NEW YORK — Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) is an arresting, multi-disciplinary performance ritual for chamber ensemble, chorus, and bass soloist. Developed from Tyshawn Sorey’s commemorative concert piece commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Houston’s Rothko Chapel, its expansion — seen Sept. 27 at the Park Avenue Armory — into staged ritual offered, in the intention of director Peter Sellars, an opportunity to contemplate and process recent and ongoing trauma through a common experience.
There’s plenty of background to unpack for this commission. In 1964, Houston art collectors and philanthropists John and Dominique Menil asked Mark Rothko to provide paintings and to collaborate on the design of a non-denominational chapel. The project had a seven-year gestation period, including several changes of architect. Rothko produced 14 panels, all in variegated shades of black (there’s the Monochromatic part). Rothko’s suicide before the Chapel’s opening in 1971 lent extra melancholy to a space that already reflected the multiple cataclysms of the mid-20th century. The Chapel is a spiritual destination for individuals and a site for commemorations and humanistic gatherings. It asks a visitor tojust to sit quietly in a dimly lit space, to really look, listen, and consider.
In honor of the Chapel’s opening, Morton Feldman composed a half-hour chamber work, Rothko Chapel, a slow-moving collage of melodic fragments, gentle percussion, chords sung by chorus, wordless vocal solos, and long silences. The half-hour piece remains one of Feldman’s best-known compositions.
In 2018, Sarah Rothenberg, artistic director of Houston’s Da Camera chamber ensemble, commissioned a second composition for the ensemble from Tyshawn Sorey. The work would commemorate both the ensemble’s 25th anniversary and the Chapel’s half century, as well as honoring Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, which the ensemble has recorded.
Sorey chose essentially the same scoring as Feldman’s: viola, percussion, celesta, chorus, and vocal soloist, using a bass singer instead of soprano, and piano in addition to celesta to highlight Rothenberg’s expressive playing. At its premiere in February, Sorey conducted the Houston performance in the Rothko Chapel itself, with musicians stationed in front of the iconic black canvases and the audience seated in rows facing them.
For the New York version, director Sellars transformed the Park Avenue Armory’s vast Drill Hall into a an octagonal space echoing the Rothko Chapel, with eight enormous canvases by Julie Mehretur forming the eight walls. Sellars placed instrumentalists in the center, the chorus (the fine Choir of Trinity Wall Street) in a row along one wall, and the audience encircling the musicians.
A platform in front of the paintings accommodated eight dancers from Reggie “Reg Roc” Gray’s DREAM Flexn troupe, each stationed in front of (and dwarfed by) a painting. Mehretu’s towering abstract canvases, inspired by the Jan. 6 riots, have a compelling kinetic energy unlike Rothko’s brooding panels. The canvases’ light-colored backgrounds absorbed the progressive, mood-altering rainbow of James F. Ingalls’ lighting design.
The ritual began with silence: A hush spontaneously descended about eight minutes after the announced starting time. After several moments, the lights slowly dimmed as the performers took their places. The music began almost imperceptibly, with the softest of chimes. Then Kim Kashkashian on viola, the leading voice, joined in with a delicate tremolo, followed by a firm phrase, a trio of three-note fragments.
The celesta entered, played by Rothenberg, softly blending with mallet instruments; she then moved to piano for more assertive responses to the viola, either echoing the three-note motif or playing short broken arpeggios. Varied and subtle percussion punctuated or accompanied the viola and keyboard, superbly rendered by Steven Schick. At moments, the choir added tone clusters that hovered in the ear, pure and bright.
Listening to the score was a bit like gazing at a Rothko painting. When you stare at it long enough, you begin to see the subtle gradations of Rothko’s color fields. Similarly, as different musical elements repeat, a listener could start to recognize the musical palette — a dominating three-note motif in dialogue between viola and piano, feathery broken piano arpeggios, sustained choral clusters, and gentle percussion grounding the musical statements. As in Feldman’s work, long pauses give the sound time to vibrate and the mind the space to absorb. Rarely does a musical episode stretch for more than a minute or two.
Meanwhile, there was plenty to watch, though the addition of a strong visual and movement element was both a feature and a drawback. Mehretu’s paintings both dominated the space and provided a background for a rainbow light show, and for the dancers. While there is nothing explicitly political about Monochromatic, Flexn dance is a street style with a strong thread of protest. Early in the work, the dancers moved fluidly, like seaweed in calm waters, each dancer improvising independently. As the paintings above them turned different colors, cycling through the rainbow, gestures became more kinetic, even tormented, with the dancers responding to key points in the music while still doing their own thing. Sometimes they were spotlighted, and at other moments only their shadows were projected against color-saturated canvases. Light, color, and movement combined beauty and pain.
About halfway through the evening, a strong male solo voice was heard, the superb bass Davóne Tines. He gradually added syllables to his vocalizations, coloring his voice between booming chest voice and falsetto, and a recognizable text emerged, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” For the last half hour of the piece, Tines processed slowly around the octagon, pausing in front of each painting to listen in anguish, gradually pronouncing those seven words, no more. This walk of grief was the main sustained, ritual element of the evening.
Toward the end, some audience restlessness confirmed my sense that an hour and a half was was too much of a good thing. Feldman’s piece clocks in at 30 minutes tops; at nearly 90 minutes, this was half again as long as the Houston version. Movement and lighting effects channeled the score into a particular interpretation, surely different from that experienced in front of the Rothko paintings.
But one weakness of such a firmly guided meditation is a director’s limited ability to control a viewer’s or listener’s response. For a piece like this, as is often the case with a Sellars project, the audience is asked to bring a certain openness to transformation. Is that too much to ask of a public accustomed to elevator pitches, TikTok reels, and 20-minute screen segments? It might depend on your mood or the day. In any case, the music is well crafted and compelling, and it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the visuals. Go if you can.
Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) runs through Oct. 9. For tickets, go here.