Midnight on Saturday is not a time many people would traditionally associate with poetry. But then, there was much that was not traditional aboutThe Composition Engine, a performance art installation curated by Toronto’s Anglican Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields on Oct. 4 in conjunction with Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, an annual all-night arts festival that takes place across downtown Toronto.
The installation, first created by Peter Drobac (choir director at St. Silouan the Athonite Orthodox Mission Parish) and the Rev. Maggie Helwig (who is also a poet and novelist) in 2012, came from a simple question: what would you get if you had a recital or poetry reading where the audience could select and mix different pieces of music or text to create a living, evolving composition? Would it be beautiful, or would it just be a mess?
As it turns out, what you get is a transcendently beautiful mess. Walking into The Composition Engine at St. Stephen’s on Saturday night, audience members were surrounded by readers, singers and musicians positioned in various places around the sanctuary. Each performer stood next to a lamp, and audience members could activate the musicians or readers by turning on their lamps, or silence them by turning them off. The effect was powerful, as different melodies combined and were interwoven with echoing lines of poetry.
2014 is the first year that The Composition Engine has been held in St. Stephen’s Church (in past years, it was held at the chapel of Trinity College at the University of Toronto), and when asked about the changes that come with the new venue, Maggie Helwig, the priest-in-charge at St. Stephen’s, noted that people seemed more aware of the place’s sacred nature. “Trinity Chapel people seem to treat it just as space. Here, there is a little more of a sense of people being a little more nervous to move around.”
The way people interacted with what they were hearing was a little different as well.
Helwig acknowledged that The Composition Engine might challenge the assumptions of some audience members about what kind of poetry should be read in a church. “I’ve read through Dennis Lee’s Testament twice [so far tonight] and through most of Tim Lilburn’s Tourist to Ecstasy” she said, noting that while Dennis Lee is a practising Christian and that Tim Lilburn was a Jesuit when he wrote his book, “both of them also use a lot of erotic language-a lot of what would sound, I think, to most people, like sacrilegious or blasphemous language.”
Maggie Sulc, a Toronto playwright who attends St. Stephen’s Saturday night service and performed as a reader in the installation, also talked about the power of using texts not frequently heard in church; for example, American poet Carolyn Forché’s 1994 collection The Angel of History. “I didn’t expect it to, but it’s really affecting me emotionally. It’s all about the Holocaust and atomic bombs. Pain, death, and genocide…Even though it’s kind of odd to throw myself into that emotionally, I think it’s more effective and makes the whole Engine work better.”
Helwig, who estimates that around 500 people passed through the installation over the course of the evening, was eloquent about the importance of art as a way for churches to communicate with the wider world. “The church has been, and can still be, a space for artistic exploration which has real aesthetic credibility and isn’t just a devotional product; it means taking the risk of moving out of comfort zones on both sides, but that’s what both art and faith should be about, anyway.”
So, will The Composition Engine be coming back next year? Helwig was unsure. “Something will happen next year for sure. We’re still playing with this; we’re still looking for possibilities in this-so it may happen again next year, or we may come up with another idea.”