The Penitential Station ~ The Cloud of Forgetting

Before there was Ian William Craig, there was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose masses form the spiritual architecture of the astonishingly beautiful The Cloud of Forgetting.  Hard day at the office?  Troubles in a close relationship?  Existential crisis?  There’s nothing like the power of ancient music to restore a troubled soul.  While the original forms of such sacred music may sound like artifacts, difficult to relate to over the distance of time, the modern forms have a surprising impact.  Such is the case with The Penitential Station, who uses loops and soft drones to create an atmosphere in which time seems to disintegrate and the eternal seeps in.

The cloud of forgetting was introduced by Augustine in 398 AD, but brought to its fullest form in an anonymous 14th century mystical text, combined with “the cloud of unknowing.”  These phrases have inspired music from Swans and John Luther Adams, and seem like an endless well.  The concept is that to know God, one must empty one’s self from all preconceptions, including images and (ironically) writings, and simply open one’s self to the divine: don’t think, just love.  Karl Barth touches upon this concept in his treatise on The Epistle to the Romans, proposing that as soon as we believe we know God, we lose God, and stumbling instead upon the “No-God.”  While such concepts are weighty, all it takes to understand them is to listen to this one hour piece: no words, no markers, just a slow-growing, undulating cloud of music and layered voice.  While other artists have utilized similar processes ~ the gorgeous loops of bvdub come immediately to mind ~ The Penitential Station goes all in.  Whether one likes the piece is nearly irrelevant; the question is whether it works.  To this reviewer, it does.  This fall, whenever I need an aural balm, this is where I’ll turn.

The Cloud of Forgetting (alternate title: “The Powers of the Soul and the Manner of Her Working”) underlines the power of sacred music: devoid of doctrine, writ or creed, this music opens the door to what one might call a “spiritual feeling” ~ even if one is not religious.  Just as the cloud of unknowing exists between us and the divine, this music exists between believer and unbeliever, an access point to something ultimately unknowable that despite its elusive character continues to tug at the heart.  (Richard Allen)

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