Ukraine, Anthropocene, and the uplifting power of music.
Well, this year hasn’t turned out how I’d hoped as the calendar changed back in January. Like many I chuckled at the “2022 is 2020, too” jokes, but it has indeed turned into another annus horribilis. Two waves of Omicron on either side of the Winter Olympics and the tragedy of war in Ukraine have been sucker punches when the world was already down.
I’m constantly and continually disturbed by the wanton destruction being meted out in Ukraine. On cities. On apartment buildings. On people. On pets. On hospitals. On everything. There is a cruelty that in historical context is not surprising, but in this advanced, “enlightened” age is shocking, and a reminder that the darker side of humanity is an ugly thing.
In the pre-pandemic “before times,” January for me always meant a trip to Ottawa for Canada’s National Career Development (my day job) Conference. The destruction in Ukraine has me thinking of my last trip to my nation’s capital, a little over three years ago.
On each trip to Ottawa I’ve made a point of arriving a day early and doing something “cultural,” and on that trip I visited the National Gallery of Canada to take in Anthropocene, a major contemporary art exhibition featuring photographic murals and video installations from the collective of Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The works invite reflection on environmental and ethical issues surrounding humankind’s exploitation of the Earth’s resources.
Images from Ukraine bring to mind the murals from the exhibit, only now the destruction is not of the natural world but of human and built environments. Row on row of apartment blocks blackened by fire and punctured by bombs in Mariupol. Columns of tanks mangled by anti-tank missiles on the roads around Kyiv. Theatres and monuments flattened by indiscriminate (or discriminate) shelling. Ruined landscapes both ugly and – captured from the right angles – strangely beautiful.
On the gallery website, Anthropocene is defined “by the permanent impact of human activities on Earth, such as terraforming through mining, urbanization and agriculture; human-caused extinction and biodiversity loss; and the global presence of materials such as plastics and concrete.” Changes wrought by bombs and missiles in the Ukraine suggest war should be added to that definition.
Leaving Anthropocene, I wandered the museum and came to a lovely garden atrium – a stark contrast to what I’d just seen – where I rested for a bit and pondered the universe. Ready to move on, I spied a doorway off the atrium with stairs leading downward; approaching I heard hushed music, and curious I descended.
At the foot of the stairs, two signs, one describing the venue – the reconstructed Rideau Chapel – and the other briefly explaining the music – the Forty-Part Motet, a sound sculpture by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff.
Forty-Part Motet is a reworking of Spem in Alium, a heavenly piece by Thomas Tallis composed in c1570 and scored for 40 voices, with eight choirs of five singers each. Set to the text of the Matins response Spem in Alium (In No Other is My Hope), Tallis likely intended the work to be heard in the round with the audience seated centrally surrounded by a circle of singers.
In Cardiff’s installation, regarded as her masterwork, 40 separately recorded choir voices are played back through high-fidelity loudspeakers positioned in eight groups of five around the Rideau Chapel. Visitors can move from speaker to speaker, while the motet plays on an eleven-minute loop.
Describing her motivation for the work Cardiff says, “Most people experience this piece now in their living rooms in front of only two speakers. Even in a live concert the audience is separated from the individual voices. Only the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them singing a different harmony. I wanted to be able to climb inside the music.”
Entering the replica Rideau Chapel was mind blowing. The architecture of the room was visually striking, with bright, fan-vaulted ceilings and an intricately decorated altar/worship area providing vibrant focal points, and a perfect venue for the motet.
Spem in Alium is a song of worship, and I am not a religious person, but the effect of 40 ethereal voices, each on their own melodic path but weaving together to form a melodious whole, was jaw-droppingly beautiful and left me quite transfixed.
I don’t recall exactly how long I was in the chapel; time stopped as I wandered, sat, wandered some more, moved from speaker to speaker experiencing individual voices, sat again taking in the whole and considering things larger than myself, explored within the circle and beyond, took photos, sat longer, eyes open and then closed.
I’m sure I experienced the full loop four or five times; I must have remained close to an hour before reluctantly ascending back to the world and back to my hotel.
The visual and aural effect of the entire work was incredibly beautiful, moving and memorable; thinking back I can imagine it as clearly as if I were still physically there.
The motet and Rideau Chapel were the immediate antidote my soul required after the Anthropocene exhibit.
I was reminded of this when Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke just over a week ago at the Grammys saying, “The war. What’s more opposite than music… Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos… They sing to the wounded. In hospitals… The music will break through anyway… Tell the truth about war. On your social networks. On TV. Support us in any way you can. Any. But not silence.”
That same contrast between something ugly, and the power of music to transcend, escape and uplift. In Ukraine. In Ottawa. Wherever and whenever. Music lifting us when we need it, even if only for a moment.
April 18, 2022 at 7:16 pm
I saw this piece a few years back at the High Museum in Atlanta, the speakers were just in the middle of a gallery in a circle instead of groups but it was still an amazing piece. I can imagine it was even more special in situ like that.
April 18, 2022 at 8:00 pm
Thanks for the comment, James. It seems it’s been presented in numerous places, in a variety of set-ups and settings. Would be great in any, but you’re right; this was special.
April 19, 2022 at 2:58 pm
Wonderful article, Eric. Thank you for sharing the experience. I can only imagine the cathartic nature that music in that space must have had — I would have been quite transfixed.
April 21, 2022 at 4:27 pm
Thanks Steven. I have Spem in Alium on a CD of music from that period, and it’s great too, but nothing compared to this experience.
April 22, 2022 at 2:00 pm
This time of year I miss the Ukrainian Easter Eggs that were common in upstate NY growing up. Such intricate detail – paralleled some of the architecture in the photos.
April 22, 2022 at 2:19 pm
I can see the similarity. Thanks for reading and the comment.