December 2013

Publisher's View: Perspective

Steven J. Moss

Last fall I visited The Cloisters, in Manhattan, to experience Janet Cardiff’s transformative sound installation, The Forty Part Motet. The Fuentidueña Chapel – featuring a twelfth century apse and a wooden carving of a placid Jesus on the Cross ascending skyward – was outfitted with forty high-fidelity speakers on stands in a large oval. By lingering in front of each speaker, individual unaccompanied voices—bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano—could be heard in isolation, one part per speaker. The polyphonic choral effect of the combined singers of the fourteen-minute work could be absorbed by staying in the center of the chapel. The ability to isolate each voice, immerse into the whole, and isolate again, created an effect similar to the space’s stained glass windows: each piece heartbreakingly brilliant, but combined together weaving a complex, anciently human, sound story.

A couple of months later I ambled through A Bigger Exhibition, a collection of David Hockney’s latest work on display at the De Young Museum. Like the The Forty Part Motet, Hockney’s art plays with the power of pieces and wholes, the constant motion occurring in and around us, and the mixing of old technologies with new. Hockney’s images of Woldgate Woods, captured in paintings and on videos, can be examined in isolation - a single panel – or as part of a larger whole. Both the videos - which travel through the forest during different seasons - and the painted representation of the same scenes move. Not a surprise for a recording, but each time I looked at the canvas the leaves on a brilliantly colored tree seemed to sway, even as my double-take skipped to a triple-take, and beyond. I have the same sensation while experiencing The Forty Part Motet; the Jesus on the Cross seemed to be moving toward heaven.

These thoughtful and thought-provoking dioramas of sound and sight mimic what we can experience outside museums, if we pay attention. The first time I looked at the view up a steep forest path on San Bruno Mountain it appeared as a chaotic mass of green. But as I lingered in front of it the greens became individual trees, branches dripping fog-laden moisture. Or, readjusting my eyes and ears, the glen become hurried with sound and movement: leaves danced in the wind, insects softly whirred, a squirrel bounded along a branch, froze for several long minutes, and bounded again.

Nothing is ever still. Certainly not our bodies, which, even as we contemplate our surroundings, rise and fall with our breath. Our mind flickers with thoughts and impulses. Our skin and everything inside it grows and ages, aided by millions of microscopic creatures, each one of which could be featured as a single player in a larger system.

Cardiff, Hockney, and Thomas Tallis – the composer of the The Forty Part Motet – have mastered – or at least keenly observed - the relationships between parts and wholes, and the movement in between. So too has our greatest teacher, nature, with each element playing a role that helps destroy or create a larger landscape.

The real challenge may be to frame the chaotic world of humans in a way that lets us fully see our parts, wholes, and movements. Are millions of people, involved with the small screens they hold in their hand, pieces of something bigger? Do human activities – the constant digging, building, eating, and excreting – create a meaningless cacophony, or blend together to produce something beautiful? What role do each of us play in this noise- or music-making?

Sitting in the Fuentidueña Chapel, Jesus rising above and music swelling around, or taking in Hockney’s images of restless landscapes, it’s easy to believe in God. The perfect beauty is right there, offered up, glimmering almost to the edge of delicious non-comprehension. The same spirit can be detected, without much trouble, on San Bruno Mountain and other (quasi-) wilderness spaces. The trick is finding it among the masses of people, earbuds in their heads, playing with their iproducts on a crowded public transport heading downtown. If we can master that perspective, we’ll have accomplished something sublime.

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