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This Is (And Isn’t) What “Red” Sounds Like

Date: Apr 14, 2010


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The music in Red doesn’t match the action on stage, and that’s the point.

John Logan’s play, now on Broadway at the Golden, imagines ferocious debates between the artist Mark Rothko and a fictional young assistant, evoking the volcanic passions (and volcanic egos) that often drive the arts.

According to composer and sound designer Adam Cork, the current production captures the spirit of the script without him. “I realize I don’t need to help tell the story of what happens, because they’re doing that so brilliantly,” he says.

So instead, Cork has written music that’s soft, brooding, even melancholy. It suggests another aspect of Rothko’s life. “For everyone who creates, there’s a point where you realize that you’re in the zone, and you’ve broken the back of what you’re working on,” he explains. “I wanted to find a way of musically capturing that zero point, where you’re at an almost Buddhist state.”

By aiming for a contemplative sound, Cork offsets and deepens <Red’s most furious scenes. As battles rage in the dialogue, his music evokes Rothko’s wounded heart, or perhaps the art itself.

But how does a composer write “contemplative” music? Cork says Red’s particular sound is based on Rothko’s own style of painting, which often features blocks of color bleeding into contrasting background shades. “There are quite rough brush-strokes: You feel like monumental objects are being viewed through a blurry lens,” he explains. “It’s all about the boundary of being and non-being and the places where that boundary starts shaking.”

Cork’s score consciously suggests that borderline. “I decided to use instruments at the extremes of their registers—very low tubas, very high strings,” he says. “I pushed them so that if they went further, they almost wouldn’t exist anymore.”

Of course, many artists, regardless of their medium, have scraped that edge of oblivion, that place where creative expression means facing the unknown. Ultimately, that’s why  Cork sees the music in Red as more than just a reflection of the play or of Rothko’s work. “I feel like I’ve had freedom to be myself here,” he says. “Hopefully, it’s about the personal experience of an artist.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor