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Length: 30 minutes
American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was drawn to abstract expressionist painting and included Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollack, and Robert Rauschenberg among his friends and associates. When he was in Houston for the Rothko Chapel opening in February 1971, the chapel donors asked him to compose a tribute to Rothko, who had killed himself in 1970 after completing a suite of 14 large paintings for the inside of the octagonal chapel that bears his name.
Feldman accepted, and his contemplative score was premiered in the Chapel in April 1972. It begins and ends with viola solos, the first a wide-spanned declamation punctuated by distant thunder from the timpani, the second a "quasi-Hebraic melody" written when Feldman was 15 years old and underscored by a minimalist pattern on the vibraphone.
In the middle hang muted choral chords, sung on an open hum, that suggest the centered spirituality of Rothko's paintings. Brief wordless solos for alto and soprano ensue (the soprano's little tune was composed on the day of Stravinsky's funeral service in New York), supported by the viola's declamation and the timpani interventions. At the very end, after the viola solo fades, those ethereal chords return over the persistently ticking vibraphone, time and eternity measured against each other.
"To a large degree, my choice of instruments (in terms of forces used, balance, and timbre) was affected by the space of the chapel as well as the paintings," Feldman wrote. "Rothko's imagery goes right to the edge of his canvas, and I wanted the same effect with the music - that it should permeate the whole octagonal room and not be heard from a certain distance."
"The total rhythm of the paintings as Rothko arranged them created an unbroken continuity. While it was possible with the paintings to reiterate color and scale and still retain dynamic interest, I felt that the music called for a series of highly contrasted merging sections. I envisioned an immobile procession, not unlike the friezes on Greek temples."
-- John Henken is the Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.