You know how we have all of these great resources available in New York City like free museums/fantastic art in general? Well, “The Forty Part Motet,” a sound installation at The Cloisters is one of these things. And it’s ending tomorrow. Senior Staff Writer Alexander Pines has Feelings about this and tells you why you should make the time to go. The Cloisters will be open from 10 am until 4:15 pm on Sunday.
Here’s a disclaimer: Naomi Sharp, a Senior Editor over at The Blue and White, has already written an outstanding review of the “The Forty Part Motet” that will appear in the forthcoming December issue of the magazine, coming soon in beautiful blue ink. It’s better written than what you’re about to read by me, and she does a fantastic job detailing not only what the piece is, but why it’s so powerful (in a more authentic way than I can do via personal anecdote). Plus it actually sounds like an art review. This is not an art review.
I was hesitant about taking the train up to the Cloisters this afternoon. I pulled an all-night, twelve-hour stint in SIPA trying to write a paper and wasn’t sure if, frankly, I had the time or energy to go all the way up to Fort Tyron Park. But this also isn’t about my workload.
I decided to get on the train for the same reason I decided to leave Michigan—I wanted to be where shit happens. Shit like art that makes people cry doesn’t happen in Kalamazoo. I’m not going to call my parents and tell them about the three hours I spent outlining a paper for a class I hate—I’m probably not even going to remember what the paper was about in two weeks. I’m going to remember “The Forty Part Motet.” Yeah, I know, cliché. So is drinking seven Cokes in three hours and blasting Kanye West while finishing up a mediocre essay. It’s not edgy to be sleep deprived and caffeine addicted, it’s a college trope. And I’m fine with that.
The sun was beginning to dive into the Hudson as I made my way through the park toward The Cloisters and I appreciated the non-fenced in greenery. Once I hit the museum, though, I was a little discouraged. Of course, because this was a beautiful day and the penultimate opportunity to see the piece, The Cloisters was packed. As packed as a giant castle at the tip of Manhattan can get, at least. Walking into the crowded room with the exhibit, I had a gut Fight Club reaction. These people are going to fuck with my catharsis, I thought. Fucking tourists.
And then the music started. I didn’t cry, didn’t feel the tension in my neck melt into a transcendent nothing like so much toxic sludge to be left on the centuries-old floor, but I did feel something. The music was simultaneously everywhere and whispered into my ear, and for a few minutes I let myself get wrapped up in it. I closed my eyes and hated the crowd a little less. Eventually I found myself not caring about the security guard’s walkie-talkie, or the guy in the front who couldn’t seem to figure out how to make his iPhone not flash like a strobe light. I think what got me most about the exhibit was how it snuck up behind me, the kind of wave that never breaks over your shoulders and neck but hits you like a blanket.
I’m not really sure what I was feeling. It might’ve been what church is supposed to be like—instead of the rather dry sermons of my childhood before my mom stopped bothering to bring me, but I really wouldn’t know. Sometimes I find myself wishing that I was the kind of person who could believe in God, a higher power, something, but I’m not. It’s easier to accept that and move on. As a kid I always wanted to do something bigger and better and greater than myself—part two of why I left Michigan. My friends are always amazed when I trot out my Columbia alum trivia—”why the fuck do you care?”—but I wanted (and want) to be around Things That Mattered. Growing up, New York—at the time experienced through hazy memories of my grandmother’s funeral and neon-splattered runs down Fifth Avenue and through Times Square with my dad—was this unattainable idea of something I felt I needed to take part in, something less mundane than helping my mom shovel snow off the family car on the average grey Michigan day. I had my Big New York Moment when I was eleven, watching myself in the reflection of the glass covering the Toys ‘R Us Ferris Wheel, and I’ve lived off that high ever since. Trudging through essays and vocab tests, Butler at five am and my Hartley dorm room, anxiety and empty bank accounts all took the gleam off a little. Maybe I got a bit of that shine back in a medieval cloister nestled in Washington Heights, of all places.
I opened my eyes and glanced over at the friend I brought with me, looking for solidarity, validation, something. I didn’t want to say anything because I never have the right words. Right now I’m hesitant about writing this—it’s hard for me to write about beautiful things because I’ve never wanted to ruin anything perfect with something as inadequate as language. But the performance wasn’t perfect. I think that’s why I liked it so much. Near the end, eyes closed again, I was brought back to Real Life by a small pair of hands tugging on the leg of my jeans. It was a little boy, running through the crowd and looking for his mom in what must have seemed like an impenetrable maze of dark pants and feet. I started to tune out the music, following his frantically bobbing head through the otherwise perfectly still room.
I saw his mom before he did—she looked just as scared as her son. At this point the music must’ve reached a crescendo because I heard the woman sitting next to me gasp, but I wasn’t really paying attention. The mom picked her son up and held him close to her chest, kissing his messy brown hair.
“Wasn’t that amazing?” my friend asked. The room sounded like people, not music, again.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m so glad we came.”