Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Remembering San Marino's Artmonk Experience

After their cultural exchange with students from a local Rieti high school last week, the San Marino Chamber Choir embarked on another exchange: this time with four American artists who are living and working in Italy with the Art Monastery Project.

The Artmonks have dedicated their lives to applying monastic principles, including contemplation, shared ritual, and shared work, to artmaking (instead of religion); and they wanted to share their philosophy with the SMCC students.

The experience was led by Liz Maxwell, a theater director and blues singer from New Orleans, and Betsy McCall, a visual artist and synchronized swimmer from Buffalo, New York, who first asked the students to make a circle around an empty fountain in the piazza and think about the fountain as a sacred, special place.

The Artmonks then led the students in a silent meditation, during which they were asked to tune in to their sensations and feelings, as well as the sounds around them.

"Notice how Italy's still really loud even when we're silent," Liz joked.

Even so, one student later said the silent meditation was "really soothing. I felt like my head was floating."

After a period of quiet contemplation, the Artmonks instructed the students to sing the first eight bars of "Come Sweet Death," one of the songs in their tour repertoire, as they're used to singing it. After doing so three times, the students were invited to start improvising with the notes, tempo, and dynamics of the song.

At first, the students were hesitant to stray from the rules they'd been adhering to for nearly a year. But soon, the sound in the piazza was completely transformed into a moving, breathing cacophony. When, after several minutes of improvisation, the students came back to their familiar version of the song, the result sounded sweeter and brighter than when they'd started.

"Normally we're not allowed to break the lines of the song," said one student. "It was very freeing."

Another student agreed. "It's amazing to not think about what other people are thinking."

Choir director Howard Cheung also appreciated the exercise.

"It was very well received," he said. "This group of kids is comfortable with each other and willing to try new things."

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