This album and the Marc Rothko room at the Tate Modern
It was a day around this time of the year (April/ May) in 1986 that I first wanted to do this project. I had first seen the Seagram Murals the previous year in 1985, years before the Tate Modern came into being, when there was only one ‘Tate’, on the riverbank in Pimlico (now Tate Britain). I didn’t see these pictures in complete isolation though; there was a group exhibition on about American abstract expressionism, so I also got to see the Pollocks, the De Koonings, the Newmans, the Klines, the Gottliebs but at the time what stood out was these Seagram murals by Rothko; because this was an entire installation in its own room, very much creating its own environment, and as this was in its permanent collection, the room lasted longer than the exhibition it featured in.
In 1986 I had discovered ambient music (long before trendy and associated with beats/ dance music or new age hippy drippy stuff) and I had heard some “serious” (I hate that term) electronic music, and made the connection between a form of music which was intended to be at a distance (which is how I differentiate between musak and ambient) and the environment that this installation created, and how in theory at least, the two could either come together in the same space or could reflect each other, and I had this idea of doing an album of music that reflected these huge canvasses. However in 1986 I was not in a position to realise such a project; there was still a huge amount I had to learn about composition, a huge amount to learn about this style of painting, a very large pile of crucial music I hadn’t heard or understood and more to the point I didn’t have the equipment to carry out such a project- even if I was in a better position. In 1986 one had to have a budget to even begin such a project. The biggest cost was in the recording, and in order to get truly professional sound you needed to either hire a studio at £1000 per day (roughly todays money) or have an equipment budget of about £40,000! I had a Korg MS20 (great classic analogue Semi- modular synth) and a reel-to-reel which had two tracks and that was it. But as I was learning at the time I did have access to an 8 track reel to reel at a studio during down time, but that time was very strictly limited to a Saturday morning when everyone had gone to the pubs in Soho. This was the best I could do at the time, nobody was going to give me the money to make an album about abstract painting! Eventually I moved on musically, in the 1990s I became part of several indie bands, one of which got signed so until year 2000, I became a guitarist, picked up lots of experience and forgot all about it.
In 2013 when I joined Xylem Records I was in a completely different position to 1986, having gained 27 years of experience, abandoning rock music, studied both painting and composition at different times, been a part of music technology on both sides of the studio glass, and critically the democratisation of electronic music via computers meant that doing such a project became very much within my grasp! I did my first album “Thin White Layers” for Xylem then starting thinking about doing this album for next year.
When Mark Rothko got the commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant for 600 sq ft of paintings sometime in early 1958, this lucrative public commission acceptance came as a surprise to his fellow abstract artists, and a certain amount of jealousy was stirred up, and feelings that he had sold out his rigorous abstract designs to merely decorate the latest eatery of Manhattans very
wealthy. But this is not what Rothko had in mind; walk into that room in the Tate and notice how those huge dark canvasses dominate both the room and the viewer. It might be that this is the most difficult room in the Tate, in all my times I’ve been to the Tate, people do not spend long in that room; it’s very oppressive, dark, overwhelming. There’s nothing on the canvasses to focus on- and you can’t get far enough away from them to take them all in at once. So you’re rather left to explore the surface, very much like as if you had come close up to huge wall, when you do so, then you see all the layers of very thin paint that have come together layer-by-layer to make up these huge works. When you can get some distance from these works then a tyrannical design rigour becomes apparent; these canvasses can be sorted into three distinct design groups –vertical rectangles, Horizontal rectangles- squares on roughly square canvasses and squares on horizontal rectangular canvasses. Many of those panels in a series directly relate to another in the same series meaning that one panel is almost a colour reversal of another in the same series (I see this as an equivalent to a musical inversion) and there is an overall colour scheme which controls these groups together (a favourite trick of interior designers). Other panels share same layout but the colours found on different canvasses. Because of strictly enforced copyright rules I can’t include these here but I can provide a link here to the Tate Gallerys page on the subject. In short one can find many musical parallels in composition- and obvious one from the time would be total serialism- an overall design controlling every aspect of detail-
So what did Rothko have in mind when he took this commission on? Its well reported that he intended this to be a subversive art- that rather than give affirmation to New Yorks wealthy he meant to do quite the opposite- “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room” was a quote journalist John Fisher reported. However something else also emerged on those huge canvasses, as well as the oppressive feeling that “every building in the room bricked up” (another John Fisher quote) this is a huge, monolithic artform that provides transcendental meditation on the sheer beauty of design, of colour field painting (this style of abstract expressionism is known as colorfield) of uncompromising rigour in aesthetics on many levels. In the end, however tyrannical, it is a hugely beautiful work when taken as a whole. I suspect that because of this Rothko may well have felt he’d failed in his plans to subvert, and might explain why he returned the commission money ($35,000) and gave the paintings to the Tate instead.
P.S. The Korg MS20 was reissued in 2013, and I bought one this year and used it on this album in the same way I intended back in 1986.