Jace Clayton Interweaves Sound, Memory, and Space

At Boston’s MassArt Art Museum, the writer and DJ explores how sound creates and complicates public spaces, capturing “those waves of magic that happen when the human spirit joins with technology.”

Jace Clayton. Photography by Erez Avissar

Humans gather in song. One history of architecture and design can be told through our designing of spaces to do it, from ancient clearings for drum circles to churches and nightclubs. In 2001, the DJ and writer Jace Clayton gathered with others at New York’s PS1 for Janet Cardiff’s The Forty-Part Motet, a sound installation for which she recorded each individual of a choir performing Thomas Tallis’s 1575 choral work Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui. Cardiff set up a circle of speakers and assigned a singer’s recording to each one. “It was gorgeous,” Clayton tells Surface. “But it required the subtraction of bodies. It was about recording technology. What if I created a scenario in which bodies are required?” 

This spring, Clayton’s thinking substantiates into They Are Part, featuring 40 Part Part, a circular installation of 40 speakers within the vast second floor of Boston’s MassArt Art Museum. Two benches beckon visitors to enter the circle; in the center, a plinth offers a directive: “Connect your device.” When that happens, audio makes its way through software housed inside in the plinth, out the speakers, and into the air. 40 Part Part remixes the audio input into shimmering, oscillating waves crashing upon the museum walls. It recasts visitors as collaborators. And it rethinks Cardiff’s spiritual sampling into active music- and world-making.

“Jace Clayton: They Are Part” (2022) at MassArt Art Museum. Photography by Mel Taing

I plugged in and played a track of dubby cello from Arthur Russell’s World of Echo album, which the software spun into a fog that filled the room, and a bit of eerie queer ambience by pinkcourtesyphone, which vaporized. “A guy came in and played car crashes,” Clayton says, “and then rain sounds. Musicians have come in and played their recordings, using the software kind of like guitar pedals. But I’ve instructed the docents to not tell people to play music, but to play audio or sound. It’s meant to be very open in terms of that.” 

Repetition forms the foundation of another piece, Ceremony of the Steps. “In the George Floyd protests, I saw this poster a protestor had which was a music staff notation of the notes A, C, A, B,” Clayton says. “All cops are bastards. Great, totally silly, super interesting. It was public music-making, melodically so simple. And choirs will often sing the same thing over and over again. So I wanted to superimpose those two different approaches to voices in public.” Get the bodies back in, so to speak. 

“There’s a lot of instability built into the work because I’m building the structure,” Clayton continues. “People can center themselves. You need to go up and just be like: I’m in the middle of this big space. I’m controlling it. That feels like a breath of fresh air.”

“Jace Clayton: They Are Part” (2022) at MassArt Art Museum. Photography by Mel Taing

While 40 Part Part depends upon visitors to input their audio, Ceremony of the Steps consists of a series of choral performances. For the first one, Clayton invited the local Northeastern University Madrigal Singers into the circle to perform four works from their repertoire. The final one, fittingly, was Tallis’s Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui. As they sang, Clayton took samples of their voices from the air. The choir then stepped out of the circle while Clayton performed a live remix of their rendition, culminating in the singers’ return to the circle for a duet between them and their altered echoes.

Planes of melody smoothly expanded and drifted around the listeners, as if covering the museum walls with choral color fields. Past and present harmonized to make the traditional white cube new. Segments of voices jumped the diameter, bursting into clarity or popping into fizzy tufts of noise. Clayton wasn’t only demonstrating his ability, but demoing the installation so anyone could use it. Plug and play. Sound out a new world. 

Jace Clayton: They Are Part” will be on display at MassArt Art Museum (621 Huntington Ave, Boston) until July 30. 

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