Saturday, June 28, 2008

WSF report: Oliver Sacks, Abyssinian choir on music


Photo of Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, acknowledging Jim Gates and Stephon Alexander at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, as part of the World Science Festival, NYC. From entropybound's flickr set (and check out his blog).

TED's Marla Mitchnick reports from the Saturday night blockbuster "Music and the Brain," held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and hosted by the Rev. Calvin Butts III:

Many hundreds of people came out, on a rainy Saturday evening in Harlem, to hear the great Dr. Oliver Sacks speak on "Music and the Brain." We waited in a line that snaked all the way down 138th Street from the church, around the corner, and way down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.

Though the event listing mentioned the location as The First Abyssinian Baptist Church, a historic Harlem landmark built in 1808, which is well known for its choir and its pastor, Calvin O. Butts III, and we all knew that gospel music was to be paired with Dr. Sacks' talk, no one was quite prepared for the multilayered experience that lay ahead.

A ferociously energetic church lady in a polka-dot dress was hawking CDs along the line, in a voice that demanded one's attention, and with an intensity that made me quake in my boots. To refuse her wares would take some courage! Thank god the line began to move.

Leaving the stairwell to enter the balcony, the space of the enormous church opened up in all its glory. Silvery pipe-organ pipes rose up everywhere -- in the balcony, at the back, the sides, up behind the altar area. I've never seen so many. But the church organ had some company: a concert grand piano, a full drum kit, a three-drum African skin-drum kit, and a freestanding jazz organ.

Sitting in the front row of the balcony, we were amongst a happy crowd of folks -- who seemed well enough behaved to my eye, but apparently not in the judgment of the large, bald, Abyssinian Baptist employee, wearing an OFFC T-shirt, who was overseeing our section, and who apparently felt we all fell quite short of the mark. Upon closer inspection, the large red letters OFFC on the front of his shirt were accompanied by some smaller yellow letters below, explaining the acronym: "On Fire For Christ!" The fire must have been pretty hot, to judge by the way this fellow made sure that no one put their feet upon the balcony rail, and generally acted like a cross between a stern master at a boys' school, and a security specialist on a far-off planet -- one where no one's even heard of laughter -- who took his job in deadly earnest.