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Murray Hidary's immersive sound installation 'Distanced Together' at Mass MoCA is a reflection on time and pandemic-imposed isolation

Person sits in the center of a circle of speakers.

An individual sits in the center of "Distanced Together," a sound installation at Mass MoCA through Feb. 4. 

NORTH ADAMS — Typically, when pianist, composer and mindfulness teacher Murray Hidary presents a concert through his experiential music company, MindTravel, participants listen through wireless headphones.

But not so when it comes to “Distanced Together,” a circular sound installation in the Hunter Center at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, inspired by and written during pandemic-imposed isolation.

Instead, Hidary has crafted an immersive sound space, allowing individuals to listen to his latest composition as they sit, stand or walk through a set of 60 speakers, each representing a single artist playing a single instrument.

Museum visitors can experience the immersive sound installation through Feb. 4. There’s also two opportunities, at 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, to experience a live concert, during which the 60 speakers are replaced with a 60-member orchestra, half of whom are from the Berkshires, with the other half from Contemporaneous, a New York City-based ensemble.

The 60 speakers, Hidary said in an interview with The Eagle, “mimic what will be happening in the performances with the live orchestra where each instrument is playing something different than the others but they are grouped essentially as 12 quintets.”

“The sound installation, it allows people to have a very intimate experience with the room,” he said. “It has this freeing ability to interact with it however you like, in terms of walking through the space, approaching each speaker to really hear what that instrument is doing uniquely.

“You can lie in the middle of the space, there are cushions; there is seating on the perimeter of the space. You can really interact with it however you need to. It really is a space for reflection, for catharsis, for healing and really reflecting on the experience we’ve all had over the last couple of years with the music as the soundtrack tracing the arc of the pandemic.”

The installation’s circular design, he said, not only allows the listener to experience the music as an individual, as they experienced the pandemic, but also makes the audience a participant as well.

In the Hunter Center, Mass MoCA visitors listen to "Distanced Together," a sound installation featuring 60 speakers that each emit the sound of a single instrument.

“The inspiration for it, when I conceived of it, was our experience with time,” Hidary said, noting that like many during isolation, he either had no idea of the exact time or day, or was acutely aware of the time.

“It really was different for each of us. It kept shifting. Time had this kind of elasticity to it,” he said. “By arranging the musicians and the speakers in this circle, it kind of reflects a time piece, that’s also why there are 60 musicians.

“Sixty is this number we’ve used for time — 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and then the musicians are grouped into 12 groups of five. The 12 groups are the 12 hands on the hour, one through 12, and essentially the audience is moving through that, acting as hands on the clock as they move through the circle, albeit in an abstract way, reflecting the abstractness of time whether they are moving clockwise or counterclockwise."

The composition, Hidary said, is informed by his own pandemic experience and perspective.

“Like all of us, I had my unique experience. Prior to COVID setting in, I was on a cross-country tour [with MindTravel] doing 60 cities and I was 10 cities into that tour. I was in Austin at the time — March 12, 2020 — we did a beautiful concert at the botanical gardens. The whole country pretty much shut down the next day, so the rest of the concerts were canceled. I made my way back to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, and with all the time I now had and just dug into writing this piece.”

A student of Eastern philosophy, Hidary believes that music can be used as a tool to help the individual heal on many levels, find clarity and relaxation. In his work with MindTravel, he combines the healing powers of music and nature into an experience that is both singular and communal at the same time.

With “Distanced Together,” he said, he aims to create that same communal experience.

“We say that when we don’t have the words for something, we turn to music,” he said. “It’s a multi-dimensional language. It’s a vibrational language. We are vibrational beings. Every level of us in vibrating, every cellular molecular atomic, subatomic level. Music is that language.

“When you layer instrument upon instrument you get a multi-dimensional communication. That enables something to be communicated that’s very different from words, which are only linear.

There’s a complexity to 60 instruments, each playing something different in the work, yet there's a beautiful simplicity to it as well because they all mesh together and weave into one another.

After composing the music and recording each individual instruments part, Hidary began contemplating spaces that could accommodate the piece as conceptualized.

“I thought to myself, what would be the best place to premiere this? To showcase it? To have people have the experience? I couldn’t do it in a normal theater with seating and rows. It needs a big open space, so that eliminated almost every theater I know and had performed at.”

The installation, he knew, would require not only room, but the correct acoustics as well.

“We required a very large open space and they are not available, especially in an arts institution. So, Mass MoCA came to mind. I had just been there, last summer, visiting and I knew the museum well and the new director, Kristy Edmunds, is such a forward thinker.

He approached Edmunds and Susan Killam, the museum’s managing director of performing arts, about bringing the installation to North Adams.

“For me, it was my number one choice. Some people might say, ‘It’s a bit off the beaten path, why not New York or Los Angeles or somewhere more urban?’ And I say, 'There’s something about it being nestled in nature,'” he said. “If I’m talking about the healing properties of nature and music and community, then [Mass MoCA] has the ideal space. And they also have the ideal space in the Hunter Center — a massive black box theater with 30-foot-high ceilings.”

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6229. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.

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