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Passacaglia on a theme by Mark Rothko began as an idea I had while sitting at the Menil Collection in Houston, TX looking at four Mark Rothko paintings, all from his color field period. The piece comments on how I look at Rothko’s art and the process my eyes take when dissecting each work. At first, the surface simplicity is very attractive to me. Looking deeper, I notice brush strokes and movement. I am drawn to the outlines of each field and how they straddle the role of background and foreground. I focus on sections of the work; the particular texture, color, role in the work. Finally, I am able to see the work as a whole and how each element functions with the framework.
This piece is constructed with several processes working at once. First, the passacaglia aspect provides a harmonic background. The chords forming the passacaglia begin as simple three note chords. With each repetition, a new pitch is added. As the piece moves on the chords duration progresses from longer to shorter and more and more noise is introduced to the chords which distorts them. The other sounds come from objects from my kitchen. This is a literal reference to the history of the steel pan (an everyday object becomes an instrument). Also included is the sound of a comb.
The steel pan functions as an observer, commenting on the sounds with his own. While the part is mostly improvisatory, guidelines such as pitch, ratio, and dynamics are given. At a point just over the middle of the piece, the steel pan enters a process of gradual unfolding of a melody in which the sum of the parts can only be seen at the end and the listener does not know where these parts begin or end.