The experience at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan was transcendent. Thomas Tallis’ motet from the sixteenth century was played on 40 speakers representing each of the voices, perfectly balanced in the ancient chapel there. It was an epiphany, it was “architectonic.” We were surrounded by glorious singing, immersed in a choral cathedral without walls, caught in a majestic whirlpool of music. It lasted 11 minutes. Listeners stood motionless with their eyes closed.
People from all over the city had come to experience this piece, meticulously set up by the artist Janet Cardiff. For us the intricate composition, the stunning surroundings–it all produced an artistic response. We could speak about it aesthetically. We were in a museum, after all.
But this was my thought as I listened. I looked at the medieval paintings of Jesus on the walls with his archaic kindness, healing the blind and raising the dead. I saw the face on the crucifix hanging from the ceiling of the chapel. For the most part, I imagined, the people who made these paintings and composed this music really believed. On the other hand, for many of us in our time, it was all generally an artistic perception, an appreciation of craftsmanship.
I couldn’t find the quote on the internet, but I remember reading these words by Aldous Huxley thirty years ago. I am quoting from memory, so forgive me if I am mistaken. “There comes a time, even with Mozart, even with Shakespeare, when one asks, is that all?” The wondrous music may set us free, but then again, maybe not.
Susan and I went to one of our favorite places close by–New Leaf Restaurant. We took some time to think about the difference between the aesthetic person and the religious person. The java was mediocre but the surroundings were wonderful. I took a picture of my cup of coffee there. Susan’s hand is blurred but I like the shot because an old man’s cane is propped up in the window in the background. The cane is a reminder that things pass. Even art.
Upside Down Freedom