- Dorchester Abbey
Thin Air draws from and builds on the sonic life of religious buildings. We hear in Thin Air the dying moments of a choral piece that the space has already suggested to us or the fragments of conversation that we unconsciously dreamed when we saw the worn flagstones. Our aural sense of the Abbey is brought alive by the work.
Unlike the organised music of a religious service, Thin Air is experienced in no particular order and without formal meanings imposed. Instead of collectively hearing a sermon on one theme, then singing a hymn on a related theme and so on, in Thin Air we get to engage with the space on a more private and sensory level, encountering Helen Ottaway's evocative, fragmentary compositions on our own terms and in our own time. We are also included in the composition; our feet shuffling on the stones, the swish of our skirts and trousers as we walk around the space. Just as the movements of the audience trigger the sounds in Thin Air, they also add to the unfolding composition so that we become included, adding to the eternal presence of people referenced in the work.
Because whole verses are not included in the composition, because all we are ever offered is a glimpse of something, we are never allowed to get distracted by intellectualising Thin Air or by trying to translate it too thoroughly. Similarly, the intricate system of sensor beams and speakers is difficult to unravel so the technicalities of Thin Air remain mysterious. It is as though Alastair Goolden (sound designer) has deliberately concealed the logic of the system so that we the audience are allowed instead to believe that the sounds really do emanate from the walls, the ceiling – literally out of thin air.
Visiting Thin Air by candlelight, I was reminded of the magical encounters I've had when visiting Abbeys or Cathedrals in strange cities. I am always struck by the sense of time and devotion that inhabit such places. It is always cool, it always smells of wax and books, and I am always struck by the tangible absence of the stoneworkers, embroiderers, writers, composers, artists, musicians and other people who made the place. All that is left is magnificent traces of their faith and labour. I am also always impressed by the architecture of Cathedrals and Abbeys and of the way the great vaulted ceilings augment sound to create glorious song, thundering sermon and loaded silences.
Thin Air for me is about all of these things. It gives form to the presence of people, over time, in religious buildings. It is a work that understands the acoustic qualities of Abbeys and Cathedrals; that makes an instrument of the space, that makes an instrument of us in the space. The notes in Thin Air linger for a long time in space. They make us pause for thought and ask ourselves 'did I just hear that out loud, or did I imagine it?'