The monastic life remains inscrutable to those outside the conclaves. No matter how many films or books cover the subject, the internal, contemplative path can only be experienced through participation. In an effort to understand the isolated, yet strangely communal lifestyle of La Verna’s monks, Pietro Riparbelli spent three days at Tuscany’s “mountain of the Stigmata” listening and recording. As readers of this site know, the art of listening includes not only listening to apparent sounds, but suggested sounds, and not only to sound but to the profound nature of silence. And where better to encounter silence than a monastery?
The “pure” recordings, unadorned and accompanied by photographs and text, can be accessed and downloaded for free from Gruenrekorder’s release page. But Three Days of Silence is more importantly a soundscape: a project in which the sources are mixed and recombined in an effort to access greater truths. At times, the sounds of nature decorate the exterior of the sound field. The chanting of monks fades in and out like the passing of the hours. Organ tones bloom and recede. These collages yearn for alchemy like supplicant hands reaching toward the heavens; and whether by intention or divine intervention, they succeed. When listening to the sources by themselves, one thinks, “oh, that’s a nice sound” or “this track is better than the one before it”, keenly aware of Riparbelli’s presence behind the equipment. But when one plays the album, one rests in the arms of mystery. While the divine presence has made itself known in part, it continues to rest beyond human comprehension, and Three Days of Silence is the sonic equivalent of a dark glass or dim mirror. To listen is to seek hidden truths, but to receive only impressions. This falling-short is the center of the contemplative life, which seeks comprehension, but offers praise for mere glimpses. “If I could but touch the edge of his cloak”, a woman said once about Jesus; a monk allowed to draw that close would consider his life a blessing.
Riparbelli creates the conditions in which blessings may occur by adding musical accompaniment to his field recordings: mostly light drones that connect the sound sources, unifying their nature like a neutral wall color unifying a series of paintings. The fact that one is invited to listen to the album in two different ways is evidence of the reverence the artist shows to his material and his hosts. In the same way as a translator attempts to preserve the intention of the material while altering its form, Riparbelli takes the ancient and makes it seem contemporary. One can only hope that the monks of La Verna can appreciate the new context. For those below the mountain, the effect is divine. (Richard Allen)