Rode my bike all the way up to the cloisters to catch Janet Cardiff’s re-mounting of her piece, “The Forty Part Motet.” It’s a simple idea, simply executed—it’s all in the experience. Telling doesn’t do it justice. It’s a 40-track recording of a vocal piece by 16th century English church composer Thomas Tallis called “Spem In Alium,” which went to the top of the classical charts recently, as it is mentioned in Fifty Shades of Grey...
In Cardiff’s piece, the singers—all 40 of them—are recorded, each on their own mic and track. In the installation, each individual voice is played back through their own speaker. The speakers are roughly arranged in a circle at head height. One assumes this is how they were positioned during the recording. The nature of the Tallis composition is that various groups of voices come and go, sing or remain silent for a bit: if you are standing by a speaker you might hear nothing for a while then suddenly a person’s voice booms out, with absolute clarity, as if they’re right next to you. So, depending on where you’re standing in the room, you hear a completely different balance of voices. (A woman recorded the piece near me—I wonder what she got.) Unless you’re in the center of the installation, you will hear some voices way louder than others.
My favorite parts where when the singers warmed up prior to the beginning and after they finished (the piece is maybe 10 minutes long, tops). You can hear them all faintly talking and settling in off mic. Someone over on the left coughs; someone else fidgets and clears their throat. A woman can be heard, ever so faintly, getting her pitch, off mic. This part is a bit uncanny, as the singers sound like they’re in the room with you. You hear a whisper on your right—you turn, and there’s no one there.
The piece was commissioned by Salisbury Cathedral, where some of us stopped to visit while on tour in England, and where the Magna Carta is housed. The piece is a perfect marriage of the multitrack technology, a clear concept, and Tallis’ writing. It is a bit like a demonstration of what is possible in this form—compositionally and musically—then it proceeds to do it.
From there I went over to catch a day of medical-themed talks that Lawrence Weschler had curated at the New York Academy of Medicine Library on 103rd Street and 5th Ave. We heard a talk about dioramas and then about wax anatomical models that were made for teaching. Most were made in Italy (Firenze, Bologna and Genoa) in the 1600s. This model is referred to as the Venus, for obvious reasons:
As with most anatomical drawings of the period and earlier, the subjects were posed in lifelike (and sometimes ecstatic!) positions. Leonardo da Vinci did a number of these kinds of drawings, with corpses used as models. Back then, wax models were often begun by making a cast of the corpse. Sometimes the actual skeleton of the dead body was used as a foundation, and the wax was layered on top. Generally, the corpses were posed as if they were still alive. In these pedagogical pieces, the replica of a dead person is, if not reanimated, at least reconnected with the life force as evidenced in their posture and expression—a facial expression that is certainly not present in the corpse that served as the model. What we see appears to be a living person, but it’s as if we had X-ray eyes: we can see all the marvelous workings going on while that person stands or relaxes and reclines.
There’s a sense in these models of maintaining and revealing the wonder of life. Later, a more mechanized view of anatomy and science in general came to be favored. In books like Gray’s Anatomy, we only see the body as an “objective” collection of disparate machine parts, an engine taken to bits, with the poetry and wonder removed.
The contemporary Chinese and German “Body Worlds” exhibits do this a bit. The figures are posed playing tennis or riding a horse, but somehow they’ve lost the weird uncanny beauty of these wax versions.
Another talk was a kind of performance art demonstration that aimed to give a volunteer (and maybe vicariously also us in the audience) a sense of what it feels like to have an epileptic fit. The young woman who created this piece narrated an experience of a fit she had on a train to London. She missed her stop and ended up in Slough, which is a bit of a joke.
What we learned:
- The epileptic often has no memory of the period when the actual grand mal seizure takes place. Even after coming out of it, there is a period when all has not returned to normal and all is not remembered.
- The epileptic gets little warning before a fit—though their senses do begin to act up. Things begin to taste and smell odd; one begins to feel hot and loses the ability to accurately command their limbs. Sometimes they say odd things.
- When asked if friends should, for example stick a spoon in the mouth of a person having a fit, the artist said, “No, don’t put things in [their] mouth—[they’ll] just bite them. Just make sure the person having the fit doesn’t bang their head or lie their head back where they might choke on their own blood.” (One often bites one’s tongue during a grand mal fit so there is blood in the mouth.)
- She said it’s hard to know if it’s going to be a petit mal or a grand mal, so often at the first sign of onset, one doesn’t call out for help, hoping it will just be a little one that passes quickly.
- Dogs can be trained to recognize the onset of a fit—in fact, they can sense one coming an hour before it happens! They can be trained to alert the person that a fit is on the way.
After that demonstration we heard from Oliver Sacks about his first discovering the patients he wrote about in his book, Awakenings. We saw a short film of the patients and the doctor (shot on super-8 back in the day) put together by Bill Morrison (Decasia) with a score by Philip Glass.