Music for Rothko

Thanks largely to a single composition by the late Morton Feldman, the name of painter Mark Rothko, if not his painting itself, has long been associated with ambient music. Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, composed in 1971, a year after his friend’s death, is a characteristically attenuated and deeply quiet work. Even without Feldman, though, Rothko was a likely godfather to ambient music, given that his many broad canvases generally focused on two or three thick fields of deep, sensual color. Bob Green, who records with various musicians under the name Grassy Knoll, picked a Rothko image for the cover of the album titled III, though that is arguably his least quiet recording. Now, Bernhard Gunter has taken the title of a Rothko piece as inspiration for a broad canvas of near silence that can best be likened to industrial-environmental music — that is, music whose sense is scene-setting and atmospheric, but whose substance, such as it is, sounds more like the distant hum of machinery than the tweeting of birds or the trickling of water. On Brown, Blue, Brown on Blue (For Mark Rothko) (Trente Oiseaux), Gunter has some interesting thoughts on the nature of slow music (“I have often found that listeners took a shorter piece to last longer than an actually longer one”), and a survey of his writing on his own web site (see below) lends a valuable context for this recording.

Life after D’n’B

The new album, Treader (Thirsty Ear), by the British duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales (aka Spring Heel Jack) is more wide-ranging, more explicitly fractured, than their previous work. Earlier Spring Heel Jack music, especially the highly recommended album 68 Million Shades, found an express complexity in the sort of club- (or lounge-) oriented music that comprises much of electronica. That uniquely noirish flavor — jazz-tinged, but not in the least bit “acid jazz” — persists on Treader, but it shares space with pneumatic techno (“Blackwater”) as well as with some cover versions from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music (“Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and John Coltrane’s favorite, “My Favorite “Things”), both of which originally appeared on a separate EP.

Raster-Noton’s ’20’ to 2000 Series

The ’20’ TO 2000′ series released in 1999 by Noton/Raster Records consisted of a dozen of the more interesting ambient discs released all year, one each month leading up to the quasi-millennium. Each EP contained music intended as a soundtrack for the last 20 minutes of the year. In other words, party like it’s 1999:12:31:23:40. The volumes included work by Scanner, Ryoji Ikeda, Thomas Brinkmann, and Coh, among others. OK, enough about the music. What was, perhaps, most striking about the discs was their design: each translucent clam-shell plastic casing enclosed a CD with only half of the amount of aluminum usually evident; instead of a full circular mirror with a thin lip of plastic, you had a normal size CD’s worth of clear plastic with what seemed like a mini-CD implanted into it. (Prop coordinators for techy Hollywood thrillers took note, no doubt.) The discs featured a minimal line of text, and a few tiny, colorful dots, like the last remnants of confetti after the bash. As the collection grew each month, the fetish quality increased as well. How could the producers top themselves? By releasing a minimal modular holding system. How minimal? It consists of 13 little but hefty magnets that fit in the snap-tight center hole of each CD clamshell; when strung one after another, the thing looks like a bionic caterpillar. It’s elegant as all get out, but we’re left wondering: can all this magnetism be good for the CDs?

Originally published in the March 3, 2000, issue of Tower Records’s epulse, number 6.09