Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sound Byte: Tonal Rain Falling From Cathedral Space

I would not say it was a religious trip, but when I first visited St. John the Divine, in 1991, I was blessed to be present for a profound acoustic experience. As soon as I entered the Cathedral I noticed an oddly beautiful music drifting through the sanctuary. As I made my way from the back of the nave, I naturally assumed my visit coincided with an experimental rehearsal of some kind.

The music emanated from an unseen location near the altar. It was certainly chromatic, even microtonal, and I could not decide if I was listening to a harp or sitar. Either way, it did not strike me as dissonant.

The melody of the unknown artist moved in un-metered fashion, which is to say, it had no particular rhythm or tempo.

It was New Age but not naive.
It was complex without being overly intellectual.
Fractal-sounding motifs simply floated in the background, like a gentle tonal rain.

Its effect on me was absolutely transcendent. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to find the source of this incredibly different music.

When I finally I arrived, I stepped upon the altar, and I discovered:

A man tuning a piano.

Guided by the tuner's ears, each awkward tone echoed over the next, until the sum created a constant blanket of sound waves whose only connection with each other, was that each represented an approximate step closer to what you and I think of as being ‘in tune’.

It occurred to me then, as it does so now, that we who live in a post modern age, where musicians often play through computers and effects; where jets and media enable both physical and virtual travel to cultures quite distinct form our own… perhaps now even the public's ears are so open that there really is no longer a distinction between sound and music, but rather –to paraphrase French composer Edgard Varèse– between sound that is well organized and sound that is not.

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