50 Years Later, the Rothko Chapel Meets a New Musical Match

Before Tyshawn Sorey composed a note of his latest work, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, he spent hours inside its octagonal temple containing more than a dozen dark canvases.

Immersing himself in Mark Rothko’s fields of seeming black, Sorey noticed that the paintings shifted subtly over time — and that time itself appeared to dissolve. The colors changed to match the sun coming through the chapel’s skylight. When he would go outside and return, his adjusting eyes made it feel as though the works were coming to life.

Few people can give Rothko the time or space to perceive what Sorey saw. But “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife),” something of a sonic distillation of what he experienced, might give them an idea. Written for the chapel’s 50th anniversary — and delayed a year because of the pandemic — his new work will premiere there on Saturday, ahead of a staged presentation at the Park Avenue Armory in New York this fall.

The piece is in part a tribute to one of Sorey’s heroes, the composer Morton Feldman, whose “Rothko Chapel” was written in 1971 for the building, a project by the arts philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil. Feldman’s piece — scored for percussion, celesta, viola, choir and soprano — was an abstract analogue to Rothko’s canvases. Deceptively formless, it is music to be inhabited. But near the end, the viola plays what Feldman called a “quasi-Hebraic melody” that he composed as a teenager, an invocation of and memorial to his (and Rothko’s) heritage.

The Feldman is “a special piece,” said Sarah Rothenberg, the artistic director of the presenting organization DaCamera, which, with the chapel, commissioned Sorey’s premiere. “It’s a remarkable synergy between space and music that has become a kind of ambassador.”

In conceiving a 50th-anniversary commission, a new ambassador was desired. Sorey came to mind, Rothenberg said, because of how he engages with the history of Black Americans — a parallel to the chapel’s civil rights-minded mission. And his style, she knew, had been shaped by Feldman.

Sorey, 41, was first exposed to Feldman’s music in college, when he heard his teacher Anton Vishio practicing “Piano.” “It was just beautiful,” Sorey said, adding that the music, its sonorities and its patience “really spoke to me more than anything else I was listening to at the time. Pretty much any composition I’ve written is in some ways inspired by Morton Feldman. It’s hard to shake off such an influence.”

Along with other influences, including Roscoe Mitchell, Feldman taught Sorey the goal of reaching a place in music where time no longer seems to exist and a listener can become truly present in the moment. “Every sound has its own world at that point,” Sorey said. “You could talk about the technical parts, but the quality that I want to get out of it is presentness.”

For “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife),” he chose virtually the same instrumentation as “Rothko Chapel” — in a way that the director Peter Sellars, who will stage the piece at the Armory, said reflects lineage in music, “how your granddaughter has your grandmother’s eyes.” But in lieu of the quasi-Hebraic melody, Sorey quotes, in his refracted style, the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” He added a piano (played by Rothenberg, doubling on celesta) and changed the soprano soloist to a bass, which he felt better matched the tone of the paintings.

Sellars recalled that when he went over the score with Sorey for the first time, they looked at the part and, more or less at the same time, said who they wanted to sing it: the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Sorey has contributed treatments of spirituals to Tines’s “Mass” recital program, a collaboration that began after Tines first heard what would become “Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine,” Sorey’s evening-length work inspired by the life of Josephine Baker, written for the soprano Julia Bullock.

“I realized he was able to open meaning in text by recreating it in his voice,” Tines said. Together he and Sorey have revisited the catalog of spirituals, because, Tines said, “Tyshawn is able to reveal the truer psychology of what those songs mean.”

Feldman referred to “Rothko Chapel” as a “secular service.” While Sorey emphasized that Feldman is just one of the influences on “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife),” the idea of a secular service is what he aims for; it’s why he prefers to call his performances rituals. And it permeates this work, beginning with the first measure: Lasting indefinitely, it is a dissolution of time in which tubular bells resonate at near silence, with pitches of two chords struck at random as the other performers enter the space.

“It’s kind of a similar feeling to when I first walked into the chapel,” Sorey said. “It’s almost this cathartic sort of emotion, the moment you get when you walk in there; it’s like a religious experience. So by having the resonant sound happening, and you’re not sure what to make of it — it’s almost a ceremonial, spiritual thing going on. You’re eliminating any sort of external obstacles, for that type of clarity that I think Rothko was always going for in his art.”

Once the choir joins later, its members sing without vibrato, staggering their breaths to create seamlessly suspended streams of sound that, Sorey said, are not unlike the paintings surrounding them.

“To me, the voices are like these panels,” he added. “The sonorities are expressive, expressing a certain type of emotion, like tragedy or grief. So like Rothko, my sonorities and the way I choose to use these voices is not so much about being abstract as much as expressing this feelingful experience. And I’m seeing the listener being surrounded by these ever-changing emotions.”

Few people — about 300 people over two performances — will get to experience the premiere this weekend. But there are plans to release an album of the work on the ECM label, as a follow-up to its 2015 release of “Rothko Chapel,” which featured artists, including Rothenberg, who return for “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife).”

Then, in late September, the piece will travel to the Armory, where the audience will be immersed in panels by Julie Mehretu, an artist whose abstractions share preoccupations with Sorey and Rothko. On the surface, this cavernous space could not be more different from the intimate chapel. But, Sellars said, “what’s beautiful about the Armory is, it can create the occasion for something.”

He continued: “What Tyshawn is creating is memorial space. Rothko and Feldman created memorial space from silence, from grief, from darkness, where you could feel the presence of erased histories and erased lives that are nonetheless present and moving and speaking within these fields of darkness. ­Feldman and Rothko brought their histories to that space. And I think this group of artists will, too.”

Details are still being worked out — such as whether to hide the choir — but at the very least, Sorey said, it will “become more intensified” than the presentation in Houston.

“How can we make it more of a ritualistic or ceremonial event?” he added. “How can we intensify the spiritual, metaphysical matter in which the piece is received? That’s what I want: to really magnify that experience.”

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