Breath (2007 DOWNIE KAISER)

Breath is a site-specific public artwork for Lincoln Center that explores the idea of sacred music through an interlocking series of banners and lightboxes, the lighting of which is coupled to the ebb and flow of a live musical compositon. Breath was exhibited for the the month of August 2007 – that is, for the length of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

Our interest in sacred music is illuminated by this passage in William James:

Not conceptual speech, but music rather, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth. Many mystical scriptures are indeed little more than musical compositions.

For the installation, huge banners were suspended from the columns of Avery Fisher Hall facing the fountain plaza. Inside the colonnade were a series of eight tall lightboxes displaying intricate computer-generated prints.

Each lightbox illuminated a selected text derived from such sources as the Psalms, a mystical vision of Hildegard von Bingen, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, the musical setting by three composers of the Catholic Mass, a description of Mozart’s last apartment, and the “utterance” of a starling. The imagery of each lightbox arose from a computer-assisted analysis of a given subject, finding patterns in information often so dense as to elude manual search. The actual design was also computer-assisted, for we made our lines and colors not by placing them directly, but rather by programming partly autonomous systems which in turn generated and then printed our visual compositions.

From each of these texts grew a complex diagram reaching up like the trunk and branches of a tree. The diagrams traced intricate inter-relationships between words, metaphors, associations, musical scores, and languages. The 40 foot banners suspended on the facade of the building had large gestural blow-ups of the lightbox imagery.

The artwork’s visual half provide a counterpoint to a new live, self-generating musical work. It took as its source material a vocal masterpiece from the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen’s Columba aspexit (“The dove peered in”). It proceeded by continually reweaving the singers’ voices, which it periodically coalesced into the lines of the song. The music sang as if to itself, with the continual rise and fall of its breathing.

During the evening, music and imagery cross-connected: computer-controlled lighting followed the pulsing tempo of the music to illuminate the banners – as if Avery Fisher Hall were breathing with music, with light, and with thought.


Jane Moss, Mostly Mozart Artistic Director, instigated and oversaw the project with the able assistance of her colleagues Jon Nakagawa, Chris Gentile, and others.

Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects (Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, David J. Lewis, Jason Dannenbring, Julian Rose) created the physical design.

Robert Wierzel was the lighting designer, with Jeff Harris the assistant lighting designer.

Ruth Cunningham and Elizabeth Baber, together with the singers of New York Polyphony, performed the source music.