I am giving a talk tomorrow. About my work. I mean the art work.
It’s not like pick-up sticks, but maybe a little bit. Pulling one skinny splinter out of the pile threatens to demolish the whole. That’s a similar feeling to choosing one narrative out of the way the work as a whole lives in my head.
It’s not like a ball of yarn, that was more like the text film I forced upon you a few weeks ago, trying to draw out one long thread from the skein, enjoying picking out its knots and pulling along more as we went reading together.
I’m supposed to tell a story. Instead, what I’m going to do is build a canopy that might bring you, dear readers, and me a little closer together. To help shelter the stories.
I made the audio piece Canopy in 2015 for a couple of reasons. Mainly because in my research for the film Twilight Arc I got sucked into the world of Alexander Scriabin, composer, pianist, visionary and included a section about him in that short, silent, animated film about a failed invention, the color organ. But, like so often the case, there wasn’t enough room in the film for the other mysteries I loved in the learning process. One of those mysteries was about bells.
(Then, in the middle of the night last night I thought, oh it isn’t just Scriabin and his bells, it is also Tarkovsky and the bell in Andrei Rublev that I write about here: that bell, like Tarkovsky’s balloons, my benign ghosts.)
The speakers for Canopy were right above and outside the door to the room. I meant for the piece to be an invitation and an interruption to the experience of seeing the film. I wanted to bring people into the room. I wanted to bother them while they were in the room and elsewhere. I wanted to impose my sound onto the other spaces too. The bells rang their complex rhythms once every 15 minutes, for twelve hours.
(My small town had a belltower that rang out every 15 minutes. I never needed a watch.)
Rather than burden you with a recap, here’s my description from the Dreamlands show at the Whitney where I showed both Canopy and Twilight Arc. There is no image of the sound piece (of course). Instead, I give you an installation shot of the film in a room the exhibition designers graciously assented to building according to the aspect ratio of a 16mm film frame.
Sound piece, 12 hours, stereo, 2016
Canopy takes its inspiration from a description by Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin of one part of his unfinished multimedia project called Mysterium.
In planning Mysterium in 1903, Scriabin envisioned “bells hung from clouds” heralding a week-long performance that was to take place in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.
The Mysterium involved a cast of thousands: singers, dancers, musicians together with lights, smells, mists, stones, and weather. Scriabin’s goal was to create a totalizing experience that would result in the annihilation of the world in order to bring a new, more perfect one into being.
Scriabin only completed notes for the Mysterium’s "Prefatory Action" prior to his death in 1915. The composer Alexander Nemtin spent nearly three decades reassembling the work into a three hour composition of the same title.
Canopy is a 12-hour sound work comprised of recordings of Russian Orthodox bells played at 15 minute intervals interspersed with recordings of the gallery’s air ventilation system.
The doubled room tone in the gallery creates a bubble-like audio space. While viewers may not be consciously aware of the change in the sound as they enter, their physical experience will be transformed and quieted as the ventilation system hum track muffles external noise.
Like a belltower chiming the quarter-hour, Canopy’s sounds call visitors into the space in which the film Twilight Arc is looping. The bells jolt viewers out of any cinematic reverie that the film loop has created, making them newly aware of their surroundings.
I have chosen Russian Orthodox bells for this work both because of Scriabin’s Russian heritage (his compositions are clearly indebted to these sounds) and also because these bell works, dating from the early Middle Ages, are syncopated, exciting and dynamic.
These bells bring a new conception of historical material into the space, one that does not distinguish between “primitive” and “advanced” but which presents these sounds as complex works that contain both spiritual and practical functions.
The bells told you what to do, who had died, who was getting married, what time it was. The bells were mastered by virtuoso ringers using hands and feet to jump the clappers in rapid, wild rhythms. The bells sang out over the town.
The politics of engaging with Russian Orthodoxy and Russia in general were not lost on me while I made the piece then and I do not mean to avoid them now. Injustice, violence and cruelty cannot be summed up in the boundaries or name of one nation. If that is the case, then I too, as an American, require swift condemnation.
The bells are problematic. They are exclusionary and possessive. They represent one religious tradition that is most definitely not my own. I want to claim of them what I can, despite my ignorance, and share my experience with you.
Finally, here is a three hour sample of Canopy. Some of the tracks are longer than others. Each one is followed by room tone and adds up to a 15 minute interval between bells. I find these bell sounds thrilling and while making the piece had a great time corresponding with American foundries about their work.
Maybe you want to hit “play” on the piece and have it come and go throughout your day or night today. Or listen while you read the rest of this post.
Play CANOPY (excerpt) here:
Rachmanianoff and Poe
The following text is from program notes of a May 2018 performance of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmanianoff’s The Bells, at Northwestern University, in Illinois.
“In 1913, an anonymous young admirer sent Rachmaninoff a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Bells,” in a loose translation by symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. (The sender turned out to be a young cellist, Maria Danilova, studying at the Moscow Conservatory.) The composer was instantly captivated by the text:
The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know—Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave, and no composer could escape their influence. All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian… With Poe’s verses before me, I heard the bell voices, and tried to set down on paper their lovely tones that seemed to express the varying shades of human experience.
The work traces the same arc originally set out by Poe: in the first movement, music of childlike celebration is tempered with sober awareness of “deception and delusion.” The second movement uses tender and transparent textures to depict the solemnity and intimacy of wedding bells. The third movement, inspired by “alarm bells,” depicts the experience of terror: agitated, fearful, “the very groaning bronze of Hell!” The final movement, “funeral bells,” demonstrates Poe’s mastery of the macabre and finds Rachmaninoff reflecting on the nature of death. Extended elegies for the baritone and English horn give a gentleness to the work’s conclusion.”
(Incidentally, the Russian composer and performer Sergei Rachmanianoff and Alexander Scriabin were great friends. Sergei was devastated when Alexander died. To help raise money for Scriabin’s young widow, Rachmanianoff went on a concert tour, performing, for the first time, not his own, but his friend’s compositions).
In college, I had a professor whose classes were so brilliant I did not ever really understand what she was doing or saying. I kept taking them because I wanted to and because friends of mine kept taking them and appeared to understand everything she was doing and saying.
One fall semester, in a course I think was about the virtuoso in literature and music, the professor decided to start every single class meeting with us going around the room reading Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Bells.”
Every week. The same poem. Around the room.
The repetition in the poem, in the read, in how we all chose the same places to sit in the uncomfortable circle in those awkward metal chairs with the half-desks attached: every minute action dizzied my experience of time and space.
Which week was it, what were we doing here, did I even do the readings, what are these syllables rolling around in my mouth, tolling, why am I laughing, what is inside this room and what without—
The canopy of bells over a town means sound creates an invisible space for us. We don’t have to hear it all the time, we just know it’s there, it’s going to guide our days, the rituals of our year.
I must have been six years old and every night before bed in the cold upstairs room near the attic in Oxford Ohio I wished for things.
I followed the instructions of the children in town and said the prayers they taught me: Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take. Knew it was a little weird but superstition triumphed over everything else. And I made my wishes.
For months, every night, I wished I could be blind for a week, to see what it was like. And then deaf for a week after that, so I could experience that. Sometimes I wished for it for a year, sometimes a day, depending on how strenuous it seemed.
These were some of the rituals I hoped would strengthen my understanding of other lives. Coming to art as a lifelong activity might be, in some bumpy way, a search to further forge those empathic connections from the solitude of my avoidant self.
This might be the canopy I’ve been so fortunate to live beneath and within all these years. Perhaps this writing is the sequence of bells I hope we can hear, from time to time, together.
Thanks for reading.