Monday, September 29, 2008

Putting the 'mess' in Messiaen

This week was the joint Perkins-Meadows Symposium on Olivier Messiaen, French avant-garde composer, ornithologist, and Catholic mystic. On Thursday the MSMs – dubbed with the temporary title of Musica Schola Cantorum – helped lead a worship service of Gregorian chant, reflecting Messiaen's beliefs about liturgical music. He held that, while many kinds of music could be "religious", the only liturgical music was chant (note that in this way he effectively removed all of his music from liturgical possibility). It was all plainchant, all the time, from the Pange lingua to the Agnus Dei, and we read it all straight from the unmetered neumes (yes, I am a nerd).

On Friday, I had volunteered to help with a couple of the events for the symposium. The conference consisted of academic paper sessions, live performances of Messiaen's works, and a film screening of a documentary related to Messiaen's Apparition of the Eternal Church. The film, bearing the same name and directed by Paul Festa, was to be screened in the auditorium at the Meadows Museum, with Mr. Festa in attendance. The screening room is modern and decked out, and I had gone over the drill with Dr. Anderson a couple of days before – insert DVD into DVD player, press play, hit the lights. Watch film. Repeat previous tasks in reverse.

No problem.

I was the first to arrive in the screening room and all seemed to be working with the DVD. The filmmaker arrived and suggested we play the middle of the film, where there is loud organ music, to set the best volume level for that part. So we skipped to that part – and the speakers responded with horrible electronic static, completely garbling the sound. Hmm... this is a problem. About twenty minutes before the event was set to start, Dr. Anderson arrived and I told him the bad news. He left to get the liaison from the Meadows Museum, whose solution was to go find the tech guys. She came back and said they were at lunch. So, the filmmaker is asking if we're going to be able to fix it, the liaison is asking me what I think we should do, Dr. Anderson is basically just trying to keep a cool exterior and I'm wishing I had signed up to sell tickets for the welcome dinner. Unfortunately, the event couldn't be moved to another room and the crowd was growing outside the doors. They delayed letting the people in while I kept trying to fix the sound (why am I tech support all of a sudden?) and the liaison went to get her own laptop (tech guys are still at lunch) to play the movie from. But, when she got it hooked up, it started playing music from a website she had been looking at! After that, it was a miracle that I knew to press function+F5 to get the computer screen to toggle to the big screen (again, why am I in charge of knowing this?)

Finally, I had picture but for some reason no sound – and, I didn't know if the sound would be any better once we did get it. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get the sound to play. By this time, we were past the start time of the event, the filmmaker is looking pretty unimpressed and they've let the audience in to stare at me while I fiddle with the computer. It was really fun doing battle with technology with my classmates and most of my professors watching me. Finally, with no idea what else to do, I took the image down off the screen and went to open the control panel of the laptop to try to figure out what was wrong with the sound. Lo and behold, the laptop was muted – I unmuted it and the website music started playing again! The liaison lady had muted her computer when the funny music started to play... (?!)

Okay, so I find the browser, close it, and go to the "organ" section of the movie – sounds great! Thumbs up from the filmmaker. Okay, Dr. Anderson, I'm ready when you are. We put the movie on, I sat down and quietly had a heart attack.

Afterwards, Dr. Hawn asked people to give me a round of applause! At the end of the event, I went down to retrieve the laptop, and it had shut off – nobody had plugged it in, and it had played the whole movie on its battery. Because the situation wasn't dramatic enough already.

I hope the tech people enjoyed their lunch.

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