The Labyrinth Project at Harbourfront Centre

The Labyrinth Project

Harbourfront Centre, Toronto,

August 7th and 8th 2010

A few year ago I knew my art practice was changing and I wished  and looked for opportunities to collaborate with other artists. The Labyrinth Project at Harbourfront Centre was a true manifestation of that desire. At the invitation of visionary lead programmer at Harbourfront Mitch Smolkin, our labyrinthian collaborator, composer John Burke knew Vanessa and I could lay a tape labyrinth in two hours, so when the need arose he contacted us. John was commissioned by Euterpe Corporation  (a not-for-profit arts group) to create a composition for piano trio where the setting of the performance would be a labyrinth walk. After months of preparation, negotiation and practice we travelled to Harbourfront Centre on Toronto’s lakeshore equipped with a box of tape and knee pads.

In the Brigantine Room we created a seven-circuit Petite Chartres labyrinth at 36’. While we were constructing the labyrinth the Harbourfront crew questioned us about the lighting design requirements while the Steinway piano that had just been delivered was being tuned. Several Harbourfront volunteers showed up to lend a hand in the construction of the labyrinth and we put them to work helping to lay the tape. It was a pleasure to work with young woman who learned quickly and paid attention to details. We were on a tight time line and had to wrap up our work for the evening before we had completed the job. The next morning we finished the labyrinth and started to embellish it with candles, a centerpiece and a gateway of candle standards. Meanwhile the musicians arrived and began to practice. Ensemble Vivant, a piano trio directed by pianist Catherine Wilson, is a dedicated group of superb musicians and we looked forward to hearing for the first time John Burke’s new composition for the labyrinth entitled Hieratikos.

Here is a link to a crazy time lapse video of the installation process, curtisy of  Robert DiVito.

http://www.robertdivito.com/2012/07/06/labyrinth-project/

Just as we were finishing up Vanessa thought it would be nice to have flowers to float in the water of the centerpiece. We sent out an SOS message to my husband Dan who was having lunch with his sister before coming to the performance. In the end it was my sister-in-law who was able to procure the dozen orange marigolds we desired to complete our installation. The marigolds are symbolic, Vanessa suggested, of prosperity and abundance. How appropriate!

Our time had passed quickly and it was time to get changed out of our work clothes, light the candles and open the doors to the public. I felt a great mixture of relief and anxiety. Yes, we had made the labyrinth in the short time we had and it was a gem and now twinkled with candle light and stood ready. There were still unknown. Would any of the audience want to get up and walk the labyrinth in the concert setting? The musicians had an enormous score to master and they were very intense as they worked over the details of the dense score. The program was long in order to allow the 100 or so audience participants time to walk the labyrinth, if they so chose.

Michael Lyons, the radio host of Classical 96.3 FM was the MC and introduced the piece and the performers. Vanessa spoke of the concepts of the labyrinth in gentle poetic language that was intended to become a  part of the piece. John Burke created the first sounds with a beautiful singing bowl and I opened the labyrinth, leading the way carrying the last-minute marigolds for the water bowl at the centre. The audience members were quick to take up the invitation to walk the labyrinth and soon I was not alone walking the labyrinth. When I got to the centre I placed the marigolds one at a time into the water bowl that held 36 floating candles. With each flower I offered a silent prayer of gratitude.

While I have had many opportunities to walk labyrinth with live music, this day I found the usual input of visual stimulation that I experience on a day to day basis seemed to lessen and recede as my awareness of the music was foregrounded. Never have I listened so closely or perhaps so well. The music filled a large part of my awareness and I was attentive to the changing storyline, structure and marked repetitions. The musicians played with great intensity the complex undulations of the score that articulates the journey of the hero. John Burke has spent 10 or more years considering and working out how to illustrate and animate the archetypal  story of the hero’s journey. It’s a classic myth that crosses all cultures and yet is also familiar to all people. We are all cycling through this archetypal story many times during our lives. In fact it seems that Vanessa and I  were going through our own experience of the hero’s journey as we worked thought this project and then again as we each made the journey in the labyrinth.

The music program seemed long and some of the participants had an opportunity to walk the labyrinth twice. John “bookended” the performance with “Mysterium” his original composition that articulates the Hero’s Journey. Mysterium is now a familiar favorite of mine as I have had the pleasure of hearing it several times in other concerts and recordings and at our own labyrinth walks where John performed it on the piano.

The afternoon performance ended very gently without applause (as the audience had been requested earlier) and the participants slowly made their way out of the hall. We were all exhausted from the preparations and performance and each made our way home for a much needed nap!

Our next challenge was to create an outdoor labyrinth on the astroturf lawn surrounding Harbourfront’s Redpath Stage. We arrived at 8pm at the site, to find the lawn covered in people on a warm summer evening, just as the earlier concert ended. While we got our tools and equipment ready the lawn quietly emptied of all of the people and several picnic tables, chairs and umbrellas. The Harbourfront site is staffed by a team of highly organized, helpful and friendly staff who attend to all the details, right down to sweeping the artificial lawn! Another group of volunteers stood ready to help out while the the technical staff began laying out hundreds of feet of LED rope lighting. Did I say that Vanessa and I have never made a labyrinth on a plastic lawn out of rope lighting? Another challenge, yes, we found ourselves on the journey of the Hero and this was yet another test.

We had very briefly visited the site the previous February in the fading winter light and then received a site sketch by email from Harbourfront staff. We made a plan based on the information provided but, when we measured the site we had to make several changes. Interestingly, the alterations we were forced to make turned out to be improvements! The creative process is always a dynamic one. We marked out 6 circles around the stage and began laying out the lighting. Trouble came when only one of the technical crew was able to make the many splices needed to connect the pieces of rope lighting. Eventually Vanessa and I found ourselves standing on the sidelines no longer able to help out and waiting for the technical staff to make magic with electricity.

The musicians arrived, this time two trios of Ensemble Vivant and The Urban Flute Project. The sound checks were not going well. It was 10:00 pm, the appointed hour and the labyrinth was not ready. The technicians were still connecting the lengths of lighting and half of the labyrinth pattern was glowing. The site began to fill with people as the big stage concert had just ended and the tension of people waiting began to be uncomfortably palpable. Michael Lyons and I waited on stage to make the introductions and the musicians continued to tune and practice as we all waited. Then magically out of the dark the labyrinth was illuminated!

Vanessa was at the mouth of the labyrinth wondering how to deal with so many people while I took my position at the edge of the stage to direct people up the stairs, across the stage and then back into the labyrinth. After a brief introduction but without ceremony the music of Mysterium began and the labyrinth was open. People filed in, a steady stream one right after the other. At first my reaction was dread, as I myself don’t enjoy being in a crowd or a line up, and then as I watched the walkers I began to wonder if that tight line, which now looked like a procession was allowing the walkers to more quickly transition into the semi-trance state of the labyrinth.   After all it was only the first person, who happened to be a young boy (carrying a toy sword!) who had to figure out where to go – the rest just followed.

The two music trios played with and off each other while the sound crew continued to struggle to get the sound levels right. As the first people came off the stage to make their way back into the labyrinth I had to “part the sea” of oncoming traffic to make room for the returning participants. It seemed to confuse people that they had to share the path with  others who were moving in the opposite direction. I watched and wondered how people were receiving this metaphor? “What, I have to share the path with others ? ”

A friend of mine told me afterwards that when he heard the Vivaldi piece played by Ensemble Vivant he was immediately transported back to a church in Vienna where he had last heard that piece performed. Such is the power of music to evoke memory! Often in the labyrinth we try not to introduce extraneous elements and focus more on the symbolic and metaphorical stimuli, allowing the music to establish and maintain the container of the labyrinth rather than evoke a different time and place.

People were very appreciative and greeted and thanked Vanessa and I. Even though we were located in the heart of a bustling festival/market place, I do believe people were able to have a taste of the meditative quality of the labyrinth. By 11:30 the evening was winding down, the labyrinth emptied and I began to feel the effects of a very long day, along with a great sense of contentment at a job well done. We will never know the full effects of our work, but we do get a glimpse though the comments and the faces of participants

The next day, after a lovely breakfast with friends we had one more performance of Hieratikos on the indoor labyrinth. We re-set the labyrinth and this time shortened our introduction and prepared to shorten the program as we were uncertain on this Sunday afternoon if we would have a full house. By the time the Trio had played the introduction we all knew it was a different day. There was a full audience and the mood and energy in the room was markedly different from the day before. There was a quality of quiet calm that graced the room. The musicians seemed to be flowing with the music and I let the participants into the labyrinth in a much more elongated and slow pace. John Burke sat with eyes closed hearing what he had only been able to imagine before. I did wonder what it was like for him to witness his vision unfolding in real time. There were several young families attending and we coached and encouraged the young ones to lead the way for their parents. How different it is to experience live music while engaging the body in this slow meditative walk. I wondered what it was like for the kids? Wondered if others were having a similar experience of amplified auditory input? Afterwards I noticed the children lounging in their parent’s arms, content to take it all in. The premiere performance the day before had been all about nerves and anxiety on everyone’s part. This day was genuinely different!  We ended the afternoon to a round of applause for both musicians, the composer and the experience as a whole was very gratifying!

Here is what composer John Burke has to say about the “Hieratikos” experience:

It is a well-known spiritual principle that one doesn’t awaken without challenges. That is the ethos of my approach to the merging of music and the labyrinth. Classical music, and in particular the classical music of our time, presupposes a journey involving challenges and the transcending of those challenges, in order to access a higher integration.

In the case of “Hieratikos,” the performers play demanding music non-stop for the better part of an hour, all the while maintaining concentration and interpretive focus. The work is designed to provoke and activate an inner journey that the artists must undertake in order for their efforts to be of benefit to the labyrinth pilgrims. This is the archetype of transformation that mythologist Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. It implies a relinquishing of the old way of life and an initiation through tests and trials that empowers the hero to return to his or her former reality with the boon that can help others.

When my music interacts with the labyrinth an alchemy takes place that is quite different from what occurs when the same music is performed in a concert hall setting. The most compelling result is that the great divide, the fourth wall of the proscenium stage, between the performers and auditors is dissolved. There then arises a mysterious synergy between the performers and participants, each energizing and inspiring the other. To their surprise and delight the players find themselves reconnecting with their original idealistic commitment to music, which can all too readily be lost sight of given the realities of the musical world.

As might be expected, this dynamic requires artists of a high caliber in order to be effective. Ensemble Vivant, comprising pianist Catherine Wilson, violinist Joseph Peleg, and cellist Mary Katherine Finch, proved to be ideal collaborators. They accepted the musical challenges with great energy and aplomb, and rode with them admirably. By the second performance a transformation had begun to take place whereby the synergy between performers and walkers was palpable. One could sense a new sensitivity and generosity in the playing, as the musicians extended their gift to the participants. One challenge that pianist Catherine Wilson faced was the requirement to improvise in solo passages, something she had never attempted before. Here again improvisation, being in the moment, takes on a new significance and importance at the labyrinth. She accepted the challenge gracefully and a compelling sound world was the result.

-John Burke

After a quick clean up, we packed our gear and headed off for a “victory dinner” as Catherine called it. We returned to the restaurant where we had meet many months earlier to conceive and plan what we had just enacted thereby “bookending” our Labyrinth Project. Kudos and a toast to Mitch Smolkin of Harbourfront’s Programming staff for his vision and encouragement in supporting our collaborations around the labyrinth. Everyone was bubbling over as we reviewed our weekend’s work. It had been many months in the making and now that it was over we bubbled over with plans for the next chapter of the journey of music in the labyrinth. Stay tuned……..

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5 thoughts on “The Labyrinth Project at Harbourfront Centre

  1. Hi Barbara – I just read every word of your wonderful blog post about the Harbourfront labyrinth weekend! I was literally tingling as I read it – congratulations! Too bad I couldn’t hear the music at the same time…

    Thanks to you and Vanessa for all you do!

  2. Great blog, Barb. It happened just like that!

    Some observations:
    It is fascinating to see the same scene through different perspectives, for example, in the outdoor labyrinth when you were greeting people at the centre that I had welcomed into the entrance. Individuals stand out for me: the eager determined little boy with the sword leading the charge at the beginning; a bickering young couple consciously undertaking to “navigate” their relationship through the twists and turns of the path; the troubled young woman suddenly aware of her tendency to rush everything; the splendid Jamaican corn soup vendor swaying along arm in arm with her beautiful daughters together at the end of a long day. How did they appear to you, I wonder?

    Similarly, your curiosity about and sensitivity to the technicians, volunteers, organisers, musicians, participants, and especially to John, hearing with his eyes closed (and feeling with his other senses) to his piece which until then had only existed in his imagination seems also to be heightened by the labyrinth context.

    You mention your acute attention to the music, less distracted by visual stimuli “never have I listened so closely, or listened so well”. This brings to mind a couple of things: the anatomical “labyrinth” of the ear, that most intimate, relational, affective and inescapable of the senses, a reminder that the labyrinth was designed by people living in an oral, generally preliterate culture, not the visually oriented, print-based post-Cartesian one characteristic of modernity, but which we appear to be moving beyond! Before, there were sounds; now, we have the concept of “noise” (hopefully, after Jac O’Keeffe has been amongst us on September 10th, we’ll be ready to move beyond this dualism!).

    The second, related idea about listening comes from the philosopher David Levin’s description of our human relations as based in respect for what he calls the “irreducible, unpossessable dimensionality” of other “sonorous beings,” with whom we are simultaneously interconnected and yet always, and properly, distinct (from his book The Listening Self , quoted in my thesis Understanding The Labyrinth as Transformative Site, Symbol, and Technology which is here http://www.labyrinthed.com/articles.cfm, pp 2, 147 ). Levin writes of the need to think about “practices of the self” that understand the essential intertwining of self and other, self and society, and that are aware of the subtle complexities of this intertwining. Such practices should heighten awareness of and attunement to percepts of self and other (including the transpersonal) on the border states between the tactile and the not (yet) conscious or even the supra-rational, dimensions most readily accessible through the metaphorical languages of poetry, phenomenology, and art.

    So it would seem we are on the right track with making this “practice of the self” available. You noticed the effect on the mighty crowd on Saturday evening, and on the families whose children led them into the labyrinth and then rested together afterwards in relaxed contemplation. We could feel the effect amongst ourselves and the musicians, technicians, and the composer, a combination of vision and flow.

  3. Great blog, Barb. It happened just like that!

    Some observations:
    It is fascinating to see the same scene through different perspectives, for example, in the outdoor labyrinth when you were greeting people at the centre that I had welcomed into the entrance. Individuals stand out for me: the eager determined little boy with the sword leading the charge at the beginning; a bickering young couple consciously undertaking to “navigate” their relationship through the twists and turns of the path; the troubled young woman suddenly aware of her tendency to rush everything; the splendid Jamaican corn soup vendor swaying along arm in arm with her beautiful daughters together at the end of a long day. How did they appear to you, I wonder?

    Similarly, your curiosity about and sensitivity to the technicians, volunteers, organisers, musicians, participants, and especially to John, hearing with his eyes closed (and feeling with his other senses) to his piece which until then had only existed in his imagination seems also to be heightened by the labyrinth context.

    You mention your acute attention to the music, less distracted by visual stimuli “never have I listened so closely, or listened so well”. This brings to mind a couple of things: the anatomical “labyrinth” of the ear, that most intimate, relational, affective and inescapable of the senses, a reminder that the labyrinth was designed by people living in an oral, generally preliterate culture, not the visually oriented, print-based post-Cartesian one characteristic of modernity, but which we appear to be moving beyond! Before, there were sounds; now, we have the concept of “noise” (hopefully, after Jac O’Keeffe has been amongst us on September 10th, we’ll be ready to move beyond this dualism!).

    The second, related idea about listening comes from the philosopher David Levin’s description of our human relations as based in respect for what he calls the “irreducible, unpossessable dimensionality” of other “sonorous beings,” with whom we are simultaneously interconnected and yet always, and properly, distinct (from The Listening Self , quoted in Understanding The Labyrinth as Transformative Site, Symbol, and Technology http://www.labyrinthed.com/articles.cfm, pp 2, 147 ). Levin writes of the need to think about ‘practices of the self’ that understand the essential intertwining of self and other, self and society, and that are aware of the subtle complexities of this intertwining. Such practices should heighten awareness of and attunement to percepts of self and other (including the transpersonal) on the border states between the tactile and the not (yet) conscious or even the supra-rational, dimensions most readily accessible through the metaphorical languages of poetry, phenomenology, and art.

    So it would seem we are on the right track with making this “practice of the self” available. You noticed the effect on the mighty crowd on Saturday evening, and on the families whose children led them into the labyrinth and then rested together afterwards in relaxed contemplation. We could feel the effect amongst ourselves and the musicians, technicians, and the composer, a combination of vision and flow.

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