A Work of Mourning Comes to New York, With No Rothkos in Sight
Few pieces of music are as tied to the place where they premiered as Tyshawn Sorey’s “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife).”
Commissioned to honor the 50th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Sorey’s work was first heard in February in that intimate room, surrounded by Mark Rothko’s brooding late canvases. But the site specificity goes deeper: “Monochromatic Light” closely echoes the instrumentation and the mournful, glacial style of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel,” written for the space soon after it opened in the early 1970s.
Sorey’s work wouldn’t seem fit for any other setting. But along with the chapel and the Houston arts organization DaCamera, the Park Avenue Armory commissioned the work, and from Tuesday through Oct. 8, “Monochromatic Light” will be presented there — with no Rothkos in sight.
“We decided we wouldn’t try to recreate the experience of the Rothko Chapel,” Sorey said in an interview. “You can’t do that anywhere. You can’t redo that situation.”
The Armory’s vast drill hall dwarfs the chapel, where “Monochromatic Light” was given a straightforward, concert-style presentation. The New York production, staged by the veteran director Peter Sellars, has grown to match.
An octagonal playing space, nodding to the shape of the chapel in Houston, has been constructed within the drill hall. The audience — about 600, versus 150 at the premiere — is seated in the round and surrounded by eight paintings by another abstractionist, Julie Mehretu, blown up to billboard-size dimensions. A dancer is stationed in front of each painting, sinuously twisting and bending in the Brooklyn-born street dance style called flex.
Sorey has added to the piece itself, bringing its length to almost 90 minutes, from 50 minutes in Houston, particularly broadening the music for the pianist Sarah Rothenberg. She also plays celesta (the only keyboard instrument in the Feldman) and is joined in the center of the space by the violist Kim Kashkashian, the percussionist Steven Schick, and Sorey, as conductor.
Sorey said he knew earlier this year that “Monochromatic Light” hadn’t yet reached its final form, but simply didn’t have enough time before the premiere to write more. And the rehearsal process in New York, particularly the addition of the dancers, had inspired him.
“At the Houston performances, while I was very satisfied, I felt I needed more of this experience,” he said. “In terms of having more material and developing off what we did at the chapel, now I’m at a place where it’s like, we’ve left the chapel. I’m dealing with everything the chapel stood for, but also things we’re dealing with now.”
His additions had arrived in the musicians’ email inboxes just a few hours before a rehearsal on Sept. 14, on an upper floor of the Armory. The stress level in the room was high. But the meditative music, with its spacious if unsettling quiet, gradually brought down the blood pressure.
With mock-ups of the Mehretu paintings on the walls, a few dancers stood in for what would eventually be the full complement of eight, while four singers — one for each voice part — represented the choir of Trinity Wall Street. The choreographer, Reggie Gray, a flex innovator also known as Regg Roc, sat to the side watching, and the bass-baritone Davóne Tines slowly walked around the space, intoning the score’s vocalizations, which can evoke fragments of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Sellars occasionally called out cues to the dancers, representing shifts in mood that would be reflected in the staging by dramatic changes in the lighting on the paintings. “The heart of the world opens,” he cried at one point; at another, “walking on the razor-blade bridge on the day of judgment.”
Gray, in a joint interview with Sorey, Sellars and Mehretu, said of the dancers’ movements: “It’ll be different every single night. It’s how do the emotions go through their bodies at that time.”
When he was discussing the formation of a creative team with the Armory, Sorey said, he wanted to reunite with Sellars, after working with him on several iterations of “Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine,” an evening-length recomposition of Josephine Baker songs, starting in 2016. Sellars, in turn, suggested Mehretu (with whom he had staged Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Only the Sound Remains” in 2016) and Gray (with whom he created “Flexn” at the Armory in 2015).
At first, Mehretu didn’t know how closely to hew to the works in the Houston chapel. “I thought a lot about making black paintings,” she said. What she ended up producing was far more active and jittery than the Rothkos, with the swooping calligraphic gestures and kaleidoscopic, colorful flecks she is known for.
“I contacted Peter as I was working and said, ‘These are not monochromatic,’” Mehretu recalled with a laugh.
But, Sellars said, “a lot of the staging is monochromatic light. Seeing these paintings under these single lighting temperatures or colors, they get new identities under monochromatic light.”
The underpaintings — invisible in the final works — are blurred images, mostly taken from the news, including coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Those ghosts of history and trauma, personal and societal, are a veiled presence, like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in Sorey’s score.
“It’s constantly playing back as the piece is going, but you only hear it now and again,” Sorey said. “You have this musical information that is in a lot of ways inspired by that spiritual, but you only really hear it from time to time. It’s there, and it’s not there.”
In Sellars’s telling, the past is invoked in this way in “Monochromatic Light” in order to heal and press toward the future. “Coming out of the two years we’re coming out of, it’s important to move forward,” he said, “The past is ongoing, but we have to move this whole thing forward.”
Unlike in Houston, where audience members faced in the same direction toward the performers, the Armory’s in-the-round presentation also has political reverberations. “It’s about a society looking at itself,” Sellars said. “There is no way out; we’re all in this together. None of us is experiencing the exact same thing, but we’re with each other.”
Sorey’s music, he added, “is experiential. It’s lived in; it’s an experience.”
The question is how audiences will respond to an experience so long, spare, rigorous and ritualistic. “It is about endurance,” Sellars said. “How long a minute can be. Not ‘Oh, let’s change the subject.’ We’re going to stay here until we really find something. It’s a space of concentrated investing.”
And the music gives the sense that it could keep on quietly expanding forever. Sorey, however, said that he thought it had reached its final form: “This feels like what it is.”
Then, with a grin, he added: “I’ve got another hour to add. Easily, right?”