Alternative to the altar

All genres welcome at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

Matthew Dean, director of operations at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, has an interesting fact to share: the term a capella is Italian for “in the style of the chapel.”

If you've ever set foot in Rockefeller, which sits at 59th and Woodlawn, this etymology makes perfect sense: the chapel has an awe-inspiring capacity to amplify the human voice. But in recent years, Rockefeller has ventured well beyond a capella, with acts ranging from ars antiqua to the avant-garde.  

In December, Rockefeller hosted a performance by the Tallis Scholars, an a capella ensemble acclaimed for its interpretations of early Renaissance music. As they performed, the acoustics were sharp and crisp; the pews packed with sweater-vested concertgoers. Each note of Palestrina’s arrangement reverberated through the chapel, trailed by echoes.

But if that Sunday afternoon was the sort of performance you expect from a chapel—dulcet tones and madrigals—then Saturday night resisted categorization. For only hours earlier, Rockefeller had been rechristened as “Ambient Church,” a site-specific visual installation and concert, held to celebrate the much-loved ambient record label Kranky. In near-total darkness, performers like Steve Hauschildt and Matt Jencik unspooled hazy synth tones and tape loops, while projector beams criss-crossed the altar and dots of light dripped from the stained-glass windows.

In short: Rockefeller has a lot more going on than the average chapel. In Dean’s words, it supports “a thousand blooming communities rather than one monolithic constituency.”

The Hyde Park Jazz Festival has held performances in Rockefeller for over a decade (most recently, with a show-stopping midnight performance by Ravi Coltrane), while the Renaissance Society and Lampo have brought experimental programming like Olivia Block’s 132 Rank (2017), which encouraged concertgoers to lie down on the ground and walk about the church to find better acoustics.

But even as it nears a century in existence, new programs are constantly being developed. In May 2018, original compositions from all over the world were played on the chapel’s 72-bell carillon—the second largest in the world—at the inaugural Rockefeller Carillon New Music Festival. And as special events manager Eden Sabala notes, even non-musical programs—like silent films with live organ—can be deeply affecting. (A recent screening of Nosferatu, Sabala recalls, had “800 student faces glued to the screen.”)

As Dean remarks: “We have die-hard organ supporters, rabid carillon aficionados, jazz listeners, rock fans, choral groupies, longtime journalistic reviewers and those seeking the relative quiet of an evensong.”

But it’s through a collaboration with the Empty Bottle, a storied Chicago venue where countless underground acts got their start, that Rockefeller has attracted some of the most cutting-edge acts in contemporary music—from Tegan & Sara and Low to the likes of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett. The partnership dates back to 2013, when the University’s Alumni Relations and Development group met with Empty Bottle Presents, which owns the Promontory. One conversation about performance opportunities led to another, and in time they were set to book their first act together.

On some evenings, “gothic revival” can be as fitting a term for the sounds coming from the chapel as for its architectural style. On February 22nd, Peter Murphy, lead singer of legendary post-punk group Bauhaus, took the stage. Only two weeks earlier, the chapel had announced their newest booking: an April performance by Sunn O))), an elusive drone outfit that performs in monkish robes and takes its name from a guitar amp. (The O))) at the end, as any fan will tell you, is silent). Tickets sold out within 24 hours, a second date was added—and then, on April 19, the notoriously loud ensemble rattled Rockefeller’s floorboards.

For bands with subtler acoustics, however, there are unique challenges that come with performing contemporary music in a hundred-year-old chapel—and, at that, one modeled on five-hundred and six-hundred year old chapels. Even with the installation of new acoustic panelling in the 1980s, Rockefeller continues to have a singular echo-chamber quality. As Sabala notes, it can be difficult to communicate about delay and reverb with touring musicians with a limited amount of time to soundcheck.

But as she puts it, “the best piece of advice we give to performers is to not fight the space—this is for both electronic works and acoustic.” And as Dean—who’s witnessed backstage pep talks by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Bach Collegium Japan alike—says, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a performer not wowed in some sense by Rockefeller Chapel, even when they do have to work vocally or instrumentally to overcome the distances or echo. Most see it as a very rewarding challenge.”

New venues are constantly in development around Chicago, from Avondale’s Sleeping Village to LiveNation’s proposed venue in Lincoln Yards—but there remains something special in how sounds and communities meet in Rockefeller. The chapel, after all, has always been a melting pot, whether for different faiths or for old and new traditions. As Prof. John Levi Martin observed in his 2015 Aims of Education address, the chapel resembles centuries-old European landmarks—and yet “the ceiling is held up by concrete, [the] roof is supported by steel beams, [and] invisible concrete pylons go down 80 feet till they reach bedrock.”

If Rockefeller has its contradictions, then it’s all the better suited to keeping cultural cross-pollination alive.