August 17, 2014

The difficulty of knowing when to give something your attention

I almost missed a tremendous experience this afternoon.  Wandering the contemporary wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art, I stepped into the room in which they set up revolving video installations. I'd heard the hummed tune coming from the room a few galleries away and was, as always, curious.  Coming around the corner inside the darkened black-walled room I found myself facing a screen projecting 15 pairs of lips humming the same song.  Contemplated it for a moment, then began to decide that there wasn't anything to get out of it and turned to go.  But then I stopped myself, partly because I'd wanted the opportunity to sit down for a bit and partly because I told myself I should give the thing another chance. Worst case scenario, I'd get a little rest and hear a soothing melody.

So instead of plopping down on one of the two benches, I stepped into the farthest back corner of the room and sat down on the floor against the wall facing the screen.  As I watched with eyes flickering from one set of lips to another, my ears began to pick out individual voices and variations of the song.  After a while, I closed my eyes to listen to let it relax me.  Within a few seconds, I realized that the sound had changed.  It had become one voice, one harmonious tone, like a symphony.  I opened my eyes and again, within a few seconds, without even realizing what I was doing, again began picking out unique tones as I watched, the individual voices within the harmony.  At that point, a big, silly, delighted grin spread over my face in the dimness of the room and I sat there alternating between open- and closed-eyed listening.  Various people came in and out of the room, doing what I'd initially begun to do-- Watching for a moment and then turning around to leave.  I noticed a few glance over at me in the times when I had my eyes open and wondered if my smile made them wonder whether they were missing something or if I was just goofy.  After the song had played a dozen or so times, a group had formed in the room and, listening to the whispers of a woman standing near me, it seemed some of them were more interested than others had been. I pushed myself up from the floor and, on my way out, leaned over to the woman who'd whispered and said "Close your eyes and see if you notice that the sound changes".  But I didn't stay to see if she tried it.

At the entrance, I stopped to read the interpretive placard on the wall.  It seems I had vaguely gotten what the work was about, through the metaphor of harmony.  "Getting" contemporary art doesn't happen often for me.  I'm sometimes moved by pieces I see and can find my own meanings in them, but am more frequently left unmoved and/or perplexed.  And moved or unmoved, I pretty much never feel that I "get" it, even with the help of interpretive signage.  So the fact that this piece clicked for me when I thought of it in musical terms means something to me.

This is a small portion of what I experienced--

The full video can be seen here, but unfortunately not in a perpetually repeating loop the way it was displayed at the BMA.

The lyrics of the song are quite lovely, too--

Your sweet expressions 
The smile you gave me 
The way you looked when we met 

Easy to remember 
But so hard to forget 

I hear you whisper 
"I'll always love you" 
I know it's over, and yet 

Easy to remember 
Oh so hard to forget 

So I must dream 
To have your hand caress me 
Fingers press me tight 

I'd rather dream 
Than have that lonely feeling 
Stealing through the night 

Each little moment 
Is clear before me 
And though it brings me regret 

It's easy to remember 
But so hard to forget 

The song was written by Rodgers and Hart and originally sung by Bing Crosby.  But, somehow, as poignant as the words are, that hummed version is so much more affecting than Bing's.

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