February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: silence

disquiet.gizmodo.com

On Disquiet.com now participating in the Gizmodo ecosystem

These are two things that I think Geoff Manaugh, editor-in-chief of the technology and design blog Gizmodo.com, didn’t know about me when he asked if I’d consider bringing Disquiet.com beneath his website’s expanding umbrella.

1: My “to re-blog” bookmark file has been packed in recent months with scores of items from pretty much all of the Gizmodo-affiliated sites — not just Gizmodo, but io9.com, Lifehacker, Jalopnik, Gawker, and Kotaku. Probably Jezebel and Deadspin, too, but the file is too thick for me to tell.

2: Pretty much the first thing that I read every morning with my coffee — well, every weekday morning — is the “Morning Spoilers” at io9.com, the great science fiction website that is part of the Gawker network that also contains Gizmodo.

I knew Manaugh’s work from BLDGBLOG and, before that, Dwell Magazine. He’d previously invited me to involve the weekly experimental music/sound project series that I run, the Disquiet Junto, in the course on the architecture of the San Andreas Fault that he taught in spring 2013 at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture. And I am excited to work with him again.

And so, there is now a cozy disquiet.gizmodo.com subdomain URL where I’ll be syndicating — simulposting — material from Disquiet.com, as well as doing original straight-to-Gizmodo writing. I’m hopeful that members of the Gizmodo readership might further expand the already sizable ranks of the Disquiet Junto music projects (we just completed one based on a post from Kotaku), and I’ll be posting notes from the course I teach on “sound in the media landscape” at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco.

For new readers of Disquiet, the site’s purview is as follows:

* Listening to Art.

* Playing with Audio.

* Sounding Out Technology.

* Composing in Code.

I’ll take a moment to break that down:

Listening to Art: Attention to sound art has expanded significantly this year, thanks in no small part to the exhibit Soundings: A Contemporary Score at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. That exhibit, which ran from August 10 through November 3, featured work by such key figures as Susan Philipsz (whose winning of the Turner Prize inspired an early music compilation I put together), Carsten Nicolai (whom I profiled in the new Red Bull Music Academy book For the Record), and Stephen Vitiello (whom I’ve interviewed about 911 and architectural acoustics, and who has participated in the Disquiet Junto). But if “sound art” is art for which music is both raw material and subject matter, my attention is just as much focused on what might better be described as the role of “sound in art,” of the depictions of audio in various media (the sound effects in manga, for example) and the unintended sonic components of art beyond sound art, like the click and hum of a slide carousel or the overall sonic environment of a museum. Here’s video of Tristan Perich’s “Microtonal Wall” from the MoMA exhibit:

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Playing with Audio: If everything is, indeed, a remix, that is a case most clearly made in music and experimental sound. From the field recordings that infuse much ambient music to the sampling of hip-hop to the rapturous creative reuse that proliferates on YouTube and elsewhere, music as raw material is one of the most exciting developments of our time. Terms like “remix” and “mashup” and “mixtape” can been seen to have originated or otherwise gained cachet in music, and as they expand into other media, we learn more about them, about the role such activities play in culture. And through the rise of audio-game apps, especially in iOS, such “playing with sound” has become all the more common — not just the work of musicians but of audiences, creating a kind of “active listening.” This notion of reuse, of learning about music and sound by how it is employed after the fact, plays a big role in my forthcoming book for the 33 1/3 series. My book is about Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and it will be published on February 13, 2014, just weeks ahead of the record’s 20th anniversary. As part of my research for the book, I spoke with many individuals who had come to appreciate the Aphex Twin album by engaging with it in their own work, from composers who had transcribed it for more “traditional” instruments (such as chamber ensembles and solo guitar), to choreographers and sound designers, to film directors.

Sounding Out Technology: A briefer version of the Disquiet.com approach is to look at “the intersection of sound, art, and technology.” The term “technology” is essential to that trio, because it was only when I learned to step back from my fascination with electronically produced music and to appreciate “electronic” as a subset of the vastly longer continuum of “technology” that connections became more clear to me — say, between the sonics of raves and the nascent polyphony of early church music, or between creative audio apps like Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers’ Bloom and what is arguably the generative ur-instrument: the aeolian harp. With both Bloom and the aeolian harp, along with its close relative the wind chime, music is less a fixed composition than a system that is enacted. As technology mediates our lives more and more, the role that sound plays in daily life becomes a richer and richer subject — from voice-enabled devices, to the sounds of consumer product design, to the scores created for electric cars:

Composing in Code: Of all the technologies to come to the fore in the past two decades, perhaps none has had an impact greater than computer code. This is no less true in music and sound than it is in publishing, film, politics, health, or myriad other fields. While the connections between mathematics and music have been celebrated for millennia, there is something special to how, now, those fields are combining, notably in graphic systems such as Max/MSP (and Max for Live, in Ableton) and Puredata (aka Pd), just to name two circumstances. Here, for reference, is a live video of the Dutch musician and sound artist Edo Paulus’ computer screen as he constructs and then performs a patch in Max/MSP. Where the construction ends and the performance begins provides a delightful koan:

All of which said, I’m not 100-percent clear what form my disquiet.gizmodo.com activity will take. I’m looking forward to experimenting in the space. I’ll certainly be co-posting material from Disquiet.com, but I’m also planning on engaging with Gizmodo itself, and with its broader network of sites. I’ve already, in advance of this post, begun re-blogging material from Gizmodo and from Gizmodo-affiliated sites: not just “sharing” (in the UI terminology of the Kinja CMS that powers the network) but adding some contextual information, thoughts, tangents, details. I’m enthusiastic about Kinja, in particular how it blurs the lines between author and reader. I like that a reply I make to a post about a newly recreated instrument by Leonardo Da Vinci can then appear in my own feed, leading readers back to the original site, where they themselves might join in the conversation. Kinja seems uniquely focused on multimedia as a form of commentary — like many CMS systems, it allows animated GIFs and short videos to serve as blog comments unto themselves, but it goes the step further of allowing users to delineate rectangular sub-sections of previously posted images and comment on those. I’m intrigued to see how sound can fit into that approach. (It’s no surprise to me that Kinja is innovative in this regard — it’s on Lifehacker that I first learned about the syntax known as “markdown.”) I think that all, cumulatively, makes for a fascinating media apparatus, and I want to explore it.

While I typed this post, it was Tuesday in San Francisco. I live in the Outer Richmond District, just north of Golden Gate Park and a little over a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The season’s first torrential rain has passed, and so the city sounds considerably more quiet than it did just a few days ago. No longer is the noise of passing automobiles amplified and augmented by the rush of water, and the roof above my desk is no longer being pummeled. But where there is the seeming peace of this relative quiet, there is also an increased diversity of listening material. The ear can hear further, as it were — not just to conversations in the street and to passing cars, but to construction blocks away, to leaf blowers, to a seaplane overhead, to the sound of a truck backing up at some considerable distance, and to the many birds that (unlike what I was accustomed to, growing up on the north shore of New York’s Long Island) do not all vacate the area come winter. It is shortly past noon as I hit the button to make this post go live. Church bells have sung a duet with the gurgling in my belly to remind me it is time for lunch. And because it is Tuesday, the city’s civic warning system has rung out. 

Dim sum, anyone?

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Stems: Eno Studies, Aural Antagonism, Sonic Diptychs, …

Plus: update on my recent film project, TV sound, politics, more

Imminent Audio: Saying “Tuesday at midnight” or “Wednesday at midnight” can mean different things to different people, so to be clear: On the midnight when Tuesday, November 20, meets Wednesday, November 21, I will be guest DJing for two hours on the web-streamed radio show “The World of Wonder” on KUSF in Exile. Thanks to drum machine innovator Matt Davignon for inviting me to handle the duties. It will stream at savekusf.org. The show will emphasize various aspects of minimalist sound: quietude, rhythmic simplicity, texture, and more. And that’s Pacific Time. And it will be archived within a day of the broadcast, and I’ll post that here when it’s available. The show includes music from, among others, Dance Robot Dance, Emma Hendrix, Garth Knox, Kate Carr, Anton Lukoszevieze, Scanner, all n4tural, Natalia Kamia, and jmmy kpple.

Two Disquiet Concerts: More on these very soon, but if you’re in Manhattan or San Francisco, please note that Disquiet Junto concerts are coming your way, soon. The Manhattan show will be at the gallery apexart on November 27, a Tuesday, at 6:30pm. The lineup: Brian Biggs (aka Dance Robot Dance), Ethan Hein, Shawn Kelly (aka Whyarcka), Kenneth Kirschner, Tom Moody, and Roddy Schrock (with Joon Oluchi Lee). The theme will be mechanized music made from field recordings of retail spaces, as part of the “As Real As It Gets” exhibit, organized by Rob Walker. ◼ The San Francisco show will be at the gallery the Luggage Store on December 6, a Thursday, at 8:00pm. The lineup: Cullen Miller, Clarke Robinson, Jared Smith, Subnaught, and Andrew Weathers (see facebook.com). The theme is yet to be announced.

Site Maintenance: A minor note, but this section of occasional tidbits and observations has long been called “Tangents,” and will no longer be. Now it’s going to be called “Stems.” The old term, “tangents,” suggested something that dissipated over time. The term “stems” comes from music production; it refers to a subset of material that’s been mixed down (collated, reduced) to aid in the subsequent production process. It’s a mid-stage, and thus it’s closer to the “outboard brain” (I think that’s a Cory Doctorow coinage) approach the “Tangents” postings have long served. (And if I appear to be doing these more often than I had in awhile, it’s true. I credit much of this activity to my adoption of the markdown “text-to-HTML conversion” approach, which speeds up things considerably. Seriously considerably.)

Eno-ology: One of the great things about a great new Brian Eno album — in this case, Lux — is the inevitable flood: a lot of writing about Eno. Geeta Dayal, in what I think is her first slate.com piece, notes that falling asleep to an Eno album is a compliment, not a criticism. ◼ Of course, Eno is ubiquitous, meaning that sometimes coverage of his work simply happens to coincide with him being in the news for a particular reason; in his plos.one blog, NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman queries 10 authors on the music they work to, among them David Dobbs, who notes not only Eno’s fixed recordings but his software:

… I rely on two staples:

First, a shuffled play of Brian Eno’s ambient albums, such as Music for Airports; second, an ingenious iPod app Eno made called Trope. You tap and rub the screen for a moment, fingerpaint-style, to set the texture for a Music for Airports-like ambient soundscape that will play indefinitely. I’ve done some great planning and some of my better writing lately with that going. The one danger is that the fine ambience and healthy relaxed Zenlike state it produces can convince you you’re getting good work done when it turns out … well, you’re not. A couple times I fell asleep.

When that happens, I get up, turn the volume up to 11, and put on some Led Zeppelin…

Sonic Weapons: I tend to disagree that the world is louder than it used to be. I think noise pollution is often a matter of individual perspective, of mood, of context. To be clear: I am not denying that humankind is leaving more of a prominent mark in places, zones, territories, it once left sacrosanct, or simply neglected — I’m speaking specifically of the built environment, of places (towns, cities, public spaces, workplaces) that are by definition humankind’s territory. In a New York Times essay (“The Quiet Ones”), Tim Kreider, a frequent flyer in the Quiet Car on Amtrak, describes how despite his concern for what he perceives as an annoyingly louder-than-ever world, he found himself “on the wrong side of the fight”:

I was sitting in my seat, listening to music at a moderate volume on headphones and writing on my laptop, when the man across the aisle — the kind you’d peg as an archivist or musicologist — signaled to me.

“Pardon me, sir,” he said. “Maybe you’re not aware of it, but your typing is disturbing people around you. This is the Quiet Car, where we come to be free from people’s electronic bleeps and blatts.” He really said “bleeps and blatts.”

“I am a devotee of the Quiet Car,” I protested. And yes, I said “devotee.” We really talk like this in the Quiet Car; we’re readers. “I don’t talk on my cellphone or have loud conversations — ”

“I’m not talking about cellphone conversations,” he said, “I’m talking about your typing, which really is very loud and disruptive.”

After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m.

For the record, as I’ve said in the past, I think perceiving this matter of “noise versus silence” as a fight is part of the problem. Noise is metaphor as much as it is a visceral experience. Noise is, in many ways, antagonism — and a fight is often a matter of antagonism, whichever “side” you’re on.

Hearing Aid: Light may travel more significantly more speedily than does sound, but Seth S. Horowitz argues that what’s heard is experienced more quickly than what’s seen:

Studies have shown that conscious thought takes place at about the same rate as visual recognition, requiring a significant fraction of a second per event. But hearing is a quantitatively faster sense.

That’s from his recent (and widely circulated) essay “The Science and Art of Listening” from the New York Times. Horowitz is the author of the excellent book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind.

Like Kreider above, Horowitz is concerned about the pressures of modernization on the senses (“Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload”), but he is more attuned to the role context and consciousness plays: “your brain works like a set of noise-suppressing headphones,” he says. He argues in part for listening as a skill an individual can acquire, in contrast with the more systemic approach that Quiet Car devotee Kreider seems to be aiming for.

Curses, Foiled: Speaking of noise as metaphor, the website wtflevel.com provides “Real-time updates on twitter swearing.” Since I tend to curse more out of enthusiasm than anger, I am intrigued by how the service adjusts for this. In any case, the website is pretty f’ing awesome. Sample data output here:

I think the waveform could be of use in a future Disquiet Junto project — read it as a graphically notated score, like we did the polling data from the recent U.S. presidential election.

Moon Unit: Quick little interview at greyshading.com with Moon Zero, whose “Budapest” drone was noted here fondly recently. Turns out the city played a role in his sonic development:

I want the audio to take on a life of its own, to be constantly pulsing and shifting. I love contrasts as well, beautiful sounds hidden by noise, things like that.

I’m at a strange place at the moment because my sound seems to be more and more influenced by religion, which is funny as I consider myself an atheist. I think its their sense of “epic” that inspires me. Big spaces and big bombast. It started when I was staying at a friends house in Budapest a couple of months ago. On Sunday morning this huge sound woke me up. His flat was next to St Peters Basilica and the sound was the bells tolling. It was so intense, but beautiful at the same time. I’ve recorded in churches in the past and this is something I’d like to do more of, although sadly it’s not easy finding one that’s sympathetic to ambient music.

Tech-nique: Mark Rushton continues to report on his use of Google Hangouts, and in this case on his employment of a newly popular iOS app, Samplr.

Math Tip: If you’re trying to add lengths of various tracks (e.g., combine the length of a handful of songs when estimating the length of a planned podcast), this is a handy tool: dollartimes.com.

Surreal Politik: Old news, but nonetheless: the irony when a political campaign doesn’t fully comprehend the provenance of its source music extends beyond the opposition by pop stars to staples of the American classical repertoire: theatlanticwire.com.

Sonic Diptychs: The great youtubemultiplier.com site was introduced to me by the talented and insightful Samuel Landry, and since his initial mention I’ve seen and received many others. The service lets you easily play two or more (up to eight) YouTube videos side by side, simultaneously. The previous link goes to a Landry (aka @le_berger on Twitter) cocktail of Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, and Stephan Mathieu. The service is wonderful if only for letting me now, whenever I want, play one of my favorite sonic diptychs: Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon + DJ Krush’s Kakusei.

Doc Update: The documentary film The Children Next Door, for which I handled music supervision and share sound-design credit with the talented Taylor Deupree, won a special jury prize at the DOC NYC last Thursday. Trailer here:

It shares the award with the film Julian. DOC NYC said of the pair: “two powerful and intimate short films that capture the struggles of a pair of families as they battle through emotional confusion following devastating and violent tragedies” (docnyc.net). More at thechildrennextdoor.com. The movie was directed by Doug Block and produced by Lynda Hansen. So far it has shown at three film festivals: the Hamptons, Denver, and DOC NYC. Major thanks to the DOC NYC Shorts Competition category’s jurors: Natalie Difford (Cinereach), Vikram Gandhi (Kumaré), and Dan Nuxoll (Rooftop Films). And there’s a wonderful review of the film at sundancenow.com by Anthony Kaufman: “Though only 36 minutes, The Children Next Door attains a level of pathos as deep as any feature-length documentary.”

Listening to TV: (1) The Good Wife, in the episode a week and a day ago (“Anatomy of a Joke”), did a solid, humorous job of handling matters of censorship. As “ripped from the headlines” TV goes — there’s been increasing talk of late of networks easing their standards regarding adult material — it managed to be both outlandish and subtle. In the opening sequence, a character played by Christina Ricci is on the stand, under oath, being prosecuted for exposing her breasts on national television. When the opposing attorney interrogates her, she asks him what words he finds offensive (“What do you mean ‘vulgar’?”) and he can only muster, “It rhymes with ‘bits.’” She asks if we’re eight-year-olds here, and proceeds to say the offending word out loud (four letters, but only in the plural form), and not only does traffic noise obscure the verbalization, but the camera passes so that her face is momentarily covered by the attorney’s back, just at the moment she would be mouthing the word. The room’s guards are seen, as if in a Laurel and Hardy film, repeatedly trying to close a window to keep traffic noise from interfering. ◼ (2) Last week’s episode of NCIS: Los Angeles (“Rude Awakenings”) was the second part of a two-part sequence, focused on previously undisclosed personal matters involving the character of an agent played by LL Cool J. The show has more to its credit than it gets credit for, though its primary pleasure is likely the fact that on weekly basis the most unlikely pairing of LL Cool (“Mama Said Knock You Out”) and Linda Hunt (The Killing Fields) can be seen sparring or scheming, sometimes both at the same time. In any case, pretty much every episode of NCIS: Los Angeles ends with a little voiceover by Hunt’s characer, Hetty, after the screen goes dark. In a telling bit of tension-building, this time around, the credits were silent. It’s a small thing, but sometimes in sound design, the small things are the biggest things, especially when they’re silent, especially when that silent is a nod to, an acknowledgement of, the audience’s attention. In addition, there was a nice little bit at the start of the episode when a character previously disguised as a delivery person approached a home, presumed to be owned by a sleeper Soviet (yes, Soviet — not modern Russia) agent, and the pace of the music exactly matched her footsteps. Again, a small moment, but given how much TV music can sound like it was selected from a catalog with all the nuance of a Google image search, a good moment — especially when paired with the employment of Heddy’s silence at the episode’s end. ◼ (3) Finally, as @solidsignal noted on Twitter, Fringe did it again:

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Silent TV & Not-So-Silent Movies

There was a nice little scene on the TV show Leverage this past Sunday evening, a rare instance of “silent television.” The episode, titled “The 10 Li’l Grifters Job,” exemplified the playfulness that the series manages to achieve, in part as a counterbalance to the fact that Leverage clearly doesn’t have the biggest budget on television. The show is about a bunch of ex-criminals who take on corrupt big businesses, and it stars Timothy Hutton, who plays Nate, the ringleader, though the real standouts are a thief named Parker (Beth Riesgraf) and a fighter named Eliot (Christian Kane). (The latter’s ability to think, in advance, through a fight like it’s a chess game suggests his creation was maybe influenced by the character Midnighter from the comic series The Authority, which had been written for some time by Warren Ellis, whose series Global Frequency was almost turned into a TV series by Leverage co-creator John Rogers. [Update: apparently this is the case, thanks to a commenter's citation.])

Anyhow, this past Sunday’s episode of Leverage, written by Geoffrey Thorne, involved a death that occurs during a costume-party murder mystery that is staged at the home of an exceedingly corrupt businessman. At one point, the Timothy Hutton character, who has dressed like Ellery Queen, and Parker, dolled up like Nancy Drew, find themselves at opposite ends of a stairway, needing to get by a guard. They have to remain silent, so they read each other’s lips. There are subtitles for us non-lip readers, but the whole thing already has the feel of a silent movie when a tinkling piano appears in the show’s score to seal the deal — not to mention that the guard is wearing a bowler hat, straight out of a Charlie Chaplin flick. (Hutton playing Queen is an in-joke, because his father, actor Jim Hutton, played the character in the 1970s TV series.)

True Grift: The characters Hardison and Parker dressed, respectively, as a Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew in an episode of the series Leverage that briefly flirted with the concept of “silent television”

The sequence is one of the longest wordless non-action/non-sex/non-people-in-labs-with-colorful-test-tubes scenes on television in recent memory. TV musicals, as series and as standalone episodes, have been the rage for some time now, and despite being a huge admirer of the late Dennis Potter (whose The Singing Detective is the ur-text for most fourth-wall-breaking, singing-and-dancing television spectacles), I’d say it’s high time that silent TV episodes had their moment. Being an intimate medium watched generally in the privacy of one’s home, television lends itself to the silent treatment.

What’s sort of funny, as a side note, is that neither Ellery Queen nor Nancy Drew has ever been the subject of silent movie, at least to the best of my knowledge. The two earliest Ellery Queen are streaming online for free and are titled The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) and The Mandarin Mystery (1936). The first Nancy Drew movie appeared in 1938, more than a decade after The Jazz Singer (1927) popularized the “talkie.”

If the fun Leverage sequence brings to mind the ctheory.net essay on “silent television” by Robert Briggs that I wrote about last September, the quasi-anachronism is straight out of this great xkcd.com webcomic:

There’s an episode recap for “The 10 Li’l Grifters Job” at tnt.tv, and in the next week the full episode should stream there for free.

Shhh! It’s a Theater: Speaking of silents, as well as of history as viewed through the lens of the present: it’s pretty genius that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival teamed up with the local public library. Read about it at examiner.com. Truth be told, though, this is one of those situations when words in common suggest correlations where they don’t necessarily exist. For one thing, the projectors that played silent movies were notoriously loud. For another, live music performances were part of the experience, and the music was anything but silent, as part of its role was to cover up projector noise. The showings could, reportedly, get pretty rowdy. We only call them “silent” movies in retrospect. It’s an example, as debcha (in a message from her twitter.com/debcha account) recently reminded me, of what is called a “retronym”: Until the introduction of the talkie, silent movies were simply movies, just as until the introduction of the electric guitar, acoustic guitars were simply guitars.

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John Cage’s 4’33″ at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and 10 Other Museums)

John Kannenberg visited 11 of the world’s best-known museums, and all we got was 11 blank tapes. Well, not really — what we get is recordings of silence, each 4’33″ in length. That’s silence with an implied capital S, silence as in John Cage’s framing of unacknowledged sound, the background noise of real life. Each track — from the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing (MP3) to the Van Gogh Museum in the Amsterdam (MP3) — contains 4’33″ of uninterrupted, unedited semi-silence (“unmanipulated phonography,” as the liner note puts it). And with a sly nod, the collection ends at that bastion of popular noise, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (MP3).

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The recordings are, of course, anything but silent. Most are packed with talking and footsteps, while the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame features a fair amount of CSNY.

Get the full set at stasisfield.com.

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Quote of the Week: Rothko’s Red Glare

No one told me Red was a comedy. I caught the play-about-Mark-Rothko yesterday on Broadway, the matinee performance. It’s a two-person show. There’s Rothko, performed with late-1950s urbanite-Manhattan sturm’n’drang self-hating self-aggrandizing ebullience by the irrepressible Alfred Molina, and there is his studio assistant, Ken, played by Eddie Redmayne with just the right amount of ingenue that makes it clear he’s as much an apprentice to Molina as his character is to Rothko. (Redmayne was born in 1982, the year after Molina’s mug made such an impression worldwide in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The New York Times review of Red (nytimes.com) by Ben Brantley noted how Molina “makes us feel the necessity of an overweening, humorless vanity and — to use a word that for Rothko denotes a cardinal virtue — seriousness.” And Michael Billington, reviewing (at guardian.co.uk) the work’s earlier incarnation in London, praised it as “a totally convincing portrait of the artist as a working visionary.”

But for a show about one of the great stoics of abstract expressionism, Red, which was written by John Logan, sure seemed packed with punchlines, as Rothko and Ken went at it. Certainly there was bloodsport to their intellectual and emotional sparring, but the gravitas seemed repeatedly undercut by Seinfeldian laugh-lines. The audience at the performance I attended regularly guffawed, on cue — me as much as anyone else. I laughed along, but with each laugh felt more and more distant from the paintings that are the subject of the show. With each laugh, the character of Rothko became more and more a caricature of the sullen-comic city-dwelling rootless cosmopolitan of Jewish descent (yeah, guilty myself at times). Even one of Rothko’s great pronouncements was treated as a rim-shot moment:

“Silence is so accurate.”

The line was employed in Red as a mock-appreciation by Rothko when Ken — who grows more talkative as their relationship unfolds — for a moment neglects to speak. Let’s just say there was a pause between “so” and “accurate” that owed a lot more to Mel Brooks than it did to Sam Shepherd.

The play centers on Rothko’s creation of works for the New York restaurant the Four Seasons, a commission he completed and then withdrew from. While painting the pieces, he repeatedly employs the word “chapel,” a knowing nod to the Rothko Chapel — the Houston, Texas, mini-museum dedicated to his paintings, and for which composer Morton Feldman wrote one of his best-loved works.

Given Rothko’s association with Feldman and his penchant for playing classical music in his studio, it’s worth noting the use of music and sound in Red. Both were accomplished by Adam Cork, whose score had an ambient brightness that seemed oddly contemporary (i.e., early-21st-century) for a play that otherwise extended significant effort to duplicate gritty late-1950s Manhattan. In that respect, Cork’s glistening drones, augmented by pointillism that at times suggested György Ligeti, provided regular comfort along the lines of the show’s insistent humor — a respite from Rothko’s unfathomably righteous anger.

But Cork’s score wasn’t entirely distracting. One thing he really excelled at was when his score combined with the music that Rothko (and, later, Ken) played on the in-studio turntable — Cork’s electronic tones alternately supplanted the classical music favored by Rothko (as well as one dramatically truncated Chet Baker tune initiated by Ken), and provided a lush base from which it emerged. There was a particularly remarkable instant late in Red when the score, and Ken’s hammering together of a canvas, and the on-set music all combined for a sudden burst of perfect timing.

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