Experiencing James Allister Sprang’s ‘Rest Within the Wake’

More than a concert, the show is a “sensory audiovisual poem for the spirit” with music designed to help listeners make space for what is outside of the body.

The Howard Gilman Performance Space at Baryshnikov Arts Center was hushed despite a full audience waiting for the world premiere of multidisciplinary artist James Allister Sprang’s Rest Within the Wake to begin. Black yoga mats stretched out in rows over a black dance floor. Speakers lined the room and dangled down from the tall ceilings. A blank screen hung at the front behind Sprang who, dressed in a dapper suit and hat, quietly greeted friends and colleagues. A woman lay on her back doing belly breaths. Another hung over in Baddha Hasta Uttanasana, swaying. Behind me, people whispered and hugged. “It’s been a busy day,” the man next to me told the man next to him as he sighed down onto a mat. “I need this.”

The visuals are just one element of James Allister Sprang’s ‘Rest Within the Wake’. Maria Baranova

We all did. We all do.

When I first met Sprang at BAC a few days before, he was deeply immersed in preparing his final audio mix and a bit slow to surface. “I haven’t really talked to anyone all day,” he said, apologizing. Truthfully, I was frazzled from talking to too many people and happy to meet halfway in the land of Comfortable Conversation.

Sprang, despite his modest disposition, is a very impressive guy. As Rest Within the Wake’s creator and Lead Artist, he wrote, produced and composed all of the show’s audio and visual elements. His degrees from Cooper Union (BFA) and University of Pennsylvania (MFA) are in Studio Art, but his interests have always been interdisciplinary.

The son of Caribbean immigrants, Sprang grew up in New York City and was “exposed to all these wonderful things and people who took me under their wing.” He wrote poetry, played instruments, went to jazz clubs like Nublu and The Stone and was mentored by the legendary jazz musician and conductor Butch Morris. He went on to study photography, video and performance under such greats as Dawit Petros, Sharon Hayes and Walid Raad. He told me, “I realized at an early age that one could sit at an intersection of a bunch of different things.” And that he has done. He has shown and/or performed at The Brooklyn Museum, TATE Museum, The Kitchen, Storm King Art Center, The Public Theater and The Apollo Theater, among many others.

Sprang’s Rest Within the Wake was inspired by his time spent on Caye Caulker, a small Island off the coast of Belize. To be more precise, it was inspired by his time spent 60 feet underwater off the coast of Caye Caulker. While there, he got certified to dive and spent a great deal of time floating in the Caribbean Sea and “considering the history of black bodies in its depths.” After a day spent diving, he would return to his room and improvise on his mini keyboard. And over two months, a musical composition took shape. “It’s essentially just jazz chords broken up across instruments,” is how he describes it, which might be true, but it’s also 500 pages of music written for 17 instruments over 45 minutes. It’s no small thing.

The work was also inspired by the philosophical-poetic texts In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe, The Black Interior by Elizabeth Alexander and Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. It’s no small thing at all.

But Rest is more than just an impressive musical score rooted in cultural theory. It is a “sensory audiovisual poem for the spirit,” a “monumental projection of cyanotype paper weavings accompanied by an orchestral spiritual jazz composition,” an “audiovisual somatic experience best experienced laying horizontally on provided yoga mats.” It is something entirely, uniquely itself.

But I’ll try to break it down.

Visitors experience Sprang’s composition horizontally. Maria Baranova

The Audio

What’s so interesting about Rest’s audio is it’s not just about sound, it’s about space too. The work was created using 4DSOUND, an audio software that moves sound through speakers placed horizontally and vertically throughout the space, creating “sound holograms” that bump around and through each other. “The room becomes an instrument,” Sprang explained. To put it another way, he became not only a sound designer but also a sound choreographer. He can decide when the trumpet will enter stage left and exit stage right, when the cello will slide across the floor, when the vocals will expand out from center.

After finishing the composition in Belize, after coming back and transcribing it with the help of an assistant, after looking for musicians and preparing for recording sessions and after recording and mixing and getting the tracks down from 100 to 23, Sprang was finally able to start spatializing it.

The 4DSOUND software, open on his monitor as we talked, is mesmerizing. It is like the best screen saver you could imagine, or perhaps a meditation app for the musically inclined. It is, literally, sound visualized. Piano loops at the top, drumbeats bounce around and a 3D box of vocals expands and contracts with the singer’s breath. Off to the side, a filter flickers.

And then there is the actual sound of the sounds: a female voice (Starr Busby) that lodges itself in your chest, timpani drums (Jake Goldbas) mixed way down to create a wash, subtle steel pans that make you feel like you’re floating. Those are just three of the 17 aural layers.

The Visuals

“Our primary sense is our sight,” Sprang said. “It’s a visual anchor for those who have to open their eyes. It’s very reminiscent of the ocean, you know?”

I do know. The “visual anchor” he is describing is a video projection documenting Aquifer of the Weave, one of his large paper weavings originally shown at The Chocolate Factory in 2022. And by large, I mean 36′ x 17′. Again, it’s no small thing. The video may not be the focal point for Sprang, but it definitely will be for some. The slow panning shots zoom out then in, the lens dreamily moving in and out of focus. It is a work of art (of a work of art) in and of itself. During the show, I opened my eyes a few times to peek at it. At one point I saw a snakeskin, at another a topographic map of an avalanche, then—there it was—the ocean. Through it all, there’s blue.

The weaving, made in collaboration with youth, took several months to create. The group would gather at Sprang’s studio on the weekends and talk about the blues. “We talked about how communities have been broken apart,” he told me, “and how they’ve woven themselves back together, and how that’s what the blues is. That’s what the blues helps us represent on an abstract level.” They all wrote their thoughts down on plastic, and that plastic is what Sprang used as the negatives for the cyanotypes that were cut up and woven together. It’s the blues through and through.

James Allister Sprang addresses the audience. Maria Baranova

The Somatic

In the program is written: This work invites you to rest.

“So, ideally all of this is to create somatic listening spaces,” Sprang said. “It’s about looking and listening with other people over time. That’s what I’m interested in. And the ways in which that can lead to productive conversations, and also larger healing moments.”

He went on to describe “Deep Listening”, a term coined by musician Pauline Oliveros and her eponymous album Deep Listening (1989) recorded in a huge underground cistern with a 45-second reverberation time. Oliveros described the practice as “intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.”

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Or, as Sprang put it: “Deep listening is being embodied, being anchored, being open, being able to receive, being able to make space for what is outside of your body and, sometimes, what is unseen. I think that’s related to Blackness in so many wonderful, live ways. It’s related to the human experience.”

The Experience

Here’s what I can tell you: You will walk into the theater, you will hang up your coat, you will take off your shoes, you will find a mat and sit down on it, then the lights will dim and you will lay back and look and listen. At the end, the lights will come up prompting you to get up, you will put on your shoes and coat and you will leave. As for what happens in the time and space in between, I cannot say.

There is something very public-yet-private about the experience. We were all with each other in the same room, listening to the same score and viewing the same video, but we were also in our own cavernous interiors—our own empty cisterns with their varying reverberation times.

Afterward, I felt very quiet. Very belly-up and tender to the touch.

On the way out, I shared the elevator down to the lobby with a stranger. We made some awkward jokes about there being too many buttons, and then we both dropped all that and just looked at each other. “I’m really relaxed,” she said. “Me, too,” I answered, and then we walked out together onto 37th Street and went our separate ways.

Experience Rest Within the Wake at Baryshnikov Arts Center through September 30.

Experiencing James Allister Sprang’s ‘Rest Within the Wake’