Fifty years in the past, composer Morton Feldman wrote music to commemorate the opening of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. A half-century later, composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur “genius” Tyshawn Sorey was requested to put in writing a brand new piece for this nondenominational area. Sorey’s Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife) debuted Feb. 19 on the Rothko Chapel.
The Rothko Chapel is a mysterious area, one which invitations deep contemplation. David Leslie is the chapel’s government director. He says that as quickly as you stroll in from a brilliant, sunny Houston day, by means of a collection of doorways into this hushed, darkish place, your thoughts and your physique are each compelled to shift into a really completely different, holy area.
“You then stroll into the sanctuary, the inside sanctum, and instantly what you are struck by just isn’t a big area,” Leslie observes, “however this actual sense of lightness of being.”
The dome of the chapel is a skylight that enables the pure mild to fall upon 14 huge, darkish panels painted by American artist Mark Rothko. Sorey says that he hopes his music offers listeners the identical feeling of being enveloped, in the identical approach that Rothko’s big work present.
“As he mentioned, in case you’re a small image, you are type of exterior of the expertise,” Sorey says. “Once you’re a big image, you are type of engulfed in that have. You are immersed in that have.”
At first look, the panels can look flat, practically black. However as you sit with them for some time, you begin noticing a lot else. This suite of work have been a few of Rothko’s final work, and he by no means noticed them within the area himself. Rothko’s spirit and intention are in every single place right here, Sorey notes.
“You get a way that there is a whole lot of exercise that is occurring — the expression of time, the expression of motion. … And these type of humanistic qualities that went into these work, the brushstrokes, the gradations of colour. So there’s exercise occurring there,” Sorey says.
“On the similar time,” he says, “there is a type of inaction that is there as nicely. The portray is the portray itself. Is it transferring? No, it is not doing something. The change that’s actually occurring is in that skylight that is on the highest of the chapel the place the sunshine is altering. Each minute, there’s one thing concerning the colours of these panels that is altering. And it is revealing one thing else, it is revealing one other shade of that colour or is revealing extra of this exercise or much less of this exercise.”
“I’ve lengthy been drawn to Mark Rothko’s work as nicely for a really, very very long time,” Sorey says. “These are two of my greatest influences within the work that I have been doing. And so for me, this fee gave me the chance to contribute to a legacy.”
With Morton Feldman as considered one of his longtime compositional heroes — alongside like Roscoe Mitchell and Invoice Dixon — Sorey determined to make use of an analogous set of musical forces to that utilized by Feldman some 50 years in the past. For his Rothko Chapel, Feldman employed percussion, celesta, viola, choir and soprano; Sorey added a piano and swapped the soprano soloist for a darker-voiced bass-baritone.
Within the area of Rothko Chapel, listening to Sorey’s music, you turn out to be a part of this huge entity that’s a lot bigger than your self, says violist Kim Kashkashian, one of many soloists in Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife).
(Kashkashian, like two fellow soloists — percussionist Steven Schick and pianist and celesta participant Sarah Rothenberg — are additionally carefully related to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, which they recorded collectively for a critically acclaimed ECM Data album launched in 2015.)
“In case you are prepared to take a seat down and take heed to this 50-minute work,” Kashkashian says of Sorey’s piece, “it’s in a method like a meditation as a result of there’s a whole lot of repetition in it. Each time one thing will get repeated, I believe that the spirit adjustments. And it ought to change in you as a listener, too.”
Kashkashian provides, nevertheless, that Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife) is something however gauzy. “The emotion that’s evoked by the piece just isn’t sentimental,” she says. “So it is a very robust work. I envision a form of sensible and stern angel telling all of this story from all numerous elements.”
The piece is stuffed with thriller, with floating, unsettled harmonies. The vocalists — the Houston Chamber Choir and solo bass-baritone Davóne Tines sing in wordless syllables. Percussion thunders.
As an instrumentalist, the wide-ranging Sorey is greatest often called a drummer and percussionist. Steven Schick is the percussionist in Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife); he notes which you can hear Sorey’s pondering as a fellow percussionist on this work.
“There are lengthy moments wherein there are big arcs of time, that issues transfer slowly,” Schick observes, “after which instantly there can be a crystalline occasion, one thing that adjustments the trajectory and adjustments your entire ecosystem of the piece. And I am not saying that solely a percussionist might have carried out that, however I sense the percussionist in Tyshawn once I hear him handle time that approach.”
Schick additionally sees a robust connection between the visible and the sonic in Sorey’s work. “The piece is about mild,” Schick says. “Rothko Chapel in itself is about mild. However mild is vibration, simply as sound is. And so I spotted that we’re on this massive spectrum the place on the most speedy doable degree, you get colours of sunshine. And on the slowest doable degree, you have got these large-scale formal or temporal buildings that comprise the music. We’re requested to barter the spectrum form of fluidly, from the most important pulses to the very, very smallest pulses — actually, in essence, from kind to coloured mild.”
Sorey additionally makes loads of room for silence in Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife). “We’re at a interval now the place there’s type of an anxiousness to that — there’s an anxiousness of silence, I believe,” he observes. “I am not afraid of it in any respect. And I select to use it in nearly each single factor I do as a result of I believe that that is simply as necessary as what does come out of the devices.”
“Typically you might hear a melody within the viola that will one way or the other reappear within the bass or one thing,” Sorey continues, “however then there will be a whole lot of breaks in between, to have the listener mirror on what was simply heard and never take into consideration what is going on to return subsequent — however solely be in that second. It is nearly such as you’re transferring round a room and also you’re transferring concerning the room in a silent type of approach, so that you may be immersed in every second that you just go to.”
Together with taking part in piano and celesta in Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife), Sarah Rothenberg is the creative director of DACAMERA, the presenting group in Houston that, together with the Rothko Chapel, commissioned Sorey’s piece. She says this new work displays the pandemic occasions, and a starvation for connection.
“We have all lived by means of a form of collective trauma, and we have all felt greater than ever, I believe, our personal particular person vulnerability,” Rothenberg says. “And but on the similar time, we’re residing in a world the place there is a large quantity of aggression round us and aggressive habits, and it generally feels just like the social material that holds us collectively is falling aside. This music has large emotion in it, but it surely by no means has any aggression in it. I believe it is a very courageous piece due to its vulnerability. And I believe that is what we want proper now.”
Sorey additionally invokes a lot older, and persevering with, ache and Black expertise within the U.S. Close to the tip of composer Morton Feldman’s 1971 piece Rothko Chapel, a melody bubbles up for the viola — one which Feldman known as “quasi-Hebraic.” It evoked Feldman and Rothko’s shared Jewish heritage. In his piece, Sorey makes use of an abstracted model of the non secular “Typically I Really feel Like A Motherless Baby.”
Sorey says using “Motherless Baby” is a approach of speaking musically about generational trauma — simply, as he says, Feldman did in his personal work with that “quasi-Hebraic melody.” He additionally factors out that spirituals have been a part of the underpinning of a few of his different current works as nicely, together with Cycles of My Being, Save the Boys and Demise.
” ‘Typically I Really feel Like a Motherless Baby’ is a hymn that I’ve at all times heard arising within the church, and it’s one which I can very a lot relate to in a whole lot of methods,” Sorey says. “I’ve heard it sung many a time. It is a hymn that’s at all times spoken to me. And so I simply determined to have that be one of many driving elements of the composition.”
Sorey’s piece was written for the Rothko Chapel, however it’s going to have a life past that area. Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife) can be recorded for the ECM label later this yr, and will probably be carried out this fall on the Park Avenue Armory in New York Metropolis, in a brand new staging to be directed by Peter Sellars.