In 1964, the abstract painter Mark Rothko was commissioned to design a nondenominational chapel in Houston. The building was named Rothko Chapel.
Rothko, an abstract expressionist, rejected the idea that painting had to be representational, and in his late career he painted large, floating fields of color. For this project, Rothko had nearly total control over the aspects of the chapel’s construction and he created 14 canvasses specifically for the environment.
However, Rothko never saw his paintings hung in the chapel. He killed himself in 1970, a year before the dedication.
Rothko’s friend, the avant-garde American composer Morton Feldman, attended the Chapel’s dedication. As Feldman describes it, the building’s benefactors asked him to “write a composition as a tribute to Rothko to be performed in the chapel.” Feldman’s tribute to his friend — also called “Rothko Chapel” — took direct inspiration from the building and the artwork within.
“To a large degree, my choice of instruments (in terms of forces used, balance and timbre) was affected by the space of the chapel as well as the paintings,” Feldman writes. “Rothko’s imagery goes right to the edge of his canvas, and I wanted the same effect with the music.”
In this audio piece, we explore how Feldman’s music and Rothko’s paintings came together in this unique space.
Featuring the voices of: Ryan Vigil, composer, pianist and scholar, University of New Hampshire; Robert Simpson, artistic director, Houston Chamber Choir; Christian Wolff, composer and emeritus professor of Classics, Dartmouth College. Images: Rothko Chapel interior and exterior, wikimedia commons. Produced by Qainat Khan.