I’m in a mammoth cathedral whose halls dwarf any concept of modern architecture, or some holy space, listening to Gregorian chants and choirs singing: men, women, children. I can see their faces up close with such intimacy and detail–the large pouched cheeks of an Italian man, his throat puffing out like a frog, producing the deep tones of an alto. A small child, harmonizing perfectly with him. It is a place, regardless of religious background, that one is in awe. One can forgive the problems and corruption of organized religion and find the goodness and purpose in faith or spirituality.
When the singing stopped, I expected to open my eyes and applaud. But instead I was hit with the stark reality of something different; I am sitting in the middle of a massive industrial space the size of an airplane hangar, surrounded by a group of strangers and circle of speakers. The room is vacant, void, bereft of anything else. It echoes with the light shuffles of feet and heavy breaths. And even though I knew this setting as I entered the room, sound and a removal of sense was enough to fool my mind that I was actually somewhere else.
Reality. Perception. How much do those things affect one another?
From an outsider’s perspective, this event probably looks (and sounds) daft. And in most settings, it would be–sitting there and obscuring one of the senses I hold to for survival and familiarization in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. But my reality, at the time, was very different than what could be seen.
Instead, it was painted by sound… the point of this exhibit at the Tate Modern. To explore sound and voice. The size of the room mixed with the organization of the circle of speakers is meant to accurately reflect the presence of a live choir. Each speaker, which houses an individual voice, was placed with purpose. If you sat in the middle you could experience the whole choir. Or, if you walked in a circle, you could hear a mixture of the voices. The intention: to explore how sound creates space. How music psychologically affects us despite settings or sights or other senses. I used to mock the general concept of modern art, but I understand now that there are times in which it shows a purpose or asks questions that are quite relevant. (Plus, who am I to define or dictate the definition of art?) Many of the current exhibits at the Tate Modern ask questions like this. Of identity and culture. Of what voice is. Who or what do we let define us and how does that influence us? How are we connected to others? The ambiguity of modern identity as cultures collide and meld. Those questions and concepts are subjective by nature, but that subjectivity does not negate importance. And so I leave after pondering, reading, and perching above a real cathedral. Thinking of the people who sat right here and probably thought the same things I did. Thinking of the builders of that cathedral, who probably thought the same thing I did. Human questions and concepts. Inherent in our bloodstream.