FRONT: To Soothe the Savage
In the Rock and Roll Capital of the World, the phrase Music Has Charms to Soothe the Savage Beast has some truth to it, even if we might re-write the second half for the 216: Music has charms to provoke the savage beast, or rally the struggling sports ball team, or energize the working man.
But the English poet William Congreve, who gets credit for giving us that line, never actually said “savage beast.” What he said back in 1697 was savage breast. And that bends the message away from conflict with some other, perhaps horrible creature, and instead toward the inner self, and–now 325 years later– toward the healing ambitions of FRONT Triennial.
Because of that, it might be no accident that music plays a significant role in the FRONT Triennial. From the performance-on-arrival called “Delegation,” by Asad Raza and his crew of poets and musicians, who sailed from Buffalo on a 46 foot catamaran, to Cory Arcangel’s algorithmic composition “Hail Mary,” written for the McGaffin Carillon at the Church of the Covenant in University Circle, to Jace Clayton’s participatory sound installation “40 Part Part” in the stunning main reading room at Cleveland Public Library, and several other projects as well, the healing, storytelling, and place making powers of music are key to multiple projects.
When Buffalo-born, NYC-based artist Asad Raza’s performance “Delegation” Lake Erie excursion was first announced, the hope was that he would sail from his home town to Cleveland and arrive at the Fall 2021 preview exhibition at Transformer Station to perform what Fred Bidwell described as a sea shanty—a nod to the then-current craze for sea shanty videos on TikTok. Raza is not a sailor, and alas the preview did not materialize. But between then and the opening of the festival itself, the FRONT team found for him a 46-foot catamaran and a captain. Raza gathered a musical crew: media and installation artist Andrea Mancuso (Buffalo), curator and multidisciplinary artist Olivier Delrieu-Schulze (Buffalo), poet and musician RA Washington (Cleveland), vocalist LaToya Kent (Cleveland), musician Rafay Rashid (Providence, RI), and multi-disciplinary artist Shasti O’Leary Soudant (Buffalo). Several of the crew are landlubbers without maritime experience, including Raza, who told Erin O’Brien just before setting sail that despite having grown up in Buffalo, he “never went to the lake much, [and] never swam in the lake.” Ultimately the voyage happened in July, and the arrival was timed with FRONT’s opening weekend block party on Public Square July 16. A parade led by Da Land Brass Band led the Block party crowd from Public Square into the Old Stone Church. Promotional materials suggested that the crew would teach the song to the audience there. What came of it wouldn’t be called a sea shanty in any traditional sense, and there was no teaching this piece of music. It would never catch on. In fact, it is unlikely to ever be performed again.
Instead, the crowd was treated to an ecstatic musical rant that built energy as it went along. There was vocalizing, but no verses or refrain. It felt like an improvised jam, wherein the enthusiastic participants fed on each other and drove the music to ever greater levels of prolonged intensity. It was very like a sea shanty, though, in one specific sense: the three-day voyage came through a day of stormy weather, and another day-long assault by swarming insects, and the music portrayed those moods and culminated with a jubilant audience on its feet—happy our poets and musicians made it safely back to The Land, perhaps. It was a great opening to the Triennial, and – after a voyage animated by all that Lake Erie has to offer, and a rainy afternoon for the block party—it certainly had healing properties.
Church bells world-wide ring to tell time, to call worshippers to prayer, to celebrate, to mourn losses, and to commemorate events. Post conceptual artist Cory Arcangel—who, like Raza grew up in Buffalo, but unlike him has a formal musical background (having studied classical guitar at the Oberlin Conservatory)–is best known for hacking the sounds and behaviors of video games. He brings elements of that background to his work Hail Mary, created for performance on the McGaffin Carillon at the Church of the Covenant in University Circle, by Church of the Covenant carillonneur George Leggiero.
The carillon is an instrument, a set of tuned bells played from a keyboard similar to that of a piano, but with larger keys. As Arcangel described the piece, “Hail Mary is a bot for the American microblogging and social networking service Twitter which generates a score — loosely based on the American football pass of the same name — every day for carillon (and carillonneur).” A different iteration of the piece could be heard every day in that part of University Circle, as far as the bells could peal. Some of the performances have been livestreamed. Some can be found on Youtube and elsewhere on the web.
The performance we heard began with the solemn, familiar pulse of a single tolling bell. The music then morphed into a series of repeated phrases that would eventually mutate, sounding a bit like Stephen Reich or Philip Glass took up residence in the church tower, changing not only the intervals and patterns, but also time signatures and tempo, and modulating the dynamics. This happened with control and intention not usually associated with church bells. In fact, if you are accustomed to hearing a single church bell in a tower ring to call people to prayer, or if your local church is one that plays recordings of church bell versions of hymns (like St. James Church in Lakewood, for example) this is entirely unlike that.
At first glance, it has something in common with Anglican change ringing, in that the composition is driven to morph according to an algorithm. Change ringing is a practice that dates to the 1600s, when bell ringers learned to control the frequency with which they rang each bell in a tuned circle of bells. By making a prescribed set of “changes” to the order and speed with which each bell was rung, they could produce what sound like very modern, mathematical compositions. The changes re-arrange the order in which the pitched bells ring, and the pattern evolves over time until the ringing returns to the original order. Change ringing can still be heard, especially in English cathedrals, and elaborate patterns can take several hours to resolve.
By digitizing a daily re-composition of what is played on a carillon, Arcangel melds an ancient sound and fascinating historic practice with a current social media platform which –in the present political climate—probably divides people as much as it connects them. Even as the Twitter bot creates the composition, it is secondary to the experience. By hearing it in the neighborhood, a person would have no idea of the source of the composition and likely would never guess that it was generated by a “Twitter bot.” The familiarity of a church’s bells have power to identify a place, and their reliability likely serves to comfort people who live within earshot. Could the resulting sound from Arcangel’s twitter bot, as it plays out in the neighborhood, be described as soothing, or healing? Absolutely. And pay no attention to that Twitter bot behind the curtain.
40 Part Part
Back downtown, in the church-like, former main reading room at Cleveland Public Library, New York -based artist Jace Clayton’s installation 40 Part Part is described as a “participatory sound installation that transforms familiar audio into a kaleidoscopic and immersive sonic experience.” The installation consists of 40 speakers on stands, arranged in a circle and pointing toward the center. In the middle there’s a kiosk with connections so that a visitor can provide sound input either by connecting via Bluetooth or plugging a jack into their device—for example, a phone. Clayton’s installation takes the sound input and re-mixes it, passing the sound from speaker to speaker, changing the dynamics, dissecting phrases, or repeating sections like a turntablist. Standing in the center of the circle, the visitor has the surround-sound experience of their chosen input becoming re-made: both familiar and new at the same time.
Didactics say 40 Part Part riffs on Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (2001), which uses a forty-speaker setup to play a recording of Thomas Tallis’s 1573 composition Spem in Alium (Hope in any other), and is included in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Tallis’s composition is written for eight choirs of five voices each, which, doing the math, comes out to forty voices.
In a way 40 Part Part is the opposite of the communal, neighborhood-wide experience of Arcangel’s work for carillon. This is an experience for one person at a time. And it doesn’t simply wash over you, or appear in front of you. In order to have anything happen at all, you’ve got to engage. And you’ve got to give it time. One piece of music played into the installation is just one among infinite possibilities.
When I visited, I was the only person in the vast room. There is something awe-inspiring about being alone in such a room—the way the architecture draws your eyes up and around, the way footfalls fill the space. Tiny sounds become noteworthy. Such rooms practically beg visitors to play with sound. In that sense Clayton’s installation is right at home. I used Spotify to play works of Anbessa Orchestra, The Bamboos, and Portishead.
It’s not an installation that can be appreciated in a hurry. In order to take in an experiment with sound’ you’ve got to give it as much time as the sound takes. Can it heal? It’s a bit like exercise, or like visiting a counselor to work out your problems: You get out of it what you put in.
Installations of FRONT Triennial are on view (and audible) through October 2, 2022.