“Do you remember someone close singing to you?”
Irene Feher, mezzo-soprano
When was the last time that someone you are close to sang to you? Perhaps this question evokes memories of childhood, of lullabies and rocking chairs; perhaps a lover’s serenade, or a birthday celebration. Being sung to is akin to an act of kindness, generosity and care. It is a gift.
In Lee Mingwei’s Sonic Blossom (2013 – ongoing) at DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, it is not someone close who is offering a song. It is a stranger. But the gift remains meaningful and true. As visitors make their way through the exhibition L’OFFRE at 451 St-Jean Street on weekends, an opera singer wearing what Mingwei refers to as a “transformational cloak” meanders through the exhibition. They approach a visitor of their choice and say, “May I offer you the gift of song?” Should the visitor say yes, they accompany the singer to the fourth floor and are seated on a wooden chair. For the next three minutes, the selected visitor is the sole recipient of a private performance. Others may be in the room, listening and observing, but the song is really being sung for them alone.
Mingwei chose Schubert’s Lieder for this project due to a personal relationship with the music. During Mingwei’s youth, his mother used to play the Lieder. Mingwei recounted an anecdote of running around as a child and telling his mother to turn up the volume, as he couldn’t hear the music. She responded by telling him that he had to slow down and listen. The music required a certain attention. Years later, Mingwei and his mother listened to the same Lieder together as she was recovering from surgery. The music took on a new meaning. It was comforting to them both, but also a reminder of aging and of life’s fragility.
On Sunday, December 10 a room at the Phi Centre was transformed into a multi-disciplinary space to accommodate a performance, a lecture, an intimate round-table discussion, as well as tea, scones and macarons. The ambiance was cozy and comfortable, with sofas and chairs forming a semicircle around the grand piano, and the Phi Centre’s large windows bringing in light and happy scenes of winter in Old Montreal. Irene Feher, mezzo-soprano and voice teacher at Concordia University, accompanied by pianist Geneviève Jalbert, started off the event by singing six Schubert Lieder. Before each short song, Feher would translate the words into English, describing scenes of mountains and lakes, mist and moon, sunsets and peace. The purity and power of her voice filled the air, and the forty or so spectators were transported into the scenes that she described.
Following the performance, Feher began her “musings on the intangible nature of song.” In a manner that was light-hearted and personal, all the while being well researched and profound, Feher discussed her entry into the world of music, her discovery of Schubert, details about his life and the importance of song. She discussed Peggy Woodford’s biography on Schubert, describing him as a bohemian who disliked the “boring middle class” and was inspired by music, poetry and nature while ignoring money and business. She recounted that Schubert didn’t always have a piano at his disposal when composing, and how he would come alive during “Schubertiades,” intimate gatherings, during which he would play music for his friends. Feher pointed out how this is the spirit in which this event was organized, and spoke of cognitive psychologist and musician Daniel Levitin’s studies on how music connects people, synchronizes people, and encourages bonding. Feher stated that “music has the ability to convey what words cannot,” and affects people even if they do not speak the language in which the song is sung.
In an ode to music, Feher and the five opera singers who participate in Sonic Blossom (Samantha Borgal, Camille Brault, Alice Newman-Gougeon, Brittany Rae and Feng Xiong) sang Schubert’s To Music together, a song that thanks the “kindly art” of singing for warming hearts. Each singer, then, performed one of the Lieder that they sing to visitors during Sonic Blossom, with Feher translating in between each one. The Lieder involve musings on springtime to the faithful companionship of the moon; from the ephemeral nature of life to the peace of dreams.
And then, the floor opened up to a discussion period between the audience members and the performers. The connection that had been made right from the start – thanks to Feher’s open and friendly approach, the nature of song, and even the gesture of serving tea and sweets – was deepened even more. The performers answered questions generously, with honesty and humour. They spoke about their own journeys to music, their introduction to Sonic Blossom, and some of their more memorable experiences with this project. Brault discussed how she had wanted to participate in Sonic Blossom when it took place at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2015, but it hadn’t worked out. She is thrilled to be part of the project now.
When asked how they choose who to sing to, the answers varied. Sometimes they choose the person who they can see wants to be chosen, and who has come specifically to live the experience. Other times, the connection is harder. Borgal, a music therapist by profession, talked about tuning in to non-verbal cues and building trust. Rae spoke about having to wait, sometimes, for the person who they are singing to to let go, “and then a calm happens.” Feng mentioned that sometimes, that calm doesn’t happen, and people smile politely and awkwardly through the three minutes.
Newman-Gougeon relayed an encounter with a hesitant man whose friend encouraged him to accept the gift. As the music began, he looked at the singer and said, “Schubert, right?” As she nodded and began to sing, he began to cry. Schubert was his wife’s favourite composer, and he hadn’t listened to the music since she passed away three years ago. Feher spoke about the hugs that people give after the song, as if they were old friends, and ended with “thank you, Schubert”.
Indeed, thank you, Schubert. And thank you Mingwei, Borgal, Brault, Feher, Newman-Gougeon, Rae and Xiong. It was a musical afternoon to remember.
Written by Amanda Beattie, Educator at DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art
Photos: Marc-Olivier Bécotte
The exhibition L'OFFRE is on view at DHC/ART until March 11.