parker quartet

Liminal Group presents a tribute to Gertrude Stein. Photo by Kathryn Elsesser

Sometimes revolutions begin not with a shot heard round the world but instead with a superficially soothing sound. Historians often trace the explosion of musical modernism to Igor Stravinsky’s ignition in 1913, Rite of Spring, but the fuse was lit a decade earlier in Debussy’s beguiling Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and Stravinsky himself touched off the next wave, neoclassicism, with the relatively restrained Octet a decade after the Rite.

Of course, you can’t get much quieter than John Cage’s 1952 silent landmark 4’33’, which we’ve discussed here recently and which kicked off March Music  Moderne. (Admittedly, that opening night event also contained percussionist Florian Conzetti’s blazing reprise of Xenakis’s Psappha (which I reviewed when he first performed it in Northwest New Music’s January concert), one of the loudest unamplified pieces I’ve ever experienced. And as Adam Tendler showed at PSU last month, Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes are also gently radical. The LA-born Cage himself was, at least after discovering Zen Buddhism, a notoriously affable, even genial figure.

The same can’t be said for his protege/colleague, the big, blustery New Yorker Morton Feldman, but much of the latter’s music, performed at Third Angle’s haunting concert last week at the Portland Art Museum, lulls you into a false sense of security, much like Mark Rothko’s magnificent ’50s and ‘60s paintings now gracing the museum’s main gallery.

Unlike the noisy eruptions of his Abstract Expressionist predecessor, Jackson Pollock, Rothko’s slabs of solid colors sometimes became a kind of tasteful wallpaper for people eager to show off their mod artsy inclinations without clashing with the sofa. Similarly, in Rothko Chapel, written in the wake of his painter friend’s suicide, Feldman’s hushed choral whispers, expertly exhaled by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, and somber viola lines (beautifully traced by 3A’s Brian Quincey) initially sound merely melancholy. But with both artists, the closer you listen and look, the darker and more intense the underlying emotions reveal themselves to be. The museum’s darkened, sold-out Kridel Ballroom, augmented with some subtle lighting effects, provided a suitably meditative environment for a quietly compelling  performance.

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