David B. Olsen is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at Saint Louis University, where he teaches courses in writing and literature. He is a gallery assistant at the Pulitzer and the co-host of The Review Process, a local arts podcast.
by David B. Olsen, Gallery Assistant
Immersed in the familiar quiet of the Pulitzer, it’s sometimes less easy to lose oneself and drift than it is to develop a kind of sonar. As a gallery assistant, for example, I have learned to recognize people by the speed of their strides or the force of their footfalls; although everyone is never equally visible, some little electric presence is still always stirring. The space of the building doesn’t echo exactly, so much as it resounds, and the light white noise of movements or murmurs floats through the galleries and collects in the corners. To hear it filled with music for the first time at Wednesday night’s concert challenged my relation to the space. It’s not like I was lost as much as transplanted; the simple shapes and contours of Tadao Ando’s architecture seemed to multiply and became many in the bouncing of sounds between them. Even in its most meditative moments, the music of Jonathan Harvey was expansive and alive, searching, active, and enveloping.
For the first performance of the St. Louis Symphony for Reflections of the Buddha, five works by the British composer Jonathan Harvey were chosen by Music Director David Robertson, who remarked that Harvey’s love of simple sounds and chords belied a dark, slumbering sense of annihilation in his music. In particular, Harvey’s integration of electronic music–reflected in two of the concert’s pieces–seemed to invoke the spiritual world of “ghosts and angels,” whose language was composed of sounds that we would not immediately recognize. And although the Buddha is often associated with a sense of serenity and bliss, there was a certain haunting quality to Harvey’s work that reminds us that to be spiritual is to dwell among spirits, to commune with a spectral world on the other side of our own. In the opening piece, for example– “Buddhist Song No. 1” (2003), featuring lyrics adapted from A Guide to the Boddhisattva’s Way of Life–the piano’s innocent, childlike arpeggios were interrupted by a few violent stabs on the high notes, as though to remind us of the impermanence of joy. The lyrics, sung by mezzo-soprano Debbie Lennon, also recalled the vagaries of life in an often unwelcome world: “Just as on a dark and cloudy night / A flash of lightening for a moment illuminates all, / So for the worldly, through the power of Buddha’s blessings, / A virtuous intention briefly occurs.”
Only two pieces directly invoked the Buddha, however–both sung by Lennon, with Peter Henderson on piano–while the others seemed to locate the listener in that world the Buddha sought to disclose. In an electronic piece engineered by Joshua Riggs, the ritual sounds of bells commingled with the bleeps and boops that dominate the modern soundscapes of our homes and offices; I touched my own pocket more than once to make sure that what I was hearing was not actually my phone. For me, however, the highlight of the concert was the final piece, “Other Presences” (2006), which was performed on the trumpet by Joshua MacCluer. Playing into a microphone, MacCluer’s signal was then routed, looped, and panned between four different speakers. The slow accretion of electronic noises swelled like liquid, recalling Senior Curator Francesca Herdon-Consagra’s earlier remarks that the sparse design of the building was akin to a “vessel for empathy.” What were once my familiar echoes had been washed away, and my own senses began to feel false; the song, now, was the sound of the world falling a little apart, revealing its inherent hollow. Here, amidst the ensuing din, coming from all sides and resonating from unseen angles, it was almost impossible to distinguish what was still being played live and what was merely a reflection, an image in sound of some long ago breath. It was kind of breathtaking, in fact, and also as close as I’ll probably come to understanding what I am supposed to have learned about Buddhism for this exhibition.