I love Thanksgiving, because it means wonderful people from many different parts of our life gathering joyfully around a single table. It also always means music, because the extended family is decidedly musical. An inventory of the instruments present in our house as we feasted on turkey, stuffing, and pies should give you an idea:
1 viola (but several violists)
0 mandolins, but that was only because the beloved mandolin player had to cancel at the last minute,
*The lourka was fictional.
So this year, the day after Thanksgiving, we went over to San Francisco, to see some hundred-year-old paintings, to eat a large number of dumplings, and–because I nagged and nagged and nagged and insisted–to go hear music coming from a bunch of speakers in a huge room looking out over the Bay. !! But you see, I KNEW THESE SPEAKERS. Here’s how:
Once upon a time–in 2011, long ago–I turned a corner in the Arsenale, Venice’s enormous brick armory-turned-exhibition-hall, because I heard humming.
Around that corner, what did I find? An oval arrangement of speakers in an enormous room, with the pale October Venetian sun slipping in through windows and arched doorways.
The humming wasn’t just humming, as it turned out. It was made up of forty distinct voices singing from forty speakers: a sound installation by Janet Cardiff of Thomas Tallis’s “40-Part Motet,” Spem in alium.
I was completely moved and awed and flabbergasted. The music is beautiful, on its own. (The King’s Singers have recorded an absolutely gorgeous version of Spem in alium, which I heartily recommend.) But what Cardiff has done is to make it possible for us to inhabit that music. By walking around past the speakers, I soon figured the trick out: each singer had been separately miked, and each of those voices then had been linked to a separate speaker. Standing close to any single speaker, you hear not just that particular line of the music, but everything that makes that singer a human individual: the throat-clearings, the notes that break a little in the middle, the entrances into the harmony and the silences when the other voices are singing. Before the voices start singing, Cardiff recorded the minutes when everyone is waiting for the session to begin–the children joking with each other, some of the adults testing their voices, people chatting and just generally being alive.
And then the music takes these very disparate voices, no one of them perfect, all of them so human, and weaves them into something tremendous.
You can walk into the center of the oval, and the music washes over you from one side, from the other side, sometimes from everywhere at once.
That is what I wanted to show these people I love so much, my favorite very human musicians. Eight of us went, ranging in age from eight to on-the-way-to-eighty. Outside the great Fort Mason windows, the sun melted into gold, sank toward the sea, slathered the world with one last intense distillation of light. The voices sang. The grandchildren snuggled in their grandfather’s arms. The rest of us, mothers and grandmother and cousins, wandered through the music, listened to all the different voices. Sometimes we shut our eyes and basked in the music. Sometimes we looked around to find the people we loved, to bask in their presence as well as the music.
It was like our table, the day before: all the different voices, each one so human, each one with his or her own story to tell, not always agreeing, sometimes in outright dissonance, but willing to sing our separate human parts together.
And that, for me, was and is Thanksgiving.