From Sarah Rothenberg
MUSIC AND TIME: Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari
One of the essential elements of music is the way it defines time. In the simplest of comparisons, three minutes of fast music and three minutes of a slow adagio or a ballad will allow us to experience that equal measure of time very differently. As we all stay at home during this period of semi-confinement, many of us are noticing how, with the interruption of our normal daily routines, our sense of time is disrupted. For some, without the stimuli of engaging with others or moving about physically, this time may be become unusually slow, and even empty. It is as though our lives are missing the musical bar lines by which we usually measure the day.
But slowing down our inner clocks can also help us arrive at a greater sense of peace in times of anxiety, and offer an opportunity for patience and focus of attention that we don’t always have. In normal times, the pace of outward life can dominate, even if it is in tension with our inner tempo. As our habitual markers of the day now disappear, distractions may diminish (especially if we turn off our phones and computers for a few hours.) We can take a moment to find our inner rhythm and listen to ourselves.
A composer who speaks to me deeply is the avant-gardist Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Feldman was influenced by the abstract expressionist painters with whom he was close in the 1960’s and 70’s, and the music he created suspends our sense of time. Rejecting the convention of forward motion, Feldman strove towards stasis, as in painting. Contemplative and questioning, his is a nearly static music in which fixed components rotate, slowly forming new figurations; experiencing Feldman’s music is a bit like watching the subtle shifting movement of a mobile. The musical materials are suspended, like a constellation of stars in the sky. Our sense of time expands to something much larger than ourselves.
The work I play in the accompanying video, Palais de Mari (1986), was Feldman’s last piano piece, and it was dedicated to the painter Francesco Clemente. He named the work after an ancient palace at Mari in Mesopotamia – now eastern Syria – which he had seen in an image at the Louvre in Paris. Dating back to 2400 years B.C., rising out of the sands, the palace represented a mystical timelessness that permeates Feldman’s work. Tragically, following years of war and deliberate destruction of archaeological treasures, the palace has now been reduced to rubble.
Feldman often said that music is not the sound of the attack – the moment when a key is struck – but is what comes after, as the sound fades, “leaving us rather than coming towards us.” He called it, “the departing landscape.”
© Sarah Rothenberg, 2020
Listen to DACAMERA’s ECM recording of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel on Spotify. Featuring Kim Kashkashian, viola; Houston Chamber Choir; Lauren Snouffer, soprano; Sonja Bruzauskas, mezzo-soprano; Steven Schick, percussion and Sarah Rothenberg, piano and celeste
Read Sarah Rothenberg’s essay from the liner notes for the ECM recording.
Watch videos from the 2011 DACAMERA performance of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel in Rothko Chapel