One of the quietest places I’ve ever been is right in the middle of one of the loudest places I’ve ever lived.
Opened in 1971 through a commission from John and Dominique de Menil (the royal couple of Houston arts philanthropy) the Rothko Chapel is belatedly celebrating its 50th anniversary, a milestone that arrives with the conclusion of a multimillion-dollar restoration of the chapel and its surrounding grounds — adjacent to the verdant campus of another Houston art institution, the Menil Collection. To commemorate the reopening, on Feb. 19 and 20, Houston chamber and jazz ensemble Dacamera will present the world premiere of “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife),” a site-specific work by composer Tyshawn Sorey.
Sorey, 41, a Newark native, is a wildly prolific and versatile composer, performer and recording artist, a 2017 MacArthur fellow, a 2018 United States Artists fellow and an assistant professor of music at University of Pennsylvania. His music is a highly sensitized, deeply personal negotiation of classical chops, jazz agency, harmonic curiosity and extreme intimacy. “My music,” he says by phone from New York City, “deals purely with emotions.”
The Rothko Chapel has no altars or icons, no organ or choir, no candles or stained glass. It’s tempting to suggest that those usual visual markings of a spiritual space have been replaced or supplanted by the paintings that dominate its interior — towering vaults of somber purple-black that seem to deepen and darken in the slowly shifting allowance of the skylight.
But as I learned when I lived two blocks from the place, ducking in regularly to escape the crushing noise of the highways and the hard press of the Houston heat, the spectacle of Rothko’s paintings dissolves into a kind of invisibility. Their power as paintings is entirely in service to a much higher one: the simple pleasure of presence, the experience of experience.
The Rothko Chapel’s 3,830 square feet are often kept clear but for a few wooden benches and stray black floor cushions. On my frequent visits (barely ever planned) I’d park myself in the center of the octagon and marvel at the quieting effect of Rothko’s canvases, which register more like sound than color — you behold them in front of you, but their aura is all around. Their silence involves you; artwork and viewer mourning each other in a silent suspension of grief and grace.
The recent restorations — close to $7 million on the chapel alone — sought to fortify the fortlike structure and realign the chapel’s design to the original intent of the artist and architect. The architect was Phillip Johnson, whose modernist structures are Houston signatures, including the tapered twin towers of Pennzoil Place, the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park and the River Oaks residence of the de Menils themselves. (A falling-out between Johnson and Rothko over the design of the roof resulted in Johnson leaving and the chapel ultimately reaching completion under architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry.)
Over the past two years, the walls of the chapel were shored up; its reception desk relocated and upgraded into the free-standing Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House; glass partitions in the entry were removed and the foyer modified; and a new air-conditioning system (a big deal in Houston) was installed to create a “vapor barrier” to keep the city’s famous humidity at bay.
But most significantly, the large baffle that was installed below the perennially problematic skylight in 1999 to diffuse Houston’s hard sun and spare the paintings was removed and replaced by a custom-engineered skylight that employs an ingenious system of reflective aluminum blades to diffuse light evenly across the chapel’s walls.
“With it removed, the whole space has this lightness of being,” says Rothko Chapel Executive Director David Leslie, who has overseen the chapel’s transformation as well as its turn to more socially conscious programming. (Sorey’s premiere is part of the chapel’s “Songs for Justice” series.)
“The obstruction is gone and with unencumbered skylight, you go back to Rothko’s intent, a lighted space with zero to minimal artificial light, but also you’re interacting with the elements,” Leslie says. “So you’re able once again to get this sense of the shifting light, shadow and clouds. Suddenly the sanctuary becomes alive.”
Sorey’s “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)” is modeled, in spirit and instrumentation, after another work composed specifically for the space: Morton Feldman’s 1971 “Rothko Chapel” for percussion, viola and chorus.
The composer has always been drawn to Feldman’s blurring of time and mastery of scale, but for this commission, he was particularly interested in imagining where Feldman would have gone next with his music. Rothko took his own life in 1970, never having heard Feldman’s tribute performed.
“The color black that’s there at the chapel itself, that’s very much the color that I feel relates to my music,” Sorey says. “I have synesthesia — black to me represents grief, and grief is something I deal with not only as a real thing, but as a subject.”
But rather than freight the music with the weight of tragedy, Sorey opted toward extreme lightness. Feldman’s influence on his music is most evident not in Sorey’s treatment of sound, but in his reverence for silence.
Sorey points to a pair of observations that helped him triangulate his position between the paintings and the space he sought to fill with sound: one from the multi-instrumentalist and composer Roscoe Mitchell (who has stated that “silence is perfect”), and another from Rothko, who said that “silence is so accurate.”
“Nowadays, there’s more anxiety about silence,” Sorey says. “I want to make music that really reflects these two principal points, silence being both perfect and accurate, the intimacy of what it means to hear something that is nearly inaudible.”
Sorey’s piece will be performed by Dacamera, a reliably adventurous Houston chamber ensemble and presenter that has performed at the chapel several times, carefully selecting works appropriate to the spirit of the space. This has included a cycle of Shostakovich’s string quartets, as well as Feldman’s 4½-hour “For Philip Guston.” In 2015, ECM released Dacamera’s own commemorative account of “Rothko Chapel,” performed for the chapel’s 40th anniversary.
This weekend’s performances will feature Sorey conducting bass-baritone Davóne Tines, joined by the Houston Chamber Choir and the ensemble of violist Kim Kashkashian, percussionist Steven Schick and pianist/celestist Sarah Rothenberg.
Rothenberg, Dacamera’s artistic director, has long been captivated by the Rothkos, the way their monolithic darkness gives way to endless depth and variation, the surround-sound of their silence and intimacy of their grandeur. She’s also a devout Feldman fan — disappearing into his music despite its physical, emotional and durational demands. She hears similar colors at work in Sorey’s piece.
“I can barely play it without bursting into tears,” she says by phone from Houston. “It’s simple, it’s open, but what puts it over the edge to heartbreaking is the way that time is suspended in his music. When it ends, you realize time is not suspended, and there’s something very deep about it. Tyshawn has a remarkable ear — he can hear these things and find them. It’s a gift.”
For Sorey, performing at the chapel is part mediation and part meditation — on space, time, silence, sound, presence, absence, grief and hope.
“It’s not about listening to a piece of music and thinking, ‘This is nice,’ ” he says. “I’m not interested in being nice as a composer. I’m interested in people really thinking about what the experience is. To quote Rothko, he said that a painting is not a picture of an experience, it is the experience.”
Tyshawn Sorey and Dacamera appear as part of the Rothko Chapel’s “Songs for Justice” series Feb. 19-20. Tickets are sold out, but there is a waiting list. rothkochapel.org.