If one had attended the Ascension Ceremony for Alice Coltrane at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in New York City last night, and unwittingly entered that sacred space head filled with boy bands, pop tarts or rock stars; then the performances by Rashied Ali, Ravi Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden and Cecil McBee, among others, would have turned your head off its axis, emptied it of crap and filled it up again with soul-satisfying inspiration.
Actual performances aside, I found it intensely interesting to experience jazz music in a Cathedral space –or what ever that thing is that Alice Coltrane called her uniquely styled be bop. As it happens, the music producer in me never turns off his ears.
Sound engineers and music professionals perceive large floor spaces, tall ceilings and hard surfaces as problematic, because such architecture causes sound to reverberate, and therefore reduces intelligibility. Contemporary music in particular –where every voice pursues a discrete sonic thread, and perhaps even dances along to its own polyrhythm– suffers greatly from reverberation produced distortion. (Assuming one is of the opinion that such music is not inherently made that way, either by intent or error).
That said, composers who write for such venues must necessarily compensate for echoing enclosures. It is no coincidence that music written specifically for church, such as chants and hymns, work as well as it does. That is because those who conceived such music take into account the particular acoustic issues presented by the architecture, and may actually rely on the space’s natural ability to produce reverberations.
Our modern or popular equivalent is the stadium, or sports arena. These spaces also present the same problem to both musicians and listeners. However, as with faith-based composers, popular artists have learned to create music that plays especially well in such venues. Rock bands like U2 certainly bear stadia acoustics in mind when constructing their songs. When the reverberant energy produced by The Edge’s guitar returns from the bleachers, it seems as much a part of the original composition as the source information, so perfectly does it fit within the music’s made-for-stadia form.
However, those who write with smaller or less reverberant venues in mind, might be disconcerted when hearing each note or phrase of their work return corrupted by repeating audible echoes slamming back a moment later from far off parallel walls.
Perhaps some at Alice Coltrane’s memorial service, performers and audience alike, thought as much, too.
However, though the delayed and repeating echoes may have proved problematic for others, they did not spoil the performance for me, but just the opposite. Rather, I heard music contoured by a greatly interesting aural effect. It struck me then that a musician playing in a church may as well be playing through the church, if you can think of the space as an effects unit of mammoth proportions, and if one is talented enough to understand what material works in such a space.
The result was that the distorted echoes of each musical phrase returned off the walls to layer, and therefore accompany, every musician's evolving performance, so that a Rashied Ali drum fill, a Charlie Haden motif or a Coltrane sax passage –to serve as various examples– echoed over an evolving score, and seemingly in time, as if one rhythm or phrase were being consciously looped over another.
This was different, I thought, this music in this setting, hearing it with open ears: and yet, not so different, because the net sonic result so closely resembled the way contemporary music is often made today –with layers and loops, artfully or oddly processed as the case may be.
All of which is to say, this be bop may be old hat to some – but last night, far removed from its usual setting of velvet lined dives around the world, jazz transformed by the mysterious acoustics of St. John the Divine suddenly sounded very new, very modern and very much alive.
And it may be that Alice Coltrane will always deliver us a revelation.