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Ars Antiqua, Ars Nova, Ars Bora!

New York
Church of the Ascension, Fifth Avenue
11/05/2009 -  
Bora Yoon: Sons Nouveaux – Plinko – Father Time – Bangkok – Semaphore Conductus
Jackson Hill: Ma fin est mon commencement
Hildegard von Bingen: O Pastor Animarum
Thomas Crecquillon: Lamentations of Jeremiah
Perotinus: Beata viscera
Josquin Desprez: Absalon, fili mi
Guillaume de Machaut: Puis qu’en oubli – Ma fin est mon commencement

New York Polyphony: Geoffrey Williams (Countertenor), Geoffrey Silver (Tenor), Scott Dispense (Baritone), Craig Phillips (Bass), Bora Yoon (Composer/performer), Len Bowman (Lighting)

Within seconds of Bora Yoon walking out on the pulpit of Ascension Church, under John La Farge’s monumental painting, the word “wraith” came to mind. Not the ghostly wraith of medieval fairy tales, but the wraith of Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s poem:

Thin as thread, with exquisite fingers,—…Grey shawl, and leaning on the wind/And the garden showing through……

No, Bora Yoon wore a black backless dress, no grey shawl, as she moved ingenuously over the pulpit, holding bells or bowls, leaning down to turn on a reverb machine, plucking or playing a viola, setting metronomes, or simply raising her leg. Ms. Yoon was a kind of apparition.

Nor was her music (in Ms. Millay’s words) Sort of a whisper, sort of a purr She produced the delicate sounds of water and bells and soft tinkles, those sounds which Tan Dun composed for this elephantine Water Concerto this week. But Ms Yoon is not a percussionist. She is best known as a sound designer, who has worked internationally for luminaries like DJ Spooky and Meredith Monk. Her trademark is combining the subliminal (the almost unheard ticks of metronomes) with the amplified sounds of music boxes, and antique loudspeakers.

In the church, though, working with the four voices of New York Polyphony, she had another challenge. The title of this hour-plus ritual/concert, presented by The New York Art Ensemble was “My end is my Beginning”. It was a merging of church music of the 11th-15th centuries, with variations and improvisations, mainly by Ms. Yoon.

She established the ceremony appearing alone on the pulpit, intoning a chant by Hildegarde von Bingen, to a low organ pedal point and later reverberations of her own voice. New York Polyphony continued with some ars antiqua (Machaut) and ars nova (Desprez), sounding gorgeous under the soaring ceiling of the 170-year-old church.

Ms. Yoon made her next appearance by countertenor Geoffrey Williams, who was playing that typical Indian village squeezebox cum organ, the “Shruti box”. She was performing on something she had to have picked up in a Bosnian antique shop, a “Stroh violin”, a violin with an old loudspeaker, made about 1890. Yet the duet by Perotinus did sound right for the church.

The continuation was devoted to Renaissance music in the background, with Bora Yoon on stage, gliding, sliding, simply walking, picking up objects through which her voice or a tintinnabulation facsimile would reverberate.

The objects were real enough. But as in certain painters, the objects had transcended utility. They produced sounds, they echoed and the tones were stretched, along with Ms. Yoon’s singing.

A caveat. Had I heard these sounds on disk–so New Age-ish, so spiritual–I would run miles away. Tonal bromides are not my thing. And having lived much of my life in Bangkok, her Bangkok–so subtle, with such rarefied crystalline sounds–was far from the raucous metropolis I knew.

But watching this wraith-like figure taking her time on the pulpit, improvising her motions, the effect was like experiencing a quasar fraction above spiritual stillness.

Outside of her own work, Jackson Hill took the words of Machaut’s motet and translated it into a kind of 21st Century Gothic motet. New York Polyphony could have been singing Machaut, with the organum, the syncopated measures and all, except for a few dissonances which gave the 21st Century origin.

The end was stunning. New York Polyphony was in the back of the church, Ms. Yoon with her viola on the pulpit, sometimes conducting, sometimes playing. It was no ordinary ending, but she is no ordinary artist. Her talents in 29 short years seem to be everywhere. Last night they created ritual, spirit and benediction.

Harry Rolnick



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