I had a good time at Advertising Week. But let’s face it, you can only take so much Advertising Week. So last Wednesday afternoon, instead of heading to yet another panel or presentation, I hopped the A Train from the Port Authority and rode all the way to 190th Street, the northwest tip of Manhattan, an area most would not recognize as New York City, lush and wooded and near the water, Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, and hiked through the park and up the hill to The Cloisters.
Pretty much as far from Madison Avenue and Advertising Week, both figuratively and literally, as you can get and still be in Manhattan.
The Cloisters is a stone museum, a branch of the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, built during The Great Depression in the 1930’s via a grant from John D. Rockefeller. It was designed to resemble an old European medieval abbey, and built with stones imported from abbeys that once stood in Spain and France. It’s loaded with art from the Renaissance period, the most striking a series of huge and magnificent tapestries, beautiful as they are disturbing, depicting the hunt and killing of the last unicorn.
I went to check out The Cloisters’ limited installation of contemporary multi-media art, “The Forty Part Motet,” by Janet Cardiff. It’s made up of 40 speakers set in an oval in a small chapel reconstructed inside the museum. Each speaker emits a singular voice from a 2000 recording of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, as they perform a religious composition from 16th Century England by Thomas Tallis.
The a capella recording is 14 minutes long, the first three minutes spoken. The acoustics in the chapel are superb, and the musical piece shifts and morphs, depending on where you stand. Speakers are grouped by vocal classification – alto, soprano, baritone, tenor, base. You hear both adult and children’s voices. The chorus rises and ebbs, and as you move around the chapel, the room almost feels as if it’s moving with you, aural perspectives shifting, your balance wavering, yet always enveloped in what becomes a strange, supernatural sensation of sound, like waves in a current pushing you, pulling you, all around you, a current gently drawing you to hear things a different way.
It’s beautiful and sacred and mysterious, and left me feeling like there was still something more going on, something from a dimension just past my reach, a key to the universe that I couldn’t quite comprehend, like the brass ring on the merry-go-round that you see as you circle past but can’t grasp. There’s the dichotomy of an ancient chapel featuring cutting edge technology of top-notch speakers; an ancient composition being heard by a group of modern guests ranging from what looked like senior citizens from Kansas to a poseur hipster with piercings; a series of singular voices blending to create a whole, yet a whole that sounds much different depending on where you stand.
To completely cheapen and defile the experience, this is exactly what a modern marketing campaign needs to be doing. Brands need to be found on a wide mix of platforms, using a variety of voices, each reaching out to consumers in their own way for different experiences, depending on where the target is standing, yet in the end blending into a singular message.
It might be far from a religious experience, but nobody’s in advertising to seek the divine. Anybody who tells you differently is just trying to sell you something.
“The 40 Part Motet” will be installed at The Cloisters until December 8th