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Wednesday, June 19 Living

Grace Farms art installation is a feast for the ears

A surround-sound experience would be the most direct way to describe the new, long-running installation in the Sanctuary at the Grace Farms center in New Canaan — if it did not border on the irreverent.

Titled “Joy, still,” it is a site-specific work by Julianne Swartz, an artist much praised for her use of sound, sometimes paired with sculpture. Here, in the Sanctuary, Swartz relies on sound only. The joys her title promises are not of the IMAX sort. Rather they are meditative, profound, elusive.

Their discovery is mostly self-guided. A leaflet instructs visitors that “Joy, still” is a 16-channel electronic composition that incorporates human voices and has a duration of 21 minutes and 38 seconds. But it runs in a continuous loop. The unnamed voices speak in fragments and sometimes overlap. So there is no clear beginning and no clear narrative.

Here is a sampling from one 22-minute sequence:

A low, pulsating moan, sounding like something from Himalayan horns.

Reverberating gongs.

A male voice asking where joy can be felt in the body.

Monastic chanting.

Rumbling, almost felt tremors, as if signaling the approach of some giant creature.

(One IMAX element of the installation is powerful speakers embedded in the Sanctuary floor.)

Whistling.

A female voice seeming to say she recognizes joy when her muscles loosen.

More gongs, slowly tolling, as if marking time.

One voice followed by a second, third and fourth, until their speech dissolves into gibberish.

One heard fragment states, “Everyone lives with some profound sorrow. What if we join our sorrow? What if that is joy?”

Listing these elements discreetly fails to capture the immersive nature of “Joy, still.” The Sanctuary is actually a 700-seat glass enclosed amphitheater that looks out over the fields and trees of Grace Farms. To enter it with “Joy, still” playing is to enter a zone of enchantment. There is a sensation of flickering, of unseen beings.

Voices and sounds come from first one direction, then another, and then several directions at once somewhere high up. The impulse is to turn to look for the source, but none is visible. If the spoken words are koan-like, it’s impossible to know whether the sounds are produced by actual instruments or electronic manipulation.

Pamela Ruggio, the Grace Farms arts initiative curator, says one element is a heartbeat. It was altered, though. Perhaps caught in that low rumble? With no visual cues and meager written ones, the experience of “Joy, still” is freely subjective. Because there is nothing to see but the Grace Farms’ grounds, Ruggio says it can change with the time of day or weather.

The installation itself marks a departure from Grace Farms’ previous temporary exhibitions because of its long run. Begun in September, it lasts until March 2. It is part of a much longer process.

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Ruggio first contacted Swartz about two years ago, having followed her growing body of work. Swartz, who lives west of the Hudson River in Stone Ridge, N.Y., has a permanent 20-channel sound-scape “footbridge” at Mass MOCA and a sun-harnessing installation in Perth, Australia. In 2012, Swartz was given a major show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum outside Boston. The critic for the Globe wrote that her pieces alternated between delight and disturbance.

Actual work on “Joy, still” started early in 2018 when Swartz convened a series of workshops with collaborators chosen by Ruggio and Kenyon Adams, director of the Grace Farms’ arts initiative.

They included Ross Gay, a prize-winning poet, and Meredith Monk, the eternally avant-grade composer and choreographer. Several were active theologians, including Christian Wiman, a professor at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, who also happens to be a poet and the former editor of Poetry Magazine.

“Joy, still” grew from Swartz’s distillation of those workshops and follow up interviews, Ruggio says. “Julianne recorded the sessions and collected sonic material and incorporated it into the installation. She created an experiential record of the workshops, the discourse, the inquiry, the discovery.”

One departure point was Christian Wiman’s introductory essay to an anthology of 100 modern poems on joy he edited. The essay, titled “Still Wilderness,” proposes that joy, like faith, defies easy definition. Certainly, it is not a synonym for happiness.

The anthology intersperses prose passages among the poems. The shortest, a statement made by the experimental animator Oskar Fischinger to the experimental composer John Cage, could be an epigram for Swartz’s installation. It says, “Everything in the world has spirit that can be released by its sound.”

“Joy, still” is the fourth and final exercise in what Grace Farms calls its “Practicing Series.” Earlier multidisciplinary groups explored empathy, awe and silence. “Joy, still” actually has three components.

The main one is in the Sanctuary. But there is also a four-channel sound installation in the Sanctuary’s enclosed accessibility corridor. Its voices belong to Meredith Monk, Wiman, Willie Jennings, a Yale Divinity School professor, and Maria Fee, a painter who is also a theologian. One of the women’s voices declares, “There is no abstract thing called joy.”

The third element is in the Grace Farms library where four hand-carved boxes contain recordings or transcriptions of poems. Again, the labeling is minimal and the boxes sit silently on shelves. But once picked up and held to the ear, the sensation is akin to listening to a seashell.

One of the poems is by Stanley Kunitz. It is the last in Wiman’s anthology and its closing line are also repeated in the Sanctuary installation. They say:

The sands whispered, Be separate,

the stones taught me, Be hard.

I dance, for the joy of surviving,

on the edge of the road.

Copies of Wiman’s joy anthology are available in the library. Taking one into the Sanctuary to read would be a good way to give Swartz’s installation time do its joyous work.

A variety of events are planned around “Joy, still,” including tours with the artist on Jan. 12 and Feb. 9.

Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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