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Music Fills the Rothko Chapel

Two formidable 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 had its premiere in the chapel in 1972, a year after the site opened. Each work possesses a legendary aura. The chapel, the brainchild of the art patrons Dominique and John de Menil, projects an abyssal stillness that mesmerizes more than a hundred thousand visitors every year. Feldman’s composition, a sparse soundscape for viola, chorus, celesta, and percussion, long ago became a classic of modern music; according to the Feldman archivist Chris Villars, in the past two decades it has received more than a hundred and thirty performances, in twenty-seven countries. Together, the music and the art constitute a monument of twentieth-century modernism—a locus of its dreams and sorrows. Fifty years on, a third voice has joined this interdisciplinary conversation: that of the composer Tyshawn Sorey, whose “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)” had its premiere in the chapel last month.

Relationships between artists and composers can be easily drawn. The fastidious Debussy had little in common with the Impressionist painters to whom he was often compared. With Rothko and Feldman, though, a profound kinship exists. Around 1950, both turned toward an ethereal form of abstraction, avoiding the more hectic modernisms of the period. The painter applied himself to opaque fields of color, windows to otherness and nothingness. The composer reduced his language to isolated notes and chords, letting one sound die away before the next arose. Rothko’s images were distant, shrouded; Feldman’s music stayed soft. In the sixties, the two men developed a personal bond. Feldman visited Rothko’s studio while the chapel project was under way. Rothko admired Feldman’s music, even if he favored Mozart above all. The critic Brian O’Doherty, who once observed Rothko listening to Feldman’s “The Swallows of Salangan,” commented that in both men’s work “attention is translated into yearning or desire, a yearning implicit in Rothko’s light and Feldman’s expanding sound.”

The resemblance between Rothko and “Rothko Chapel” is strongest at the midpoint of Feldman’s piece. For several minutes, the chorus dwells on a hazy six-note chord, with individual voices taking turns so that the sonority is sustained continuously. Chimes touch on the remaining notes of the chromatic scale. If the music were marked fortissimo, it would be brutal on the ears, but Feldman tells the singers to be “barely audible,” dampening the dissonance. The effect is analogous to that of Rothko’s walls of plum and black, which make a severe first impression and then disclose lighter pigments.

That chord of eternity occupies only a few pages of the score. The rest sometimes departs radically from the Rothko aesthetic and, indeed, from the remainder of Feldman’s output. The composer was generally steadfast in his resistance to conventional tonality, faithful to the Schoenbergian precept that the musical languages ​​of the past were defunct. “Rothko Chapel” represents an extraordinary exception. Throughout, the viola seems to be trying to achieve lyrical flight, and in the final minutes it unfurls a clean-lined melody—a wistful, modal theme that Feldman had written in his teen-age years. When he was composing the piece’s ending, he told the de Menils, “my eyes filled up with tears.”

The tears were primarily for Rothko, who had died by suicide in 1970. Ryan Dohoney, in his absorbing study “Saving Abstraction: Morton Feldman, the de Menils, and the Rothko Chapel,” notes that Feldman reacted to his friend’s death by sketching a sweetly euphonious piece called “For Mark Rothko.” This turned into “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety,” a memorial for the composer’s piano teacher. The shock of Rothko’s act evidently pulled Feldman toward sounds of primordial innocence. Nothing equivalent exists in the painter’s mature work. It would be a bit like finding that Rothko had painted a human figure onto one panel of the chapel.

The meaning of those tears changes when you consider the work’s Jewish resonances. The closing melody, Feldman said, was “quasi-Hebraic,” and other passages had “the ring of the synagogue.” He might have been thinking of Rothko’s childhood: the painter was born in the Pale of Settlement, in what is now Latvia, and was devoutly religious in his youth. More generally, the darkness of Jewish history was weighing 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. During a talk at the première of “Rothko Chapel,” Feldman spoke of the painter’s “relentless confrontation with reality,” and reached for a striking metaphor: “There is no choice, there is no time, the Gestapo is coming up the stairs. ”

“Rothko Chapel” is perhaps best understood not as a personal narrative about either Rothko or Feldman but as a description of the very act of exploring a multilayered work of art. At times, as in the central passage, the music appears to mimic Rothko’s impassive, towering surfaces. The solo viola hints at the stray thoughts of the viewer. Bass-drum and timpani rolls suggest interior unease, or perhaps the distant noise of the outside world. The Jewish melody is a memory that arises out of nowhere—a voice from the past that speaks in the present tense. The wordless chorus gives no ground to that outpouring of emotion, remaining fixed on its six-note chords. The painting is unchanged by its audience. So, too, is the music: our feelings in the face of Feldman’s own uncanny creation run the same complicated course.

For some years, a chief custodian of musical activity at the Rothko Chapel has been the pianist Sarah Rothenberg, who runs the perennially thoughtful chamber-music and jazz series da camera, in Houston. She organized a performance of “Rothko Chapel” there in 2011, and three years later presented “For Philip Guston,” Feldman’s five-hour-long trio for flute, piano, and percussion. †dacamera‘s 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 an extensive restoration, which included the installation of a room-brightening louvered skylight. To celebrate the anniversary, Rothenberg solicited a new work from Tyshawn Sorey, who, at the age of forty-one, has moved into the front ranks of younger American composers, his music inflected by both classical modernism and avant-garde jazz.

The choice made perfect sense. In a public conversation with Rothenberg after the premiere, Sorey described Feldman as his “hero,” and one of his chief models. In several recent pieces, he has not only echoed aspects of Feldman’s sound world but also followed his predecessor’s habit of giving dedications to colleagues in his titles. These works begin with a simulacrum of the Feldman style and then swerve into a different realm—roaring dissonances, in “For Marcos Balter”; spacious, radiant sonorities, in “For George Lewis.”

The building blocks of “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)” are essentially the same as those of “Rothko Chapel”: sustained choral chords, questing viola lines, rumblings and chimings of percussion. Yet significant differences appear soon. The viola is broader, more restless, more impassioned. One phrase is marked “legato, molto espressivo”—editorializing that is absent from “Rothko Chapel.” In the Feldman, members of the ensemble seem independent of one another, coinciding like parts of a mobile; the chorus is indifferent, otherworldly. Sorey plots subtle connections among the disparate parts. The chorus stays quiet for many minutes, and when it enters, with an A in the tenors, it is synchronized with an A on the timpani.

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 recurring; we hear hints of minor-mode tonality, especially in the area of ​​C-sharp minor. Sorey follows Feldman in introducing vocal solos, but instead of an alto and a soprano he chooses a bass-baritone. Viola and voice trade whispery, upward-groping figures, as if they were searching for the same theme. Feldman’s strict modernist ethos tended to discourage this kind of goal-oriented thinking; Sorey is an innately gripping musical storyteller, even when he is working with minimal means.

As in “Rothko Chapel,” the viola is given a full-fledged melody at the end. In place of Feldman’s Hebraic song, Sorey inserts the Black spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The impact is starkly different. Feldman’s melody, marked “very, very simply,” is a shimmering dream vision, set at a steady tempo. Sorey’s spiritual, having been anticipated in those minor-mode passages, is more an organic growth that struggles into being, winding through changing meters. If Feldman looks back to a world that is gone, Sorey might be gesturing toward a tragedy that is ongoing.

Rothenberg assembled a brilliant group of performers for the premiere, which Sorey conducted. The violinist was the searingly expressive Kim Kashkashian, perhaps the finest living exponent of her instrument. This could also be said of Steven Schick, who played percussion. The Houston Chamber Choir maintained eerie precision, as did Rothenberg herself, at the piano and the celesta. The vocal soloist was the masterly bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who quietly hummed along to Kashkashian’s “Motherless Child.” (The spiritual also figures in “The Black Clown,” the music-theatre project that Tines helped originate in 2018.) The final phrase trailed off, disappearing into an ambiguous chord. The audience was left staring into Rothko’s blackness, which, after this supremely haunting performance, no longer looked the same.

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