Listening to Rothko

In a stimulating Duncan Phillips Lecture, “John Cage and the Question of Genre,” which served as a keynote to this year’s International Forum Weekend dedicated to the confluence of art and music, the novelist and musician Rick Moody praised Cage’s chance works, such as his ineffable composition 4’33”, as a “a breath of fresh air in the midst of bourgeois individualism.” According to Moody, Cage disregarded any notion of genre in favor of “creative work whose primary intention is simply that it is creative, so that it might simply give a name to creativity itself.” 4’ 33”, first performed in 1952, was designated by Cage as a “composition for any instrument (or combination of instruments).” It consists solely of potential sound: the random noise that occurs during the duration of its “silent” performance.

Halfway through, Moody intermitted his lecture with a cunning act of bravura by playing the sounds of paintings and photographs he recorded in various museums with his iPhone: the incidental noises created by the crowds moving past them.

Afterwards, Moody took me aside and asked if he might be able to spend a few minutes in the Rothko Room in order to record the sound of Rothko’s paintings. I happily obliged, and we both intently listened to the paintings. Rothko may have approved: he once compared his paintings to the voices in an opera. And for a moment, ever so faintly, I thought I heard Rothko’s beloved Mozart emerge from the depth of the silence in the room.

Rick Moody in the Rothko Room

Rick Moody recording the sound of the Rothko Room. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Reflections on Glass

Philip Glass playing his own compositions at Phillips Sunday Concerts 2011. Photo: James R. Brantley

On Sunday, October 2, 2011, renowned composer Philip Glass performed a concert at The Phillips Collection to benefit the Phillips’s Sunday Concerts and FRESHFARM Markets. Photo: James R. Brantley

American composer Philip Glass has been at the forefront of modern classical music for several decades. A pioneer of what became dubbed “minimalism,” his output is vast and covers a huge variety of media: opera, theater, chamber music, solo pieces, and work for film and television. He is also one of the great symphonists of our time; just this year his Ninth Symphony was debuted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His epic four act opera Einstein on the Beach is currently being revived by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Add that to the prestigious Praemium Imperiale award, given to Glass by the Japan Art Association, and it’s easy to see why 2012 is rapidly turning into a momentous year for the composer.

Glass, however, takes his fame and public image with a grain of salt and is well known for frankness in conversation. In the 2007 documentary A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, he says: “You know, there’s a lot of music in the world, you don’t have to listen to mine. There’s Mozart, there’s the Beatles, listen to something else.” His matter-of-factness is refreshing; it is, after all, born out of rather inauspicious beginnings. He famously drove a New York taxi and worked as a part-time plumber to earn enough to pay members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, the group he formed in 1968 to perform his experimental music. The group is still going strong today.

Philip Glass’s Sunday Concerts 2011 season opener drew a full house to the Phillips Music Room. Photo: James R. Brantley

It was with characteristic coolness and self-assurance that he spoke and performed at the Phillips on October 2, 2011, to open last year’s Sunday Concerts season. Contrary to Glass’s public-facing opera, film, and symphonic work, the packed Music Room was treated to his more inward and poetic pieces for solo piano. He performed six of his Etudes (1994‒); Mad Rush (1979); and four works from the Metamorphosis cycle (1988).

Glass sees his piano music as an intensely private affair, and his performance gave a rare glimpse into that most direct conversation between composition and composer. His works for larger ensemble demand strict rigidity in rhythm and meter, without which the often hypnotic sense of repetition and motion gets lost. However as a solo performer Glass’s playing emerged with more than a touch of romanticism. His extensive use of rubato—the stretching or relaxing of musical phrases and rhythm—and his elasticity with dynamics and pedaling showed just how personal his playing can be. The piano works are rich in polyrhythmic intricacy, but the overwhelming sense of these pieces comes from his use of melody. Glass is a confessed lover of Schubert, and these works are abundant with a sense of Schubertian harmony. In listening to these piano pieces, you feel a sense of lineage with a musical past but are unable to define where it all fits together. His music resists historical imperative.

After the concert Glass explained how he is attracted to the ageless quality that music and art can possess, where you may hear, see, or feel an association, but the work of art itself emerges with mystery or detachment from formal understandings. In his visits to the Rothko Room, Glass reflected that Rothko’s canvasses seem at home and at ease on the walls, both now and 40 years ago when he first visited the Phillips as a student. He remarked how they don’t appear to possess a particular or definable age and still feel strikingly modern. Glass’s piano music does too; it evokes the same sense, where finite beginnings and conclusions are obscured, like colors merging into one and other. Music and sound is set within a constant state of motion, moving through an infinite present.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant

Six Degrees of Separation: A Tour


Photo: Joshua Navarro

Start your visit on the 2nd floor of The Phillips Collection, outside the Rothko Room, and discover watercolors by John Cage. Primarily known as an avant-garde composer, Cage turned the sounds of an audience’s awkward, ambient shuffling into music. (Return to the museum at 4 pm on September 6 for a full Cage experience, as part of the John Cage Centennial Festival, starting with a panel discussion on Cage’s work and collaborations, including his friendship with Jasper Johns, and culminating with a performance by Irvine Arditti of the impossible-to-perform Freeman Etudes for solo violin.)


Photo: Cecilia Wichmann

Continue up the curving stairway to special exhibition Jasper Johns: Variations on a Theme, and you’ll find prints by Johns that share in Cage’s sense of humor. Johns too makes art out of his audience in works like High School Days (1969), a lead embossed shoe of the kind that lends a naughty view when strategically polished and placed beneath a woman’s skirt. Johns has embedded a mirror in the toe so the curious viewer glimpses only his or her own eye. He made this innovative lead relief and others at Los Angeles print publisher Gemini G.E.L. Towards the end of the exhibition look for Ocean (1994), a lithograph of a dancer leaping over abstracted map forms. The dancer is none other than Merce Cunnningham, the avant-garde choreographer who was also a friend to Johns and Cage.


Photo: Kate Boone

In 1967, Frank Stella designed a set and costumes for a dance piece by Cunningham named Scramble.  That same year, he created his first prints and, like Johns, collaborated with Gemini G.E.L. In one print made that year, Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Stella revisited his iconic 1959 black painting. Walk from the Johns exhibition into the original Phillips house, through the Main Gallery, down a few steps, and past the Klees, and you’ll find Stella’s small work on paper, which was gifted to the Phillips in 1991.


Photo: Joshua Navarro

A luminous glow beckons you beyond Stella’s print, into a gallery with a fireplace, a single bench, and a solitary 60″ x 60″ (but digitally infinite) artwork. Scramble (2011) is Leo Villareal’s response to a conversation he shared with Frank Stella as part of a panel discussion on Kandinsky at the Phillips the previous year. Sharing a name with Stella’s Cunningham collaboration, this work reminds of motion and dance with LEDs relentlessly shifting (and never repeating) their patterns of color. Visitors remark that the contemporary color field is like millions of digital Rothkos.


Photo: Robert Lautman

With your mind thus saturated (and somewhat scrambled), you may now be craving a respite in the Rothko Room. Wind your way back to the 2nd floor of the Goh Annex, where you began with Cage, and enter the small chamber which is also appointed with a single bench (that was the artist’s idea). The Rothko Room is always there for you. (The permanent, meditative installation inspired a new commission, something to look forward to next year, but for now the scent of beeswax remains absent from your tour.)


Photo: Robert Lautman

Turn left out of the Rothko Room toward a stairway and red wall. Pause on the landing and look out the window. Straight ahead, on the far wall of the courtyard, floats Ellsworth Kelly’s swooping untitled bronze. Villareal’s recent body of work includes a Kelly-inspired piece, Coded Spectrum, in addition to his work in conversation with Stella.

Cecilia Wichmann, Publicity and Marketing Manager