CAITLIN ROWLEY
composer

A response to vandalism

Defaced Rothko painting at Tate Modern

The damage to the Rothko painting, taken by an eyewitness and posted on Twitter.

Yesterday evening a friend alerted me to the news that one of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern has been vandalised. After the initial shock, horror and bewilderment as to what sort of person would walk up to a painting and scribble their name on it, I began to think about how this act affects the work I am doing on my string quartet.

There are two obvious responses: 1. Adjust my approach to the piece to incorporate this violation, as a part of the artworks’ history and now – most probably, in spite of my faith in the Tate’s conservationists’ skills – future. Or 2. Ignore it and carry on.

I fear that my thinking towards the work HAS to change. I feel, perhaps excessively, personally damaged by this act that has not only defaced a favourite artwork, but has invaded and despoiled my favourite place of seclusion and quiet contemplation. How can I think about this composition the same way I did before?

At the same time, it occurs to me that music is a very privileged art form. As a general rule (and considering principally notated music, which is what I deal in, rather than improvised), it is not possible for a single individual, in a matter of seconds, while the work is being experienced, to damage a piece of music so that it is irrevocably changed. A single performance may be spoilt, a score may be torn up, but unless every score, every part, every recording, video and backup file is changed or eliminated, the piece itself remains untarnished and available for another performance another time.

I find it interesting that while music truly lives only in the moment it is played or heard, visual art, a ‘concrete’ object, theoretically always available to be viewed by anybody can be totally destroyed in a moment. A painting can be defaced, burned, damaged by water or light, the materials it is made of can deteriorate (as is happening with some of the Seagram Murals) and all in all, it occurs to me that a painting, against expectations, is a more ephemeral thing than a piece of music, for all that it seems so permanent and music so fleeting.

Once a painting is damaged beyond repair, if it survives at all, it is a different thing from what it was before. The best we can hope for is photographs or copies. A piece of music, though, can be copied (carefully!) time and time again and still remain exactly what it was the day it was completed, even though hundreds of years may have passed (note the word can here – I’m not saying it will. The slip or a copyist’s pen, and the vagaries of fashion and development play their part – I present as evidence Herbert von Karajan conducting anything written before 1800. But the essence remains.)

This thought presents me with a way forward for this piece: to use music as a medium to conserve the experience of experiencing Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern as an untarnished whole. To draw more on my memory of that experience than on the new experience, whatever that may be (if indeed it’s anything at all right now – I had been planning on visiting the paintings today, but it seems possible that the whole room may be closed)

Maybe this is the way forward, and a way that music can ADD to the Seagram Murals, rather than marking a diminishing of that experience. Time and brutal people can damage the paintings, but if I write my string quartet with the specific aim of capturing how I experienced them, for the first time in 2005 and since, up until Sunday, then I capture a piece of their history and contemplate a positive whole, not a damaged collection.

What do you think?

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