AMN Reviews: Mural – Live at the Rothko Chapel

Mural: Live at the Rothko Chapel (Rothko Chapel Publications)

The Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX, is a space dedicated to nondenominational reflection with a hermetic ambience all its own. Standing in muted light, the visitor is situated in a largely empty and plain octagonal room defined on all sides by fourteen of painter Mark Rothko’s large, late-period paintings of dark earth-tones and purple-blacks. The sound on this release by Mural—guitarist/zitherist Kim Myhr, wind instrumentalist Jim Denley, and percussionist Ingar Zach—recorded at the Rothko Chapel in March 2010, is the perfect complement to the architecture and artwork that surrounded and inspired it.

In their day, Rothko’s paintings were often interpreted in terms of the then-fashionable existentialism of Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard—that is, as depicting an inner grappling with the radical freedom arising from the necessity of one’s having to exist in the absence of a pre-given essence. Forty years after the artist’s death it is possible to see them as emptinesses the viewer has to fill—as invitations to introspection with no predetermined content. (In a sense they always were Rorschach tests of a sort.) The Rothko Chapel is conducive to this more recent view, and Myhr seems to see its paintings this way when he describes them as being “like resonant chambers… [or] pulsating spaces you can be in.” This is the starting point for Mural’s work as captured on this disc.

The CD contains one long track of finely nuanced sound. The timbres produced by the ensemble create contrasting colors which, much like the prototypical Rothko painting, are layered in varying tones and saturations. Pitch functions largely as a supplement to color rather than as an independent factor existing in its own right. All three musicians draw on a broad palette that, with the exception of an ebow on the zither, is entirely acoustic.

Zach’s gran cassa—a low-tuned drum–provides a dark undertone that serves as the foundation for the brighter colors of the winds and strings. Myhr’s guitar and zither provide a spectrum of effects ranging from percussive strikes to indeterminate chords strummed on open strings. Denley’s flute is often more revealing of the breath at the heart of it than of pitch, although at times it can sound thick with rounded tones. Sometimes a deep silence usurps the anchoring function of the gran cassa, offering a cleared ground out of which pitched percussion, strings and winds can emerge. The musicians’ work is subtle, creating an apt sonic portrait of the Rothko Chapel’s intimate, meditative atmosphere.

One thought on “AMN Reviews: Mural – Live at the Rothko Chapel

  1. Abstract expressionism was really never anything like Rorschach tests. It may be a minor quibble but it is an irritant. Kierkegaard often gets lumped in with the existentialists but again that’s an extremely superficial read. How is it that Rothko was interpreted in light of Kierkegaard? That could be interesting. Other than these two very minor points, the review is one of the better pieces of writing on music I have read in quite awhile.

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