From Birdsong to Light

January 01, 2013 · Notes

The following is the introductory text for Nicholas G. Brown’s solo exhibition of sound installations, From Birdsong to Light, at Hungate Art, Norwich, May 25 – June 16, 2013.

Photograph of book art by Nicholas Brown after Sumer Is Icumen In manuscript

In the British Library there is a manuscript known as Harley 978. Contained within this miscellany of sacred songs, medical texts and a poem on hawking is a fine example of thirteenth-century musical polyphony, Sumer is Icumen In. This medieval canon features two texts – the famous one, which refers to a farting stag, and a Latin alternative, ‘Perspice Christicola’, more suitable for divine worship.

This mysterious amalgam of the earthy and the divine is a recurring trope in the Middle Ages and it underwrites the structure of this exhibition. The themes of the works on show ‘ascend’ from the imperfect corporeality of life on earth to the matchless source of its sustainment in the solar system. The cruciform architecture of St Peter Hungate is used to represent the three-stage stratification of music outlined by the Roman philosopher, Boethius (c. 480-525 AD) that was highly influential in the Middle Ages. Based on ancient Greek musical theory, this system is characterized by a ‘descent’ from an inaudible ‘music’ of planetary motion to the music we are able to hear on earth, which results from human acts of sound- making. Between these extremes is a kind of music that relates to various states of harmony between the body and the soul.

The installation in the nave is a reworking of An Audience with the Trees (2005), which was first presented at 6.00 a.m. on May 1, 2005 in the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford to coincide with the traditional May Morning celebrations. In the present version, we hear the birds singing Sumer is Icumen In. The second installation, Medicatio (2013), spans the north and south transepts. This work and the accompanying audio piece, Chant (2013), invokes the therapeutic use of the voice as a mode of healing. A collection of spectrograms records the exploration of vocal resonance and vowel formation over the course of several weeks. These visual readings accompany an interactive installation that allows the visitor to control the sound of an automated monochord by exploring the same pitch rendered by his or her own voice.

The final work in the exhibition, On the Operations of the Sun (2011), is a multichannel sound and video installation that uses the structure of a medieval rose window to give musical form to a choral composition. The title comes from De Operationibus Solis by Robert Grosseteste, a medieval philosopher who wrote about light as the ‘first form’ of all things. A digital animation of the South Rose Window at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is projected at the far end of the screening room, synchronized with a composition sung by a twelve-part choir. The changing x and y coordinates during the growth of each rose petal were used to determine the musical material for each vocal part. The slow rate at which the rose is revealed proposes an ‘expanded’ sense of time. Indeed, this ‘highest’ section of the exhibition sets medieval notions of a transcendent ‘music’ of the universe against the pace and ephemerality of our daily lives.