Monthly Archives: August 2016

Hearing Veils and Vesper

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Credit: Andrew Gresham

11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31.

Oh! Hi there. I was just counting prime numbers–I mean listening to music. Well, really I’m not too sure. I guess I better explain myself.

One of the many wonderful things about life in Knoxville is attending the Big Ears Music Festival. Personally, I couldn’t have hand-picked a better local event for my own enjoyment. Or even dreamed of it. What? A lot of wonderful, adventurous, top-notch musicians are going to appear on the same weekend, performing and collaborating? And I get Listen? Great. And I don’t have to drive across the country?!? Nope, they all come to good ole East Tennessee. Never in my wildest dreams would I have predicted this.

I heard much great music. But you can get better reviews of the festival by reading the professionals. I’d rather share my story about listening to the six-hour long sound installation, Veils and Vesper, by John Luther Adams.

The piece took up a large block of the festival schedule, starting at 1pm and ending at 7pm. I arrived at the church at about 12:45. I was expecting to be able to enter and take my seat a little early, but when I approached the large columns of the old First Christian Church, there were probably about 10 to 20 people standing and waiting outside. They weren’t letting anyone in yet. After about five more minutes John Luther Adams came out and spoke to someone he seemed to know explaining that the piece would in fact start on time.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the church was that the music was already playing. There were nine speakers on the floor, three on each side, a sub on the northeast corner and the southwest corner, and four speakers surrounding the stage.

At first I thought the music was pretty (huge insight); it had a metallic tinge to it and seemed to be overall a major tonality, varying between adding and taking away most other major scale tones. Occasionally the tone would shift from metallic to more woody almost like a woodwind organ stop. It was loud. Or maybe it just seemed loud because there so many notes.

Towers of Notes! I tried to isolate them as I listened but it was difficult to do. There was this feeling that above the highest notes were more notes still–higher than I could physically hear, and also deep notes, lower than I could hear as well. This was disorienting and kept making me think of a infinitely tall tower.

‘The piece was six hours long,’ I thought to myself. ‘How long should I stay?’ I should stress here that while the piece did shift and shimmer in slow and subtle harmonic ways, it was ultimately six hours of constant droning tones. No pauses. No rests. No singing. Just constant sound. I decided to wait in the church until my friend Mark arrived even if it took the whole time. I told myself that it was a good opportunity to experience a large piece of music on such a scale that would take such a long time to listen to. So began my irrational desire to sit through the whole thing. I saw another friend who came and sat with me for about thirty minutes. Then she left. The concept of pacing yourself for a long weekend of listening was lost on me.

It was a constant wall of sound, a sustained chord with notes only very gradually ebbing and flowing. The changes happened slowly. So slowly I would only notice changes after they were already established. All of the sudden a fourth is the dominant interval now. And while I listened to that fourth for maybe 10 minutes, I might think nothing was changing. Just a immovable wall of sound that could never change. But then again, I realized that all of the tone had changed from metallic to much warmer during that time I thought the piece was standing still. At 45 minutes in I was falling asleep (this happens to me more than I would like to admit at great sit-down concerts…why? Maybe great music relaxes me so much I just drift off…) After a couple head-bobs and a few solid snoozes, I was wide-awake and ready for the long-haul.

But then at about an hour and 20 minutes in the music and change so slowly but so substantially that I had the sensation of floating. Yes, please!

After that I could’ve stayed easily the whole time. I didn’t get up and move around until maybe about two or three hours into the piece, and it was neat to experience the difference in the sound by walking through the church. The bass would occasionally pulse, a large whale of sound suddenly crossing the church, swimming through the pews.

About three hours in, a few notes rose to foreground, quick strokes on a violin. The sound of someone warming up a bow. I actually thought there might be a musician about to come in and play along with the piece. Hey, this was new territory for me. For all I know a marching band might walk in any second. (ok well maybe not a marching band…). Anyways, this was the most mysterious part of the piece to me. It was like being stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean. All you can see in any direction is the flat roiling of the ocean surface. All of a sudden, something jumps out of the water, but it is far away and you can’t quite make it out. Just as soon as you saw it, it is gone.

My friend arrived around 5:30, and I left shortly after in order to go the performance of Become Ocean, another work by John Luther Adams which won the Pulitzer Price for Music in 2014.

I got to hear John Luther Adams the next day discuss the piece with Steven Schick at a festival event. JLA explained his general interests and philosophical reasons for composing (this will certainly inspire a later post) and also discussed Veils and Vesper. He explained that there were three veils and one vesper in the space. The first veil is in the back of the church and it is the falling veil; the second veil is in the middle of the church and it is the crossing veil; the third veil is in the front of the church and it is the rising veil. The piece is composed purely in an algorithm using pink noise. It is a perfect pitch tonal system using prime numbers between 11 and 31. Huh?!? After looking up pink noise and pondering his words, I decided to return on Sunday to finish out my last hour with the piece.

I heard JLA say before the piece that he thought it sounded really good in the space and that this was his one of his favorite pieces. It is an homage to one of his favorite composers, Johannes Ockeghem, who lived in the 1400s and as was typical of the times for a famous composer then, worked for the church. I was introduced to Ockeghem in music school. Let’s just say it is absolutely beautiful. I can only imagine what it must have sounded like back then.  It is fitting then this piece was installed in a church. JLA described the piece as his ‘most mathematical, and most sensuous’ piece.

After a long weekend of listening to a lot of great music, I came back on Sunday afternoon to sit in the church a few more hours and finish out my time with piece. JLA had told the audience in his talk to bring a book, take a nap, or just walk around the church during the piece to experience the piece in a spatial way. So I dutifully took some reading I had to do for work with me over to the church to what I thought would be the last two hours of the piece.

Actually the piece had started an hour later than I thought on Sunday, so when I walked in I really would have three more hours until the piece ended. Eerily, just about when I sat down I heard those strokes on the violin again! ‘Aha!’ I thought. I had been wondering if the piece even sounded the same every time it was played, or if those prime-number-throwin, pitch-perfect-singin algorithms spun the music anew each day like the fates. JLA hadn’t mentioned the Vesper at his discussion, and I hadn’t thought to ask. He had mentioned that he had experimented with making the piece last from 1 hour to up to 1 year(!), but that 6 hours ‘felt right.’ ‘Vesper’ comes from an old latin word meaning evening star. Hearing those quick notes shoot out across an otherwise six-hour expanse of sound was not unlike seeing shooting star.

Thinking back to that piece, I now think about veils in my own life. They might be frustrating when I know what is holding me back or obscuring what I am looking for. Or they might be taken for granted, hidden in backdrop of my everyday existence. They might even sometimes shield me from a cold, hard, or dangerous reality. There are many, many overlapping veils at any point in time, and each comes and goes. But, just like that, a Vesper may shine down for just a moment, and then pass. Everything continues as it always has, and everything changes.

Sound installations, for me, are a strange cross between the visual art world and a ‘traditional’ music concert. I arrived for the beginning on the piece fifteen minutes early, expecting to take seat before the music started. But when the doors opened at 1pm, I walked in to the ocean of sound. For all I knew it had been playing for hundred years already. About thirty people dispersed and slowly took seats in various pews. The first few minutes had a gradually decreasing amount of pew-creaking and extraneous sounds as people picked their spots, and a slow descent ensued into meditation on the music. So on Sunday, as the piece neared its end, I wondered how it would end. Would we be asked to leave as the music droned on like the beginning? I noticed Ashley Capps, promoter/creator of the festival, sitting in the stage area, basking in the music. With only 15 minutes left, three festival staff approached him to chit-chat. Their pleasant conversation and smiles, combined with the muffled but excited chatter of the festival security workers (about to be off work) in the narthex below my balcony seat, was like a gradual surfacing of a submarine. I kept expecting at any minute for a worker to ask me to leave. As I stared toward the sunny Knoxville sky through the stained glass window, enjoying hearing human voices after many hours (days) of intense sound, the music ceased.