Studies in Darkness (2018)

Studies in Darkness was inspired by an exhibit of the late works of Mark Rothko, which I saw in the autumn of 2016. Rothko is famous for his colour-studies – vividly coloured, imposing rectangles painted on expansive canvases. Unlike his more well-known works from the 1950’s in bright oranges and pinks, the late works on exhibit took on a much darker tone. Seeing these works in person (any other medium does not do them justice) had a profound impact on me, and immediately inspired some ideas for a musical composition in response – my own colour-studies after Rothko.

Rothko’s works were intended to be absorbed through long periods of viewing, drawing the viewer into a contemplative, transcendental state. They are composed by overlapping many layers of colours, each contributing to a composite colour, through which the individual components are visible only after staring for a long time. The surfaces between each colour-area are often boiling with energetic activity, which likewise is only detectable after closely looking.

All of the pieces that I have selected to respond in music are untitled; the movements titles are merely nicknames based on the predominant colours. Throughout each of the movements, I have made use of gradual processes of various sizes – slow to fast, sparse to dense, one timbre to another, and so on – to imitate the experience of noticing the layers of detail in a Rothko piece during my several minutes of watching.

The first movement is based on the painting “Black, Red and Black”, a bright, blood-red band on a black background. Beneath the black, a darker shade of red is visible along the edges, which appears to seamlessly merge into the black. This movement presents the stark contrast between the red, represented by the sound of a deep bell in E-flat, and the dissonant, cluster-tone-like black – as well as the interplay between these colours. The two spectra of red and black at times simply intersect with each other. At times they slowly converge into an in-between spectrum – the dull rusty dark-red on the edges, with an almost imperceptible undertone of teal-grey – then separate back into the component colours.

The second movement, “Rust, Blacks on Plum”, is a study on the four predominant colours in Rothko’s painting. Though the colours are rather distinctly separated, one begins to look between the colours and into their complementary relationships upon extended viewing. Likewise, the four strands of harmony, each given to distinct groups of instruments, interact in counterpoint with each other to form new composite harmonies. Each strand, in turn, cycles between the four colours, as well as four melodic fragments in four transformations, linked together to make new melodies. In a typical paradox of Rothko’s works, the plum “background” seems to be in fact the brightest colour, almost a foreground. Thus, the sonority in A-major representing plum stands out as the only harmonic sound (the others based on Javanese gongs).

The third movement, “Green Divided by Blue”, is inspired by one of the few bright paintings during Rothko’s late period. It is a pair of green plumes divided by a Prussian-blue strip on a rough white background. Among an exhibit full of the darkest pictures, these colours appear to be almost blindingly bright, even if they are more subdued compared to Rothko’s earlier works. This movement is, accordingly, full of bright sonorities. Resonant, open chords on G (green) and E (blue) dominate the harmony. The piccolo and the E-flat clarinet accentuate the brightness, as well as the frenetic activity on the surfaces of the plumes and the white background.

The last part of this piece, “Black and Grey”, is written after Rothko’s last work. Rothko described his grey and black painting as depicting “death” (indeed, it came shortly before his own death). While desolate and empty, “Black and Grey” is strangely ambiguous and expansive in its beauty. To reflect the contradictory effects of this painting, I have used the sound of an extremely large tam-tam as the basis for this movement. The foreboding sound of the tam-tam contains many volatile, unpredictable overtones; these are shared among the chamber ensemble, at once echoing and growing out of the real tam-tam’s strokes. At first, only quiet, sustained, “dead” tones (senza vibrato) appear; then the densely packed overtones start to shimmer with at first vibrato, then trills. Sometimes, they seem to resolve momentarily into something resembling harmony. At the same time, fragments of a melody begin to emerge from the overtones, only to again dissolve into the texture.