A word from Walter Boudreau

(Joint Artistic Director, Millennium Symphony)

Almost 35 years have passed since that Sunday morning in the spring of 1965, when I found myself perilously perched on the eastern slope of Mount Royal. From my vantage point, the splendid panorama of Montreal gently awakening to the sounds of a thousand and one church bells unfolded before my eyes. I then imagined a kind of mega symphony that would blend the rich sounds of these bells with originally-composed music, performed live by hundreds of musicians strategically positioned on the mountain near those bell towers.

The first thing that struck me was the “space” these bells occupied, an enormous soundscape compared to the conventional concert hall or even the grandest amphitheatre built by humankind. On that Sunday morning, this city, usually so filled with noise, so alive with the coming and going of people, was astonishingly silent. The contrast that my mind imagined was all the more gripping.

From this (relative) silence arose in me a dramatic sense of sound perspectives and different depths of sonorous projection. I began to distinguish and to evaluate the approximate distance that separated my person from the church belfries, and to measure the vastness of the space in which I found myself. The bell towers acted like acoustic buoys or lighthouses because of their sheer intensity and the trajectory of the signals they emitted. A new and powerful spatial territory was revealed.

What an experience!

Intoxicated by this aural and visual drama, I then imagined a great pealing of brass instruments answering the call of the bells, and enormous waves of sound coming from woodwinds and strings swirling like immense maelstroms above me. These were joined by the voices of women, men, and children swept up by the wind and carried to the four corners of the city, nourished and transported along the crescendos of percussion instruments and the drumming of drums! I heard the shock waves of bells in a continual pendulum swing, punctuated by titanesque orchestral unison sounds that alternated with explosive, kaleidoscopic counterpoint… I was in heaven!

But how the devil would one organise such a thing!

I resolved to find a compromise, a solution that would give each listener the illusion of personally occupying my niche on the slope of the mountain. How could I possibly give others the opportunity to savour all of the subtleties of sound that I had been privileged to experience at the precise moment and place in which I found myself?

Now I was swept away in mind and spirit. We would have to use monstrous amplification devices, obtain the services of hundreds of musicians, devise rehearsal schedules of a mind-boggling complexity, select the church bells, assign sound engineers and operators to each of them, verify the pitch tones of those bells and check their mechanisms, block off certain city streets, call on officers of the peace, think of utilities and emergency medical help, and then make sure that radio and television crews were willing and available to broadcast the entire thing… And that wasn’t all!

What shape had to be given to the musical score, where would all these musicians rehearse, how would efficient communication between all participants be achieved?

The problems were just beginning…

To synchronise the pealing of bells was not a major obstacle, because churches ring the Mass at six AM and six PM, more or less simultaneously. All one has to do in this case is set the watches and off we go at the signal!

But how to synchronise musicians separated from one another by sheer kilometres (remember that in 1965 computers and wireless telephones were still in their infancy!)? Kilometres of electrical wiring would be required to feed the microphones in front of each location and bell tower, with mounting device and sound technicians at each place. And on top of all that, the problems of sound transmission delay!

Now sound travels at approximately 1170 feet per second, implying that music played by group A separated from group B by a distance of 3510 feet would take 3 seconds to travel from one to the other. Multiply this by 10 or 15 groups of musicians and you get a serious large-scale NIGHTMARE! (The viability of my “titanesque” orchestral unison sounds had just taken a beating…)

Naturally fearing for my sanity, and in the light of these formidable obstacles (and there would certainly be more), I decided to give myself a few years of reflection, the time for technology to develop, and to adopt the wise attitude that “Rome was not built in a day…”

In 1997 when the Conseil québécois de la musique began to ask musicians to submit their ideas for a Millennium celebration, I decided that this was the time to reawaken the utopian “monster” that had lain dormant in the recesses of my mind for all those years since 1965.

Briefly - and I will spare you the meandering of internal debates and countless revisions of the project - what follows will describe how we gradually came to the idea of establishing the Millennium Symphony on the site of Saint Joseph’s Oratory. From atop Mount Royal (whose access was too difficult) we descended to Lafontaine Park; from Lafontaine Park, a parade of floats filled with musicians - for Montrealers love parades - would come down Sherbrooke toward the Olympic Stadium (a 3.5 kilometre distance); from the Olympic Stadium (too big and too expensive), we returned to Lafontaine Park and re-directed ourselves to the terrace at Place des Arts (too small) along downtown streets (distance: 2 kilometres); from Place des Arts, we again returned to Lafontaine Park for the (at last!) final destination: Saint Joseph’s Oratory (7 kilometres away: too far).

Eureka! Admiring this gem of Montreal’s inestimable architectural heritage from below, we at last beheld our ideal site! No more parades! 25 000 to 30 000 spectators could easily be accommodated and surrounded by hundreds of musicians (whose playing would be amplified) grouped along various stages on the site. Thanks to computer technology, the church bells would be pre-recorded and “virtually” present on site. Sound could be directed at will, and transmission delays, while they remained a problem, were now surmountable. In addition, the public could even participate in the gigantic event: we would provide them with hand bells that they could play at precise moments in the course of the work. Easy access, beautiful surroundings, total participation: our nightmare was over.

The Millennium Symphony could never be the work of a single man. Life is too short to come to such a result in so brief a time. I called on 18 of my composer colleagues, and they accepted the challenge that all of us know is unique in the history of music: to collectively compose a work lasting over 90 minutes and using 350 musicians, the Oratory’s great organ and carillon, 15 church bells, 2 fire engine bells, and 2000 hand bell ringers!

Thank you all, and particularly Michel Duchesneau, the SMCQ’s Director General who replied, when I set the project in front of him: “Walter, let’s do it!”

Another special word of thanks also to my friend and composer Denys Bouliane who immediately grasped the meaning and interest of the project and without whom the adventure would never have seen the light of day.

Walter Boudreau

A word from Denys Bouliane

(Joint Artistic Director, Millennium Symphony)

From Dream to Reality

We are in the Year of Grace 1997, and the end of the millennium approaches… In the musical milieu, a handsome fervour grips us. There is a fascination for the grandeur and miseries of the past century, a need to understand the meaning of its plain facts, a desire to define its living forces. Retrospectives are planned, thematic events are conceived to mark the approaching rite of passage. For the artisans of musical creation, it is a time for questioning the art, to reflect on its social meaning. But the new millennium also heralds the desire to conjure and affirm the presence of music, its very necessity.

Then Walter Boudreau talked to me about his old dream…a symphony for a whole city, with its bell towers, with its full complement of musicians. The project immediately fascinated me because of its proportions, but also because it seemed to provide the truest possible catalyst for the creative forces we were looking for. Was this not the ideal opportunity to symbolically anchor Quebec’s musical creativity in the context of its “cultural habitat”?

How was it going to be possible to unite all of these creative forces, to organise the necessary human resources to accomplish the aims of such a work without succumbing to incoherence? How were we going to unite so many participants, both physically and musically? Along what conducting thread? According to what terms, what type of manifestation, what protocol?

On innumerable occasions, we consulted and discussed the project with composers, performers and artisans in the milieu, and we managed to obtain the commitment of many among them. Not only do they deserve Walter’s and my gratitude for listening; they must be warmly thanked for showing us their confidence even at a time when the intricacies and inherent difficulties of such a massive project were still ill-defined….

Let us recall certain main facts: 19 composers, 15 musical groups, 15 sets of church bells in various Montreal locations would total a performing force of close to 350. To this had to be added 2000 carriers and ringers of hand bells. The entire complement then had to join in the performance of a collective work lasting 90 minutes!

In late 1997 and in the course of 1998 several key structures devised to co-ordinate such a project had to be elaborated and studied in detail. During these months, maps, plans, sketches, schemas of all kinds began to coalesce as soon as the SMCQ accepted the enormous challenge of producing the event. A multi-disciplinary team was formed to include directors, co-ordinators, collaborators whose mandate was to deal with the logistics, site preparation, sound engineering, lighting, synchronisation, set design, communications, funding, etc…

All of this progressed to the point where Walter and I were able, as early as 1999, to get down to elaborating a general musical shape for the project. The challenge was to respect the individuality of each composer while requiring them to collaborate in an interactive process.

The first step was to “inhabit” the Oratory’s site, that is to physically distribute the instrumental ensembles in order to achieve contrasts of timbre and to give them perspective, while also obtaining a blend of colours. The positioning of the ensembles would necessarily have a determining effect on the nature of each work since it would allow us to use sound transmission on the site as a form-generating element. One can easily imagine great pendulum effects achieved by sound travelling, for example from front to back (say, between the Oratory’s organ and the Petits Chanteurs and I Musici), or from left to right (between the Ensemble contemporain de Montreal and the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne). There would also be the clash of sound masses, the gyrating and other sound movement from the centre to the periphery of the site (between, for example, the MSO in the centre and other ensembles taking up the signal on the outer confines), and conversely, from the periphery to the centre. This is real spatial music!…

Finally, a means of operation had to be devised for the composers and the performers. We had to invent and elaborate “game rules” that went way beyond the simple juxtaposition of available forces, and stick to them… Each composer would have to be associated with a designated ensemble in order to realise in concrete terms her or his musical score. Once this had been established and accepted, the types of procedures, from the most simple to the most complex, remained to be defined.

Types or modes of operation thus arose according to two categories of intervention: the SOLO intervention, and the GROUP intervention.

Within the SOLO intervention, two modes were defined:

First, the “autonomous” solo, where each composer creates alone a portion of the entire work. Thus a succession of extremely contrasting interventions, issuing from the composer’s individual creativity, is obtained. Second, the “dependent solo,” where the composer must account for the fragment composed by his or her colleague. This accounting for what comes before or after dictates the nature of the intervention. It also inspires mutations, hybridisation, and conversely, a more continuous flow.

The Group interactions occur when several ensembles play simultaneously. Here we suggested that a “principal ensemble” be associated with “subordinate ensembles.” Each ensemble may thus in turn assume the principal role and be attributed a certain number of subordinate groups. The composer to whom the principal ensemble is designated acts as a kind of game leader, offering fragments of music which his or her colleague can then “interpret” and orchestrate according to his or her individual style. One can imagine the rich and diverse types of interaction: complementary, discursive, punctual, timbre-related, textural (by varying the number of ensembles involved), etc.

Now we came to the question of a vital musical line, the conducting thread… Which element would be empowered to act as the unifier of this 90-minute, panoramic fresco? After several animated debates between composers, a consensus was arrived at: the Gregorian hymn VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS would be used as the work’s cantus firmus. The simplicity of the melody, but also its great purity, was a distinctive advantage. While endorsing its religious origin, we also felt that its inherent message of a “creative spirit” would be understood as an incitement to pure invention, to the pleasure of surrendering to the breath of inspiration… Would this spirit be granted us at times!

The overall shape of the Millennium symphony was organised into seven contrasting movements, each defined according to six “criteria”: the mode of interaction between ensembles (tutti, soli, homophonous, heterophonous), the imbedding of the cantus firmus, the relative speed of performance (tempi and tempo relations), the general feeling (exuberant, jubilant, fluid, contemplative, intense, obsessive, etc.), the general dynamics (explosive, implosive, crescendi, decrescendi, swells, etc.), and finally, the kind of spatial treatment (movements within space). In order to emphasise even more directly the participatory and “event-full” qualities of the Millennium Symphony, we proposed that 2000 hand bell ringers join in the musical celebration. The resulting ritual performed on the site would thus consecrate the celebratory ethos of the work, and give it the festive mark with which we wanted to stamp it.

Now, to utilise the sounds of 15 sets of church bells and to assemble such an important group of musicians divided into 15 ensembles on such a solemn site as Saint Joseph’s Oratory of necessity evokes a religious ritual… this was no accident. We wanted therewith to offer our contribution to the rich cultural heritage of Quebec, and to give this offering in a spirit transcending all denominations. By using the unifying call of church bells, the notion of a rite of passage, of purification, the magical symbolism of Paradise and Hell, and the states of contemplation and jubilation, we felt able to strengthen the pluralistic and elemental forces of each creator.

That is how the seven different movements of the work were conceived:
I - Herald (4 min.)
II - Hell (8 min.)
III - Purgatory (45 min.)
IV - Contemplation/Aurora borealis (5 min.)
V - Paradise (15 min.)
VI - Ascension (8 min.)
VII - Apotheosis-Epilogue (5 min.)

While most of the movements feature a close collaboration between the ensembles in the common direction of the work, in the movement entitled “Purgatory,” the Symphony’s longest section, the composers are given individual spaces of approximately 3 minutes in which they may proffer their own vision of Purgatory…

Since September of 1999, the 19 composers of the Millennium Symphony have met at regular intervals. At each of these meetings, we had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing the work grow, of tempering it with our input, of proposing improvements, all of which was accomplished in a climate of incredible intensity and vitality. Over the course of weeks, we have together filled heaps of pages, learned to better appreciate each creative vision, and respect that vision. We have above all joined in the experience of an entirely new form of collective work whose rules could not have been defined in advance and which had to be continuously reformulated.

The exercise of intense communication and exchange, which at times took on shades of frenzy, was aided and abetted by the support and inspiration of an absolutely top-rate team whose efforts were strengthened by the presence of the SMCQ group. I wish to particularly salute the serene energy of our Co-ordinator Brigitte Laguë, whose unbelievable efficiency was there for all to see, and the exemplary perseverance of Bernard Savoie, who has been in charge of steadfastly printing up the multiple versions of the musical score.

A great round of thanks again to all the composers, to the 15 ensembles and their musical directors, to the entire SMCQ team, and to all our colleagues who laboured at each and every level of the logistic conception and infrastructure of the Millennium Symphony organisation.

It is our fervent belief that this extraordinary spirit of labour well loved has found its way into the musical expression of the Millennium Symphony, and we can hardly wait for you to hear it!

Yes Walter, the craziest dreams can sometimes become reality!

Denys Bouliane