Zimmerman, "Actually, now I just try to repeat the same chord. I'm reiterating the same chord in inversions. I enjoyed that very much to keep the inversions alive in a sense where everything changes and nothing changes. Actually before I wanted my chords in a sense to be very different, as if to erase in one's memory what happened before. That's the way I would keep the time suspended... by erasing the references and where they came from. You were very fresh in to the moment and you didn't related and now I 'm doing the same thing with this relation. And I find it also very mysterious." [18] In measure 66 chord no. 1 is repeated five times exactly and a sixth time with a variation of attachment one (Ex.5)

            In the next 15 measures a variation of chord no. 2 is exactly repeated in regard to pitch content in which the celesta notes are transposed up an octave and the vibraphone is plays an added minor second (lowest two notes of the modal tone set). This, in its six note form, presents a chord formation with a similar range to that of chord no.1 presenting an example of intervallic association (Ex.6). The increasing homogeneity of the musical material's range within this modal/intervallic stasis gives the listener a point of departure in which to later notice the subtle differences of changing intervallic chord structures within Feldman's instrumental boundaries.

                        Amongst this intervallic variation Feldman seems to utilize the association of pitches as a structural element adjacent to the intervallic context. In measure 63, the a-flat of the viola is presented first on its own, in the same way as in the following chords namely, as a harmonic (Ex. 5). In measure 95 Feldman presents the listener with another modal chord, this time made up of three notes. One observes that these three notes are related to chords no. 1 and no.2 in regard to their instrumentation and range. This similarity or repetition of color is then carried a step further two measures later in measure 97 as Feldman redistributes some of these notes, changing their range and instrumentation in order to create a new chordal formation.

            In measure 101 a variation of this chord appears with a harmonic e–flat instead of the previous d–flat. Instead of using the same pitches, as with chord no. 1 in measure 63, Feldman creates a new chord (Both examples create chords out of an extended 5 note modal cells). This example of note association through the use of timbre also allows one to hear both the pitches and intervals in a new context by showing their vulnerability in regard to their pitch and interval relations. At the same time an association to previous procedures of octavisation as in measures 46 and 79, is made as the celesta pitches are transposed an octave downward (Ex.7).

            These various methods cannot be taken at face value but rather be considered as parts of Feldman's general way of working. Feldman was very much concerned with the problem of concentration within the compositional process. In his 1976 conversation with Walter Zimmerman Feldman expressed this, "My pieces are to some degree a performance. I'm highly concentrated when I work. In fact I found ways to arrive at concentration. One of the most important ways is that I write in ink. So if I begin to work and I see that I am crossing out time I realize in a sense that I thought I was concentrated, but in fact I wasn't concentrated. So the writing in ink is an inner parameter to how concentrated I really am. And then I go ahead and write the piece, again using the ink as a parameter. And if I see that I'm crossing out I just leave the piece and go to it another time. So to me that concentration is more important than someone else's pitch organization or what ever conceptual attitude they have about the piece. That's a very underlying all-important approach." [19]

                        Although the aspect of concentration was of central importance for Feldman, he nonetheless attempted to devise methods to work with sonorous material in a non-constructionist manner. In regard to intervals, Feldman was interested in finding techniques in order to "go about and use harmony. Not with its function, but with the fact that it's gone."[20]  In his 1984 Frankfurt lecture Feldman declares, "Instead of figuring out a series I do my series underneath on the music paper; because I don't work in a continuity. The continuity comes later. In other words I'm not involved with linear information. And so very quick, I see possibilities in new things. I could assemble, where all of a sudden as if I was involved with visual continuity of what is that. I have it all. Alles zusammen. And not only am I fighting with the overtone series, but I'm also fighting, not tonality, I prefer Stravinsky's word polarity. And it seems as if it's the most natural thing in the world."[21]


Chords for Choir


            Feldman belonged to a group of American composers whose work was directed towards creating an alternative to dodecaphonic and serial music. But upon beginning to analyze the first entrance of the choral chords in measures 29-31 one can observe a static chromaticism; creating a similar atmosphere to that of Webern's music. But unlike Webern's use of cells within a strict twelve-tone system, Feldman builds his chords out of growing and shrinking chromatic units. The number of notes in these units has very much to do with Feldman's own perception and memory and his formal approach of addition and negation of chords and notes. The first phrase is built upon nine notes of the chromatic scale (or a cluster of five notes and a modal unit of four notes). Some of these notes are successively repeated in the next chords. Others reoccur in another octave. Their main characteristic is that of a stasis achieved through a general tone set homogeneity (Ex.8).

One can generally speak of three ways in which Feldman derives the pitch material for choir:

            1) Phrase construction (generally forming the phrase out of sets of pitch-components).

            2) Isolation of chords extracted from phrases, revealing object-like contexts.

3) Presenting solitary pitches developing to be chords and chords suddenly developing back to solitary pitches or to         phrases of solitary pitches.


            The harmonic content of the choral entrance in measure 29 is repeated exactly in measure 69. Out of the same tone set of nine notes comes the next phrase of three instead of four chords (the first chord is absent from the phrase)(Ex.8).

            In a third phrase in measures 84-93 eight chords are created with an eleven-note tone set and it is apparent that a variation of the intervals/ pitches of the previous phrase is devised (Ex.9).

            Between these phrases Feldman tends to present isolated chords. Some of these chords are reiterated chords from previous sections that achieve an autonomous quality in regard to their phrase context. In this isolation, these "remnants" of phrases can then be heard as sonorous objects. In measures 34-38 Feldman contrasts two previously heard chords with a new chord made up of a single octave. The elaboration of this new chord happens in measures 47 to 62 where Feldman constructs and dismantles existing interval structures. The sudden intervallic dissimilarity in measures 58 to 62 within the choral chords is still retained as part of a unified section through Feldman's subtle use of the bass drum (this instrument's timbre is extremely similar to that of the timpani)(ex10).

            This elaboration is reintroduced in a similar way in measures 135-169. The development from single notes to chords is this time juxtaposed to a timpani ostinato. In measure 170 this development is brought to a close through a variation of a chord used as an ending chord in three previous phrases (Ex.11).

            In measure 197 Feldman overlaps two phrases with two divided choir groups. Chords from previous phrases are combined, once again with similar chords or variations of previous chords. Here the analytical problem, in connection to these chords, is to define where a chord variation occurs and where a new chord structure appears. The assumption could be made that the second chord in measure 197 is, observing the continuation of the phrase, a variant of the second chord in measure 86(Ex.12). Many of these musical processes have to do with Feldman's own memory operations, which also affect the listener's reception of his use of intervals, blurring the difference between reiteration and variation of these choral chords and phrases.




Interval Structures in Figural Phrases


            Among these musical objects and "remnants" Feldman presents the listener with extended figural information played by the viola and solo soprano. These figural phrases constitute increasing and decreasing numbers of pitch components derived from growing and diminishing pitch sets. These pitch components are gradually combined with new pitch components or are "negated" as Feldman simultaneously redefines interval relationships.

            The viola's first phrase in measures 3-13 is made up of twelve pitch components devised out of a tone set of eight notes. The next phrase in measure 16 demonstrates a variation of these pitch components in which the twelve notes (eight being identical to those in the previous phrase) are composed out of a pitch set of ten notes. In measure 33 a brief reiteration of three of these notes occurs (Ex.e13).

            In the continuing phrases, Feldman reduces the number of pitch components and their tone sets. Nonetheless a continuity of pitch material is achieved by means of reiteration of previous pitches or groups of pitches as in measures 38, 44, and in the figural extensions in measure 76. (Ex.14)

             At the same time, these pitches illustrate an unfixed quality as Feldman reiterates and redefines interval structures by means of variation through inversion. In his 1984 Darmstadt lecture Feldman expressed his thoughts concerning intervals, "When you're working with a minor 2nd as long as I have been, it's very wide. I hear a minor 2nd like a minor 3rd almost. It’s very, very wide. So that perception of hearing is a very interesting thing. Because conceptually you are not hearing it, but perceptually, you might be able to hear it."[22] This statement demonstrates, once again, Feldman's wish to stretch categorical boundaries in a perceptual context in relation to memory.

            In measures 38-39 an intervallic repetition of a minor 9th occurs that is later reiterated in its transposed minor 2nd inversion in measures 119-120. This interval relationship is then isolated, creating a new phrase in measures 125-126(Ex.15).

            This application of inversions is continued throughout the work, as in measures 171-174 in where, amongst the phrasal setting, the repeating movement between f and e produce a minor 7th. This interval movement is then repeated in a transposed form within the same phrase in measures 176-177 (Ex.16).

              An additional intervallic variation is introduced in measure 257-259, exhibited as an isolated minor 9th pattern. In measures 265-272 an exact interval repetition of measure 171 occurs before returning to an isolated minor 7th pattern in measure 299-301(Ex.17).

             It is in this part that the soprano solo begins employing static figural material constructed from five pitch components. The immobile quality of the instrumental figures in this section is strengthened by its use of reiteration of fixed pitch components (viola pizz., soprano, timpani and choir bass) or by the reiteration of the same interval structures and their inversions (viola arco). It is precisely in this section where the mystery of Feldman's intervallic usage comes to light. The three-note figure of the viola in measure 254, followed by the timpani's two-note tremolo, is repeated in a form of intervallic variation in measure 274 and once again in measure 290. Due to the "touch” of this section, as well as the range of the viola and the combination with the timpani intervals, an atmosphere of intervallic homogeneity is realized. The phrase in measure 274 sounds as though it should be an exact inversion. Feldman handles the intervallic structures perceptually, distorting the categorical structure of the musical event (Ex.18).









Durational Change and Reiteration


            "If my approach seems more didactic now spending many hours working out strategies that only apply to a few moments of music, it is because the patterns that interest me are both concrete and ephemeral, making notation difficult. If notated exactly they are too stiff. If given the slightest notational leeway they are too loose. Though these patterns exist in rhythmic shapes articulated by instrumental sound they are also in part notational images that do make a direct impact on the ear as we listen. A tumbling of sorts happens in midair between their translation from the page and their execution. To a great degree, this tumbling occurs in all music but becomes more compounded in mine since there is no rhythmic style, a quality often crucial to the performers understanding of how and what to do. I found this just as true in my music of the fifties where rhythm was not notated, but left to the performer”.23 Feldman thus uses duration also within the general context of change and repetition of musical events in order to show the fragility, the unattached quality of his "remnants."

             Within the general slowness of Feldman's music, the variation of duration tends to blur any feeling of rhythmic consistency. In his 1976 conversation with Walter Zimmerman Feldman stated, "So, the reason my music is notated is I wanted to keep control of the silence, you see. Actually when you hear it, you have no idea rhythmically how complicated that is on paper. It's floating. On paper it looks as though it were rhythm. It's not. It's duration.” Although passages do occur in which a rhythmic pulse is established, (the "quasi-Hebraic melody" at the end of the piece is a true exception in Feldman's music) in most instances they are heard after periods of changing durational values, forcing the listener to question the stability of these exact durations. Feldman's general technique is used in order to question the perception of duration.

            In Rothko Chapel he gives the viola a role of presenting the listener with figural information. The figure of the viola in measures 11-12 is then repeated in a shortened variation form in measures 27-28. Although the objective time difference of the 2 phrases is 6/8, this difference is cognitively registered as slightly faster due to the symmetry of rhythmic proportions between certain notes of both phrases within an objectively asymmetric phrase constellation (Ex. 1).

            The negation of this figure is brought through several variations, but throughout the work it is presented again in its original form in regard to pitch components but with slight variations of duration. In measures 77-78 this same procedure is repeated but yet another variation scheme of durational asymmetry is presented in measure 99 and 111-112 (Ex. 5)

            This method of presenting symmetric proportions in various asymmetric constellations can also be observed in measure 42 and 46 with chord no.2 (Ex. 4).


Exact Repetition of Patterns


            These sections of durational variation are often proceeded or followed by sections where exact repetition occurs. Paradoxically these sections do not really allow for a stabile quality in the piece but instead create an atmosphere in which the awareness of the moment comes to light. Feldman shows in his subtle way that the same duration is not the same duration. This artificially created cognitive suspicion, in regard to symmetry and asymmetry, allows the listener to more intensely examine the objects and "remnants” presented.

            In measures 66-77 chord no.1 is repeated 5 times. The second chord shows a changed durational relationship to the first chord but from measure 69-74 an exact durational repetition of this chord occurs in the foreground beside the choral phrase variations. The general durational character of this section, in spite of occasional symmetric application, exhibits a general quality of asymmetry of durational values. (Ex. 5)

            This section is then juxtaposed by the presentation of chord no 2. in measures 79-92. This section presents the listener with an example of symmetry of durational values (It is interesting to observe that this symmetry is broken at the section's end in measure 93). But even in this section of symmetry an atmosphere of durational instability prevails, created by the subtle variations of duration presented earlier with chord no. 1. This creates a state of attention in which to judge repetition (Ex. 6).

            These methods of durational usage are also to be viewed within the realm of what Feldman described as when a "tumbling of sorts happens in midair between their translation from the page and their execution."[23] This interpretive influence also adds to the unstable quality of Feldman's durations.

            These sections of exact durational repetitions are often created out of the "remnants” of Feldman's "negation" of musical material. The two note figure of the viola, appearing in measure 97, is reduced in measures 101 and 103 in order to create a solitary chord with the celesta. This is combined with a negated variation of attachment no. 1 and is followed by the solitary note of the choral Bass d-flat (Ex. 7). This technique of reduction helps the listener to better investigate these sounds in their isolation, by taking them out of their previous contexts.


"Open" Duration


            The stationary, abstract section for chorus and chimes, which starts in measure211, presents an additional quality of Feldman's utilization of duration in which, due to its extremely static quality, the sense of musical time as a function of rhythmic proportion almost ceases to exist. Feldman expressed in his explanatory notes that "I felt that the music called for a series of highly contrasting merging sections. I envisioned an immobile process not unlike the friezes on Greek temples."[24]

            Although the individual notes of the chorus are repeated in a way of durational variation the general quality of the section is similar to a blur of color in the center of Rothko's paintings. Feldman insures the constant existence of all choral notes within the context of ever-changing values. The chimes, playing variations of pitch material first introduced by the vibraphone and celesta, seem to take on an almost ritualistic function and, in a sense, attempt to show the "remnants” of these pitches outside the context of their musical movement (Ex.25).


Motoric Repetition of Patterns


            Starting in measure 135, an example of exact repetition of patterns occurs. But unlike previous sections, this repetition takes on a new quality, a motoric quality. The pitch material of the timpani originates from the beginning (Measures 1-7) and is presented as a one measure pattern 33 times. These patterns suddenly display a continuing, motoric movement and are coupled by the movement of choral notes, sometimes becoming chords and sometimes moving back to single notes or to single line phrases, and are later joined by the repetitive pattern of the viola. Due to the length of this section, an atmosphere of relative repetitive security is achieved. The movement takes on the role of an independent mobile-like object between the borders of the durationally fragile world of the sections surrounding it (Ex. 11).

            It also acts a preparatory device for the "quasi-Hebraic melody”[25]and its accompaniment in the last section of the piece starting in measure 314. The modal quality and the instrumentation (with the celesta later doubling the vibraphone an octave higher) show a strong affiliation (in spite of the citation quality of the "melody”) to the chords played by this instrumental combination throughout the piece. This presents a dualism between free durational material (the previous chordal "remnants”) and more fixed or motoric durational material (the more object-like "melody”) creating a relationship between musical objects and musical "remnants"(Ex. 22).     








Aspects of Musical Semiotics


History and Transcendence


            Feldman expressed in his 1984 Frankfurt lecture "maybe its because I'm Jewish. Actually, the Christian point of view is that there was God and then the world and the Jewish point of view is almost as if there was the universe in order to have a God. It's a little difference. In other words I'm not creating music, it's already there, and I have this conversation with my material, you see.”[26] In this sense one can see that the music used in "Rothko Chapel” is "already there”. Although this precludes a historical semiotics, this would seem to work against Feldman's goal of to "erase in one's memory what happened before.”[27]

            In his explanatory notes Feldman states, "to a large degree, my choice of instruments (in terms of forces used, balances and timbre) was affected by the spaces of the chapel as well as the paintings (Rothko's paintings). Rothko's imagery goes right to the edge of his canvas, and I wanted the same affect with the music - that it should permeate the whole octagonal - shaped room and not be heard from a certain distance.”[28] The "transcendental experience” of Rothko's paintings is based on "mystical action.”[29] and has to do with the perception of space; the colors seeming to be coming at the viewer. This experience remains abstract, making no attempt to manifest the viewer with a representation or symbolism behind this perception. Rothko’s' "transcendental experience” manifests qualities of Jewish transcendentalism, in which a God is not allowed to be visually represented. This is akin to Feldman's wish that "sounds should breathe...not to be used for the vested interest of an idea.” and that "music should have no vested interests, that you shouldn't know how it's made, that you shouldn't know if there's a system, that you shouldn't know anything about it...except that it's some kind of life force that to some degree really changes your life...if you're into it.”[30]

            In the same year of "Rothko Chapel’s" creation Feldman stated, "I do not identify with, say Western civilization music. In other words: when Bach gives us a diminished fourth, I can not respond that the diminished fourth means O God. I can not respond to that diminished fourth as a symbol. But what my music is mourning; I just don't know what to say.”[31] But "Rothko Chapel" demonstrates contradictory problems within this world of meaningless abstraction. In his explanatory notes Feldman admits that, "there are a few personal references in "Rothko Chapel”. The soprano melody, for example, was written on the day of Stravinsky's funeral service in New York. The quasi-Hebraic melody at the end was written when I was fifteen."[32]

            It is precisely this section of the "quasi-Hebraic melody" in which difficult questions in regard to Feldman's musical semiotics appear. The diatonic melody, although foreign in comparison to the rest of the piece's musical material, does, by way of its instrumentational usage of viola, celesta, and vibraphone, recall modal references to previous chords and figures of this instrumental combination which were gradually "negated” in the course of the piece. The fixed diatonic structure of the melody also makes reference to the fixed pitch components of the soprano solo (who does not sing a text) in the ”motivic interlude for soprano, viola and timpani.”[33] These previous references remain abstract in comparison to the more object-like "melody.” But it is precisely through the use of these references that Feldman can place this melody outside its more abstract musical context, allowing the "melody” to be heard as an object foreign to the piece. Simultaneously, this sonorous material of the "melody” is heard as related to the previous, more abstract sonorous material of the chords for viola, celesta, and vibraphone. In this way, the "sounds themselves” and their historical context are presented to create a dialectical complexity of musical semiotics.

            The "melody” is subsequently surrounded by chords derived from the "stationary 'abstract' section for chorus and chimes,"[34] showing that even after this semantic resurgence takes place, the musical object is to be finally surrounded by isolated, chordal "remnants.”


[1]           Konrad, György : Interview in "Kulturzeit", 3-SAT, Dec. 11, 19:00


[2]           Feldman, Morton : Essays,(Beginner press) p.49


[3]           Cage, John : Silence, p.71


[4]           Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 89


[5]           Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p. 89


[6]           Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.134


[7]           Wolpe, Stephan : "On New (and not so new) music in America" trans. Austin Clarkson, Journal of Music theory 28, no. 1 (Spring     1984) : 25


[8]           Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 89


[9]           Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 169


[10]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 169


[11]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 179


[12]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 212


[13]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 179


[14]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 177


[15]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 148


[16]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 141


[17]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 148


[18]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 230


[19]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p. 230


[20] 132 Metzger, Heinz-Klaus, Riehn, Reiner : Musik-Kozepte 48/49 Morton Feldman, (VerlagText und Kritik GmbH) p. 40


[21]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.132


[22]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.192


[23]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.132


[24]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.141


[25]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.141


[26]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.144


[27]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.230


[28]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.141


[29]          O’Doherty, Brian : Kunst in Amerika, (Belser Verlag 1988) p. 156


[30]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p.238


[31]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985)  p.7


[32]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.141


[33]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.141


[34]          Feldman, Morton : Essays, (Beginner Press 1985) p.141