Motherless Children Have a Hard Time has fascinated and haunted me for more than half my life. Blind Willie Johnson wrote the song and recorded it in 1927; it has since been recorded dozens of times. It’s one of a handful of songs – St James Infirmary Blues, Mary, Don’t You Weep – that can hit with full impact at just a suggestion. A singer, the right singer, can leave it hanging by a thread and it will still consume you, or at least it will me. 

Tyshawn Sorey and Davóne Tines in Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)
© Stephanie Berger Photography | Park Avenue Armory

I don’t think it’s ruining anything to say that Tyshawn Sorey’s brilliant Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) was built around Johnson’s heart-wrenching song because, after its 90 uninterrupted minutes had passed, I was still thinking, “Is that really what they were doing?” I had been wondering that, obsessing over that, for the full second half of the piece, after bass-baritone Davóne Tines rose from his seat in the audience and, following some prolonged, musical moaning, said, sang, simply (but hardly simply), “sometimes”. With that word, I was at risk of being reduced to an inconsolable puddle. They weren’t really going to…? But his voice, his delivery (imagining Paul Robeson wouldn’t be far off from that moment) suggested it with just that one word, suggested both an orphaned child and a long, hard life lived. It was just that word and then the audience was left hanging. “Sometimes.” Minutes passed, and then more minutes, before, again, “Sometimes”. Indeed, Tines would never get past the first three words of the familiar chorus, “Sometimes I feel”, nor did he need to. The impact was devastating. 

Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)
© Stephanie Berger Photography | Park Avenue Armory

And the impact, of course, is to the credit of composer Tyshawn Sorey, who also conducted the trio and choir during passages that fell into strict time. Sorey himself is a drummer, often working in jazz settings, so freedom in pace and pulse are familiar ways of moving to him. It is also to Sorey’s credit that the percussionist in the trio was Steven Schick, one of the finer percussionists in contemporary American music and some 25 years Sorey’s senior. The rest of the ensemble was no less notable: violist Kim Karkashian and Sarah Rothenberg playing both piano and celesta. Rothenberg also serves as artistic director of the Houston, Texas, based production company Da Camera that, with Rothko Chapel, commissioned the work and presented its premiere in February. Sorey’s instrumentation mirrored that of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel and clearly referred back to that piece in pace and scale. But Sorey adds to it a vocal soloist, a choir, and a spiritual cry. Setting the scene were Peter Sellars’ direction, the enormous Kandinsky-like paintings in Julie Mehretu’s set design, and dancers moving as if stretching newfound muscles (choreographed by Reggie Gray). It didn’t have to add up to a successful production, but it did, making for stellar, musical high drama.