Score for ‘De Kooning’ by Morton Feldman c.1963
GB: Quite a number of your pieces which have artists’ names in the title, or are dedicated to, for example, De Kooning, Philip Guston and the Rothko Chapel, all seem to be very particular references.
MF: Well, let’s start a little late in time. The Rothko Chapel piece was a very interesting commission because it was the only score where other factors determined what kind of music it was going to be. For example, it leaned very heavily on me that the first time I met Rothko, which must have been around 1962, I remember him standing against the wall talking to me about Mendelssohn. He liked the combination of the youth and the lyricism of Mendelssohn, all the fantastic pieces he wrote as such a young man. Rothko got a big kick out of that. So when I wrote the Rothko Chapel I remembered that Rothko did a lot of paintings with the WPA, social realist, and then I saw the whole life of this guy. So what I decided in the Rothko Chapel was to treat it very – not biographical, but my identity was such that I decided to write an autobiographical piece. The piece begins in a synagoguey type of way; a little rhetorical and declamatory. And as I get older the piece gets a little abstract, just like my own career. Then in the middle of the piece there is one thing that is really at odds with the other parts but which makes the piece a very interesting trip: where I just have the same chords, and I’m tripping for a long time, and it’s very monochromey.
GB: Are those the vocal harmonies?
MF: Yes, that is a very monochromey section. It’s going on for a long time and that’s where I reach this degree of abstraction. Not that I’m imitating Rothko but I’m certainly closer to the late pictures that are in the Chapel in that kind of one hue of a colour, and the piece ends with the memory of a piece that I wrote when I was fourteen.
GB: There are a few features about that ending which are strange: for example, that very tonal extended tune with a very steady, vibraphone accompaniment.
MF: Then there is a tune in the middle of the piece, a dialogue between a soprano and timpani and viola, which was a little Stravinskyish on purpose: I wrote that tune the day Stravinsky died. So it was Stravinsky, Rothko, dead. It was the only piece – and it will never happen again – when all kinds of facts, literary facts, reminiscent facts, came into the piece.
Excerpt from an interview with Gavin Bryers and Fred Orton on 27th May 1976, full transcript here
‘One of my favorite stories Feldman liked to tell was of Marcel Duchamp visiting an art class in San Francisco, where he saw a young man wildly painting away. Duchamp went over and asked, “What are you doing?” The young man said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!” And Duchamp patted him on the back and said, “Keep up the good work.” In music, it was Feldman, more than anyone else, who gave us permission not to know what the fuck we were doing.’