2011 has marked the 40th Anniversary of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX. According to the official Rothko website (About the Chapel), “The Rothko Chapel, founded by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary available to people of every belief. A tranquil meditative environment inspired by the mural canvases of Russian born American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year, people of every faith from all parts of the world.” Commemorating 40 years of calling people to contemplation and inspiring them to action, Rothko Chapel planned activities to remember the founders and the Rothko Chapel’s mission including four musical events. “As an art form, music speaks an international language and has the capacity to bind diverse people together through a shared experience. It can nurture interfaith understanding and has the transformative power to enlighten the mind and spirit.” (Rothko Chapel Summer Music Series) I had the privilege of attending the last of these musical events scheduled for this summer, Beat Hollow with Brian Siskind. Beat Hollow was a unique, meditative, sonic environment created in reverence of the chapel’s sacred space.
Upon arriving at the chapel, I was kindly guided to an open spot in the quiet, octagonal shaped main room where I and fellow audience members patiently sat waiting to be transported. Within a couple of minutes, Siskind’s ambient sounds began to fill our ears with pleasant energy. As I sat listening, I often found myself with my eyes closed to experience the feeling even more. Occasionally glancing up and to my side, I found the audience also to be in a meditative state. We all seemed to be going in and out of reflecting in our own minds to being aware of all our fellow human beings attending the event that day. A beautiful aural experience was created out of Siskind’s abstract composition of ambient soundscapes and field recordings, ” …from documented rituals of Bhutan monks in Brooklyn, to the birds in the ruins of Pompeii, and an altering portrait of rural and urban life from across the United States and Europe.” (Rothko Chapel Summer Music Series) The performance itself lasted about an hour, but as other visitors to the Rothko Chapel later mentioned, time seemed to stop. The sounds of life and phenomena on this planet reminded us that we are all of one kind; we are no different in our pursuit of life and finding our place and meaning. Surrounded by Rothko’s massive paintings that are dark but full of texture and depth with light filtering through the chapel’s sky light, Siskind’s sounds did indeed transport us to a place that allowed us to grasp transcendence if even just for the time we were there.
After the live performance, an outside reception was held between the chapel and Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory. Normally a very hot and humid time of year, the day decided to contribute to the beauty of the whole experience. People gathered to talk and enjoy the nice breeze drifting between Newman’s sculpture and the chapel. Audience members from many different walks of life came up to Siskind to tell him how much the experience meant to them. I was particularly struck by the comments of one lady who I believe was from Germany. Siskind had given out old post cards from the world to enhance the experience. She was very impressed by this and was asking about his field recordings and their origins. I couldn’t help but smile feeling the interconnectedness that we all share. Siskind succeeded in greatly enhancing and supporting Rothko’s vocation and I am very pleased I did not miss this inspiring experience.