A Symphony for Your Senses

The SAT Presents a Visual Voyage Inspired by John Adams’ Orchestral Work

The SATosphere’s latest show launches viewers through an experimental symphony performed by Montreal’s Orchestra Symphony. Photos Jake Russell

Orchestral symphonies can sweep listeners away into faraway worlds with their atmospheric ballads, breathing inspiration and wonder with every note—and Montreal’s Société des Arts Technologiques wants to take that feeling to a literal level.

Part of the Montréal en Lumiére arts festival, the SAT is now presenting a dreamy and immersive orchestral film experience, Harmonielehre, in its full-dome theatre known as the SATosphere. The theatre is an impressive four-storey high and 18-metre wide dome that invites architectural comparisons to the lofty ceilings of mosques and cathedrals.

Through the magic of eight brilliant video projectors and 157 surrounding speakers, the dome functions as a cinema for the metaphysical and the awe-inspiring—in this case, Harmonielehre creates a visual life for a work of music.

The film is a phantasmic visualization of a symphonic piece of the same name by American composer John Adams. The piece is performed by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and the accompanying film is an image-based materialization of the music.

The film takes the shape of an Odyssean journey through Montreal’s real life symphony hall to desolate landscapes of Roman ruins to internal mathematical workings of the piece itself manifesting on the dome. The result is an often-overlapping kaleidoscope of imaginary and real landscapes, all set to the soundtrack of the powerful symphony.

“Pascal Pelletier, [owner of the production company] Figure 55, had the broad idea of bringing the OSM into the SAT,” said Michel Lam, the film’s director. “He really liked the dome and he had the idea that it could be a nice setting to see and hear the OSM in a different way.

“It was confronting the OSM with a new perspective,” Lam continued. “We sat down with [OSM music director Kent Nagano] and pursued the idea. He came to the SAT to watch some demos and chose the piece by John Adams and then I wrote the basis for the script, and we took it from there.”

Working mostly in documentary films, Lam’s resume includes other works that deal with intersections between music and screen. His National Film Board work Et la Musique deals with the role that music plays in the day-to-day lives of children living in his native Eastern townships.

Lam also directed the television documentary series Arrière-scène, which explores the everyday struggles of musicians in Quebec’s franco rock/pop industry.

But the opportunities for experimentation and expansion at the SAT have made Harmonielehre one of Lam’s favourite works yet.

“[Working at the SAT] opened me up to a wholly new experience. I think it’s very exciting, this possibility of not telling a story per se, but immersing the public into something,” he said.

“I’m finding new ways to understand the medium and I really like how it can be used to combine forms of art. Instead of telling the story, we insert the audience.”

The music of Harmonielehre consists of the three-part symphonic work by John Adams, written in 1985. Adams, who is more commonly known for his operatic work Nixon in China, once said the inspiration for the “Harmonielehre” piece came to him in his sleep.

Driving across the bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland, Adams dreamt that he saw a massive oil tanker glide across the surface of the water and suddenly turn upright before taking off “like a Saturn rocket.”

“This particular piece is a combination of [a] really structured and really intelligent thought process. Its something really planned out and precise and incredibly informed,” Lam said.

“At the same time, it becomes something completely poetic and lyrical which is different. You can’t always say that about modern contemporary music. What’s great is that fine line that Adams crosses all the time through the piece and through his work.”

As Michel explains, the SAT’s presentation of Harmonielehre looks at the fundamental beauty, wonder, and ultimately what amounts to magic when the lines between these disciplines are blurred.

“I think that kind of combination can actually bring new audiences to contemporary music,” he said.

Harmonielehre // March 11 to March 21 // Société des Arts Technologiques (1201 Ste. Catherine St. W.) // 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday // $24.20