There is always something concrete about organized ambient noise. It is tethered to notes, perhaps, or to the ear of those who may listen. Yet, it can leave a listener feeling fluid, confused, and unavoidably disoriented. Because it is common to look for either silence or voice, having gaps filled by noise, that under alternative circumstances may be ethically filtered out by a subsuming narrative is not often desirable. So, why then is the chapel filled?
Sarah Davachi’s third LAMPO performance and first collaboration with the Renaissance Society, entitled la brume jaune, is scored for a pipe organ played by Davachi and two French horns performed by Liz Deitemyer and Matthew Oliphant. Within the architecture of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, the organist-composer Davachi is positioned in the middle of the three instruments, mimicking a triptych form that recalled the holy trinity. On the organ’s music rack rests three pages, which from a distance resembled chaotic drawing sketches rather than musical notation. While the arches of the chapel are scalloped mimetically to each other in a dark wood stain, audience members weave through no matter what chaos may be reaped from the performance. In this way, the score is already built for the space.
Davachi takes her title from the French phrase “La brume jaune” meaning, “the yellow mist.” Paul Signac painted “Marseille, la brume jaune” in 1922 at the exact time when the architect Bertram Goodhue designed Rockefeller Chapel. Signac’s painting used oil to depict a ship on reflective waters, outlined by a golden shimmer against a muted sun against a Pointillism landscape. The strokes drone in and out of each other, making it difficult to differentiate between sea and sky, architecture, and air. Davachi’s interpretation of this feeling—a yellow mist—sees the Pointillist landscape as the visual component of a score without breath. While the French horns oscillate between active notes and silence, Davachi continues to carry the continuous flow of the piece—similar to the painted background of stratified strokes.
Instead of doing this with a paintbrush, Davachi achieves this with synchronized phone notifications between the three performers to accompany her written cues. Her previous works have revolved around herself, her laptop, and a sense of form. Using methods from modern technology, such as the technical and esoteric relationship with the music production software, Logic, she merges traditional styles with an invisible interface. This wavering between manual and technological continues to complicate as the scene grows outwards, from her music to the camera recording her performance of it, all within a chapel with walls built from century’s old stone.
In a former life, I was a timpanist. The timpani is found in most orchestras and are typically four large drums that create suspense or traction without the snap of a snare or the clang of a cymbal. They increase darkness, a controllable thunder. When I was taught to play the timpani, I was given a tuning fork which would sing a high pitched A-note. In order to tune each drum, I would have to sing a given note, and each note up or down from its origin until I found a desired result. When the pitch was hit, I would lean my face into the drum, and hum my note while adjusting the base pedal until the drum sang back to me. It felt like warmth when the drums sang back.
The warmth in Rockefeller is familiar yet concerning, with my lingering love of reverberation amidst the crowd which filled all of the visible seats that I could see gazing back. The lighting in the chapel primarily glows from large pendulums that hang from the soft hexagonal ceiling, without movement. The end of their metallic outline is pointed, and through trying to find a place to rest my gaze, I became a thread to let my anxiety wrap around. Will they fall? Will the tune ever find its breath, a brief rest, between its steady motion up the stacked boards on the organ and down again to where it began? I watch the ouroboros catch onto its tail and never let go, through time and myth, through anxiety and reality. And when it does, it slithers away as though it was never there to begin with.
The chapel weighs thirty-two thousand tons and could collapse at any moment, without an ounce of metal in its frame. Despite this, it has withstood its enormity and defines architectural beauty with countless visitors wandering its footprint for either promised religious mass or nondenominational leisure. LAMPO is an organization devoted to realizing the beauty of a sound community that could collapse at any moment if not for an audience to support its artisans. At the end of the performance, Davachi lifts her hands from the keys, swings her legs around the bench to face the opposite end of the pulpit, stands up and walks towards the French horn’s microphone to say “thank you” to the audience, while the applause rolls in. The mist has lifted, and outside the flood had stopped.