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 house. Sorey’s Monochromatic Gentle (Afterlife) debuted Feb. 19 on the Rothko Chapel.
The Rothko Chapel is a mysterious house, one which invitations deep contemplation. David Leslie is the chapel’s govt director. He says that as quickly as you stroll in from a vibrant, sunny Houston day, by a sequence of doorways into this hushed, darkish place, your thoughts and your physique are each compelled to shift into a really totally different, holy house.
“You then stroll into the sanctuary, the interior sanctum, and all of the sudden what you are struck by just isn’t a big house,” Leslie observes, “however this actual sense of lightness of being.”
The dome of the chapel is a skylight that permits 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 enormous work present.
“As he stated, should you’re taking a look at a small image, you are kind of outdoors of the expertise,” Sorey says. “If you’re taking a look at a big image, you are kind of engulfed in that have. You are immersed in that have.”
At first look, the panels can look flat, almost 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 house himself. Rothko’s spirit and intention are in every single place right here, Sorey notes.
“You get a way that there is quite a lot of exercise that is occurring — the expression of time, the expression of motion. … And these kind of humanistic qualities that went into these work, the brushstrokes, the gradations of coloration. So there’s exercise happening there,” Sorey says.
“On the identical time,” he says, “there is a kind of inaction that is there as nicely. The portray is the portray itself. Is it shifting? 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 coloration or is revealing extra of this exercise or much less of this exercise.”
With Morton Feldman as one in all his longtime compositional heroes — alongside the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Invoice Dixon — Sorey determined to make use of the same 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.
“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.”
Within the house of Rothko Chapel, listening to Sorey’s music, you develop into a part of this huge entity that’s a lot bigger than your self, says violist Kim Kashkashian, one of many soloists in Monochromatic Gentle (Afterlife).
(Kashkashian, like two fellow soloists — percussionist Steven Schick and pianist and celesta participant Sarah Rothenberg — are additionally intently related to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, which they recorded collectively for a critically acclaimed ECM Information album launched in 2015.)
“In case you are prepared to take a seat down and hearken 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 quite a lot of repetition in it. Each time one thing will get repeated, I feel that the spirit modifications. And it ought to change in you as a listener, too.”
Kashkashian provides, nonetheless, that Monochromatic Gentle (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 sort of clever and stern angel telling all of this story from all varied points.”
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 known as a drummer and percussionist. Steven Schick is the percussionist in Monochromatic Gentle (Afterlife); he notes that you would be able to hear Sorey’s considering as a fellow percussionist on this work.
“There are lengthy moments during which there are enormous arcs of time, that issues transfer slowly,” Schick observes, “after which all of the sudden there will likely be a crystalline occasion, one thing that modifications the trajectory and modifications your complete ecosystem of the piece. And I am not saying that solely a percussionist may have finished 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 noticed that we’re on this massive spectrum the place on the most fast doable stage, you get colours of sunshine. And on the slowest doable stage, you will have these large-scale formal or temporal constructions that comprise the music. We’re requested to barter the spectrum sort 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 Gentle (Afterlife). “We’re at a interval now the place there’s kind of an anxiousness to that — there’s an anxiousness of silence, I feel,” 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 feel that that is simply as vital as what does come out of the devices.”
“Generally you could 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 quite a 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 come back subsequent — however solely be in that second. It is nearly such as you’re shifting round a room and also you’re shifting concerning the room in a silent kind of approach, so that you could be immersed in every second that you just go to.”
Together with enjoying piano and celesta in Monochromatic Gentle (Afterlife), Sarah Rothenberg is the inventive 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 instances, and a starvation for connection.
“We have all lived by a sort of collective trauma, and we have all felt greater than ever, I feel, our personal particular person vulnerability,” Rothenberg says. “And but on the identical time, we’re dwelling in a world the place there is a large quantity of aggression round us and aggressive conduct, and it generally feels just like the social cloth 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 feel it is a very courageous piece due to its vulnerability. And I feel that is what we’d like 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 religious “Generally I Really feel Like A Motherless Little one.”
Sorey says using “Motherless Little one” 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 Dying.
” ‘Generally I Really feel Like a Motherless Little one’ is a hymn that I’ve all the time heard developing within the church, and it’s one which I can very a lot relate to in quite a lot of methods,” Sorey says. “I’ve heard it sung many a time. It is a hymn that’s all the time spoken to me. And so I simply determined to have that be one of many driving points of the composition.”
Sorey’s piece was written for the Rothko Chapel, however it should have a life past that house. Monochromatic Gentle (Afterlife) will likely be recorded for the ECM label later this 12 months, and it is going to 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.