Art and the unexpected

David Hoppe

It had been a long time. That's what hit me one night in Antwerp, a town I had never imagined myself visiting, at a concert I didn't plan on attending.

But there I was, sitting in an ancient cathedral-turned-concert hall, listening to a group called the New London Chamber Choir, and being blown away. I hadn't enjoyed a concert experience quite like this since my first days of going to rock concerts.

In those days, at places like Aaron Russo's Kinetic Playground in Chicago and the Fillmore West in San Francisco, music wasn't just an event, it was a tribal destination. So when you went to where the music was happening, you were likely to experience several interlocking elements that, taken together, evoked an otherworldly realm where the concerns and constraints of the everyday were minimized.

At the time, a lot of people called this counterculture. In fact, it had more to do with the preparation necessary to make any environment suitable for waking dreams - that is, the experience of new art.

The interlocking elements I'm talking about included the venue itself, usually a building rescued from abandonment and given new life through creative enterprise. Old buildings lend soul and an earthy whiff of funk to undertakings that might otherwise seem marginal or just plain weird. Art requires a certain atmosphere to resonate. Back in the day, old vaudeville theaters and other, assorted architectural reclamation projects provided that atmosphere - they also had the estimable virtue of being cheap.

These spaces were given an added charge through the use of light shows and other forms of handmade stagecraft. But this was so much table-setting. The most crucial elements of all were provided by the audiences, who arrived with a hearty appetite for sounds and sights they'd never tried before, and the artists, who were ready and willing to oblige them.

Memories - contrary to guitarist Paul Kantner's famous quote that if you can remember the 1960s you weren't there - are made of this.

Antwerp was not on our itinerary. But when we arrived in Brussels, we found that city awash in Liverpudlian football fans, in town for a World Cup qualifying match. The city, we were told, was booked. No rooms anywhere. So we got back on a train - you can do this in Europe - and in an hour we were in Antwerp.

Antwerp is famous for its diamond trade. Its history dates back to the eighth century. Located on the Schelde River, the city became Europe's chief commercial and financial center in the mid-1500s, only to lose its prominence to Amsterdam. The city took a pounding during both world wars.

The closer you are to the river, the better off you'll be. This is where the old city is located - and it's where the majority of Antwerp's arts venues are found. Antwerp has become a major fashion design center - the Fashion Museum there is terrific - and has a thriving club scene.

On a narrow street not far from the Fashion Museum, we found an old cathedral that was serving as base for a week-long festival of sacred music. The poster featured an old photograph of John Cage standing with his head inside a giant bell. Following the admittedly arcane logic that any festival willing to use the provocative (and deceased) Mr. Cage as its inspiration and poster boy was likely to be, well, interesting, we bought tickets for that night's concert, a performance directed by a British composer named James Wood.

We were given assigned seats in the cathedral's nave but, thanks to a floor plan that owed something to John Cage's fascination with randomness, finding them was like going on an Easter egg hunt. Eventually, we found our places. The great hall was packed.

It looked like everyone was there: young, old, lowland hipsters and fashionistas. What's more, the space itself had been rigged with theatrical lighting and a sound system that enabled musicians and singers to be deployed in different locations around the cathedral. At one point, an entire choir was positioned right behind us.

The music was what some folks would call difficult, I suppose. That is, it was short on melody and long on complicated rhythms and the use of eccentric percussion instruments as well as a variety of electronic effects. What was indisputable, though, was that everything was performed with precision and passionate intensity. The textures and layers of sound, both played and sung, were alternately gorgeous and startling. And when the cathedral bells, ingeniously incorporated into one of the compositions, began tolling, the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention.

I wasn't alone. The audience seemed as into what was happening as the performers. There was a mutual concentration going on that I could swear made that great room levitate a little. Not knowing what was coming next made everything that did feel like a gift worth waiting for.

This is the third of four columns written with the support of a Creative Renewal Fellowship provided by the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment.

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