Nowhere do Morton Feldman’s complexities seem so simple as in his piano music, and nowhere else do his patterns seem so impossible. A video of pianist Sarah Rothenberg playing Feldman’s final work for piano – Palais de Mari, from 1986 – made both of those points plainly clear. Under Rothenberg’s exquisite touch, each pause in Feldman’s slowly unrolling scroll becomes suspenseful, each note within seems profound.

Sarah Rothenberg © Da Camera of Houston
Sarah Rothenberg
© Da Camera of Houston

The beauty of Feldman’s music is that it doesn’t seem to exist for an audience. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to have come into being by the work of a composer. It just seems present, in the air. It was, in that sense, that Rothenberg’s performance, filmed in a gallery of ancient artifacts in the Menil Collection in Houston, worked so well. The video The Departing Landscape (titled after a Feldman phrase describing the decay in his music) was produced by Da Camera of Houston (of which Rothenberg is artistic director) and, following the 17 November premiere, will remain available through the 24th.  

Introductory text on screen at the beginning of the video suggested that “in Feldman’s music, the materials are suspended like a constellation of stars in the sky”, but the room in which Rothenberg played was bright, a softly glowing white, not the expanse of the night sky but a cloud in sunlight, populated by sculptures which seemed to hover around her. The camera was in near constant motion, scanning Rothenberg’s hands, her face, and the objects in the room, pieces dating back to 2400 BCE (contemporary to the Mesopotamian palace that inspired the composition) like Platonic forms: bottles and bowls and human figures yet to come into being. 

Sarah Rothenberg © Da Camera of Houston
Sarah Rothenberg
© Da Camera of Houston

Rothenberg said in her spoken introduction that Feldman’s music “offers us a space of peace, of contemplation, that we need now more than ever” and it is, I suppose, “relaxing music”. It has, at least, the hallmarks of relaxing music. It’s generally soft and slow, a sort of sforzando antithesis. But it never relaxes me. Rather, it intensely engages me, like Dadaist poetry; everything is right there but unavailable. And yet, it seems, any key will open the lock. Any supposition about the music can become a part of the music. Or, at least, one disappears into such thoughts as the music moves forward, always forward, never repeating, not actually. Despite Feldman’s yearning for stasis, the momentum is always palpable. 

The trick – which not all performers of Feldman’s work get, but Rothenberg does – is to play the music perfectly (it must be perfect) while imposing nothing upon it. Just as the listener disappears, so must the performer. It’s virtuosic music that demands no display be made. To say that Rothenberg’s Palais de Mari was, over the course of its 40 minutes, entirely nonintrusive is, in that sense, the highest praise. 


This performance was reviewed from the Da Camera video stream

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