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In the Rothko Chapel

Rothko Chapel 1If I could be teleported anywhere in the world for just a couple of hours, I’d probably choose the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. It’s a little painful to think that I’ll probably never get to see the place that I wrote about here for the Guardian a few years ago, prompted by a performance in London of the piece Morton Feldman wrote in 1972, two years after his friend Mark Rothko’s death.

Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is fully reflective of its subject. You might even take it to be the last word. But then, five years ago, the improvising trio called Mural — Jim Denley (wind instruments), Kim Myhr (guitars, zithers, percussion) and Ingar Zach (percussion) — were given permission to record a performance inside the chapel, documenting a very different response to the space in a 50-minute piece called “Doom and Promise”.

They have returned a couple of times since then, and on April 27, 2013 they recorded an unbroken set of almost four hours, three quarters of which now appears on a three-CD set titled Tempo. Each disc is devoted to between 45 and 51 minutes of the set, omitting the first section of the performance.

Denley, who is from Australia, studied classical flute and began a long career in new music — playing many different wind instruments, with and without mouthpieces — after encountering the music of Evan Parker and Derek Bailey during a stay in London in 1975. Myhr is a Norwegian improvising guitarist who has written for the excellent Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. Zach, also Norwegian, is a member of Huntsville, one of my favourite bands.

The two and a half hours of Tempo provide an object lesson in free improvisation by musicians sensitive to each other and to their environment. There are no imperatives beyond the unhurried collective ravelling of sound in reaction to the space. Words to describe parts of it might include tinkling, buzzing, fluttering, booming, whirring, scraping, tolling. The individual contributions are not what this music is about, although Denley begins the second disc with a very striking saxophone passage involving simultaneous key-tapping and a shakuhachi-like bending of notes before the others join in for a close examination of tones and textures that achieves moments of great beauty. Indeed, if the second disc were issued in isolation, it might be considered a masterpiece of its kind; it’s something you could use to persuade a sceptic of the value of free improvisation, if you could get them to sit still and pay proper attention.

As with Rothko’s canvases, the meaning of this music lies in a land of the emotions beyond adequate verbal description. But if you like what AMM do, or the meditative solo percussion music Frank Perry used to make with his collection of gongs and bowls, then this might well be your thing, too. And since I’m probably never going to make it to Houston, it will have to do for me.

* Tempo is released on the Sofa Music label on September 4. Its predecessor, Live at the Rothko Chapel, was released on the chapel’s own label. The photograph, by Hickey-Robertson, is from the chapel’s website: 

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dennis MUirhead #

    There are many Rothko canvasses on display at Tate Modern now.

    August 28, 2015
  2. Jon Ramsey #

    Richard – it’s not difficult to get to Houston!

    August 28, 2015
    • Dennis MUirhead #

      Or to the Tate Modern!

      August 29, 2015
  3. Matthew Wright #

    Oddly enough I was in the Tate Modern Rothko room on Thursday and whilst I can appreciate the idea of music and art being linked – we have entered this before – there is something about Rothko’s paintings that demands total immersion.In his own words, they are “objects of contemplation, demanding the viewer’s complete absorption.” Got in there first thing in the morning and for a disappointingly short time, was able to sit in solitude and find myself being drawn in. The temptation to whistle Ellington’s “In My Solitude” on the walk back along the Embankment was strong.

    August 28, 2015

    You have probably already got it in your diary – Mural are playing Cafe Oto on Monday 28 September.

    September 1, 2015

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