Two wonderful artistic creations bear the name “Rothko Chapel”. The first is an ecumenical spiritual space, in Houston, built to display huge dark paintings by Mark Rothko. The second is a half-hour composition by Morton Feldman, which premiered in the chapel in 1972, a year after the site opened. Each work has a legendary aura. The chapel, imagined by patrons Dominique and Jean de Ménil, projects an abyssal immobility that captivates more than a hundred thousand visitors each year. Feldman’s composition, a sparse soundscape for viola, choir, celesta and percussion, has long since become a classic of modern music; according to Feldman Archivist Chris Villars, over the past two decades it has had over one hundred and thirty performances, in twenty-seven countries. Together, music and art constitute a monument of 20th century modernism, a place of its dreams and sorrows. Fifty years later, a third voice has joined this interdisciplinary conversation: that of composer Tyshawn Sorey, whose “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)” premiered at the chapel last month.
Relationships between artists and composers can be easily drawn. Picky Debussy had little in common with the Impressionist painters to whom he was often compared. With Rothko and Feldman, however, a deep kinship exists. Around 1950, both turned to a form of ethereal abstraction, avoiding the more hectic modernisms of the time. The painter applied himself to fields of opaque colors, windows onto otherness and nothingness. The composer has reduced his language to isolated notes and chords, letting one sound die out before the next appears. Rothko’s images were distant, hazy; Feldman’s music remained soft. In the 1960s, the two men developed a personal relationship. Feldman visited Rothko’s studio while the chapel project was underway. Rothko admired Feldman’s music, although he preferred Mozart above all else. Critic Brian O’Doherty, who once watched Rothko listen to Feldman’s “The Swallows of Salangan,” commented that in the two men’s work, “attention translates into desire or desire, a desire implicit in Rothko’s light and Feldman’s expanding sound”.
The resemblance between Rothko and “Rothko Chapel” is strongest in the middle of Feldman’s piece. For several minutes, the choir lingers on a misty six-note chord, the individual voices taking turns to keep the sound uninterrupted. The chimes hit the remaining notes of the chromatic scale. If the music were scored fortissimo, it would be brutal on the ears, but Feldman tells the singers to be “barely audible”, smoothing out the dissonance. The effect is analogous to Rothko’s plum and black walls, which make a harsh first impression and later reveal lighter pigments.
This eternity chord occupies only a few pages of the score. The rest sometimes diverges radically from Rothko’s aesthetic and, indeed, from the rest of Feldman’s output. The composer was generally unwavering in his resistance to conventional tonality, faithful to the Schoenbergian precept that the musical languages of the past were over. The “Rothko Chapel” is an extraordinary exception. Throughout, the viola seems to be trying to achieve lyrical flight, and in the closing minutes it unfurls a stark melody—a melancholy, modal theme that Feldman had written as a teenager. When he was composing the end of the play, he said to the de Menils, “my eyes filled with tears”.
The tears were primarily for Rothko, who had committed suicide in 1970. Ryan Dohoney, in his captivating study “Saving Abstraction: Morton Feldman, the de Menils, and the Rothko Chapel”, notes that Feldman reacted to the death of his friend by sketching a soft and euphonic piece entitled “For Mark Rothko”. It turned into “Madame Press died last week at ninety”, a memorial for the composer’s piano teacher. The shock of Rothko’s act obviously drew Feldman to sounds of primal innocence. Nothing equivalent exists in the mature work of the painter. It would be a bit like discovering that Rothko had painted a human figure on a panel in the chapel.
The meaning of these tears changes when we consider the work’s Jewish resonances. The closing melody, Feldman said, was “quasi-Hebrew”, and other passages had “the synagogue ring”. He may have thought of Rothko’s childhood: the painter was born in the Pale of Settlement, in present-day Latvia, and was devoutly religious in his youth. More generally, the darkness of Jewish history weighed on Feldman’s mind. In the same month that he completed ‘Rothko Chapel’, he wrote ‘I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg’, which evokes an imaginary encounter in Paris with the exiled poet Heinrich Heine. Speaking at the premiere of “Rothko Chapel,” Feldman spoke of the painter’s “relentless confrontation with reality” and seized on a striking metaphor: “There is no choice, there is no time, the Gestapo is coming up the stairs.”
The “Rothko Chapel” is perhaps best understood not as a personal account of Rothko or Feldman, but as a representation of the very act of exploring a multi-layered work of art. At times, as in the central passage, the music seems to imitate Rothko’s imposing, deadpan surfaces. The solo viola alludes to the spectator’s wandering thoughts. Rolling bass drums and timpani suggest an inner unease, or perhaps the distant noise of the outside world. The Jewish melody is a memory that comes out of nowhere – a voice from the past that speaks to the present. The silent chorus leaves no room for this outpouring of emotion, remaining fixed on its six-note chords. The painting is unchanged by its audience. The same goes for the music: our feelings about Feldman’s own weird creation follow the same complicated course.
For some years now, one of the main keepers of musical activity at the Rothko Chapel has been pianist Sarah Rothenberg, who leads the ever thoughtful series of chamber music and jazz dacamera, in Houston. She organized a performance of “Rothko Chapel” there in 2011 and, three years later, presented “For Philip Guston”, Feldman’s five-hour trio for flute, piano and percussion. (dacameraThe recording of “Rothko Chapel”, for the ECM label, is one of the finest to date.) The chapel, which turned fifty last year, reopened in 2020 after a major restoration, which included the installation of a shutter illuminating the room. skylight. To celebrate the anniversary, Rothenberg has commissioned a new work from Tyshawn Sorey, who at forty-one has risen to the forefront of young American composers, his music influenced by both classical modernism and jazz from avant-garde.
The choice was perfectly logical. In a public conversation with Rothenberg after the premiere, Sorey described Feldman as his “hero” and one of his main role models. In several recent pieces, he not only echoed aspects of Feldman’s sonic world, but also followed his predecessor’s habit of giving dedications to his colleagues in his tracks. These works begin with a simulacrum of the Feldman style, then deviate into a different realm – roaring dissonance, in “For Marcos Balter”; spacious and radiant sounds, in “For George Lewis”.
The building blocks of “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)” are essentially the same as those of “Rothko Chapel”: sustained chorale chords, quests for alto lines, growls, and percussive chimes. However, important differences quickly appear. The viola is larger, more agitated, more passionate. One sentence is marked “legato, molto espressivo” – a wording absent from “Rothko Chapel”. In the Feldman, the members of the whole seem independent of each other, coinciding like the parts of a mobile; the refrain is indifferent, from another world. Sorey traces subtle connections between the disparate parts. The choir remains silent for many minutes, and when it enters, with an A in the tenors, it is synchronized with an A in the timpani.
Right from the start, Sorey shapes his material so that it acquires a narrative momentum, a paradoxical effect since “Monochromatic Light” is about twice as long as “Rothko Chapel” and flirts with stasis. A rising minor third keeps coming back; we hear key notes in the minor mode, especially in the area of C sharp minor. Sorey follows Feldman in introducing vocal solos, but instead of alto and soprano he chooses bass-baritone. The viola and the voice exchange whispered and groping figures, as if they were looking for the same theme. Feldman’s strict modernist ethos tended to discourage this kind of goal-oriented thinking; Sorey is a naturally captivating musical storyteller, even when working with minimal means.
As in “Rothko Chapel,” the viola is given a full-fledged melody at the end. In place of Feldman’s Hebrew song, Sorey inserts the dark witty “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” The impact is radically different. Feldman’s melody, marked “very, very simply,” is a shimmering dream vision, set to a steady tempo. Sorey’s spirituality, which has been anticipated in these minor-key passages, is more of a struggling organic growth, winding through shifting meters. If Feldman looks back to a world that is gone, Sorey could be pointing to an unfolding tragedy.
Rothenberg assembled a brilliant group of performers for the premiere, led by Sorey. The violist was the very expressive Kim Kashkashian, perhaps the best living representative of her instrument. This could also be said of Steven Schick, who played percussion. The Houston Chamber Choir maintained an uncanny precision, as did Rothenberg herself, on piano and celesta. The vocal soloist was the masterful bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who quietly hummed Kashkashian’s “Motherless Child”. (The spiritual also features in “The Black Clown,” the musical theater project Tines helped create in 2018.) The final phrase died away, disappearing in an ambiguous chord. Audiences were left staring into the darkness of Rothko, who after that supremely haunting performance didn’t look the same. ♦