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An Introduction to Pesher Compline

For the next three Sunday evenings, choral director and musician Brian Dowdy brings Pesher Compline to James Turrell’s Sky Pesher sculpture as part of Open Field. Below, he answers a few questions about the event, and the history of Compline. What is Compline? Compline is an end-of-day service that originated in monastic Christianity. After gathering for Compline, monks and […]

Photo by Dylan Hester

Photo by Dylan Hester

For the next three Sunday evenings, choral director and musician Brian Dowdy brings Pesher Compline to James Turrell’s Sky Pesher sculpture as part of Open Field. Below, he answers a few questions about the event, and the history of Compline.

What is Compline?

Compline is an end-of-day service that originated in monastic Christianity. After gathering for Compline, monks and visitors to the monastic community would retire into the “Great Silence,” during which they would not speak until morning. Pesher Compline retains this spirit, but it’s intended more as a musical “offering” to the community than either a religious service or a performance. As an aesthetic experience, it is quiet and contemplative. The room is softly lit. Singers and visitors alike enter the space quietly and with a spirit of stillness. The music itself is mostly ancient chant, sung in Latin. Woven around that chant are bits of improvisation and choral polyphony. It’s the kind of music that, upon its end, leaves the space quieter than before it began.

Why are you choosing to present the event in Sky Pesher?

Sky Pesher is, like a church or monastery, a space set apart. However, it’s not a church — it’s in no way explicitly religious. Still, the architecture, the unique play of light intended by James Turrell, and the unique acoustics do make the space feel somehow sacred and spiritual. Also, the play of light and dark for which Turrell designed Sky Pesher is akin to the play of sound and silence that characterizes Compline. Finally, in the open spirit of Open Field, anyone can wander in to the space without feeling that, in order to belong, they must assent to certain beliefs or know how to participate. You get to just show up and receive the gift of space and sound.

What should participants expect from these Sunday evening events?

Around 8:30, one of us will enter the room and ring a bell, and, after a brief period of silence, the rest will enter in song. For about 30 minutes, participants can expect to simply sit amongst their neighbors, take in the chants and songs, and also take in the silences in between. Because the events will take place around sunset, they can also expect to look up and experience Turrell’s intended effect of architecture disappearing into the changing light, or, as he calls it, “bringing the sky down.” At the services end, we will recess in song, just as we entered. Participants can feel free to remain in the space to appreciate the quietness and waning light, and each person can leave when they are ready. We hope they take with them the same sense of inner calm and quiet that Compline inspires in us.

Pesher Compline will take place Sundays, July 20, 27, and August 3, and will be sung by Aaron Humble, Blake Morgan, Adam Reinwald, and Paul Rudoi, with direction from Brian Dowdy.