The sound of music and silence

It was a welcome respite to step out of the wind and cold and into the warmth and peace of the Mount Allison Chapel for an hour of organ music last Friday evening.

The resounding tones of the organ, played by Nicholas Veltmeyer, organist and pianist from Halifax, ushered people into the room. This performance was in collaboration with visual artist William Robinson’s exhibition at Struts Gallery, opening that same night as part of the Stereophonic Music Festival that took place in Sackville last week.

Summoned by the music and a desire to view the performer at the organ in the balcony, the audience was guided into the middle of the building and away from the main pews, congregating at the front of the chapel and upper balconies.

Third-year fine arts student Evan Furness was in attendance. “I liked how when you walked in, it wasn’t apparent where the music was coming from, since you didn’t see the performer. I [also] liked how it was three looped songs so you could stop by, listen to the pieces, and then leave at any point after,” Furness said.

This drop-in style was all-inclusive, with both students and community members in attendance. Small children watched entranced. At times, a baby could be heard chattering.

Veltmeyer plays Robinson’s composition
Savannah Mileen Harris/The Argosy

Long pauses in between pieces added to the dramatics of the presentation, leaving the church silent, except for haunting reverberations facilitating small pockets of conversation or reflection. This made the eventual continuation of the music all the more striking. Personally, I felt chills every time the music continued and was moved emotionally to a state of both relaxation and reflection in response.

Robinson is also from Halifax and produces audio-visual art that consists of site-specific installations, performances, videos, musical compositions, sculptures and printed materials. He has received a Canada Council for the Arts audio research grant for this past year and was also a Sobey Art Award Atlantic regional finalist last year. Robinson explores how the combination of sound and music can bring out narratives of society and history that may have been lying unnoticed in sites or environments.

On Friday night, such an exploration was made of the Mt. A chapel, connected to geological, geographical, industrial and historical origins of its physical components. This was done by performing organ pieces that had been composed by layering the building plans of the Pickard Quarry and the Mt. A chapel over each other and putting this image into a program that translated, where the lines intersected, into musical notation.

Veltmeyer’s presentation of this organ music was streamed at the opening of Robinson’s show at Struts gallery by a videographer and photographer present in the chapel.

Third-year student Caroline Chamandy said, “I went to the performance and the art exhibition opening [and] found the performance to be both powerful and eerie … initially, it reminded me of [the] German expressionist film [genre].”

The contrast in organ music between bright tones and eerie dissonance seemed to beautifully show both the baseness of the Quarry and the architecturally elevated Chapel in a combination that succeeded in making both more complete in their unity.

To sum up the experience is best done by quoting the young children who were in attendance and, observing and listening in awe, couldn’t help but say “wow”.

Emma Bush