Experiencing Harmony. Sight Sound, and Space

Harmonie Lehre. Photo Sebastien Roy Harmonie Lehre. Photo Sebastien Roy

The MSO and the SAT are teaming up to bring us Harmonielehre, a stunning film mash-up of the MSO performing John Adams’s contemporary masterpiece of the same title in the SAT’s Satosphere, a 360-degree projection sphere. The result is a multi-layer, immersive experience which, true to the piece’s namesake (Harmonielehre translates to “study of harmony”) unifies sight and sound, innovation and tradition, new and old.

The piece was inspired by a dream in which Adams, while driving across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, saw an oil tanker on the surface of the water abruptly turn upright and take off like a Saturn V rocket. As a reaction to this vision, Adams composed Harmonielehre into three movements: express liberation, spiritual sickness, and grace.

The music alone, with its persistent rhythms, long melodic lines, and bold harmonic structures, transport the listener to another realm. The accompanying “graphic poetry” of the film, such as a ghost ship passing under Bay Bridge, a Dali-inspired desert-scape, and an expansive starry galaxy provide a vision for the realm which the music already evokes. As we reclined on elongated black couches at the centre of the 360-degree spherical theatre, we inhabited the core of the music and were transported on that eerie ship, we passed between those imposing columns, and blasted up and away into the night sky. A musical and visual journey through time and space, Harmonielehre successfully achieves the SAT team’s goal to send the audience into “different levels of reality.”

Harmonie Lehre. Photo Sebastien Roy

Harmonie Lehre. Photo Sebastien Roy

Nagano spoke about his initial apprehension towards the SAT team’s idea to create a listening and viewing experience. “C’est très rare que les visuelles ajoutent quelque chose à l’écoute,” he said, stressing that our visual sense is so strong that it often overwhelms everything else. Nevertheless, when the team at the SAT described their work as “graphic poetry,” Nagano was won over and gave the project the go ahead. Once he saw the final product. Nagano confessed that he was provoked by the visual images. The surround sound added yet another layer to the experience. This project was the first time Nagano worked with surround sound and the Statosphere created a space where the music cradled the audience. On that note, Nagano mentioned that he even felt the sound in his derriere!

I snagged a seat next to Alain Desgagné, a clarinetist with the MSO, who explained to me that this project gave the audience a unique opportunity to experience the piece the way the orchestra does. “This film gives the audience the ability to crawl inside the music,” Desgagné said. “Usually, the audience hears the piece in front of them. It’s a very different feeling being at the centre of so much harmony.”

Harmonielehre runs Tuesdays – Fridays at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. from February 19th to March 21th at the Satosphère of the SAT (1201 St. Laurent).$24.20