Untitled 1969  (2009)

piano, vibraphone, and tubular bells

The American painter Mark Rothko is best known for his color fields. These works, often staggeringly large, are composed of giant rectangles that seem to float atop the surface of the paintings. In 1969, Rothko completed an untitled color field dominated by hauntingly dark rectangles. These rectangles are dissected by a shocking streak of electric blue. Merely a few months after the completion of this work, following years of struggling with alcoholism and depression, Rothko committed suicide in his New York studio on February 25, 1970. The streak of electric blue sits in sharp contrast with the dark fields that it cuts through, making it a quiet surge of energy on the painting's surface: a final breath in Rothko’s life. 

Untitled 1969, for vibraphone, tubular bells, and piano, is a meditation on Rothko's final days and should be thought of as a breath: a single inhalation and exhalation. The work is built in repetitive cells that allow the performers to slowly move in and out of phase with one another. As the work progresses, it builds with a gentle surge in volume and activity before slowly receding back to an open piano drone. Left in a quiet hum, the work ends with final moment to reflect in a dark, empty field of sound.      

In 1969, Yale University conferred the honor of Doctor of Arts on Mark Rothko. In a letter responding to this honor, Rothko wrote...

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing: no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can root and grow. We must all hope that they find them.” 

5 minutes and 30 seconds


Premiered on April 4, 2009 in the Dalton Center Recital Hall at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan as a part of the New Sounds Festival 2009.