Music

Morton Feldman at the Tate Modern – an elegy for pioneering artist Philip Guston

A retrospective of the work of Canadian-American artist Philip Guston has been soundtracked by Morton Feldman's music, inspired by the painter

Morton Feldman's music being performed at the Tate Modern

Morton Feldman's music being performed at the Tate Modern. Image: Sophie Shaw

The flautist alternates between two notes, each extended with careful control. On either side, a percussionist and pianist scatter sounds, forming melodic stepping stones. The alto flute is replaced by piccolo; now the notes are higher, now the timbre flutters. Friday night in a London bar continues around this musical triangle. In the outer corners, friends chatter; hopes and concerns are shared. But in the immediate tessellation, we watch and listen: the glockenspiel tolls into darkness. 

The glacial pace of the sparse music might seem like an odd choice for a late night at the Tate Modern, where DJ sets fill the cavernous Turbine Hall. But there’s an ideal reason why this ethereal music by Morton Feldman is being performed here (below): the piece is an elegy for the Canadian-American artist Philip Guston, the subject of the gallery’s lauded retrospective (on until 25 February).

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For Philip Guston (1984) is a gently kaleidoscopic piece that seems to go nowhere and everywhere. The sense of disorientation is in part due to its structure; like many of Feldman’s works it is incredibly long –
lasting nearly five hours it rivals Wagner for the concentration it demands from musicians and listeners. When Aldeburgh Festival programmed a complete performance in the summer of 2018, the concert began at sunrise, with attendees encouraged to bring sleeping bags so they could comfortably doze. At the Tate event, the ensemble broke the work into 30-minute chunks, losing some of the mesmeric quality. 

This was regained in the exhibition, where early Guston works nudge surrealism: Nude Philosopher in Space-Time (1935) depicts a seemingly random collection of objects; Bombardment (1937) features a cape-wearing gas-masked body. However, it’s Guston’s later works that are the most controversial – and the reason that this touring collection has been several years in the making. 

Having addressed racism through art for much of his career, Guston (1913-1980) went on to develop a series of hooded figures representing the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t the subject matter that offended his colleagues – including US composers Morton Feldman and John Cage – it was his return to figurative drawing. In Flatlands (1970) two klansmen appear in a pink-hued cartoonish landscape, while in The Studio (1969) a hooded artist paints a self-portrait. 

Feldman, who had used Guston’s Head – Double View (1958) as the cover for his album New Directions in Music 2, on display as part of the current exhibition, was dismayed with the painter’s move away from abstraction and the pair did not speak for several years. For Philip Guston was composed in the aftermath of the artist’s death, perhaps as a way for Feldman to express his loss. 

Guston wasn’t the only painter who inspired Feldman (1926-1987). When Mark Rothko died by suicide in 1970, the newly opened Rothko Chapel, named after the 14 large paintings that fill the specially designated space, commissioned Feldman to compose a tribute. Rothko Chapel (1971) is a haunting piece formed from sweeping musical brushstrokes that mix Feldman’s usual colours – percussion and strings – with wordless vocal solos.

Manchester Collective explores these audio-visual connections in a touring concert that pairs Morton Feldman’s 30-minute meditation with light installations. New works by Isabella Summers, Isobel Waller-Bridge; Edmund Finnis and Katherine Balch also feature (Southbank Centre, London, 5 May; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 10 May).

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