Mark Rothko and The Rothko Chapel Compositions



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Mark Rothko and The Rothko Chapel Compositions

Mark Rothko

and


the Rothko chapel compositions
The INFLUENCE OF the art of Mark Rothko on THE MUSICAL compositions of morton feldman and Steve Reich

Hayley Hung



TUTOR: Catherine Lever
Humanities Essay 2000-2001

Imperial College

Approx. 16,900 words

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my tutor Catherine Lever for her support throughout the writing of this essay, without whom the discussion of such a difficult topic would not have been possible.



FOREWORD

The inspiration behind this essay has stemmed from my interest in music and art. After hearing a radio program about the Rothko Chapel and Steve Reich’s composition for the tenth anniversary of its opening, I was interested to see how much influence Rothko’s work might have had on this piece of music. On further study, I found out that Morton Feldman, a friend of Rothko, was commissioned to compose a piece of music for the chapel ten years earlier. Rothko’s possible influence on the musical compositions of a friend and a stranger stimulated further motivation for this essay.

Although I have been able to see some of Rothko’s paintings first hand, it has not been possible to see the chapel and the paintings inside it. I have therefore extrapolated my experience of the room dedicated to Rothko’s Seagram murals at the Tate Modern, to interpret what the Rothko Chapel paintings and environment might be like. Using the descriptions given by those who have been to the chapel, I have tried to draw comparisons between Reich and Feldman’s possible interpretation or inspiration from the chapel.

Abstract

Despite the mutual appreciation of artists and musicians in New York in the 1960s, there have been no publicly documented studies of the mutual influence of the artists and musicians of the New York school during this period. Mark Rothko was an artist within this group and his chapel in Houston led to the commission of two musical compositions to commemorate a year and then ten years after his death. The two composers were Morton Feldman, a friend of Rothko and Steve Reich, a stranger.

Whilst both composers are Jewish, their musical visions are very different. Feldman’s aesthetic was very similar to Rothko but Reich, twenty years Rothko’s junior, began his musical career when a new generation of artists and musicians was emerging in New York. The question that is approached is how each composer captures the spirit of Rothko’s art. A major concern will be whether Morton Feldman’s personal friendship with the artists influences his response to Rothko’s work.

Rothko’s explicit intention was to offer a tragic transcendental experience through his artwork. He did this by removing subject matter and references to the real world, creating cleverly orchestrated arrangements of colour in his canvases that seemed to emanate out of the surface of his work.

Being a Jew in Russia and then in America, Rothko was victim to anti-Semitic prejudice. The sabotage of his Jewish culture by the Nazis during the Second World War also affected him deeply. These factors coupled with the death of his father when he was ten years old led to his disillusionment with humanity and thus his desire to escape from reality in his art. Whilst these motivations and cultural influences are explored in the essay, the main objective was to reflect on how the two composers negotiated the complexity of Rothko’s ideas in their own unique style. The influence of Rothko’s work with and without the artist’s presence has also been considered through Feldman and Reich’s compositions.

In both cases, the musical compositions drew much influence from personal experience. In Feldman’s case, Rothko Chapel was autobiographical and perhaps the death of his friend was a reminder of his own imminent departure. The similarities between Feldman’s musical ideas and Rothko’s aesthetic will also be discussed. Another aspect that is explored is how Feldman responds to the environment of the chapel itself and how this influences practical decisions about the performance of the piece. The composition has a clearly tragic element that was also a very strong theme in all of Rothko’s work.

In Reich’s case, Tehillim was composed after a rediscovery of his Jewish heritage, culminating in a pilgrimage to Israel. Reich’s appreciation of Rothko’s interest in creating a transcendental experience is seen by the composer’s inspiration from Hebrew cantillation and phasing1. Although there a similar transcendental element in Reich’s music (which reflects Rothko’s art), there is very little evidence of tragedy in Reich’s work.

Conclusions are drawn as to which composition best reflects the chapel and which Rothko might have preferred.




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