“Luckily I’ve got a change of clothes with me,” Chris Jones told me when it was all over. “Our dress was supposed to be summer snappy.” He gestured at his t-shirt, soaked through. Raindrops flew off the tip of his nose. “This is not summer snappy.”
And so it was that, as I strode up to Millennium Park just in time for yesterday’s performance of Inuksuit, John Luther Adam’s outdoor epic, I could barely tell the performers from the audience members. Scattered among the audience in their shorts, sneakers, jackets and ponchos, they blended into the crowd. Except that they had no umbrellas — that was one way to tell. And of course, once I looked closely enough, I noticed the strange things they held in their hands: colorful plastic tubes, or hand-crank sirens, or conch shells.
But the best way to identify the musicians was to look at their faces. They carried themselves upright, like warriors, and their expressions were serious. Their eyes seemed fixed on some point in the middle distance. And sure enough, that’s where their instruments were waiting for them.
I think it might have been Tim Munro who made the first sound — the cry of a long horn, pointed toward the sky. There was a long silence, and hundreds of eyes fixed on him as he took several steps towards the south end of the park. He blew the horn again. I looked to my left and another horn sounded. Far away, almost at Randolph Street, I heard another. All around me, the musicians began to stir. Their gestures were as much dance as music: the gasp of two wood blocks rubbing together, followed by a deep, silent bend at the waist.
The sensation was, unmistakably, like being in a magical forest as the trees awakened. And the audience knew it. Even when the sounds were sparse, no one said a word. But across the park, a wide smile of delight was spreading.
The sounds did not stay sparse for long. Those plastic tubes turned out to be able to produce ghostly arpeggios and they began to sing to each other from all sides of the park. The first percussionists reached their stations and the bass drums started to sound.
One of the people I’ve loved most departed from this world five months ago. When someone dies, their form changes. Suddenly, they are made of spirit and memory. So you can imagine how I felt when the conch shells — which sound like voices calling to you from the great beyond — started. Tears sprang to my eyes and I hoped not to be seen by anyone I knew.
The conch shell call that really got me — the one that seemed louder, stronger, more beautiful and more insistent than the others — was coming from the northeast corner of the park. I walked towards the sound. It was, unsurprisingly, Greg Beyer. Readers of my previous concert review will need no introduction.
I was standing near Greg when the bass drums started to go wild. And then the rain began to come down hard. And then harder. He started laughing. And that’s when I discovered that my umbrella had a leak in it.
It occurs to me now that yesterday’s hour-long performance of Inuksuit, in a deluge of rain which eventually caused flash flooding all over the city, could have been seen as abusive of the musicians. After all, was it not unlike Drew Baker’s Stress Position, in which the pianist’s body is stretched to the breaking point and her arms are made to ache and the audience begins to realize my god, they have to keep playing under these conditions?
But there is another way to see it. And that is that the musicians were, in the clearest possible sense, making an enormous sacrifice. They did not pack up their instruments and go home. Instead, they laminated their sheet music and took off their shoes and endured drenching conditions in order to create a magical environment, an unforgettable hour. They were our heroes.
By the end of the performance, the musicians were not the only ones carrying themselves with a profound sense of focus. The listeners were, too. They were closing their eyes and meditating as the last birdcalls sounded. They were standing a little taller than before. Because if for even one hour we are surrounded by warriors, spirits, birds and angels, we must be doing something right.