As the summer winds down with Labor Day, we look back to one of this summer’s cultural highlights at the cathedral. Look in the upcoming issue of Grace Notes for amazing events coming this fall.
Last month I attended an evening performance in Grace Cathedral of John Luther Adams’s electronic soundscape, “Veils and Vespers.” This is not an ordinary musical composition. There are no performers or musical score and very little of the theme and variation, tension and release that we are accustomed to in Western music. What you are listening to is pink noise (electronically-generated sound waves that emphasize low frequency tones) passing through filtering devices that divide the sound into a six-hour cycle of different tones and tempos, amplified by loudspeakers (emphasis on loud) placed throughout the cathedral and the Chapel of Grace. What you hear is a shimmering, pulsing, calming, and remarkably beautiful landscape of sound, harmonic interplay seemingly appearing from within the mind in the same way that thoughts and emotions rise and fall in meditation practice.
The vast space undoubtedly contributed its own sonority but I sensed only the enveloping presence that the Cathedral always has, even in silence. This is the kind of performance where the audience (remarkably large considering the unconventional nature of the piece) was welcome to come and go, walk around, practice yoga, fall asleep in the pews, whatever. It is also the kind of performance that causes the listener to reflect on the nature of music, sound and time.
I sat on the floor of the nave (it was vibrating) and on the spur of the moment took a Book of Common Prayer from the pew rack and read the order for evening service. The interior rhythm of those timeless words and the curtain of sound sweeping through the Cathedral seemed for a moment to have a kind of non-linear affinity, maybe even to converge. As the piece came to an end, I was thinking about John Donne’s description of the house of heaven where is no noise or silence but one equal music.