Sound moves in space and exists in time, so one way of thinking about music is like an intentional articulation of time. Usually this is done with a beat or rhythm. There are, however, traditions that use music as a way to experience stillness outside of the clock. This is what medieval music does, just like the great 20th century composer Morton Feldman.
One of Feldman’s most famous plays is Rothko Chapel, commissioned to celebrate the opening of the (non-denominational) chapel in Houston, based on murals by Mark Rothko. One of the few composers to follow Feldman’s path is Tyshawn Sorey. As one of jazz’s finest drummers, he is phenomenal at arranging complex rhythms, but as a composer he explores the proportions of activity and silence, of music that has no specific direction. or even forward movement. These are some of the qualities of his new absorbing and luminous work, Monochromatic light (beyond)which premiered at the Park Avenue Armory, opening a series of performances.
Monochromatic light was commissioned to honor the 50th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel. The new work uses almost the same instrumentation as Feldman’s piece — viola, celesta (with piano), percussion and chorus. A significant change that makes this work unique to Sorey is that the lead soprano is now a bass-baritone, sung by Davóne Tines.
It is much more than a concert piece. Directed by Peter Sellars, it brings together visual art and dance. In the huge drill hall of the Armoury, the audience sat in a circle and was in turn surrounded by a parapet. On it were dancers and giant screens with projected images of Julie Mehretu’s abstract painting. The lighting, designed by James F Ingalls, slowly changed from one color to another.
With patience and delicacy, Sorey has secular concerns. It gives prominent solo passages on viola and piano, beautifully played by Kim Kashkashian and Sarah Rothenberg, and resonant vocal drama from Tines, stretching and dipping to slowly articulate the first line of “Sometimes I feel like a child without a mother”. The end of the piece was Kashkashian playing this theme, and the score could be heard as a 90-minute assemblage of this spiritual.
With so many fascinating components, the performance was easy to admire but hard to feel. It felt like the right music in the wrong space, the venue too big, and the production too grand for something that almost wanted to whisper in your ear, where it could send both warmth and a chill down your spine.
Best of all in this space was the dancing, choreographed by Regg Roc Gray in the Brooklyn street style known as flexn, full of graceful and powerful sliding and twisting. Adapted to almost any change in the music, from dramatic to minute, the dancers responded like leaves in the wind to Sorey’s score and were mesmerizing. The pairing of black street styles with modernist high music was one that every classical music institution should take note of.
As of October 8, armoryonpark.org