Sonic Cloisters was a four-concert virtual series organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring groups playing techno-oriented music; it premiered on their website and other channels between June and September, and remains there. The first three concerts, featuring Lost Souls of Saturn, Jlin, and Dubfire, were filmed in closed galleries at the Cloisters, and they brought brilliant light displays and sonic innovation to this extraordinary setting. But the final concert, devoted to the fast-rising band Conclave, was filmed before a small, live, invited audience, and it was that ecstatic show that demonstrated most fully what this unlikely but inspired pairing of the Medieval and the electronic could do.
This was the first electronic music oriented festival ever organized by the Met, and it was developed under the leadership of MetLiveArts General Manager Limor Tomer, in collaboration with Shawn Schwartz, founder of Brooklyn venues Halcyon and Output (this would be time for a disclosure statement, as Tomer has long organized the Cabaret at Café Sabarsky series at the Neue Galerie where I am employed—but the truth is have admired her work for more than 20 years, from her time programming at Tonic and BAM Café). As with “Battle!”, the hip-hop series staged in the Arms and Armor galleries, where dancers decked out in breastplates and chainmail occupied the province usually held by jousting knights, she shows the power of intelligent juxtaposition, stressing commonalities while happily allowing differences to co-exist.
With Sonic Cloisters, the curators even made a convincing case for the parallels between art of the Middle Ages and techno from the new millennium, stressing the joint ability to create an open, anonymous, communal atmosphere, urging participants to get lost in the physical and sonic space. The emphasis is more on the complete experience than on the individual artist or performer; framing a search for inner peace and equilibrium within ongoing social and existential turmoil.
The feverish performance delivered by Conclave was presented in the Fuentidueña Chapel, a thick-walled Romanesque cocoon from Spain, ca. 1200. “The reverb made it hard,” says Cesar Toribio, the main creative force behind the band. “But the emotion was there. These were the first shows we had done in a long time, and everyone was feeling that.” The audience grooved to the Afro-Caribbean roll of the band, as they played songs from their self-titled inaugural album, released on Love Injection Records, which includes a fully reimagined version of the aching Little Dragon tune “Twice.” What could have been a high-concept mismatch was dazzling, using the enveloping spirit of house music to bind the crowd.
Toribio is devoted to integrating sounds from across the African diaspora, in particular from his native Dominican Republic. “The rhythm is sacred, in that it’s a primary form of communication.” The name of the band came about because it can be read to mean a gathering, particularly a religious one, or “con clavé.” “’Clavé’ means key, and as an instrument and as a rhythm, the clavé holds all this music together. Through these connections, the ancestors are speaking to you and through you.”
While making these connections across countries, the series also does so across centuries. There is an odd resonance in hearing this music played at the Cloisters. We are used to visiting that beautiful site, and sacred spaces in general, with an attitude of hushed reverence. The music presented in these places tends to be subdued as well, as if afraid to disturb the atmosphere. What a pleasure, then, to hear vast, dense, loud music here instead, suffused with bass and leaping up into the exalted air. The dislocation of a novel context—new wine in exquisite antique bottles—is crucial to this effort at reimagining and reinvigorating what is possible.
I was put in mind of this recently at, of all places, a funeral for a colleague who had died unexpectedly. I approached the church where the wake was held with trepidation, expecting a solemn, somber scene. But when I got inside, nothing was as I anticipated. The lights were turned up brightly, music was playing, and people milled around casually, chatting and greeting each other. Why, I wondered, aside from the inherent sadness of the occasion, did memorials services I’d seen in the past always tend toward the gloomy? Couldn’t life and death be celebrated in a different way? Although I’d heard of lively wakes and festival funeral celebrations, especially the second-line parade found in New Orleans, I’d never really seen one before. This approach, I found, had a lot to recommend it. The grief people felt wasn’t set aside, but augmented by joy.
Toribio spoke to me about parallel historical processes of syncretization, where the Christian traditions that were forced onto African slaves were combined with other religions, such as Santeria. “Inevitably, you wind up with elements of both,” he said. “It’s interesting because music, especially electronic music, also syncretizes. For instance, I was a percussionist first, and I learned to play the tambora in the context of merengue. But I played it in an unorthodox way, so that was the first dislocation. Then when you do something like programming it into a drum machine, you get something else again.” Toribio began by playing in church growing up, but has gravitated toward an unusually ambitious hybridized style that pulls in all kinds of directions, from jazz to funk to hip-hop, while always satisfying the requirements of the dance floor.
All of which brings me back to the Cloisters themselves, literally. I wanted to see where the Conclave performance had taken place, so on a rainy Tuesday, I took that long ride uptown to a place I hadn’t been in some time. My memory was of a quiet, dusty, sleepy place. And though the setting was still beautiful and serene, the galleries felt alive with new energy. Some of that had seeped in from these virtual performances, which allowed me to imagine them in new ways. But some came from the superb exhibition on display in that very same space where Conclave had played. Spain, 1000-1200: Art at the Frontiers of Faith is a small show with enormous reach, displaying how Christian, Jewish, and Muslim influences intermingled in Spanish medieval art. The illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, extraordinary stone carvings, and textiles all shone and spoke of cultural and political integration.
Then there is the Fuentidueña Chapel itself, its almost 3,300 blocks of stone transported from the Castilian countryside in the late 1950s and meticulously reassembled in northern Manhattan. It is a miracle less for its vaulting space than for its intimacy, with the images of saints and other holy figures on the altarpiece unusually oversized, making them seem strangely accessible. Like the work on display in the exhibition, the chapel shows multiple influences, as with other sacred sites in southern Spain, such as the Alhambra in Granada and the Great Mosque of Córdoba. “Time in this place does not obey an order,” observed Jorge Luis Borges in his poem “The Cloisters,” and in fact time-travel seems suddenly possible in this earthbound yet otherworldly location. I headed back downtown after my visit, refreshed and hopeful and pleasantly adrift.