Arts and Entertainment | Music

Catalan composer draws inspiration from Rothko’s art

“Silence is so accurate.” When asked to describe the supreme goal of art, those are the words painter Mark Rothko chose. Ironically, they are the same words which have been chosen by composer Benet Casablancas to appear in his new orchestral piece “Four Darks in Red.”

And, despite the work’s name, it is sure to be a far cry from silence, premiering at Thursday night’s Composer Portrait Series in Miller Theatre.

Casablancas, an accomplished Catalan composer, has embarked on a difficult creative path indeed, turning the silence of a painting into song. His new composition “Four Darks in Red” is named for the Mark Rothko painting of the same title, which inspired it. The musical piece will share the stage with Miller’s own renowned Perspectives Ensemble and Casablancas himself.
When asked to write a new piece for the Composer Portrait Series, Casablancas wanted to choose a subject matter that was both beautiful and true to the American spirit of New York. After stumbling upon a Rothko exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, he knew right away that he had found his match. “I had the idea of taking the painting of the same title by the Russian born and American citizen Mark Rothko as a way of gratitude to the friends from New York who had asked me to write a new piece,” Casablancas said in an e-mail.

Looking into Casablancas’ inspiration behind “Four Darks in Red,” it becomes clear that the roots of art and music seem deeply intertwined to the writer. “I feel it amazing to try to establish some kind of feedback between the different artistic languages,” Casablancas said, referring to the influence of visual art on his composing process.

Described as “the next generation” of great Spanish composers by Perspectives’ artistic director Sato Moughalian, Casablancas is known for his aesthetic independence­—which Mark Rothko is admired for as well. The link between the two artists becomes evident in Casablancas’ work. “Rothko’s work points out a very personal path in the context of abstraction... My interpretation focuses in the most dramatic, intense, visionary, and even lyrical aspects of his [Rothko’s] poetic universe,” Casablancas said.

In preparation for writing the score of “Four Darks in Red,” Casablancas made his own original sketches of Rothko’s painting and analyzed the proportions. These proportions were then directly transcribed into the music, determining the number and length of the composition’s sections. Moughalian, who visited Casablancas in Spain before he began to work on the project, marveled at the composer’s deeply analytical process. “He showed me his notebooks, and he had sketched in a black and white representation of Rothko and observed the proportions and put them directly into his music. He is a deeply analytical thinker,” Moughalian said.

The connection between the painting and the composition itself is key, but the music’s ability to connect with the audience is of utmost importance to Casablancas as well. “I think one of the biggest problems of some contemporary musical expressions lays in neglecting communication. My strongest aim would be that my music might be able to establish some kind of feedback with the audience, moving and provoking it, opening new worlds of sensations,” Casablancas said. He added, “My aim would be some kind of modern classicism that assumes this legacy and projects it into the future, with the spirit of sharing it with an open-minded listener.”

It will be up to Miller Theatre’s audience to provide the sort of free-thinking listeners that Casablancas seeks. Performing at Miller has been a highlight for Moughalian, who notes that “Miller Theatre has the most sophisticated, open-minded, curious audience.” It is an audience the theatre itself has tried to cultivate, and one that it continues to draw in through events like the Composer Portrait Series.

Casablancas, who has a background in philosophy, hopes that the audience members will not only experience a musical performance, but also listen to “Four Darks in Red” as a way to explore their own emotions and reality. “Beethoven is thought to have said that ‘music is a higher revelation than any kind of philosophy.’ I would advise the audience to open their ears, their minds, their hearts, and let their feelings evolve freely, hoping that empathy may arise. I have aimed all my efforts in trying to make this possible,” Casablancas said.

Along with the premiere of “Four Darks in Red,” the concert will feature three other works of Casablancas, including “New Epigrams” (1997), “Little Night Music” (1992), and “Seven Scenes from Hamlet” (1988-1989). “Seven Scenes” will include monologues performed by Broadway star Chuck Cooper of the recent production “Finian’s Rainbow.” Angel Gil-Ordonez, another seasoned veteran of classical Spanish music, will conduct.


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