Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hug: Where the Music Takes You

Imagine waking into a medieval cathedral for the first time as a supplicant--the overwhelming awe and pull of the thing that is larger than you are.  Utter and complete exaltation. Now imagine it with the smell of shampoo. That was my experience of HUG by Verity Standen which is an immersive choir piece where the audience is blindfolded and singers take you in their arms as they sing.

Almost every person I told about this piece expresses horror at either the idea of the blindfold or the concept of strangers hugging them or both. But I found the experience transporting. As audience members emerged from the room, many were moved to tears. I was exhilarated and grieving all at once.

I gave up my eyeglasses and blindly stumbled my way to a chair.  Putting a blindfold on was a relief from the blurry world I exist in without my glasses.  Slowly, singing voices began to fill the room.  I was readily aware of the physical movement of the song. The singers were weaving between the chairs and audience members. Rather than a static chorus so common in concert halls, here the symphony of voices surrounds you. It ebbed and flowed as the singers took positions around the audience and then enveloped the entire room.

The clutch of a physical embrace by the chorus member was met with the clutch of the music. Not only could I feel the music, I was also feeling the instrument of the music. I could feel every breath the singer took as our bodies were pressed against each other.  I could smell her shampoo.

Theater never seems to be this personal but it felt safe and comforting.  I could have spent forever on her shoulder. Folded into her as she curled around me. She had her fingers on my spine like pressing the strings of a cello.  I was in my body, aware of my body, and outside of my body floating on the musical notes as they rose in the room.

Physically feeling the music as it emerged from the singer gives a privileged vantage point to experience creation--it was as if I was holding onto the bow as the violinist plays.   I have no talent for music or song so this is as close to being part of the experience of musical creation as I will ever get.  And when it ended, I felt a profound loss.   The warmth of her cheek on my cheek left me.  The sensation of her hand letting go of my back.  And the silence that filled the room as the music departed.  I was placed back in my chair, blind.

The entire experience felt ritualistic and ceremonial--which for someone raised Catholic I could not help but recall a religious connotation of those things.  But it went much further than that.  You know that lift you get in the pit of your stomach when you hear beautiful music and the music bypasses the rational and intellectual parts of your brain and lights up the emotional parts---yeah that.

HUG struck me as having a similar power, but my reaction (beginning in the religious but ending up in the music) is purely a product of my own make-up. Such an individuated response is it's very power.

It unlocks what you keep in your mental cupboard--where music takes you.  For me this was a journey from the solemn to the sublime and I did not want it to end.