Rothko Chapel is most silent when it is filled with music. I know that sounds like a paradox, but the rests in Morton Feldman’s epic chamber work For Philip Guston are particularly vivid, almost characters in themselves. Yesterday the talented Da Camera musicians offered a stunning performance of this five-hour, quietly detailed masterpiece, which premiered exactly thirty years ago in Buffalo, New York. Their performance is a major milestone in my musical experience and a brilliant assertion of the possibility of nonviolence in musical form. Feldman’s score, as well, demonstrates how musical, literary, and painterly concepts can comfortably coexist.
I am always delighted by the unexpected and the auspicious. It is auspicious right now, for example, that Dario Robleto’s sculpture Fossilhood Is Not Forever appears in the Menil at the same time as Ai Weiwei’s Feet. Take a look for yourself and decide if you think what I’m saying is correct. Neither of these artists could have foreseen such an intriguing coincidence, and each sculpture seems amplified in its proximity to the other, even if they are in separate galleries.
The Menil Collection has only one work by Guston, a 1964 gouache on paper, Untitled. A few weeks ago, I was visiting Chicago when I stumbled into a gallery at the Art Institute filled with Guston’s late paintings. For me, this was an unexpected preview of his final sensibilities. Apparently, Feldman and Guston had a falling out over Guston’s return, late in life, to such largely figurative work. Feldman really didn’t know what to say to Guston about these paintings. Guston died in 1980. Though they had been at odds, Feldman called the artist “the most important person in my life, besides my mother of course. I don’t think I would have become an artist if I didn’t have that luck in meeting Philip Guston.”
The Da Camera musicians yesterday included Claire Chase (flutes and piccolo), Steven Schick (percussion), and Sarah Rothenberg (piano and celeste). To say their musicianship is sublime is yet an understatement. There was something else altogether that put this performance into another realm. Perhaps, it was a kind of collective mindfulness that made the performance possible at all. To witness that musicians can develop such a singular idea about a score is breathtaking. That they considered the offering as another aspect of the Menil Gandhi exhibition’s “aesthetics of non-violence” is equally important. For Philip Guston is not only of extraordinary length and considerable technical difficulty, it demands a kind of non-insistent realization. Maybe, some sort of faith as well. It is not atonal, and it does not function exactly in the manner of diatonic music. There are certain pitches that emerge, and other pitches that seem to gravitate towards them. It has an endearing quality of non-intervention. And there were those stunning, “active” silences.
After about four hours, a section emerged that is clearly one of Feldman’s greatest achievements, which is saying a lot. It seems to capture all of the affection and admiration one person could have for another. This was not sentimentality or solipsism. The passage had a forthright authenticity. Writing in the New York Times in 1995, critic Alex Ross said of it, “Feldman’s genius was always in the ending. At a point where the music seems to have ground to a halt completely, the glockenspiel begins to play a descending melody in unblemished A minor. This scalar figure sounds fifty more times in the work’s last few minutes, sometimes cleanly harmonized, sometimes couched in hazy dissonance. There are also enigmatic clocklike strokes on the chimes and soft clusters on the piano.”
I feel fortunate to have seen Feldman perform his own piano pieces, in 1978 in Hartford, Connecticut. He sat at the piano for at least five minutes before he ever touched the keyboard. Then, for approximately two hours, he played one note at a time, pausing briefly before moving on to the next note. Some of the notes were loud, but very few. At first, the audacity of it all unnerved me. And then as I settled in, I realized that each and every note was fresh. This seems to me the quintessence of a meditative, nonviolent mind. It is the attitude that characterized Feldman, and it was captured with elegance and sophistication in Da Camera’s remarkable realization of For Philip Guston.