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St. Petersburg (the Great Peacock)

2015/9/15 — 13:04

This is the Great Peacock - General Potemkin's gift of love to Catherine the Great. It couldn't have been an easy task trying to come up with a gift for someone who lacked absolutely nothing.

This is the Great Peacock - General Potemkin's gift of love to Catherine the Great. It couldn't have been an easy task trying to come up with a gift for someone who lacked absolutely nothing.

My purpose in visiting St. Petersburg was both single-minded and something of a mission impossible: to make a clean recording of the bells of the Great Peacock Clock.

Through the good folks at BMW, I submitted a pretty ridiculous request to the Hermitage: I asked the museum to allow me to record the clock in solitude outside of the museum’s working hours. The museum receives upward of 2 million visitors per year, and the Great Peacock Clock is one of the most valuable gems of the institution and also of the Russian people. There were some initial positive responses but I harbored no hope. A couple of days before I was due in the city, the museum gave us the green light. I was instructed to arrive at the back entrance of the Hermitage 15 minutes before the museum is closed to the general public. It was one of the most remarkable things to have happened to me on what is already an unbelievably rich journey.

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Upon arrival at the Hermitage I was greeted by Viktor Korobov, the museum’s Head of Restoration (who apparently is the only person in the institution who is allowed to touch the peacock). Viktor carefully unlocked the peacock’s cage. I stepped inside and kneeled underneath its wings.

Upon arrival at the Hermitage I was greeted by Viktor Korobov, the museum’s Head of Restoration (who apparently is the only person in the institution who is allowed to touch the peacock). Viktor carefully unlocked the peacock’s cage. I stepped inside and kneeled underneath its wings.

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The Great Peacock Clock inhabits the dinning room where Catherine the Great received her closet military allies and friends. The bird, glittering with gold and precious stones, is a sight to behold. It was the creation of British Jeweler James Cox, and arguably his finest. It is musica-automata, luxury timepiece, sound installation, and robotic art all coming together in a beautiful sculptural object. It was also General Potemkin’s gift of love to Catherine at the height of their passionate and politically-charged relationship. Upon arrival at the Hermitage I was greeted by Viktor Korobov, the museum’s Head of Restoration (who apparently is the only person in the institution who is allowed to touch the peacock). Viktor carefully unlocked the peacock’s cage. I stepped inside and kneeled underneath its wings. I was so taken that I involuntarily held my breath for a moment. Viktor proceeded to crank the clock to just before the hour, and the peacock began to make the most amazing noises. Heard from up-close there is a cacophony of mechanical and musical sounds, not always harmonious, often aggressive, but always rich in its dissonances and contradictions. It occurred to me that in the pre-recording age, the Great Peacock Clock must have been the thing of myths and legends. We are severely deprived when it comes to vocabularies with which to represent sounds. How does one describe a sound without naming its origin? (Many sound artists had already noted that the English language is notoriously bad in this regard, Chinese is perhaps a little better but that’s another story). The peacock’s performance ended in a melodic quarter-hour chime, which I later discovered is exactly the same as the quarter-hour chime at the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, where Catherine was buried. Something that should have been obvious but I learned anew on this trip: devotion produces the most beautiful art.

And this is Catherine's tomb.

And this is Catherine's tomb.

We are incredibly good at inventing metaphors for things that elude descriptions. I still don’t understand why the people of 19th century rural France cared so much about thunderstorms, but ever since Cantal I have been thinking about the literary soundscape of a “sweet thunder” from the first scene of Midsummer Night’s Dream:

HIPPOLYTA
… Never did I hear
Such gallant chiding: for, besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry: I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

The composition that this journey will produce is slowly taking shape in my head. I will probably call the piece "such sweet thunder."

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Artist website - www.thismusicisfalse.com
Project website - www.bmw-art-journey.com
BMW Facebook page - www.facebook.com/bmw

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