I’ve had a musical commission for Victoria Cathedral on the backburner for some time. It’s the third in a triptych of pieces, each inspired by a special work of art in the building.
The first was a stone bird, the second was a dove in the baptistery. The subject of the third piece is the huge east window over the Chapel of the New Jerusalem.

This truly awe-inspiring, luminous, engaging, modern work of art has captivated me for some 25 years. It pictures the majestic descent of a Utopian city in an explosion of colour and light, masterfully crafted by the genius of glass, Christopher Wallis.

To me it also presents another image – a huge Thunderbird with wings outstretched.

Since I was tasked with interpreting this window in music, I set out on a mission to answer my pressing questions.
Why do I see a Thunderbird in the window? Can the artist’s expression of Christian mythology be reconciled with my perception of Native spirituality? How could I write a piece of choral music that transcends these cultural conflicts?
The window also possesses a magical quality: if you turn your back on it and look out into the church, the reflection of the glass hangs suspended over the nave, like some spectacular Platonic illusion.
What is real, and what is merely perceived as real?

It’s complicated. To sort it all out I’d have to talk to a lot of people, and travel to the edge of the world.
(Commercial break. Go get a coffee because this will be a long blog!)

This window/music project became way, way, WAY bigger than I ever thought it would, as I realized how many ideas, how much history, art, culture, poetry and scripture I would have to absorb, understand and cram into this piece, if I wanted to reconcile the artist’s vision from Revelation, and my curious perception of Native imagery in the glass.

Where to start?

I sought out the stained glass artist, Christopher Wallis, who is now in his 80s and living nearby in Ontario.
He replied to my hand-written letter with a package outlining his inspiration for the window, and the dramatic Biblical texts that moved him to create such an original piece. I was impressed by the artisitic courage it took to create this bold work, and what courage the church people demonstrated in embracing such a modern piece of art to decorate their very traditional cathedral.

Last summer I met with Fr Martin Brokenleg in the Chapel of the New Jerusalem. He is a First Nations person, and an Anglican Priest who grew up on Haida Gwaii. We sat and stared at the window and talked. He told me the Thunderbird legend; how the people were starving because a whale had blocked the salmon from running. Thunderbird descended, lifted the whale, and saved the people. I obviously needed to travel to Haida Gwaii to learn first hand about Thunderbird and other stories in art.

I had an amazing voyage around Haida Gwaii with Bluewater Adventures . These folks have firsthand knowledge of the islands and they are friends with the watchmen who look after the historic Haida sites, several of whom came aboard our ship and shared meals with us. I learned about nature and history, and heard many stories about miraculous transformation.

Visiting the UNESCO heritage site at SGang Gwaay was a heavy experience. The grey mortuary poles standing there are slowly but surely being reclaimed by the forest from which they came. We may be the last generation that can see and touch them. In my world, I’d want these historic artifacts to be restored, maintained and saved for future generations. But for the Haida, it’s only proper that the poles, with the spirit of the Haida chiefs they celebrate, return to dust, as we all must one day.

My journey was enriched through reading John Ralston Saul’s book “The Comeback” and “The Inconvenient Indian” by Thomas King, and “The Golden Spruce” by John Vaillant, and the quirky 1815 bestseller “White slaves of Maquinna” which I borrowed from the ship’s captain. A common theme emerged for me – my way of doing things is based on greed, acquiring things, grabbing more than I actually need. The Haida are not perfect people, but they see the world differently. Their potlatch philosophy means sharing wealth and solving problems together, respecting nature and other creatures that move and breathe. I don’t wish to idealize Native life, but I have a lot to learn about living properly.

My friend Rosemary and I visited the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, a place I’d been many times before, but now I saw it through new eyes. Many haunting Haida poles exhibited there were taken from places I had visited. The history of those abandoned villages, how so many people suffered and died of smallpox through contact with my people, is a deeply moving tragedy. An exhibit about Native languages allowed us to hear many languages spoken and sung, so many languages on the verge of being lost forever, because of my way of life. I read about residential schools, and how children were forcefully taken from their homes. I was overwhelmed. All I could think was: “Forgive me.”

The next day I went to the cathedral with Rosemary, and the words of the confession sounded fresh to my ears: “Forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may serve you in newness of life.” It dropped like a piece of ripe fruit. Maybe it’s possible to start over again.
When I got back to Toronto I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to write anything. The subject seemed entirely too big. But when I set pencil to staff paper, the ideas flowed out like a river. The piece didn’t end up like I thought it would, but that is often the case with a long journey. Rather than the big image of Thunderbird, two small images in the window emerged – Alpha and Omega – summing up all that exists – the beginning and the end.

Now I hand it over to Michael Gormley and his performers to make sense of it. I could never put everything into this piece that I wanted, but the process of making it led me to many wondrous, unexpected places. It’s scheduled to be performed for the induction service for the new Dean of the cathedral, Rev. Ansley Tucker, on Sunday Oct. 18.

Thanks, Christ Church Cathedral for the commission, to Michael for bringing the music to life, to Ian for giving me a reason to write, and to Christopher Wallis for creating the most amazing piece of glass in Canada.

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3 Responses to Through a glass, darkly

  1. BCS says:

    What a neat tale of evolution for your composition! And how wonderful that you had the Haida Gwaii experience! Meeting the watchmen, hearing their history and culture… and you are right about the sense of spirits in the abandoned villages and the mortuary poles…
    Oh to be in Victoria Cathedral on Oct 18th!

  2. Shawn says:

    Thank you for this interesting and insightful entry on the artistic process.

  3. Julia says:

    Beautifully written, Steph, and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing this creative journey.

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