Arts and the sea

Event to be held during Oceans Week on June 8

- May 31, 2011

From the CD jacket for Celtic Mass for the Sea.
From the CD jacket for Celtic Mass for the Sea.

Jennyfer Brickenden had taken a break from research when she and her composer husband Scott Macmillan found themselves at the beach at Chimney Corner, Inverness County, Cape Breton.

As they strolled, each step they made in the hot sand was accompanied by a shrill musical note — a phenomenon known as “sonorous sand.”

And suddenly, a few lines of poetry Ms. Brickenden had read earlier, while searching through Celtic poetry and music resources in the Killam Library, made sense:

Now lay thine ear against this golden sand,
And thou shalt hear the music of the sea

The lines turned out to be the perfect opening for Celtic Mass for the Sea. Inspired the sounds of the ocean and the reverence of the ancient people for its majesty and ferocity, Celtic Mass for the Sea became an instant classic when it was first performed and recorded in the early 1990s.

'A deep musical force'

The mass, in five movements, marries Mr. Macmillan’s music, composed in the tradition of Celtic rowing songs, sea-rapture songs, pipe and fiddle tunes, with Ms. Brickenden’s words, pieced together from incantations and hymns gathered from the highlands and outer islands of Scotland. Two main sources include Carmina Gadelica, gathered from oral sources and published in 1900, and Songs of the Hebrides, collected by Marjory Kennedy Fraser in 1909.

“Scott is a deep musical force,” says Ms. Brickenden, the librettist for Celtic Mass for the Sea. “To have input into that expression was a real honour.”

The couple will revisit the creation of Celtic Mass for the Sea at an event—Arts and the Sea: A Celebration—on World Oceans Day, June 8 at 7 p.m. in the Scotiabank Auditorium, Marion McCain Building. The evening will be moderated by Paul Kennedy, the host of CBC’s Ideas.

An ocean current actually runs through much of Mr. Macmillan’s work, including Within Sight of Shore, about the sinking of HMCS Esquimalt just three weeks before the end of the Second World War; McKinnon’s Brook, about the arrival of the Scottish people across the Atlantic to Cape Breton; and the Currents of Sable Island, which he plans to remount on September 11, 2011 at St. Patrick’s Church in Halifax.

“I really didn’t know what the ocean meant to me until I was away,” says Mr. Macmillan, who has a math degree from Dalhousie and teaches guitar in the Department of Music. “I had been living in Toronto studying music at Humber College, when I came back for a visit. I still remember getting off the airplane and being struck by the smell of the ocean and how much I missed it.”

He’s inspired, not only by the ocean, but his deep personal connection with the sea. Within Sight of Shore, for example, is his father’s story as the commander of HMCS Esquimalt which was sunk on April 16th 1945. Forty-four of the 71-member crew were lost that day. Date With a Fundy Tide, moreover, is an orchestral piece based on a family road trip; the couple and their then-young boys followed the tide around the Minas Basin, starting in Parrsboro as the tide went out and ending in Kingsport as the tide returned.

““We stood at the lookout on the Partridge Island Eco-trail, where you can witness the unbelievable power of the sea. We watched the fishing boats from Parrsboro using the tide like a catapult ...” recalls Ms. Brickenden.

“The water just pushes them right out to sea,” adds Mr. Macmillan, as his wife picks up the thread:  “By the time we got to our B&B in Kingsport, about six hours later, we had enough time to change into our bathing suits and walk the tide back in. What a gorgeous time that was.”



World Oceans Day, June 8

Since 2005, the International Ocean Institute - Canada has taken advantage of World Oceans Day to celebrate the life and work of its founder Elisabeth Mann Borgese.

Known as the First Lady of the Oceans, the late Elisabeth Mann Borgese was the youngest daughter of literary lion and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. Her most famous role was as an advocate for the peaceful use of the ocean and its preservation as the common heritage of humankind; she organized a pioneering conference on the law of the sea in 1970. In 1978, she relocated to Dalhousie, where she taught political science and lead projects related to disarmament, international development, and marine management.

“We usually invite a distinguished scientist to speak, but this year we decided to do something different,” explains David Griffiths, senior research fellow with the International Ocean Institute (IOI). “The thing about Elisabeth is that she was a true Renaissance woman. So we thought, ‘why don’t we celebrate her amazing artistic heritage?”

The event on World Oceans Day is called Arts and the Sea: A Celebration. It takes place Wednesday, June 8, 7 p.m. in the Scotiabank Auditorium, Marion McCain Building. Among the artists in attendance are composer Scott Macmillan, his Celtic Mass for the Sea collaborator Jennyfer Brickenden, photographer Damian Lidgard, poet Kathy Mac, painter Dusan Kadlec and author Donna Morrissey. The evening will be moderated by Paul Kennedy, the host of CBC’s Ideas.

“The intent is to be a conversation between these remarkable artists and the audience,” says Mr. Griffiths.


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