in Epistles

9/12/12: Bora Yoon and Riyaaz Qawwali at Church of the Ascension

Dear Arooj,

I went to the opening of the Locating the Sacred Festival last night, and kept thinking of Judas remark to Superstar.

If you’d come today / you could have reached the whole nation / Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication

Presented by the Asian American Arts Alliance, Locating the Sacred aims “to re-connect with the sacred and bring our communities closer together.”   The opening night performances by experimental solist Bora Yoon with the traditional ensemble Riyaaz Qawaali threw a wide net for the festival. The concert embraced sacred music traditions of Christianity and Islam with nods to Hinduism and Buddhism, embraced tradition and modernity, stable forms and innovations. The concert took place in the Church of the Ascension on 5th Avenue, a large stone church, and so, wittingly or unwittingly, the concert embraced the problem of music as spectacle. If the opening concert is any clue, Locating the Sacred will highlight how the priesthood of media spectacle precisely serve to disconnect the hearers from sacred experience and transcendent sound.

Before the concert, there was an adorable blessing by a pair of Burmese monks. That was the audiences introduction to the mismatch between the loudspeakers (perhaps any loudspeakers) and that great hall. High tones bounced and propagated more, and so the monks sounded like they were on an old telephone with no bass.

Bora Yoon snapped us from wandering thoughts of Burmese revolts and tinny telephones. We were now in the church and Bora Yoon was singing: she began with the plainsong, O pastor animarum by Hildegard von Bingen. Unmistakably, we were in the church… or perhaps, a cathedral. A cathedral that was sinking, or Bora proposed to sink, or that she had found sunken. Water was splashing everywhere, in our ears, but we couldn’t feel it. The opening of the doors to the hall or to the pews became like boatwood, stressing on the high seas. Where were we going in this Sunken Cathedral? And where did we go, when it was all done?

I wish you were there, Arooj, to tell what you thought. Do you have any friends who were there? Because I think you understand the system, that is, how music gets remembered in this post-modern era, where folk and notation and recording all exist partially; where all previous concepts of the integrity of a composition have been dominated by the logic of the Aritst / Album.

Arooj, will you explain to me sometime what is an Album?
And how an Album functions?
And why its form perseveres?

Bora’s concert was the release of an album. And, as far as that goes, it was truly superb! She performed eight songs. including some familiar tunes from her 2008 album ((phonation)). (Maybe the songs will appear on the new album?) Her instruments ranged from old cell-phones to a 1940’s “horn-violin”. While it was sometimes hard to tell what was a pre-recorded vocal track and what was a captured loop, everything was very much “live.” The edges of songs were not hard and fast. Sounds came and went. Metronomes started and stopped: we remembered or forgot that time was passing. Cell phones carried messages. She whispered into them. And did they ring? Wind chimes became broken children’s toys.

Most of the songs were loop music, with loops of Yoon’s vocals or a violins. And here she displayed great sensitivity, because this church was quite a filter to reckon with. The electronic delays in Yoon’s loops and the natural echoes of the church worked together, synergistically. There were only two points (in the 3rd song?) with heavily layered loops of voices where I could hear a mismatch, where I could hear a technical limit–some signal overloaded, some range of sound that the devices couldn’t pass through. These two moments were particularly stark in this immense church where there was so much room for all soundwaves to propagate. But they were exceptions, which highlighted a general soniferous fluidity. For the most part, the vocals floated high overhead and bass touched our skeletons through our feet. In brief moments, when the whole spectrum of surround was singing throughout the church, our bodies became the cathedral. We became 40 foot tall sound-bodies.

Was Yoon’s performance a ritual to create these sound-bodies? Or, was it an Album launch? And, are these exclusive? These are the questions I need your help with, Arooj.

And, do you know these guys, Riyaaz Qawwali? They did not sound as though they had ever performed in a great stone church before. You could have asked them.

Riyaaz Qawwali were proud to proudly announce that they were proudly from Texas. The oldest Protestant church in Texas was a Methodist chapel built in 1840. It was built as a log cabin at about the same time that the Church of the Ascension and was built as a sturdy stone house. Of course, the Spanish had built chapels in their Missions, like San Juan of Capistrano, but it was the wooden churches of the Southern United States that would influence music around the world. A wooden chapel is a temporary abode, a place to meet. A tent will also do just as fine (especially if you have big speakers and alot of wireless mics!) It is the people that make the church, the people and their gathering. Wooden chapels come and go. That old wooden chapel was rebuilt in 1900. And it was rebuilt again in 1949, almost 20 years after Radio City Music Hall Since the population of Texas has more than tripled since 1940, it is safe to assume that most churches in the state have been built after Radio Citym when the  the shift to amplification was confirmed. The qualities of “good sound” in electrified spaces both sacred and profane, from the Southest to the Northwest shares little with the euphony of Gothic churches or opera houses. With this in mind, I am guessing it didn’t even occur to these young men to perform without amplification.

I wish you were there to tell me what you thought of their performance. What it portrayed for me was a conflict between a rock-and-roll aesthetic of “good, loud sound” with the physics of the Church of the Ascension. It looked like the singer discovered that quick vocalizations and tongue twisters were impossible; his slowly decaying utterances tripped over themselves and masked the words.  I could listen better once I got some tissue to protect my ears, and noticed an exquisite harmonium solo, before a rendition of Sita-Ram in qawwali-style. (Do many sufi singers do this? I’ve heard Sikh gurbani in qawwali-style but this was the first time I heard a Hindu aarti. Sacrilege, no?) I chose to listen to the Bora Yoon-Riyaaz Qawwali collaboration from outside, to give my ears a break. From outside, it was very sweet.

Anyway, wish you were there. Good luck with your show at 16 Beaver tomorrow! I hope I can make it!

best wishes


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