There was an interesting Aeon Magazine post a week or two back about the musical associations evoked by particular works of art, notably those of Mark Rothko.
In Going to the chapel Nathan Dunne observes that there’s something about Rothko’s work which sets an internal soundtrack in motion, and that the music we tend to associate with it has been coloured by knowledge of the circumstances of Rothko’s death, and Morton Feldman’s piece Rothko Chapel, an atmospheric but bleak Modernist piece written to mark the Chapel’s opening in the early 70s.
As Dunne notes, Rothko himself didn’t intend for his works to evoke existential despair, but rather to extend a sense of invitation. Dunne quotes Rothko as writing in 1947:
I think of my pictures as dramas … They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space.
Dunne recalls a recent visit to the Rothko Chapel during which one visitor was expelled for loudly chanting words from Paul Simon’s Graceland while sitting in front of the paintings. Dunne isn’t quite sure that Rothko would have had pop music in mind when working up his canvasses, but is sure he wouldn’t necessarily have had in mind anguished cellos and clarinets either.
I agree. During a recent trip to London I was able to spend a little time in front of Rothko’s Seagram Murals in the Tate Modern. Enigmatic and sombre as several of the murals undoubtedly are, they don’t induce despair. For me they console, appearing as windows opening out onto some infinite beyond.
I certainly don’t hear Graceland, but I always hear music, which in my case takes the form of ambient electronica communicating something of the sense of vastness suggested by Rothko’s otherworlds. I have a YouTube electronic playlist that seemed to invite the title Rothko. Here’s the breakdown, should it introduce you to anything new:
- Brohm Ridge, Loscil
- Landscape V, Toshio Hosokawa
- Weeping Wall, David Bowie and Brian Eno
- Oceanic, John Foxx
- Phaedra, Tangerine Dream
- In McDonalds, Burial
- First Light, Harold Budd and Brian Eno
- Treefingers, Radiohead
- Sun, Koreless
- Moss Garden, David Bowie and Brian Eno
- Uoon I, Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto
- Heart and Soul, Joy Division