Work in progress: Approaching Rothko

I’ve just started work on a piece I’ve wanted to write for a very long time. It’s a piece that’s been incubating ever since I first discovered the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern when I was overwhelmed by and fell in love with Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals.

At first glance, the Seagram Murals are astoundingly simple in concept, yet overwhelmingly powerful, yet on closer inspection and after spending some time with them, they are technically incredibly complex. To start with, they are huge. Really, really big. But unlike most large pieces, they are not actually designed to be looked at from far away – Rothko’s ideal viewing distance for his paintings was apparently eighteen inches (Crow, ‘The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction’, p. 26).

Up close, each painting completely fills your field of vision and you discover that far from being the simple blocks of colour you thought you saw when you entered the room, they are full of tiny details, shifting tones and feathered edges. If you sit with the paintings for a while (Tate thoughtfully provides a couple of benches even though it’s a small room) they start to pulse quietly at you. It feels like they’re alive. They really are extraordinary works of art.

I knew I wanted to write a piece around these works very early on. Not so much a piece *about* or *based on* the murals as a piece *for* them. Ideally, I would like to see a performance in the space itself. I’m not sure whether that would be truly practical – it’s a small room, it gets crowded easily and once there’s more than about 6 people in there, it becomes hard to focus on the paintings, but perhaps a recorded version supplied on iPods might be feasible. It would definitely need stereo/surround-sound effects of some sort, but that’s phase 2 of the project and I’m still thinking about what/how/whether to do something of this sort with the completed piece.

I fairly quickly came to the conclusion that a string quartet would be a good lineup for this piece – if it was to be performed in situ, it needed a small ensemble, but the density of the paintings and their collective effect call for the possibility of dense sounds as well as delicate ones. The homogeneity of tone of a string quartet nicely reflects the similarity of colours Rothko used on these canvases.

So now I’m embarked upon the piece. It’s to be one of the major works for my MMus, which means that at some point someone’s actually going to play the thing, which is, frankly, a little daunting! My tutor and I have determined that as part of my personal quest for the year to learn to write longer pieces (the most common criticism of my work is “Oh, I thought it was going to go on longer”), this work will be around 15 minutes long.

I did actually make a start on it a couple of days ago, playing with some initial ideas, but on playing through what I’d done yesterday, I decided it was bin-worthy and have done some more thinking and am starting again.

Because I’m not accustomed to (and daunted by) writing a piece that long, I felt I really needed to think about what I was going to do with that time. I can’t just mess about with it and hope for the best – this has to happen, and it has to happen relatively fast because I have a truckload of work to get through this year and this is only one small part of a whole which also includes a 5-minute orchestral work, 5-minute large ensemble work, 15-minute song cycle, piece for 2 harps and probably more. There is no time for Carrion-Comfort-style 9-months-to-write-3-minutes-of-music shenanigans this year.

So today I have come up with a structural plan which I think I’m pretty happy with. The form of the piece is going to, more or less, reflect the experience of approaching these paintings. From the initial impression, through the approach, to the up-close view.

This gives me three sections I can focus on clearly, each of which is aimed to be approximately 5 minutes long. I pulled out my coloured pencils (my Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer watercolour pencils, if you care about this sort of thing – my usual Derwent Coloursofts have gone down in a box somewhere…) and made a map of what I’m thinking about doing in the piece. This will probably change as I actually develop material, but it’s what I’m considering right now. The three lines represent the three sections, each 5 minutes long. The colours don’t really have any significance I can explain – they’re just how I feel about what I want to be in there. Strength of tone generally reflects overall dynamic/textural density.

Visual structure plan for the new Rothko quartet

My next step is to play around with and settle on some actual notes to begin with. I made a bit of a stab at this this morning but everything sounded like a jazz chord and was all wrong, so I’ve set it aside in favour of my orchestration homework and scrubbing the loungeroom-to-be and will keep playing around with sounds over the next few days.

Note: I haven’t linked to the paintings in the main text of the article because I wanted to say that if you live in or near London, don’t bother looking online to see what I’m talking about – it won’t give you even the vaguest idea of the power these artworks have in real life. Hie thee to Tate Modern and spend half an hour with them. It’s free. If you aren’t in London, then add it to your itinerary for next time you’re here, and in the meantime look at these deeply inadequate photos on the Tate site and try not to get too depressed or think I’m off my rocker (click on the image to see them on a black background, which works better). Bear in mind that looking at these photographs is a bit like someone drawing a picture of a gold and diamond ring in yellow and grey crayon and then telling you how gorgeous their new jewellery is – however accurate it is, it’s it’s nothing like the real thing!

Bibliography (because I’m a good little Research Methods student now although you can probably tell I haven’t yet read the citation guide and I haven’t done this in a long time, but I’m guessing you can work it out): ‘The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction’ by Thomas Crow, pp.25-39 in Seeing Rothko, edited by Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crow, Tate Publishing, London 2006.

New piece: Thickets for string quintet

I’ve just added my latest piece, Thickets for 2 violins, viola and 2 celli (or cello and double bass) to this site. Thickets was written for a 5-day composer workshop in Durham with Tansy Davies which was organised by the fantastic organisation CoMA. CoMA focuses on contemporary music-making for amateur players, and as our Masterclass was run in conjunction with a Late Starters String School, it needed to be playable by amateur (late starter) players of a level equating to about grades 4-5.

Writing for amateurs was a brilliant challenge – to limit a piece’s technical challenges while still keeping it interesting to play and working on a musical level – it really brought out the problem-solver in me! And when it was workshopped, the reactions were fantastic – the conductor said it was “incredibly well-written for strings” and players I talked to afterwards said that once they’d worked out the rhythmic challenges of the central hocketing section, it was a fun piece to play and they hoped they’d get to do it again.

The piece has its origins in a trilogy of paintings on the subject of Bacchus by American Abstract Expressionist painter Cy Twombly which are currently on display at the Tate Modern (although, frustratingly, not listed on the Tate’s website so I can’t link to it) which evoked in me impressions of thickets of willows, or possibly thorns. After being passed through the filter of my strange brain, the piece features intertwining shared melodic lines and interlocking rhythmic figures leading to an ending of immense stillness and simplicity.

Thickets (score and parts) is available through this site (free download coming soon – till then, please contact me directly) now and will be in the CoMA library shortly.