By Kevin R. Convey
Janet Cardiff’s “The 40 Part Motet,” a sound installation now up at The Cloisters in northern Manhattan, is a heavenly marriage of 12th century architecture, 16th century piety and 21st century audio technology – all of which combine to evoke timeless feelings of transcendence and, in some listeners, tears.
Cardiff, a Canadian-born sound artist, takes as raw material English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’ Anglican praise-song “Spem in Alium.” Written for 40 voices – eight choirs of five singers – the piece is nine minutes of austere beauty, as carefully woven as The Cloisters’ renowned unicorn tapestries.
But it’s not just the mix of voices – ranging from delicate solo passages to resounding full-choir peaks – that gives Tallis’ piece its emotional punch. He wrote the motet in the mid-to-late 16th century after witnessing the sectarian bloodshed that drenched England following Henry VIII’s split with Rome. “Spem in Alium” (the title comes from the motet’s first line, which translates from Latin as “I have never put my hope in any other than You, Oh Lord …”) celebrates the power of enduring faith in troubled times. Speaking to our age as eloquently as it did to Tallis’, this feeling pervades the music even if listeners don’t know the history – it isn’t recounted within the installation – or understand a word of Latin beyond the title.
Cardiff hasn’t changed a note of Tallis’ masterwork, but still she manages to magnify its emotional wallop. She has recorded the voices individually, reproduced each one through a single B&W DM 303 loudspeaker placed at ear level upon a brushed-aluminum stand, and then arrayed 40 of them like a set of dominos ringing the nave and apse of The Cloisters’ 12th century Fuentiduena Chapel. The arrangement allows listeners either to stand in the center of the chapel and take the piece in whole – as Tallis’ audience probably heard it – or to wander among the speakers and hear how each singer and sub-choir contributes to the larger work.
As a setting intensifies the sparkle of a diamond, so the Fuentiduena Chapel amplifies the impact of Cardiff’s recording. Its ancient limestones and wooden roof create a reverberant space that projects the voices – and listeners — heavenward, while its crucifixes, fonts and frescoes conjure an atmosphere like that in which Tallis first was heard. That this chapel was built by Spanish Christians engaged in a long holy war with Muslims adds contemporary resonance to the experience, reminding us that conflict is every bit as timeless as beauty.
The impact of Cardiff’s decision to place the installation in the chapel defeats arguments she is merely piggybacking on a masterpiece. True, she would be nowhere without Tallis – in the same way Jasper Johns would be nowhere without the American flag, Roy Lichtenstein nowhere without comics. Cardiff says her aim was to reveal the “sculptural” quality of the piece – and, indeed, hearing soloists and sub-choirs toss the melody line around the chapel like a divine volleyball is a fresh and striking experience.
But Cardiff’s most thrilling achievement is to enable the listener to stand close to one speaker and hear how a single voice – plaintive, fragile, lost-sounding on its own – gains strength and majesty when it joins in common purpose with 39 others. This unmistakable metaphor is what gives “The 40 Part Motet” its quiet power.
A three-day story in my hometown newspaper over the weekend reminded me of how rapidly the new media ecosystem has evolved – and how popular and vibrant some sectors of it are despite all the doom and gloom surrounding Big Media in general and newspapers in particular.
The story concerned retired electrician and Twitter aficionado, Frank Kelly, 54, whose @Brockton24_7 feed went silent because he spilled water on his keyboard and couldn’t afford a repair or replacement.
So, who misses one Twitter user in a universe buzzing with them and their chatter? Well, Kelly’s 2,600-plus followers on Twitter for a start. They missed him so much that they immediately began a crowd-funding drive to repair or replace his gear and get his feed going again.
And what exactly is it that Kelly does that his followers consider so essential? Kelly monitors three different police scanners covering the Greater Brockton area and tweets what he hears. He is an old-fashioned scanner buff. But instead of indulging his passion privately or maybe calling a newspaper now and then with a tip, he uses Twitter to distribute what he hears. He is one of a new breed of volunteer citizen journalists that leap into the breech when Big Media recedes.
To say that his followers appreciate his efforts would be an understatement. According to story in the (Brockton, Mass.) Enterprise, one was fulsome in her praise: “We love the work you do by keeping us informed. You are a true crusader,” said Karen Conneley.
Nice story, even if it didn’t go any further. But it did. Turns out that the crowd-funding campaign was designed by another local citizen journalist, Rob Murano, operator of InBrockton.com, a website devoted to local news and comment and an outlet which, in an earlier time, might have considered what Kelly does competition and let him go dark without a word.
To the contrary, Murano said. “I think he’s providing a vital public service by tweeting breaking news,” he told the Enterprise. “I look at it like online crime fighting.”
The final twist is that all of this would have remained unknown to a wider public had it not been for the Enterprise’s decision to write three stories on the matter. This may not seem remarkable – and especially not over a slow Columbus Day weekend when, even in these print-challenged days, news is scant and space abundant.
In an earlier era, the Enterprise might have looked at both Kelly and Murano as competition for its customers and quashed any story about Kelly’s travails. Instead, the paper picked up the thread and wrote not one, but three stories about it. It even praised Kelly, saying of him “such scanner watchers are an important resource for media organizations. From the sound of that it seemed clear that @enterprisenews was among Kelly’s followers
Consider how Brockton’s news ecosystem has changed in less than a decade. In 2003, neither Murano’s nor Kelly’s citizen journalism operation even would have existed. And had they, you can best believe that the Enterprise wouldn’t have written a word about either of them unless they somehow found their way into the police blotter.
But now, as in a genuine ecosystem, each has a role to play. Murano looks at Kelly, sees the value in what he does and knows he can’t do that himself. The Enterprise looks at them both, sees the value in what they do, and knows it can’t possibly do what either of them do. And thus, there’s peaceful coexistence – and maybe even mutual dependence, in the valley of news in Brockton. The lion lays down with the lamb.
And what’s the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey — speaking of old media types — might once have asked? Kelly’s @Brockton24_7 is back up and running on temporary gear. And he’s well on his way to a new computer, thanks to the Enterprise, Murano, a host of grateful followers and the new media ecosystem.
The pros and cons of iOS7 have been pretty well picked over since the new operating system debuted on Sept. 18. But after a few weeks of living with it – and loving most of it, I’ll admit – it occurred to me there are few things the news business could learn from the design:
1. Banish skeuomorphism.
Designers employing skeuomorphism make new items look like older analogues – the stitched-leather look of the old iCal, for example, or the wooden bookshelves that constituted the newsstand. Apple’s designers have eliminated these design attributes in favor of a clean, colorful, modern design that doesn’t reference the past.
What’s the application to the news business? Again and again news executives have made the mistake of employing new technology as a mere vessel for their old products – think of the “shovelware” mentality that led them to just dump the contents of newspapers onto their websites instead of designing for the new medium.
Shovelware lives, of course. Just check out some middle-market newspaper websites and you’ll see designs that reference the dead-tree edition at every turn, from hoary 20th-century-style page-one layouts to a complete lack of links, video and other web-native features. In a sense, shovelware is but an older, cruder form of skeuomorphism, and one that, needless to say, newspapers should have long since abandoned if they hope to survive in the web/mobile era.
The same is true of newspaper apps. Many rely on the skeuomorphic device of page-turning for navigation, as if the pixelated screen of a smartphone or tablet were a mere analogue of folded newsprint and ink. The New York Times app, despite its many drawbacks, takes a giant step toward leaving this behind and embracing the web/mobile ethos with navigation that’s based on one long vertical scroll – infinitely easier to use in one-handed mobile situations than a symphony of swipes.
Skeuomorphism is employed by modern designers as a crutch for users making the transition from old tech to new tech. It’s time for newspaper website and app designers to kick out the crutch and get on with the future. Transition time is over.
2. Love that white space
The overall look and feel of iOS7 is lighter and brighter than its predecessor. Thinner fonts and whiter backgrounds predominate. Some app designers, like those who created the Times and AP entries, have employed acres of white space to air out their designs. (OK, in the case of AP it’s actually black space. And never mind for now the glitches in the Times automation that place huge empty gaps on some pages.)
This makes the designs much easier on the eye than before, which is a particular relief in small-screen mobile situations. Tell me, since we are always yacking about how space is infinite in cyberspace, why do so many news designer cramp their web pages and apps with heads, columns and photos as if they were trying to squeeze their content onto a grain of rice? Get with it, folks, and loosen it up.
3. Design for delight
There’s really no functional reason for the zooming, swooshing and parallax effects that characterize iOS7. They’re only there to delight users – and delightful they are (assuming you are not among that unhappy bunch that gets carsick from looking at them). So why is it that so many news designers produce plodding, eat-your-peas web pages and apps that only produce delight when the user shuts them down? As a friend of mine likes to say, “Life is not a penance.” And reading the news shouldn’t be either.
Silent it may be, but like most buildings in New York, the Haier building has a story to tell. And a rich inner life, as it turns out: Hidden inside is a soaring interior that delivers on the promise of its grand exterior.
What’s known today as the Haier Building was built as the Greenwich Savings Bank in 1922 — an era when banks sought to project an air of stolidity through their architecture rather than one of convenience, like today’s fast-food-decor ATMs. Hence the Haier’s imposing, limestone-block exterior, soaring corinthian columns and massive pediment.
Message: Your money is safe here.
The interior is equally reassuring. A Roman-style glass and iron dome surmounts a cavernous oval sandstone room. Backlit columns at either end appear to support the dome. Globed brass sconces ring the room.
This once was a temple to Mammon, but now it’s a temple to good times, says Alan Greif, director of special events for Gotham Hall, which is what this room is now called. “Weddings, trade shows, fashion shows, concerts — we’ve had everything here,” says Greif. “We’ve even had a boxing matches.”
The events may vary, but the reaction of guests entering the building is always the same, says Grief: “Ooh, aah. Their gazes immediately turn up to the dome.”
Greif concurs. “It’s a privilege to work in a space like this.”
The Greenwhich Savings Bank folded after deregulation in 1981 –so much for safety in architecture. In 2000, appliance manufacturer Haier America bought the building for its headquarters. Gotham Hall leases the downstairs space from Haier for events.
This plush former banking room may now be known as the Grand Ballroom, but its legacy is apparent in some remaining fixtures. Parts of the brass cage that once enclosed workaday tellers remain, as do the brass-and-glass banking tables on which customers once wrote out deposit slips.
Even the pens still work.
Here’s a link to some other great New York City buildings: