April 9, 2014

Interview:
Rothko Work Inspires Composer
By Colin Eatock
The Houston Chronicle

Haskell Small: The Rothko Room—Journeys in Silence (2010); Visions of Childhood (2011); A Glimpse of Silence (2013). Haskell Small, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Art and music have often benefited from inspirational cross-pollination.

Art's influence on music can be heard in Modest Mussorgsky's famous "Pictures at an Exhibition," written after the Russian composer attended an art show. The reverse process (music influencing art) is evident in two giant murals by Marc Chagall - "The Triumph of Music," and "The Source of Music" - that dominate the lobby of New York's Metropolitan Opera House.

The abstract canvases of artist Mark Rothko also have inspired musical interpretation. Morton Feldman composed his "Music for Rothko Chapel" in 1971. And now the Washington, D.C., pianist-composer Haskell Small has translated the stark drama of Rothko's monumental art into a musical work.

Small will visit Houston on Friday to perform his solo piano piece, "The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence," in the Rothko Chapel.

It's a fitting place for Small to play this music. But it wasn't the Rothkos in Houston that inspired the piece.
"I was in London, in 2007," says the 65-year-old musician who teaches at the Washington Conservatory of Music. "And at the Tate Museum, I saw the series of paintings by Rothko. They blew me away - the passion, the animation, the way they vibrated off the canvas. I had to do something."

Small was no stranger to the idea of using art to create music: He had already composed a piece inspired by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, commissioned by Washington's Phillips Collection. So he went back to the Phillips Collection to contemplate the four paintings in the museum's Rothko Room. He soon found common ground with the artist.

"My own compositional tendencies tend toward quietude," he notes. "That fits perfectly with the intentions of Rothko."

Small's continuous half-hour work is made up of four sections - but he points out that these sections don't correspond directly to the works at the Phillips Collection.

"It's not so much about the individual paintings," Small explains, "as much as it is a musical narrative of Rothko's life. He was an unhappy camper and ended up committing suicide."

He continues: "My piece is subtitled 'Journeys in Silence' because Rothko was a mystic - and it's also because the piece is about the journey of his life. I try to show his passion and his interest in primitive art. Rothko said that art that's worth anything is about ecstasy, tragedy or doom. All three are present in my music."

Small's recital at the Rothko Chapel includes other works. He'll play three pieces by the Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness: his "Prospect Hill Sonata," "Pastorale No. 1" and "Hymn to Mount Chocorua."

Small says Hovhaness' music is very much in keeping with his program's mystical theme.

"Hovhaness was fascinated with mountains," he says. "Because mountains are halfway between the earth and the sky, they have a spiritual aspect."

Music by the French composer Erik Satie will round out the Friday program.

Small has recorded his Rothko-inspired music on the MSR Classics label. The work won't be released until May, but CDs will be available at Friday's recital.