Morton Feldman

Rothko Chapel (1971) for Chorus, Viola and Percussion/Why Patterns? (1978)

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Rothko Chapel (1971) for Chorus, Viola and Percussion/Why Patterns? (1978) Review

by Glenn Swan

Avant-garde composer Morton Feldman spreads out a blanket of tension cautiously whispered by the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus. "Rothko Chapel" pays tribute to another minimalist, the painter Mark Rothko. The composer effectively conveys the Zen-like stillness of Rothko's art in an appropriately sparse structure in Houston, TX, that displays eight of his huge canvases of dark purple and blue. The music floats like the ghost of Hamlet's father: a gloomy specter that communicates without speaking. Wordless vocal tone clusters seep out through the skeletal arrangements of viola, celeste, and percussion. Parts one through four bleed together in sweet dissonance, but then "Rothko Chapel Part 5" takes on a more deliberate tone (albeit with the same instrumentation). Here, Feldman exhales a melancholy lullaby, with viola slumbering in a soft bed of vibraphone and a chilling Ligeti-style chorus still looming in the shadows. Listeners will most likely be divided by this passage; it seems the most out of place for what Feldman is known for, and at the same time it seems the most beautiful. Next, the California EAR Unit do loving justice to "Why Patterns?," an appropriately titled piece when you consider how randomly it unfolds. This is a typical, Feldman-esque piece of disparate piano clusters, glockenspiel afterthoughts, and isolated flute phrasings that avoid any complete thoughts. Musicologists could easily clash over whether the piece is some sort of "brilliant foray into deconstructionist musical existentialism" or if it's simply meandering. Regardless, the ensemble speaks with the reverent and faithful voice of their maker. Those who know the composer well should be unfazed by the second half of the CD, but be all the more enchanted by the first.