A composer's meditation on the moment, blown up to immersive proportions
A ghost revealed itself to Davóne Tines the other day, in the Park Avenue Armory's cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Tines, an acclaimed operatic bass-baritone, was there in the midst of marathon rehearsals for Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), an epic piece by composer Tyshawn Sorey, which opens in the New York performance space this evening in a limited run. The work — which Sorey created in intense collaboration with theater director Peter Sellars, visual artist Julie Mehretu and choreographer Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray — is staged within an arena-like enclosure flanked on each of its eight sides by Mehretu's abstract paintings, looming at least 24 feet high. It was one of these canvases that gave Tines, the vocal soloist in the piece, his phantasmic vision.
"Yesterday, we were talking," he said on a recent afternoon, "and I looked up and saw a person — honest to God, a human figure that was in shadow relief, in a kind of medium plane. I thought, 'Wow, where did that come from? I guess that 13-foot-tall giant's been there the whole time.'" He burst into knowing laughter, along with Sorey, Mehretu and Sellars, seated in the Armory's ornate Veterans Room. After several weeks of focused work onsite, and months of preparation, they all embrace the idea that their creation still harbors fathomless secrets.
Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) is, at its mysterious core, conceived in part out of ghost traces. Earlier this year, Sorey premiered the deep, deliberative piece at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. That version — a co-commission of the Park Avenue Armory, the presenting organization DACAMERA and the ecumenical chapel itself, for its 50th anniversary — emphasized Sorey's affinities not only with the dark, brooding Mark Rothko paintings on permanent installation in the space but also with the modernist composer Morton Feldman, who wrote a piece for its opening. But where Feldman's Rothko Chapel, now considered a landmark, takes about 25 minutes in performance, Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) ran twice that long in Houston.
Now, in its ravishing new production — featuring an ambitiously expanded role for Tines, along with Sellars' absorbing stage design, Mehretu's evocative paintings and Regg Roc's elevated street dance — the piece has roughly doubled in length again, to 90 minutes. "I don't think I went deep enough," Sorey says of the previous version, "in terms of what I wanted to convey in the piece, and everything I wanted to get to."
At the Rothko Chapel, certain limitations were built into the piece: the intimate scale of the octagonal sanctuary, a space for hushed reflection; the sepulchral depth of Rothko's paintings, which seem at first glance to be bathed in black; the solemn beauty of Feldman's musical response. Sellars, who was with Sorey during his first visit to the chapel last year, knew he wanted to preserve a meditative quality at the Park Avenue Armory, but he also understood how much space they had to fill.
For the Armory production, each of Mehretu's works — made with ink and acrylic on canvas, then printed on muslin, and framed and hung in the Drill Hall — is paired with a dancer fluent in the Brooklyn street style known as Flexn, derived from Jamaican "bruk up" dance and marked by striking physical contortions. "We decided to keep the octagon as a sacred enclosure," said Sellars, "and Julie set to work to make a painting on each side of it. Then we decided to have one dancer for each painting, so that every painting was alive with a human presence. That created a zone that was charged with spiritual energy."
Sellars was the creative connector between Sorey, Mehretu and Regg Roc, and has been instrumental in its Armory stage design, which looks from the outside like a spaceship docked in the Drill Hall. Entering the space creates a form of sensory immersion, as an audience member is dwarfed on all sides by Mehretu's paintings — far from monochromatic, as it happens, but bristling with swoops and strokes, and maybe some of the rude grace of graffiti on a concrete wall. The piece's shifting lighting design, by James F. Ingalls, activates different layers and textures in the paintings, drawing a viewer in.
"Tyshawn has put us in a place where the duration calls upon a whole other level of attention and endurance," says Sellars. "And the paintings also call for that. Rarely does a museum experience set you up for that. This experience is not a quick one. What you're being asked is not simple. Where we're all sitting is charged with lots of history, and lots of urgency to make new history. I think the space has that triple charge: because of the music, because of the imagery and because of the dancers, you're getting this concentration that is really unusual."
Sorey has always courted, or perhaps insisted on, this level of deep concentration with his work. The many moving parts in Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) gave him a clearer means to grapple with some recent American sociocultural and historical convulsions, from pandemic lockdowns to #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Capitol insurrection on January 6 of last year. In that sense, it's a work blazingly in tune with our current moment, though Sorey insists on a broader frame. "I'm thinking of our past history, from a trauma perspective," he says. "Dealing with Black trauma and Black grief. A lot of my music does deal with that, though I don't really say it very often. Now, I think this is dealing with that subject in its most explicit form."
There is, however, a key distinction between the explicit and the explicable, one that Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) invites an audience member to consider intuitively. "Abstraction can negotiate those spaces that are really hard to give language to," says Mehretu, who encoded certain elements in her paintings that convey largely shadow meanings.
"There are blurred images of the insurrection in these paintings," she confides. "In fact, the figure that Davóne was talking about, that giant netherworld phantom, is from those blurred photos. And there are #BlackLivesMatter protests in some of the paintings as well. So, you have all these different visual references that are blurred. And for me they're blurred not to frustrate anyone. These paintings are not about trying to 'read' something; they're not about legibility. They're actually about being illegible, and viscerally experienced."
That enigmatic quality is further embodied by the Flexn dancers, with whom she has been in dialogue throughout the rehearsal process. "When you talk about these dancers, very rarely do we get into Black interiority," Mehretu says. "There's so much complexity. It's not readable. No one is trying to tell you who they are."
Referring to the overwhelming multisensory impression of the piece, she adds: "You're participating in an experience of processing all of this rich history, texture, time."
Sorey, 42, has centered much of his work on the play of texture and time, with history flowing as a current underground. Born in Newark, N.J. and now based in Philadelphia, where he's a Presidential Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, he's a drummer, trombonist and pianist as well as a composer, commanding a rare degree of respect in both improvisational music ("jazz," though he doesn't use the term) and formal notated music ("classical," same deal). Since he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2017 — joining an elite cohort that already included Sellars and Mehretu — Sorey has created works on every scale from solo piano to symphony orchestra. Taking the measure of his prolific and varied output over the course of 2020, the New York Times declared him "the composer of the year."
Earlier this year, Sorey had several new-music pieces, including "For Orchestra" and "For Roscoe Mitchell," performed at Spoleto Festival USA. He also released Mesmerism, a disarmingly straight-ahead "jazz" album with pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer. Next month, Pi Recordings will release The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism, a three-volume set recorded at The Jazz Gallery earlier this year; it finds Sorey driving a rugged, rangy ensemble with Diehl, bassist Russell Hall and a post-bop elder, alto saxophonist Greg Osby.
For Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), Sorey entrusts his music to violist Kim Kashkashian, pianist Sarah Rothenberg and percussionist Steven Schick, exceptional artists who all contributed to a noted recording of Feldman's Rothko Chapel, on ECM's New Series. In Houston, where Rothenberg is the artistic director of DACAMERA, they worked alongside Tines and the Houston Chamber Choir. Schick, the ensemble member who has the most extensive history with Sorey, frames the evolution from Rothko Chapel to Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) not just in terms of duration: "The invitation in the Feldman is to be compact, rather than complex."
Speaking near the stage during a rehearsal break, Schick added that he felt precisely situated in Sorey's piece as a percussionist: "The tympani largely grounds the harmonies, but then the vibraphone plays in the same realm as the piano. And every once in a while, it feels like the bass drum links up to the viola, in terms of its lyrical voice. In that way, the percussion is the universal donor in this piece: It links to the chorus, it links to the depth of Julie's work. It's been amazing to feel what it's like to find those resonances here."
But that process of ongoing discovery — through Sorey's expansion and attentive fine-tuning of the score, continuing almost to the last minute — isn't as comfortable for everyone. "Concert musicians are used to having a score presented to them, and it is what it is," Sorey mused in the Veterans Room. In that model, he said, "there are no changes that will be made other than interpretation. That's it — not the structure of the piece." He chuckled. "So, one big challenge is having the time to go over some of these changes with the musicians. In fact, we made a change yesterday that has an effect on what's happening in the music."
Hours later, Sorey was in rehearsals, worrying over the mechanics of a few troublesome passages in the piece. The sight of him at the podium — a large Black man in a hoodie, brow furrowed, baton in hand — underscored both his unique position in the contemporary classical establishment and some of the gravely embodied considerations at the heart of his work.
What he was focused on in this moment were some details in the choral parts, handled here by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. At measure 518, he noticed a tonal imperfection in one darkly translucent chord, stopping the choir. "The altos should sing a bit louder there," he said. Then, still not hearing what he wanted, he asked the basses and tenors to sing their part, and then added altos and sopranos in a staggered overlay. Hearing the result, he nodded. "Maybe that's how I'll do it," he said. "I think that will be helpful. We'll put a fermata at the top of 518. Lower voices come in first, and then we'll bring the upper voices in."
This plan met with a tentative silence. Someone asked: "Is this for rehearsal or performance?"
"For performance," Sorey replied firmly. A pause, then: "Do you think we should run it?"
Seemingly every member of the choir voiced an affirmative, punctuated by nervous laughter. Some began to make markings on their sheet music. Sorey gave a cue and the ensemble picked up again. "Yeah, I think we've got it," he said, immediately after hearing the results. "That's what we'll do."
Along with its monumental scale, riveting kinetic movement and dramatically shifting hues — a combined result of Sellars' earnest engagement with Sorey's aims — the new Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) departs from its previous iteration with at least one major musical recalibration. Sorey had always designated a home in the piece for the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," sung in powerfully abstracted form by Tines. On reflection, Sorey decided to draw out that element, making Tines a more pivotal presence in the work and weaving the hymn into the fabric of the piece.
"Occasionally you hear words from the hymn, but also you hear parts of my recomposition of that song pop up every now and again," Sorey explained in the Veterans Room. "So, it's almost like you have a cassette tape with a recording of that hymn that's looped, but then you've recorded over it using other information that has some sort of relation to it." This approach effectively refashions the hymn into a haunting: "It's always coming in and going out, but the material itself — no matter how abstract it may seem to the listener, and no matter how far removed it may seem from the hymn — a lot of the elements in that hymn are always at play the entire time."
Tines is one of the leading new stars in his field, and a transformative one: Last fall, New Yorker critic Alex Ross profiled him with an article bearing the headline "Davóne Tines Is Changing What It Means to Be a Classical Singer." He is the only vocalist Sorey ever envisioned for the bass-baritone part in Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), and since they embarked on the project, it has led to other collaborative work. The idea of opening up his role made every kind of sense.
"One reason I love this piece and it's so exciting for me to do right now is because I love Negro spirituals," Tines affirms. "I will say, like Leontyne Price said, that these are our lieder. They're the songs I feel most connected to — and even physically, that I think my voice is able to live in, in its fullness, more than a German song or a French song. And this piece in particular offers the wild opportunity and blessing to explore: Well, how did those songs get made? How did those songs get born? Where did they come from? In performing spirituals, it's contending with these incredible things that have been produced by humanity's greatest adversity and darkness. So, that's why I also love the continuing journey of the piece, because I get to dig into places that I've never been able to before."
The emotional power of that digging becomes transfixingly clear in performance. During a complete run-through of Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) on Saturday night, Tines moved slowly and carefully through the aisles, his resonant voice seeming to envelop the vaulting space. His posture and movement were controlled, forming an occasional contrast with the Flexn dancers twisting and flowing against the backdrop of Mehretu's work.
Regg Roc is one of the creators of Flexn, and has worked with Sellars on a previous Park Avenue Armory production that foregrounded the style. He told me that the demands of Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), which has the dancers fully engaged for the entirety of its 90 minutes, had created "a whole new vocabulary" for the Flexn movement.
"First thing, as a dancer, you start to try to find rhythm," he said, speaking in the Drill Hall during rehearsals. "And then you realize, there's not a rhythm in this piece." Instead of seeking rhythmic prompts, then, the dancers in the piece are drawing on sonic and emotional texture. "Everything felt like it meant something," he said. "So it was important to find those movements of detail. How to focus on those sounds and the feeling that it's uncovering."
Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) is suffused with sound and feeling, and also with no small amount of silence. Opening with a soft, sustaining chime of tubular bells, it eventually creates space for Kashkashian's exquisitely expressive viola, and for Rothenberg's precise articulation on both piano and celesta. There are cycles of action and even disruption in the music, but they happen on a gradual timescale, like ripples across the surface of a pond.
That slowly shifting perspective extends to the play of color in Mehretu's enormous paintings, which she describes as "time-based experiences." Depending on the lighting cue, they can evoke art-historical references — Rothko, of course, but also Basquiat and Miró — or form the perimeter of an immersive shadow realm. Occasionally, the dancers slip behind the muslin canvases so that their silhouettes become a moving part of the picture plane. Tines, who spends much of the piece gazing up at the paintings, told me that he has begun to see them as part of his score: "Quite honestly, there are moments where I very slowly turn and look and can take in different things. This orange bend, or this new circle, shapes the expression — if I'm being honest and present."
That state of being is, in many ways, the promise and challenge of Monochromatic Light (Afterlife). "Every time I've heard Tyshawn's piece — and I've heard it a few thousand times in the last eight months — I hear a different piece," reflects Sellars. "I mean, Tyshawn's music just constantly reaches you in different ways, and opens different portals in your depth of feeling and imagination and historical consciousness."
Sellars uses the word "ritual" to describe the experiential impression of the piece. It's a word that Sorey favors as well, especially in contrast to "performance," with its scaffolding of artifice and display. The Park Avenue Armory piece is just the most complex expression of something he always brings to his work, which demands patient engagement from a listener, if not a form of spiritual surrender.
"I don't want them to come here to listen to a piece of music," Sorey said. "I want them to experience the totality of the entire work. What they experience depends on who they are. And if who they are is a person who is interested in seeing how this might affect them, or what their relationship is to it, they're left with no choice but to come to terms with what the totality of everything means to them. It requires them to go deeper inside themselves."
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